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Boat Buying Test, 101 – The Inspection

What to look for when inspecting a boat for sale. | Boat Buying Test

So: You’re thinking about buying a new center console fishing boat for next season? How will you know just how good a boat you’re looking at? Even experienced anglers with decades logged on the bay or ocean may have a tough time looking at a new boat, and accurately judging how it will stand the test of time and rough seas. But it’s about to get a little easier. Experts at BD Outdoors have tested (literally) thousands of boats ranging in size from 13′ to 92′ for marine web sites and magazines, and developed inspection and sea trialing tricks and techniques that help expose whether a boat’s top-quality, or not. Here in Boat Buying Test, 101 we’ll cover the inspection part of the equation and in Boat Buying Test 102, we’ll get into the sea trial.

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Marine journalists checking out a new boat will poke, prod, and take plenty of pictures and notes.

New Versus Used

First and foremost, you need to make the new-versus-used decision. This can be a toughie and there are no real “tricks” to help you decide on this factor; it’s a personal call. Remember that if you buy new, you’ll usually take a pretty big hit on devaluation the moment you purchase the boat. But you’ll also walk away with warranties and a mechanically clean slate.

Get a used boat, on the other hand, and you simply won’t know what type of use or abuse it’s been subjected to. The biggest used boat risks lay, without any doubt, in the powerplant(s). If there’s been a perpetual problem you simply won’t know it, and it may not show up in a common test-run. There are a few standard procedures you can follow, however, to make sure the boat isn’t a complete disaster.

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The major concern with any used boat is the condition of its engines.

Initial Engine Checks

  1. Take it on a test run and see how the engine runs, at least this one time. We’ll talk more about the sea trial, later.
  2. Run a compression-check on the motor. Each cylinder should show within 10-percent of each other, or there’s a problem waiting to happen.
  3. Check the crankcase oil (of four-strokes) and make sure it’s clean. If you see milky-colored oil that means there’s water’s mixed in and you should run for the hills.
  4. Check the lower unit oil for the same factors, while noting that lower unit oil will look darker than crankcase oil most of the time. This doesn’t indicate any damage or problem. If metal shavings show up in the lower unit oil, however, take it as a sign of future failure. Most plugs are magnetic, so when you pull the plug you’ll spot the shavings at first glance.
  5. Visually inspect the hoses for wear, and the metal parts for corrosion.
  6. When in doubt, call in a professional. Anyone who’s not intimately familiar with marine engines should consider hiring a mechanic to give the powerplant(s) a once-over prior to purchasing a used boat, just to be on the safe side.

Above the Waterline

Come armed with a camera and notepad (to record your findings), a measuring tape, a mirror on a telescopic arm (you can get them in most auto-parts stores,) a flashlight, and a small magnet. You can check the boat out at the dock or on dry land, but doing it adrift in the middle of a bay or river is even better. The more time spent off the dock the better, since you’ll discover how the boat reacts to waves and winds.

Start your walk through at the bow. Whether the boat has an enclosed cabin or an open bow, there are some standard items to check out. Check the anchor locker for size, access to the rode, anchor security, and an anchor rode tie-down. Also take a close look at wiring running through the anchor locker, usually for bowlights and/or windlasses. Make sure it’s well supported out of the way, and won’t get tangled in or ripped out one day by the fluke of a Danforth.

boat buying information
A peek inside the anchor locker can be quite illumination, on any boat.

Next, take a peek at the bow rails. Grab and push them to discover if they shake, bend, or move excessively. Is there any crazing in the gel coat at the stanchion bases? If so, know that it’ll only grow worse over time. Also check to see how many fasteners hold each stanchion. Three is ideal and generally speaking, more is better than fewer. Next look to see if they’re secured with screws or through-bolts, and if they’re backed with backing plates. (Through bolts are a step up from screws, and backing plates are even better.) You can’t spot the underside of the stations? Go back to the anchor locker and insert your flashlight, arm, shoulder and head. From inside there you can usually get a good look at the stanchions from underneath.

Are you a bit uncomfortable at the moment? You bet.

But before extracting yourself, make sure you also peek at the undersides of cleats, windlass fittings, and any other items affixed to the bow. In all cases, aluminum, steel, or phenolic (a super-dense fiberglass) plates are best; Polyboard is also good, and wood is better than nothing. Light-duty boats will be backed with washers, and el-cheapo boats have screws with nothing backing them up.

While your head’s down there also look closely at the hull to deck joint. You’re likely to see screws, but don’t let this scare you off. The joints in most modern boats are chemically bonded with Plexus or a similar adhesive—you should be able to spot some of the cured goop spilling out of the seams—and the screws are only there to hold the rubrail in place. Heavy-duty boats, however, will add through-bolts, fiberglass over the joint entirely, or will run a backing strip around the joint and bolt through it.

