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The ins and outs of buying a used boat

It’s going to take some time and effort, but it’s worth it to be part of the process

It’s going to take some time and effort, but it’s worth it to be part of the process

To best evaluate a used boat, you’ll need a good flashlight, small mirror, note pad and camera (digital, if possible). Also bring along any information about the boat, such as an advertisement or broker listing.

Your analysis of the boat should begin as soon as you arrive. Take photos — interior and exterior — and notes as you go. You will be surprised at the additional questions and answers generated from viewing the photos at a later time.

If the boat is secured to a dock, notice the condition of dock lines and the placement of fenders. Does the hull show signs of impact with the dock in the form of large gouges or scrapes along the sides? This may tell you something of the owner’s seamanship or interest in maintaining the boat.

Once aboard have a quick look around the cockpit and observe the general housekeeping. This can further reflect the owner’s care and concern for maintenance and safe boating. You should be viewing the boat at its best condition — ready for sale. Chances are good that poorly maintained cosmetics would be followed by similar mechanical maintenance.

On deck

Take a walk around the gunwale up to the foredeck. The side deck should be wide enough for you to pass comfortably, and the rail needs to be of adequate height and strength to provide good, safe support. Consider having to go forward while the boat is pitching and rolling in a seaway, or while maneuvering for anchoring and line-handling. While applying lateral pressure on the rails, observe the deck surface for signs of flexing or the appearance of water where the rail base is secured to the deck. Are all the fasteners of the same type, or have they been randomly replaced as they fell out? These can be indicators of a wet inner deck core.

The non-skid surface should be aggressive but not abrasive. The deck should feel firm underfoot without sponginess. It should also be free of clutter, and everything should be properly secured.

Head back to the cockpit, but use the opposite side deck. Occasionally there are accessories or antennae installed on one side that will hinder free access. Take this opportunity to check the hand holds and rails on that side, as well. Check the external condition of any hatches or ports. Has there been excessive sealant applied to the surface or joints in an attempt to cure water leaks in the cabin? There are no real shortcuts in repairing those leaks; temporary fixes will come back at the worst time.

The cockpit

Once back in the cockpit, have a good look at the control station or helm. In order to operate the boat safely you must be comfortable and secure at the controls. Look for anything that might obstruct your view from the helm. Will you be able to handle the boat comfortably and safely if weather conditions deteriorate?

Weather protection can vary from a simple console windscreen to a full canvas camper back. Ask to install all the canvas to confirm fit and condition, and to find out if the boat is maneuverable with the enclosure in place. Headroom can play an important part in operator and passenger comfort. Check the operation of zippers and snaps. Unless the canvas is nearly new and has been stored correctly, there is a good chance that the clear isinglass will need replacing.

While still in the cockpit inspect the hardware for signs of corrosion and loose fasteners, similar to the bow rail inspection. Be concerned with sharp edges on hardware, and broken or missing fittings. Anything secured to the deck or gunwales should be properly fastened to solid material and preferably bedded. Look for stress cracks surrounding cleats and rails. They should be through-bolted, with sizable backing plates fitted. Lift any cushions stored outside. If water drains out from them, the foam and wood base likely are deteriorated and will require replacement. Storage areas below the seating should be void of any sharp edges or surfaces. Look for repairs where bulkheads are joined to the hull. Any signs of stress within the vessel should be investigated by a professional.

The cabin

While heading into the cabin, observe the fit of the companionway door. A poor fit can be just that, or it could be pointing to a shifted bulkhead or deck support. Is the companionway large enough for easy passage while under way?

The cabin requires observation and inspection similar to the cockpit. Use your flashlight to look into every corner and under the cushions. Feel around all hatches, ports and through-deck hardware for moisture, which indicates leaks. Check the storage spaces; loose, cut or frayed wiring often runs through these areas. Any plumbing fittings should be sealed securely. Plumbing fittings don’t leak if properly maintained. The electrical switches should operate freely.

The bilge and engine

Many boats have sole boards that can easily be lifted to view the bilge. You might find fuel tanks, water and waste tanks. There should be no leaks or pungent odors. If there is any trace water in the bilge, it should not be oily or contain excessive sediment. There should be no floating debris, as it can jam a mechanical bilge pump flat switch in the “on” position, or prevent it from operating at all. Loose wiring, cables and plumbing in the bilge are indicators of substandard maintenance.

