If you ask any experienced boater about buying a boat, most people will tell you it’s better to buy used vessels. But buying a pre-owned watercraft can be tricky as most owners only sell to get rid of their boat. So how do you get value for money when shopping for a used boat?
In this article, we provide top tips to help you get the best deal when buying a pre-owned boat.
1. Determine the Boat Type
The first step when buying a used boat is to determine the watercraft for your boating habits.
Are you an angler who loves going after pelagic species? Do you want a boat for parties or water sports?
Whether you love cruising the oceans or overnight fishing trips, getting the best deal requires knowing what you want from the go.
If you know the ideal boat for your needs, it becomes easier to fine-tune your search and settle for the smallest watercraft with all the features you need.
Even great deals on used boats can become very expensive when you buy a bigger vessel or a model not suited for your purposes.
To get maximum value for money, buy the most affordable boat type for your needs.
2. Have a Baseline Budget
When buying used boats, it helps to have a budget which you won’t exceed in any circumstances.
A budget forces you to narrow your search to specific features, models and boat types.
That way, you can focus on finding a boat with all the desirable qualities at an acceptable price.
Your budget should cover the purchase price and the amount you intend to spend on the boat to get it ready for the water.
For example, you should look for a boat of around $20k if you plan on spending $40k.
Remember that buying boats is emotional. A budget helps to restrict your spending before going to the market because the temptation to overspend can be strong. But regardless of your financial situation, there is a boat for every budget if you look hard enough.
3. Research Boat brands and Models
Some boat models are popular among boaters because they hold their value for longer.
And some boat brands have a large following because of their enduring designs, ease of maintenance and excellent customer service.
When buying a used boat, the maker and model is as important as the price.
Go for boats from reputable brands that have a proven track record of building long-lasting products.
Some boat models are superstars while others are complete failures. Steer clear of specific models which have a poor performance record even if the deal is hard to resist.
4. Time it Right
If pricing is all that matters to you, then timing is crucial.
The best time to buy a boat whether used or new depends on your location.
If you live in places with mild temperatures like California or Florida, you can get the best boat deal anytime of the day.
However, it’s a bit different for people in cold climates.
During the middle of the winter when boats are in storage, sellers and dealers give more concessions to buyers because of the lower demand.
You will be more rational if you buy long before hitting the water. It’s often easier to consider the price more logically without emotions or pressure clouding your judgment.
The ideal time to shop for boats is when boaters are not using it. That’s when it’s easy to cut you juicy discounts.
5. Shop Online
Nowadays, the internet provides the biggest and easiest platform to find unbelievable used boat deals.
Sites like Boats.com, Yachtworld, eBay, and Craigslist provide thousands of boat listings across different categories.
This allows you to compare vessels from multiple brands and models across different price ranges, sellers, location and other variables.
However, online boat listings can be deceptive. Many online boat sellers don’t tell the whole truth about their vessels. Some hide defects until you point in out to them. Others quote ridiculously low prices without telling you of expensive damages.
In fact, many people buy salvaged boats and try to flip them online at a profit. Do due diligence before buying any boat online.
6. Check Your Local Dealership and Brokerage
Local dealerships offer a wealth of experience and knowledge of the markets.
Ask your boating friends to recommend reputable dealerships who can give you great discounts, warranty and other add-ons on your purchase.
Brokers can also help you get dreamboats on a bargain, especially if the vessel is expensive.
They have extensive local knowledge about current and historic market trends, boat models and brands with high resale value and much more.
If you want an experienced professional who can help you avoid pitfalls when buying a used boat, local brokers and dealerships are the way to go.
7. Shop Around
Even if the first offer you saw seems unbeatable, it’s wise to shop around for other deals.
That way, you can compare different price ranges and what sellers offer regarding features, models and more.
Check different dealerships, private sellers and explore all available options until you find the right deal for your budget.
It is usually best to look for favorable deals in your locality. If you buy a boat in your area, it becomes easier to follow-up with inspections and negotiations.
8. Determine Essential features
What features can you do without in a boat?
Before shopping for a used vessel, outline the features you can forgo to reduce the price.