Before you extricate your head from the anchor locker, look for one more detail. Turn around, and look aft to see the bulkhead that seals the locker off. Make sure it meets the deck, and where it does, fiberglass putty or an adhesive/sealant should be evident. You’re looking to make sure the builder attained uniformity in its major parts, including bulkheads, stringers, and hatches. A bulkhead that stops half an inch shy of the deck (or hull) is a dead give-away that some other parts may also not fit into place as well as they should.

boat buying test 101
With the deck removed from this boat, it’s possible to see how the bulkheads (look at the aft one on the far right) reach the exact deck level, to give it support.

As you move aft, be sure to check the hatches on each and every compartment. These are items that you have to look at on an individual basis, throughout the boat, as one in the bow may be done properly while one in the stern may be a mess. Look for the following:

  1. Do they raise on gas-assist struts? If so, make sure the cylinder-end of the strut is mounted higher than the thinner arm, when the hatch is raised (this allows gravity-fed lubrication of the arm when it’s used.)
  2. Hinges should be through-bolted, and remember that longer piano-hinges will hold up better than short, small hinges, which can be stressed if someone leans on an open hatch. Friction hinges, which hold a hatch up when opened, are also a nice touch and negate the need for a strut to some degree.
  3. Make sure they dog-down securely.
  4. Open each hatch all the way, to ensure it doesn’t smack a gunwale or railing.
  5. If the hatch is on a fishbox or cooler, knock on it with your fist; a solid sound means it’s a solid hatch but a hollow sound means it’s cored. Cored hatches are lighter (read: easier to open and less apt to slam down) and they insulate better.
  6. Look for gaskets, gutters, and drains that will keep water out of the compartment.
  7. Close each hatch vigorously. If it makes a “woosh” and closes silently, you’ve found an incredibly well-fitted hatch that won’t spook fish. If it slams down loudly, you have a big potential fish-spooker onboard.

boat buying test 101Well-designed hatches, like this livewell hatch on a Grady-White Canyon 271, are worth their weight in gold.

Going Down Below

On cabin boats, what you want to see will vary considerably depending on the size of the boat and your expectations. So far as amenities go, it’s an open book. But you can also get an eyeball on some construction quality issues. The best place to do so is in access points to the bilge. Here, again, you’ll have to poke that noggin into places the builder never expected. Check for bulkhead fit, unfinished wood (if in the bilge it’s nearly guaranteed to rot, eventually), pumps and pump switches (be sure they’re solidly mounted with float switches running athwartships, not fore and aft, to prevent them from getting stuck in the on position) and wiring and plumbing lines. When it comes to wiring and plumbing, the most important thing to look for is looming and support. Also check where they run through bulkheads to be sure they’re chafe-protected. Make sure you take your flashlight and mirror into these areas, since they’ll help you look into corners and crevasse that would otherwise be out of view.

In the cockpit, once again the most telling details will be found below deck level. Make sure all bilge items of importance—pumps, seacocks, valves, batteries, etc.—are within reach; you’d be amazed at how many builders bury these items in spots that only a contortionist could ever access. Remember that through-hulls below the waterline should be fitted with seacocks that can be shut off via a ball valve, and all hoses and fittings should have double hose clamps securing them. Stainless-steel clamps are a must; here’s where your magnet comes in handy. Many clamps are advertised as stainless, but the screw and worm gear in them is made with cheaper metal. Run your magnet across them and if the magnet reacts to the metal the clamps are destined to corrode; magnets won’t react to real stainless-steel. You can use this trick throughout the boat, to check suspect hardware and make sure it’s the good stuff.

boat buying test - boat buying test 101
Whenever you see unsecured hoses or wires, suspect future problems to occur.

The bilge is also where you can usually slap an eyeball on the stringers. These make the backbone of the boat, so they’re an imperative part of its structure. Usually stringers are either fiberglassed to the hull, or are set in a bed of Plexus or similar adhesive. In either case, look along the bottom edges to make sure there are no gaps or cracks between the stringers and the hull. In older boats, any indication of rot (older stringers were often cored with wood) or stringer separation is a red flag, because massive repairs could be required to get the boat ship-shape. Same goes for bulkheads.

Okay: we’ve thoroughly inspected this boat, inside and out. Ready to go for a sea trial? Then stay tuned for Boat Buying Test 102.

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Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His writing has resulted in 45 BWI writing contest and two OWAA Excellence in Craft awards. Volunteer positions have included NMMA Innovations Award judging, serving as president of Boating Writers International, and serving as the president of the Maryland Freshwater Foundation. Rudow is an alumnus of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, and The Sea School. He boats and fishes as often as possible on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic Ocean.