The machinery space, or engine bilge, deserves a good look as well. Before working in the engine area, turn the battery master switch to “off.” Lift the hatches and smell for fuel vapor. Inboard and I/O boats share similar engine configurations and can be inspected in the same manner. Start with the overall condition. Look for oily bilge water, which despite popular belief shouldn’t exist. Although it can be difficult to access the engine oil pan and timing cover, it is worth the effort to use your flashlight and mirror to determine their condition. Rust and corrosion in these areas are common on older vessels, sometimes making the oil pan resemble a strainer.

Inspect the exhaust risers, elbows and manifolds for signs of external surface rust, paying particular attention to the joints and seams. Rust trails that begin at the gasketed surfaces are good signs that a closer inspection, possibly pressure testing, is necessary. Be wary if only one of a pair of parts has been replaced. It is doubtful that a starboard riser would fail, while the port riser remains serviceable.

The exhaust hoses should be double-clamped at the connections and the flexible hose well-supported. There should be nothing running above the hot sections of the engine or exhaust. A quick look at the flexible fuel hose should provide you with the fact that it is Coast Guard approved for gasoline or diesel, and securely fastened within the compartment. Automotive hose doesn’t belong on a boat. All fuel fittings should be clean and dry.

Look closely at the recesses on the inlet manifold for signs of leaking fuel, oil or water. Leaky thermostat housings typically deposit coolant in the valley. Hoses should be pliable, yet not soft or spongy. There should be no fluid weeping at the clamped connections.

The areas surrounding the belts and pulleys shouldn’t be covered in black dust, which is a good indicator of high or irregular belt wear. With the battery switch still in the “off” position, try to wobble the pulleys to check for bearing wear and play. The most common defect revealed by this is the water pump. If the boat is used in salt water the engine should be freshwater-cooled and will have a heat exchanger with a radiator cap similar to an automotive-style cap. While the engine is cold, carefully remove the pressure cap to check the coolant level and color. There should be no rust, foamy solution or buildup on the cap or neck. Have someone operate the shift and throttle controls to see if any cable binding exists.


Outboard engines can exhibit many similar issues but with several additions. As the outboard engine pivots while under way, the control cables for shift and throttle become frayed and corroded. Check their operation carefully. The wiring harness and fuel lines should be thoroughly inspected for abrasion and corrosion. Steering control cables and hydraulic lines also require careful inspection.

The outboard or sterndrive lower unit should tilt high enough out of the water to avoid corrosion of the housing. Inspect the lower unit and prop for signs of hard grounding or abuse. Inspect the outboard engine for corrosion and leaks at the interface of the engine crankcase and cylinder head.

The extras

There should be a vessel log aboard, which may contain records of trips, fuel consumption, repairs and maintenance. Ask what equipment goes along with the sale. Some sellers will leave nearly everything behind; others remove anything that hasn’t been thoroughly secured.

It is always desirable to be able to get the boat away from its slip to determine performance and handling characteristics. However, most sellers will require a good-faith deposit and signed contract prior to doing a sea trial.

You may decide early in the process that a particular boat just doesn’t fit your requirements or isn’t in suitable condition for you to purchase. Don’t abandon the opportunity to inspect the boat anyway, since you will learn from each vessel you spend time aboard. There are no boats that are perfect in all respects, but you need to be aware of their shortcomings and select accordingly.

Getting serious

Once you determine you are going to move forward with the process, refer to the notes you took and discuss any issues with the seller, broker or marine surveyor. You also should look at another comparable boat, comparing features, options and price. There are several price references available, such as BUC (, the boat guide from the National Automobile Dealers Association (, and PowerBoat Guide (www.power Classified listings such as those in Soundings should provide a complete range of asking prices.

Once you have gone through the process and are looking for a more technical review or report on the boat, contact a marine surveyor. Surveyors will spend hours inspecting the boat and testing its systems in order to prepare a comprehensive report of findings and recommendations. Lending institutions and insurance underwriters, in determining the condition and value of your prospective purchase, will use a surveyor’s report as a guide. Organizations such as the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors ( or National Association of Marine Surveyors (www. allow you to search their member database to find a member near you. Both provide continuing education and training so members can remain current with today’s technology. You also can locate surveyors through the Association of Certified Marine Surveyors (, in marine classified advertisements, or through your lending institution or insurance company.