Not everybody needs high-tech satellite navigation, especially if you are not cruising on the high seas.
The extra fishing gear might not be necessary if you are not a passionate angler. But you may want a swimming platform to enjoy water sports and other aquatic activities. The less advanced features the better as owners want to get as much return from their boats as possible.
Don’t make it easy for them by insisting on unnecessary gadgets. Look for a boat with the basics but make sure they work.
9. Avoid Deals That Are Too Good to Be True
Like everything that involves money, run away if it sounds too good to be true.
Boats lose value in recessions and sellers try to get the highest value while they can.
But in good times, be wary of any boat deal that is ridiculously low.
Chances are the owner is hiding serious problems that will cost you thousands of dollars in repairs. You will encounter this from online and offline sellers and need to be vigilant. When in doubt, follow your gut.
10. Boat Age and Maintenance History
Apart from vintage models, used boats cost less.
But they also require more repairs except the owner maintained the boat really well.
Ask for the maintenance records and the problems the boat has experienced in its history and recently to make sure things are in order.
You want to know how many major repairs the owner has performed. A boat with extensive repairs may not be a good buy as you will probably continue spending heavily on the vessel.
If possible, ask for the mechanic or yard that did the repairs to get more information about the underlying problems affecting the boat.
11. Ask for the Provenance
Provenance is the list of owners and locations of a boat.
Whether written or oral, a provenance can give valuable information regarding the boat’s usability.
A boat with over 2 owners may not be the best purchase.
It may not be advisable to buy a boat without a provenance as you won’t know if it was stolen from somebody before the present owner bought it.
Ask how long the owner has owned the boat, who were the last owners and why are they selling it now. The provenance will also show you whether they have used the boat in saltwater or freshwater, allowing you to focus on parts susceptible to corrosion.
In most cases, boats without a good provenance usually have something to hide.
12. Check the Boat’s Hours
A boat’s use is measured in hours.
Always go for vessels with less than 500 hours.
Above that figure, you may need extensive upgrades to the engine and other vital systems in the vessel.
This won’t be a problem if the boat comes at a low price. But don’t buy if you need to spend over half the purchase price to get the boat up to your taste.
It will take time and effort and chances of overshooting your budget is high.
13. Inspect the Hull
Once you’ve settled for a boat, the first step in the inspection process is to check the hull.
Tap all over the hull and listen for a vacuum in the fiberglass.
Depressions and mismatched paint indicate a serious accident which may have compromised the hull.
Inspect the fiberglass above and below the waterline for cracks and blisters. Blisters are pockets of moisture between fiberglass layers and the gel coat and fiberglass layer.
If the hull has bumpy areas on a relatively smooth surface, especially below the waterline, you might be dealing with osmotic blisters. Over time, these blisters can pop as they trap moisture.
This may not be a problem in newer boats but can cause extensive damage and costly repairs in older vessels.
If you buy such a boat, this problem can drastically reduce its resale value.
14. Warranty Issues
If you are buying a relatively new boat, ask whether it is still under warranty.
Ask what the warranty covers and whether it is transferable to a new owner.
A boat with a transferable warranty can be an exciting deal as you may save on problems which are not apparent during the sale process.
15. Beware of Cracks
Inspect the fiberglass for cracks.
Focus on the gel coat above and below the waterline as the brittleness of the material reduces its survivability during impacts.
One or two small cracks are manageable in used boats.
Extensive cracks in the hull or transom are a sign of delamination.
Multiple cracks in one location or larger ones indicate impact damage which may have compromised the boat’s structural integrity.
You don’t have to back out because of every crack, but bigger and outward radiating deformities are cause for worry.
16. Check the Steering
Boat steering systems rarely have issues but age catches up with them too.
A worn steering system can pose serious safety risks and cost you thousands in repairs.
Mechanical steering systems are prone to loose cables, wear and loss of tension. Hydraulics can leak, become spongy and get contaminated with debris.
Check the steering for play, slack, and responsiveness. If the steering doesn’t feel right, you might be heading for trouble.
17. Ask about Old Repairs
Look around for scratches, missing parts and areas with different paints as this usually indicates previous repairs.
