Used Boat Buyers Guide

One of my very best friends builds custom high end game boats, the boat building business in today’s economy is extremely hard, and new construction is at a standstill. There are also so many really incredible deals on used boats that you can get so much more for your money buying used than building a new boat, and waiting a year or more to get your hands on her. In the past three years we have purchased two used boats (our Florida based 45′ game boat, and a Maine 32′ harpoon boat) and for these two boats we paid just around 50% of the appraised value. So with that said let’s explore Corky’s used boat buyer’s guide, and we’ll break it down into two main categories, mechanical and cosmetic (and we will do our best to just ignore the cosmetic’s- it is all a matter sand paper, paint, wax and soap).


Sea trial the boat with an attitude, in other words if something lets go it is better to break when someone else owns it (the bank or current owner). When I sea trial a boat for myself or a friend I drive it a bit crazed (I would never do this with one of my boats) and this can cause the boat broker, and owner (if onboard for sea trials) some discomfort. Take the engines from idle to the pins, like right now, (compared to normal operation procedure, when you should bring the engines up in 200 RPM increments). Look for how long it takes the smoke to clear, if the engines pour out black smoke and don’t clear until you chop her back during this test, it will tell you a few things about how well the boat has been maintained. Chances are that the black smoke not clearing will likely be the result of a dirty bottom/running gear, injectors, or dirty air blankets. I’ll also back down hard, real hard, and watch the back deck for extensive vibration. This will give me some idea on the condition of the reduction gears, cutlass bearings and engine mounts which can be the cause of vibration. Finally I put the boat into a series of bat turns at different speeds, this is more or less for seeing how stable a platform I have under me, and it’s fun to see what items aren’t properly stored away (I once destroyed about 300 dollars’ worth of booze an owner had sitting in a box in the galley- the guy was really pissed when we didn’t buy his boat!)

I don’t use surveyor’s (unless I have to for insurance reasons), I’ve been though so many surveys back in my Alaska days that I know what to look for, and I’m kinda cheap. BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire a good marine surveyor when you narrow your search down to ‘the boat’. There are two kinds of surveyor’s the insurance/seller guy, and the boat buyer guy. The insurance/seller surveyor is the easygoing, clean bill of health guy I want, if I’m selling a boat or appeasing the insurance company. ‘Yeap boat is great, no issues, and is worth more today than when it was built!’ The buyer guy is the hard ass that digs though everything, this is the guy you want to hire if you are buying, he’ll find stuff for the owner, broker, or bank to fix that you probably never would have dreamed about. The buyer guys report can be a very strong negotiating chip when settling on a purchase price. ‘ Look at this bloody report, everything is either broke or on its last leg, I will take this floating nightmare off your hands say for hmm… half the asking price and make it a project boat.’

Back at the dock I’ll let Maggie go through the galley, cabinets, and staterooms, while I examine every item in the engine room.

I’ll pull random zincs, open sea chests, check hoses, belts, and wiring, pull out the Racors, check battery fluid levels, and look for corrosion, leaks, and oil leaks.

I’ll then step back and get a good feel for how well the boat has been maintained, and then picture a before/after photo; this is what it looks like in the before photo, what will the engine room look like in an after, if there is not much difference, I’m pretty happy.

On haul out I’ll take a rubber mallet and beat the hell out of the bottom looking for any areas of delaminating, check the zincs, shake the rudders, look for blisters, and look for hot spots from electrolysis. The overall condition of the bottom will tell you a lot on how well the boat has been maintained and cared for. I’ll also use a bit of McGuire’s cleaner wax on the hull and some Woodie wax on the stainless, just see what kind of results I get (sorry that falls into the cosmetic category doesn’t it).

Ask to see all the maintenance records, log books and go through the spare parts; if the previous owner has good records, tools, filters and spares onboard, I feel the boat is well looked after. It is also a good idea to talk to the mechanic that the owner used about any rebuilds or majors that were done to the boat. If you know the previous owner or captain this is a huge advantage having first-hand information on how the boat was kept.

On the inside, it basically falls into the following categories; equipment and a ‘oh yeah’ here comes cosmetics again! First on my list (Maggie’s) is equipment. How old is it, does it work, has it been maintained and if there are issues what will it cost to repair or replace? Start with the larger and generally expensive systems. Air conditioning being key in our warm state such as Florida, it’s essential if the boat is large enough to stay on over night. Inspect the systems for cleanliness and corrosion and make sure its blowing very cold air. The galley is also a key area. If the boat has refrigeration/freezer, once again expensive to replace, run everything at normal capacity and make sure that they work. For instance if you have to turn the refrigeration to maximum just to get it cool suspect that the system may need some work, maybe its only coolant but it could be much more. It should become obvious that you will need to spend a few hours on the boat. The same applies to the stove, water maker, icemaker and any other system inside the boat. Here’s what I think is one of the biggest dangers for the buyer, ‘don’t fall in love with the boat’ so much so that you either don’t look it over properly or you get wowed by the cosmetics and rationalize the problems.

If you want it too much and are not prepared to walk away, you are in serious danger of paying way too much!

That said lets finally talk about cosmetics. Let’s say that all the systems check out and any that don’t, you’ve researched and have your down side covered. If you are looking for a good deal, what cosmetic issues are you prepared to live with temporarily or long term and what will have to be fixed or replaced ASAP? For instance our Florida boat needs a new head liner in the stateroom; well we can live with that, its been like this for three years now, but my engines have every single hose and clamp replaced, with the money that was budgeted for that new liner.

It’s really all about balance and your budget. There has never been a time; like we have today with so many incredible deals to be had on a top end used boats. That same dollar, ten years ago could never buy what it can today, larger, newer, even custom boats are at garage sale prices in every port on both coasts. If you live near Florida and want me to sea trial your next ride I’d be more than happy too, just don’t tell the broker I’m coming…

Capt. Mark S. “Corky” Decker is an IGFA-certified captain, freelance writer and a proven world-class billfish guide. He grew up commercial fishing on the East Coast, prior to quitting college and relocating to Alaska to cash in on the booming fisheries of the 1980s. After almost 20 years of incr...