Buying A Used Boat? 18 Critical Tips Before You Sign (Checklist)

In Boating by Christopher Schopf

Buying a used boat is a fun experience but it can also be stressful.

Here’s a complete guide to what you need to check before you sign the deal!

After reading this you will know what to look for and what to remember.

If you’re considering buying a used boat, take the stress away by following checking these 18 areas before you make your final purchase.

I’ll be breaking these areas down into three categories consisting of:

  • The condition of the boat.
  • The boat’s maintenance history.
  • The boat’s fair market value.

Complete Checklist For Buying Used Boats

The first area you should concern yourself with is the actual condition of the boat.  If the condition of the boat is poor, the maintenance history and the fair market value of the boat might not matter.

Here is what you’ll want to look into when assessing the boat’s condition:

1) The Hull

A boat’s hull is under the constant stress of the water and it is one of the few parts that run the risk of going aground.  It is also the main component of a boat and can fall victim to collisions with the dock, rocks, and even other boats.

For these reasons, it is important that you take a look at a boat’s hull before you buy it.

When inspecting the hull, you’ll want to look for any cracks, dents, or any other irregularities.

Be especially careful to look out for repairs that may have been made to the hull.  A poorly repaired hull could trick you into thinking that there isn’t any damage, when in fact, there is damage and it has simply been covered up with a shoddy repair job.

2) The Deck

The deck is often the easiest part of a boat to inspect.  However, it is also one of the biggest areas of the boat to inspect, so make sure you take your time and do a thorough search as your life could literally depend on it one day.

To begin, visually inspect the deck for any rot, cracks, dents, or holes.

If you see any signs of rot, there may be a lot more damage hidden within the deck of the boat.  Once, you’re satisfied with your visual inspection, you can move onto a more thorough inspection.

Do this by walking across the deck and checking for any spots that may be soft.  If you’re unsure, stop, kneel down, and push down on the deck area with your hands.  The deck should not feel spongy when you push on it.

3) The Deck Hardware

Deck hardware is often overlooked during the inspection and this can be a big mistake.  The reason for this is that deck hardware can often be expensive to replace.   This is especially true when you’re buying an older boat as some of the deck parts may not be sold anymore.

In this case, you’d need to hire a fabricator to make the actual part for you.

Be especially careful to check the decking area around the deck hardware.  Sometimes people overlook these areas while inspecting the deck.  This is a shame because a soft deck can often be hidden underneath of deck hardware.  When the deck becomes soft underneath of the hardware, you run the risk of having the deck hardware ripped right off of the deck.

4) The Engine

On smaller boats, the engine is usually the most expensive part of the boat.  In fact, it can often be cheaper to buy a new boat than it is to buy a new motor.

One of the best ways to test an engine is to run it.  If the engine doesn’t sound work then right away you’ll know there is a problem.

Also, if the engine is smoking or doesn’t sound quite right, you’ll know to take a much deeper look.

However, sometimes a boat’s engine will seem to run perfectly fine even though there are some underlying issues.  Protect yourself against these issues by hiring a boat engine mechanic to take a look at the engine for you.  For larger purchases, you may even want to run a fluid analysis on the boat’s engine.

This analysis can pick up issues that are difficult to spot during a physical inspection.

5) The Batteries

A marine battery has a maximum lifespan of about six or seven years but most will be dead at about the five-year mark.

These batteries can cost anywhere from $100.00 to $150.00 and some boats will require more than one battery. 

This means an older boat that hasn’t had its battery replaced yet could cost you a few hundred extra dollars after you’ve purchased it.

Even if the boat is newer, you’ll still want to check the battery to see whether or not it has been taken care of.  Take a look at the terminals and see if there is any corrosion on them.  If you see mounds of corrosion then you know that the owner hasn’t been properly taking care of the batteries.  In this case, the battery might only last a few years so you can expect to have to replace it soon.

6) The Rigging and Sails

Sails and rigging can be very expensive to replace and even to repair.  Unfortunately, some people just don’t take proper care of their sails and they end up dying an early death.

A thorough inspection of the sails usually involves taking them down so that you can take a look at every inch of them.  Look for tears and holes and mark any that you find so that you’ll know exactly how much repair work will need to be done.

In some cases, you may find that there are so many tears and holes in the sails that it would be better to replace them than to repair them.  If this is the case, you may want to price out new sails before deciding whether or not to buy the boat.

7) The Rudder

Your rudder will determine which way your boat moves so it’s crucial that the rudder is in good shape.  The rudder needs to be able to move freely so one big issue you might want to look for is corrosion.  Corrosion can set in around the framework and this can make rudder movement more difficult.

If you see any rust, you may be in for a repair.

Also, check the rudder blade itself for damage.  A rudder blade can become cracked and sometimes it is safer just to replace the entire blade rather than to repair it.

One thought to keep in mind is that rudders can be difficult to inspect when the boat is in the water.  If the boat is small enough to be trailered, pull it out so that it can easily be inspected.  If not, you may have to send a diver down to look at it as he inspects the boat’s hull.

8) The Steering Control

The steering control system is one of the most important parts of a boat and it consists of a series of pieces that work together to steer the boat.  It starts with the steering wheel.  The wheel itself usually doesn’t suffer from any issues, but you’ll want to take a look at it anyway.

If the wheel is in a state of disrepair, you’ll know that the rest of the steering system probably isn’t functioning well either.

Steering wheels are usually connected to cables that connect to the rudder.  The cables should be able to move freely and all of the hardware that connects them to the steering wheel and the rudder should be in working condition.  Turn the wheel and check to make sure the cables move smoothly.  Also, be on the lookout for corrosion or loose screws.

