How To Buy A Used Fishing Boat

How To Buy A Used Fishing Boat

Boat buying tips for used fishing boats that will help you sort the wheat from the chaff. 

How to buy a used fishing 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 upside is obvious: used boats cost a whole lot less than new models. And the downside 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).  

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

7 Basic Steps To Buy A Used Boat

  1. Set your budget parameters. 
  2. List out the fishing features that are critical to your favorite styles of fishing. 
  3. Narrow down your choices to the 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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. 
  6. Fish the boat, if at all possible. If not, try all the fishing accessories to make sure they live up to expectations. 
  7. 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

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. 

Critical Fishing Features 

All anglers have their own favorite styles and techniques, and this can have a big bearing on what sort of boat you’ll be looking for. If you’re a die-hard troller, for example, you’ll be a lot less interested in livewell capacity as opposed to the number of rod holders in the gunwales, transom, and hardtop. Light-tackle casters will appreciate large, unobstructed casting decks. Offshore aficionados will likely want enough onboard tackle stowage to hold gear for everything from live-baiting to deep dropping.  

The list could go on and on, so what’s important at this stage of the game is simply for you to nail down your personal priorities. Then you can make sure that any potential candidate boats fit the bill. A partial list of the big-ticket items to consider might include: 

  • Livewell number and capacity 
  • Number and position of rod holders and rocket launchers 
  • Outrigger size and type 
  • Fishbox size, shape, location, and insulation level 
  • Under-gunwale electric reel outlets 
  • Onboard tackle stowage 
  • Rigging station/cutting board(s) presence and/or layout 
  • Elevation level, layout, and size of casting decks, if any 
  • Raw water washdown strength and accessibility 
  • Electronics package quality, size, and brand 
  • Rod stowage 
  • Gear stowage specific to the way you fish (IE helium tank stowage for kite fishermen) 

Also remember that in many cases, you may be able to make modifications to change an okay fishing arrangement into an ideal one. This can be easier or harder depending on the accessories themselves. It’s often very easy to add rodholders to a rail, for example, but adding a livewell or fishbox to the cockpit can be problematic or impossible in some cases. Keep all of these factors in mind as you look for your next fishing machine — but also remember that there’s no such thing as the “perfect” boat, and you’ll probably have to make some sacrifices in one regard or another. 


fishing chicks

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. 

A 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 canvass. 
  • The condition of rails, pipework, and fittings. 
  • The condition of electrical systems, wiring, and switches. 
  • The condition of plumbing and water flow strength in critical systems like livewells and washdowns 

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.  

Make sure you try maneuvering the boat at slow speeds, to get a feel for how trolling and 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, and can you adjust the drift with the engine(s) or rudder(s) to control the positioning while drift fishing? 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. 

Fish-Testing 

There’s no way to get to know a used boat better than to go fishing on it. If at all possible, extending a sea trial into a fishing test is a good move. Many sellers will balk at the notion, so you may want to offer to take on all the cost and work involved. Fill the fuel tanks and buy the bait and food on your own dime, bring the gear, and let it be known that you’ll clean up at the end of the day. Make it clear that you’ll foot the bill and then some, in order to get the know the boat better. 

If you can arrange a fish-test you’ll discover things you simply can’t figure out during a “regular” sea trial. You might notice that the great-looking livewell splashes out the top when running, even with the hatch locked down. Or maybe you’ll discover that the fishboxes hold ice better — or worse — than expected. You might discover that the electronics package you weren’t thrilled about is pretty darn sweet. Or you might learn that the boat which felt so stable running is a rolling machine on the troll. Who knows what you’ll find out? The bottom line is that spending time aboard actually fishing is almost always more enlightening than a standard-issue sea trial. 

Some sellers won’t want to spend the time or bother with a fish-test, which is understandable. In that case, you’ll want to at least try out all the fishing accessories. Swing out the outriggers, blast the raw water washdown, and faux-cast from the foredeck. It’s not the same as actually fishing, but at least you’ll get a better feel for the boat’s fishability. 

Negotiating to Buy a Used Boat 

One of the most important aspects of 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. 

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 — and helps you catch more, bigger fish.  

Lenny Rudow
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...