An affordable approach to becoming a boat owner is to buy a used boat. Just like shopping for a used car, there are questions that should be asked and inspections that need to be made for a smart buy and to get your money’s worth. The quality of the previous owner(s) will quickly reveal itself with a few questions and inspections that are well worth investing some time in.
Below are a series of questions developed by Kim Slocum, past president of Rinker Boats. With a 47 year career with the company, Slocum has in-depth and first-hand knowledge of refurbishing and selling previously owned boats from private parties. His first step is to call the seller and pose a series of questions. If he hears what he likes, he personally inspects the boat. “If you’re not familiar with the brand, take along a friend or mechanic who is,” Slocum advises.
In an interview with Boating Magazine, Slocum shared his key questions he asks before buying any used boat and what you should look for when doing a personal inspection.
- What year is the boat? The more recently built, the better, Slocum says. Avoid boats more than 20 years old.
- Where was the boat used? Exclusive fresh water use versus use in salt water enhances the value of a used boat because any corrosion issues are minimized. However, boats used in marine environments can still be good candidates. In coastal regions, these might be the only used boats available.
- What are the engine hours? This tells you how tired the engine and drivetrain might be.
- Is the seller the original owner? An original owner tends to take better care of a boat.
- What doesn’t work? Asking the seller to reveal issues can save you time and it might give you something to bargain with if you choose to buy the boat.
- Does the seller have the title in hand? This allows you to take delivery immediately. Otherwise, you’ll be spending time meeting with the lien holder and seller to clear the title.
- Are the boat and motor still under warranty? If so, find out if these warranties are transferrable and how you can arrange to move them into your name.
Once you’ve asked the questions and feel that it’s worth taking an actual look at the boat, there are particular inspection points on the boat’s overall maintenance that a buyer should specifically look at. Here’s a list of the things to watch for.
Inspect the engine bay.
If the boat is a sterndrive or inboard, the condition of the engine bay will tell you a lot about how well the boat is maintained. Is it clean and dry? Is rigging neat and well-supported? Is it free of rust and corrosion?
Look for rips in the upholstery or deck carpet.
Reupholstery and carpet work are expensive, so keep that in mind as you inspect the interior.
Look for mildew.
While looking for rips in the upholstery and carpet, do the seats, boat top, storage lockers, or carpet have mildew and other damage? Upholstery and covers can be cleaned or replaced, but extensive mold inside the seats is a bad sign. Also, mold spreads easily, so spores on these surfaces may be in the wooden parts as well; a moldy carpet or ski locker can mean problems underneath and that’s something you definitely don’t want to be a new owner of.
Check for loose seats.
The floor may be rotten, or it could simply be that the bolts are stripped (sitting on the seat back as you drive strains the bolts). Your marina can easily fix the latter.
Start up everything.
This includes all the electronics, generator, air conditioning, all pumps, lights, stereo, trim tabs, drive trim, etc., as well as the engine(s). Make sure everything is in good working order, and make note of any issues. Burned-out bulbs and seized bilge pumps are easy to replace but if there are multiple devices not working, it could mean faulty wiring or a faulty battery, which can be fixed. Also be sure to check to see if labels on the engine have peeled up or if insulation on the wires has melted. These are signs of engine overheating.
Double-check the engine hours.
Don’t trust engine-hour meters, Slocum says. Consider paying a boat mechanic to hook the engine up to scan tool to confirm the hours and look for possible issues.
Start the engine.
Does the engine start rough or slip, make excessive noise, vibrate, or smoke? Old gas or too much oil are easily fixed during your first tune-up, but be aware that these symptoms can indicate a bigger problem, such as low compression in the cylinders, and can require a costly engine overhaul.
Test the oil.
Does the engine oil feel gritty between your fingers? The grit is metal filings, which could indicate serious engine wear. If a mechanic confirms this, walk away. If there’s milky oil in the engine or lower unit, this means water is getting in. A bent prop shaft can be straightened and a blown or worn seal replaced, but an impact causing this kind of damage may have stressed the gears or, if water got inside, the gears may be corroded, which is bad news. If water is coming through a cracked engine block, this is not the boat for you.
Check the belts.
Are the alternator or power-steering belts thin, worn, or cracked? Belts should be changed every 100 hours.
Have the boat hauled.
If the boat is not on a trailer, arrange to have it hauled to inspect the bottom for obvious defects such as hull blisters, damaged running gear, excessive fouling, broken trim tabs, and so on.
Inspect the trailer, tires and bearings.
If the boat is already on a trailer, you need to know if it is road-worthy. Make sure the frame, axle and springs are free of excessive rust and cracks, and the bunks and rollers are in good condition. Also be sure to check the tires for proper air pressure, and look for obvious signs of age such as cracked sidewalls. Ask the seller when the last time the bearings were serviced.
Look for cracks in the fiberglass above and below the waterline.
Small cracks, such as spiderwebs in localized areas, are mostly cosmetic. They tend to appear near screws that haven’t been countersunk properly around handles, gunwales, and wind-shields. These aren’t a big deal but they may get worse if they’re not fixed. Cracks bigger than 2 inches long suggest larger problems underneath. Also ask whether the boat’s been in a collision and look for signs, such as gelcoat patches, that indicate extensive repairs.
Look for decay or rot.
This is a tough one because transom or stringer rot might not be obvious. One trick is to push up and down on the drive or outboards. If the transom deflects or feels mushy during this process, it is an indication of rot. If in doubt, spend the money for a survey. The larger the boat, the more important a survey becomes.
Inspect for signs of damage.
Are there any flexing, cracking, mold, and moisture in fiberglass and wooden areas, such as the hull, transom, and floor? These can indicate rot, the break-down of fiberglass, delamination of plywood, or even rot in the stringers. If you see any, walk away.
Conduct a sea trial.
This point can’t be stressed enough—don’t buy until you conduct a sea trial to determine how the boat performs in real-world conditions, and determine any issues. While on the water, look in the bilge for leaks.
Last, but not least—be prepared to walk away. This is perhaps one of the most important, if not smartest, points to make when shopping for a used boat. “Don’t get too excited or fall in love with a boat you’re inspecting,” Slocum says. “You need to be able to walk away if something’s not right or the price is well outside the number you had budgeted.”