While it is common for old boats to carry scar marks, you don’t want something that will reduce the utility of the boat or its resale value.
18. Check for Corrosion
Whether you are buying a boat for freshwater or saltwater use, it’s crucial to check for corrosion.
Aluminum and steel boats are susceptible to the corrosive forces of saltwater and the sun, leading to extensive damage and costly repairs.
Excessive red-brown coloration on steel boats or grey/white marks on aluminum vessels is a sign of rust.
You don’t want a leaky boat even if it comes as a bargain.
19. Test the Engine
The engine accounts for a large chunk of a boat’s value and must be in excellent condition. Marine engines are rated based on the number of hours.
Check out the engine compartment for corrosion, strange smells, water stains, and loose fittings.
Test the engine at full throttle to see how it behaves.
Does it cough to life or sparks to action? Is it smoky, noisy or vibrates? These problems can indicate serious problems that may require expensive overhauls. Keep your eyes and ears open during engine inspections as what you see and hear can make all the difference.
20.Test the Oil
The oil can tell you a lot of secrets about a boat’s health.
Is it gritty, smelly, cloudy, or milky?
Lubricant that is milky has water in it, so there is a leak somewhere.
Grit indicates metallic fillings and a burned smell is a sign of lax maintenance. A cracked engine block or corroded gears allowing water entry is a deal-breaker.
Good oil is odorless and does not evaporate or have a foul odor. If it’s inconsistent with what you expect from a lubricant, test the oil for contamination.
21. Check the Upholstery
How are the chairs holding up?
You want the chairs to swivel properly, collapse with no trouble and show no signs of wear.
Loose seats may have stripped bolts because of the strain of sitting. But it can also be because of a rotten floor.
Check that the fabric is not brittle or papery as that may indicate bleaching or UV damage. Be wary of super clean chairs. Many cleaners and even boaters use harsh cleaning agents that degrade vinyl and other upholstery materials.
If the chairs look too clean, ask the owner of the cleaning agent he/she uses to make sure it’s not harmful.
22. Check the Covers
You may not give much thought to cockpit covers and Bimini tops, but they keep you dry and comfortable. And replacements can be expensive.
Inspect the zippers, fasteners, and stitching to make sure they fit and work properly.
23. Inspect for Rot and Mildew
Floor rot is a big problem in used boats.
You can identify rot by checking for soft spots in the hull, floor, transom, and stringers.
Fiberglass and wood are susceptible to rot, which is a sign of water damage and exposure.
Look for mildew in the carpet, upholstery, covers and storage lockers.
One-off spores are easy to control, but extensive mold inside the seats, floors, and the cabin is not a good sign.
24. Make Sure Electronics Work
Don’t take chances with a boat’s wiring.
It’s easy to replace bulbs but faulty wiring or poor insulation can spell trouble.
Are there melting wires? Do you see vacant outlets or taped wires hanging out in unusual areas?
That shows something was removed from the boat. Melted wires suggest engine overheating and the electrical cables might not be rated for the boat’s requirements. The marine radio should be operational and navigational lights must be in good shape.
When in doubt, ask questions.
25. Inspect the Propeller
A well-maintained propeller should be free of cracks and warping.
While you can straighten a bent prop easily, an impact which can cause such a deformity may have damaged the gear and other vital components in the vessel.
This may reduce the boat’s performance and can lead to costly repairs when you least expect.
26. Test Drive It
After checking the overall integrity of the boat, take it out on a drive.
For best results come with your whole family or the people you plan to spend time with on the boat to see its performance at full capacity.
During the test drive, check for the steering response, vibration, noise levels, and the trim. Monitor the gauges and instruments including the speedometer, temperature and especially the RPM. You also want to check how the vessel planes and whether the gear is smooth or jerky.
Is the bilge working properly? Don’t forget to steer in reverse although this may be difficult for a novice.
27. Get a Marine Survey
Never skip a marine survey before buying a boat.
A survey gives you more leverage during the negotiation and can help identify potential deal-breakers.
Some owners will have a marine survey ready to save time, but it’s advisable to commission your own marine surveyor.
Since the motive of a survey is to save money, the owner’s surveyor will write a report to favor their client.