9) The Bilge

The bilge ensures that your boat does not fill up with water.  Bilge pumps can be tested both in and out of the water so you shouldn’t have any trouble inspecting them.

Start by putting some water in the bilge area and run the pump.

Listen for any strange sounds and watch to ensure that the pump is indeed sending water out of the bilge.

After this, you’ll want to do a more thorough inspection to ensure that the bilge is clean.  Also, if you’re inspecting an automatic bilge pump, you’ll want to ensure that the bilge counter is in good working order.  The bilge counter will work to let you know whether or not the bilge is working normally or if it is working more often due to a leak.

10) The Propeller

The propeller works to move your motorboat so it is of paramount importance that it function correctly.  However, inspecting the propeller can be dangerous so make sure the boat’s battery is disconnected from the engine before you put yourself anywhere near it.

After this, you can check for any dents in the blade or the shaft.

You’ll also want to remove the propeller so you can check for any issues around the shaft underneath of the actual propeller.  This is easy to do and you’ll just need a wrench and a pair of pliers to make this inspection.

Once you’ve put the propeller back on, you can spin it to make sure that it spins smoothly.  If during your inspection you find that the propeller blade is damaged in any way, expect to replace it.

11) The Upholstery

Many boats have upholstery on the seating and some even have carpeted decks.  You’ll want to check these areas to make sure there aren’t any tears or holes in them.

Boat carpets usually don’t last very long so don’t expect an older boat to have perfect deck carpeting.

Boat seats, on the other hand, are often made from sturdy vinyl materials and they can be expensive to replace.  If the seating is all torn apart, you might want to ask for a reduction in price as you may be out several hundred dollars on new boat seats.

12) The Bimini Top

Bimini tops can make a world of difference when out on a hot and sunny day on the water.  These tops definitely add value to a boat, but not if they have been ripped and torn to shreds.

Unfortunately, these tops can often be destroyed while just sitting at the dock or even the boatyard.

Birds will often make a mess of the bimini tops and even the sun can eventually destroy a good top.

If a bimini top is torn or even if it just looks like cracks have begun to form on it, you’ll know that it probably has not been cared of properly.  This means that you’ll probably have to replace the top and this can be very expensive to do.

13) The Lights

Even if you don’t plan on using your boat at night, you still have to have properly functioning boat lights.  Test every single light to make sure that it is working.

If bulbs have been burned out, have the owner replace them before you agree to buy the boat.

Inspecting these is a bit of a no-brainer.  You’ll just need to turn the lights on and then visually check them to see if they are indeed on.  Just be sure that all of the necessary lights are still on the boat.  Some sneaky owners may simply remove a broken light so that you won’t think to check it.

You can learn about what lights each boat needs by taking a look at my post titled, “Boat Navigation Light Rules“.

14) The Appliances

Larger boats may have appliances like fridges, stoves, and even microwaves.  You’ll want to test each appliance to make sure that it is in good working order.

It might be a good idea to plan ahead and ask the boat owner to turn the refrigerator on a few hours ahead of time.  This way, you’ll know whether or not the fridge can actually reach the appropriate temperatures.

Don’t trust yourself to be able to feel whether or not the fridge is cold enough.  Instead, bring something to help you read the exact temperature. 

There are electronic devices you can buy to do this instantly.  Alternatively, you can just bring a thermometer and drop it in there at the beginning of your inspection.

Before you end the inspection, pull the thermometer out and see if it reached the appropriate temperature.

A fridge should be at or below 40 degrees F and a freezer should be at or below 0 degrees F.  If you’re working in Celsius, you’ll want temperatures of 4 degrees and -18 degrees.

15) The Plumbing

A boat with bathroom and kitchen facilities will usually have a freshwater system and a blackwater system.  It will also have pumps to move the water through the system.

You’ll want to check each of these systems.

You’ll also want to make sure any hot water heaters work as well.  In some cases, you may have to ask the owner to turn the hot water heater on in advance.  This way, you won’t have to wait around to see if the hot water heater actually reaches its specified temperatures.

16) The Trailer

A trailerable boat should have a boat trailer with good tires, fully functioning brakes and fully functioning lights.  Smaller boat trailers may not have brakes, but they’ll still need to have functioning brake lights.

Additionally, you’ll want to check to make sure the rollers and the carpets are in good condition.

The winch for pulling the boat up the trailer should also move freely.  If possible, launch the boat from the trailer to make sure everything works as it should.

17) The Maintenance and Storage History

After you’ve done a thorough inspection of the boat, you may want to ask the owner for the maintenance and storage history.  Regular maintenance should have been done on the boat’s engine as well as the boat’s trailer.  If this maintenance wasn’t done, you’ll need to have it done right away.

This will help to ensure that the boat’s engine lives out its intended lifespan.

You’ll also want to know if the boat was stored properly.  Ideally, it was kept in a garage or a large storage facility out of the elements.  If not, the boat will have been subjected to the weather throughout the entire year.  This certainly isn’t a deal-breaker but it is something to keep in mind.

18) The Fair Market Price

Once you’ve decided that the boat is worth purchasing, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting a fair deal on it.  To do this, check out websites like Nada to see what others are paying for similar boats.

If you find that the boat is listed for much more than what others are paying, you may be able to get a better deal elsewhere.

Don’t be afraid to point this out and use it in your price negotiations with the seller.

Final Thoughts

Buying a used boat can save you a lot of money and it can bring you years of fun out on the water.

Just take your time and don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal and you won’t have anything to worry about.