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How To Buy A Used Boat

Boat buying tips that will help you sort the wheat from the chaff.

How to buy a used boat is a topic that gets raised often among anglers, and it’s no wonder: making a major financial purchase on a used boat is full of risks and rewards, and can turn out to be one of the best moves – or one of the worst – you’ve ever made. The up-side is obvious: used boats cost a whole lot less than new models. And the down-side is just as obvious: they also have wear and tear, and often there’s no telling just how hard a previous owner was on the boat. In the worst-case scenario you could unknowingly buy a used boat that’s been sunk or trashed, then cosmetically cleaned up. (Read Boat Buying Tips – How to Avoid a Hurricane Lemon to gain some insight into avoiding this sort of situation).

used boat
Buying a used boat is often a roll of the dice, so this is a process you’ll want to go into cautiously.

How to buy a used boat can be boiled down into five basic steps:

  1. Set your budget parameters.
  2. Narrow down your choices to a size and style of boat you think will be best for your needs. If you can, limiting it to a specific build and model is even better.
  3. Shop, shop, shop – browse listings on the internet and in local publications, look at your local marinas, and try to locate several options to choose from.
  4. After locating a number of boats of interest, closely inspect them and then go for sea trials. DO NOT fail to go for a sea trial under any circumstances.
  5. Make your final choice, and negotiate your best deal.

When it comes to setting your budget and choosing the best model for your needs, you’re on your own. These are personal decisions and we can’t help, although from a research perspective, we naturally recommend checking out the reviews of boats here on BDOutdoors.  We’ve found that there are also reliable reviews to be found in FishTalkMag Fishboat Reviews, and on boats.com.

There’s not a heck of a lot we can do about helping you shop, except to note that there’s a handful of top sites that, when taken together, have listings for the vast majority of the used boats listed by brokers and dealers. Yachtworld and Boat Trader are the two top dogs. Owner listings can be a bit tougher to find, but we do have Boats for Sale classifieds right here on BDOutdoors. You’ll also commonly find them in more localized sites or local newspaper web pages. The king of all sale-by-owner listings is, of course, Craigslist.

used boat
We have classifieds for used boats right here, on BDOutdoors.

Inspecting a Used Boat

When you’ve located a likely candidate, it’s time for an in-person inspection. You’ll want to make sure you have a notepad and pen, a mirror on a telescopic arm, and a flashlight. As you go through the boat, make a list of all the items in need of repair or upgrade.

Start your walkthrough at the bow. The anchor locker is usually the first part you’ll want to closely examine; check it for all the things like size, access to the rode, and an anchor rode tie-down. But beyond that insert your flashlight and mirror into the locker, and look where most people never bother. From inside of here you can get a good look at the underside of rail stanchions, portions of the hull-to-deck joint, backing plates, and more. Look for corrosion, damage, and any signs of wear and tear.

As you work your way aft in the boat, try to do the same in all the spots that aren’t readily visible. Look under seats, inside fishboxes, inside consoles, and so on. Use the mirror to look where your head won’t fit and where no man has looked before. Examine every corner of the bilges. Try to look at the boat from the inside out, and you’ll learn a lot more than you will by merely processing what greets they eye on a cursory exterior exam.

used boatA close bilge inspection reveals things like this unprotected bilge pump wire connection, which is merely twisted together. Seeing a quick-and-dirty fix like this gives you some insight into how the owner has been maintaining the boat – or failing to maintain it.

Major items to check for include:

  • Structural integrity in the major components like the hull, decks, stringers, and bulkheads.
  • Rot in any wood-cored component.
  • Saturation in any composite-cored component.
  • The condition of fabrics, vinyls, upholstery, and canvas.
  • The condition of rails, pipework, and fittings.
  • The condition of electrical systems, wiring, and switches.

Once you’ve carefully examined the boat from stem to stern, if you’re still interested but have any serious doubts, it may be time to call a surveyor. If you’re spending a big chunk of change this is often going to be required by the lender. You may also want to get some assistance when it’s time to consider the powerplant. If you’re not a mechanic or at least remotely familiar with basic tell-tale signs of engine issues (like milky oil) and how to perform a compression check, either bring along a savvy friend or plan to hire a mechanic to act as your consultant.

Used Boat Sea Trial

Like we said earlier: do not under any circumstances skip this stage. No two used boats are alike, and a sea trial will give you a ton of insight into how the boat performs, its stability, handling, and countless other factors. And don’t settle for a 10-minute ride. Be thorough by putting the boat through a series of S-turns, making sharp U-turns, and hitting the waves in head, beam, and following seas. This is your chance to find out how the boat will handle rough terrain, so don’t be shy about slamming into waves a bit faster than you might normally. You’re giving the boat a hard pounding? Good. If anything is going to break, this is the time to find out. Don’t just run it fast, though, because in real life you’ll also spend a lot of time at slower speeds. Set the boat to your favorite trolling speed, and learn how much or how little the boat wanders when heading into, across, and with the seas. Ask yourself: will it be a battle to hold a course with a full spread deployed? Then stop the boat next to a buoy or marker, and maneuver it as you would in close quarters.

used boat
Make sure you try maneuvering the boat at slow speeds, to get a feel for how docking might be in real-world use.

Next, go from a dead stop to full throttle and note the time it takes to get onto plane. Then back the throttle down slowly, and note minimum planning speed before the boat falls off of plane. This is a very important detail, as it tells you just how slowly you’ll be able to plod along in rough seas while still getting reasonable fuel economy.

Before you give up the wheel put the boat into neutral and simply let it drift. Does it drift beam-to or stern-to? How much does it rock and roll? Finally, try sitting in other seats while someone else runs the boat. The helm is often one of the more comfortable positions, and getting a feel for how everyone else will fare is something you’ll want to do now, not after you subject the rest of your family to a butt-bruising.

Negotiating To Buy A Used Boat

One of the most important aspects to negotiating the price of a used boat is to nail down the value of the boat to you, personally, before you try to work out a financially acceptable deal. Start by referring to the NADA Guides, to make sure the value you have in mind is in the right ballpark, while remembering that values do swing more with boats than they would with automotive book values. Then, it’s time to go back to that notepad you carried around while checking out the boat.

Do some research with your good friend Google, and put a valuation on each and every item you jotted down as in need of repair or upgrade. Add it all up, subtract that figure from the initial value you placed on the boat, and you’ll arrive at a final price you should be willing to pay. Let’s say, for example, that the boat’s electronics systems work just fine. But the fishfinder is a standard-issue down-looker, chartplotter redraws are slow, and the radar maxes out at 24 miles. You really want side-scanning, fast redraws, and a 48-mile radar. That’ll cost you five grand in upgrades. To the seller, the electronics work fine and there’s no reason to lop $5,000 off the asking price. But as it sits, the boat’s value to you personally is, in fact, that much less.

used boat
Would you be okay with the existing electronics at the helm? Or, will they need an upgrade to make you happy?

What about actual negotiating tactics? On that count, you’re on your own once again. You can make things as friendly or as contentious as you’d like, and work more or less to squeeze the most out of every dollar. That said, never forget the one overarching goal: buying a used boat that makes you happy.

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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.