Ask your boating friends to refer an experienced and reputable surveyor who has worked with the boat you intend buying. It’s preferable to hire one with professional membership.
The surveyor’s job is to help you save money by reporting the true state of the boat vies-a-vies the cost of resolving the problems.
If the problems identified are not a deal-breaker for you and the owner can deduct it from the final price, fine.
But if the damage is so extensive you will walk away with a catastrophe, the survey will save you money and maybe your life.
Hiring a marine surveyor might seem expensive, but it’s far more affordable considering the potential costs and hazards that come with buying a broken boat.
28. Check the Trailer
If the owner is selling the boat with a trailer, check that it is in good condition.
Check for corrosion, brakes, the hitch, tires, and others.
It’s important for the trailer to be registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Trailers can be costly to repair or replace so make sure you get a good one with the boat.
29. Set a Reasonable Offer
After checking the boat and deciding it’s the right choice, set the purchase agreement in motion with a reasonable offer.
It’s important for the terms of the contract to allow you back out of the transaction if you don’t feel convinced about the deal due to defects which were not apparent at first.
Remember that even if you are working with a broker, he/she will work on behalf of the seller and is more concerned about the commission.
So hone your negotiating skills and do your due diligence by researching similar models to compare their price.
30. Negotiate for Add-ons Separately
While you may get the seller to agree on a lower price, many owners over-charge you for the gadgets they installed on the boat.
This can quickly add up if you can’t do without the add-ons.
This means the total package will be higher than the purchase price.
You can negotiate each item separately to reduce the price although this requires a lot of time and patience.
31. Check for a Marine Mortgage
Check whether the vessel has marine finance on it and when it will be paid off.
The purchase money should pay off the mortgage.
But to be sure, request for evidence of a redemption statement from the lending body to make sure you won’t be paying for someone else’s mortgage.
32. Transfer of Ownership
Once both parties agree to a price and money change hands, make sure you collect all necessary documents including a legal transfer of title.
In the title documents, you want to include terms that allow you to sue the seller if you discover that the boat and the accompanying equipment is not in the condition he/she claimed.
A legally binding agreement ensures that you are not buying stolen property and covers you if the vendor is being fraudulent.
33. Use a Marine Lender
It’s always better to pay cash for a boat as that indicates you are buying within your means.
But if you need to finance the purchase, it’s best to approach a marine lender rather than a traditional financier.
Commercial banks treat boat transactions like homes but they are different.
Marine lenders are experts and provide a wealth of experience and multiple financial instruments to make your boat purchase convenient.
Shop around for the most favorable marine lenders as the industry is competitive.
34. Buy Insurance through an Independent Agent
Regardless of how low cost your vessel is, it’s advisable to buy a boat policy.
But unlike car insurance, boat policy is more expensive and the process can be complicated.
Instead of hunting around for one or two policies, hire an independent agent to look through multiple offers that best suit your needs.
Look for professional independent agents in your local area as they have a good understanding of the best insurance deals on offer for different boat classes in the region.
And they are in a better position to answer all your questions regarding accidents, coverage and more.
35. Be Prepared To Walk Away
If you end up not feeling satisfied with the result of the survey, or your gut tells you something is wrong with the deal, back off.
Sometimes, you may have done every checks and inspection on a boat before finding a better offer. And maybe you don’t think the transaction is worth the money and effort after careful consideration.
When in doubt, take your money and walk away.
The best way to save on a boat is to buy pre-owned.
But the reason many people sell their vessel may be unfavorable.
Your job as a buyer is to make sure you get the best watercraft for your boating needs at the lowest price.
However, the purchase price is only a small part of the puzzle.
You want a boat that requires minimal tune-up to hit the water. That means all the critical systems should be in top shape so you don’t exceed your budget.
With the right planning, research and discipline, you can get a dreamboat regardless of your finances. We hope the tips in this article will make it easier and faster for you to land the perfect used boat deal.
I’ve always lived on the coast and have loved boating since my dad took me sailing as a toddler. Together with my wife I’ve rebuilt two RVs in which we travel as much as we can. We’ve filmed and interviewed tiny houses and RVs since 2011. Read our personal story here.