10 Things To Look for When Buying a Used Boat

A used boat can save you thousands, compared to the cost of a new boat. But, as with a used car, you are never completely sure what you're getting.

Now that you’ve chosen the kind of boat you want, we bet you can’t wait to feel water spraying in your face and wind rushing through your hair. Ah! The joys of boating! Boating offers freedom, exploration and adventure — things we all missed during the pandemic.

With new boat sales at an all-time high, inventories are scarce. Used boats are a great option. But before you buy one, here’s what you need to know.

Title and Registration

Marinas are legitimate businesses and will carry the registration and title for any used boat they’re selling. However, if you’re buying from a private party, insist that the seller shows you a registration card and title with their name and address. The same goes for a boat trailer.

Make sure the registration numbers match the make, model and hull identification number (HIN). You will also need these if you plan to finance the purchase. Also, request and keep a bill of sale signed by the owner selling the boat. Ensure it clearly describes any warranty coverage, if offered.

Hull

The hull is the main part of a boat — check it carefully. Inspect it for any defects, dents, gouges, holes (repaired or otherwise) and other irregularities, such as visible fiberglass repairs. Especially check below the water line, which can be damaged from banging into rocks, debris or other boats.

Older boats have wood transoms (the vertical section at the rear of the boat) that can rot internally. Excessive movement when lifting the motor up and down or forward and rear generally means a weak or broken transom. Any crack or repair longer than two inches could indicate the boat was in a collision. Your life depends on a structurally sound hull.

Deck

Do a thorough inspection of the deck. Take your time. Inspect for rot, cracks, dents, holes or soft spots. The deck should not feel mushy when you push down on it with your hands.

Signs of decay or plywood delamination may indicate hidden damage. Check the seats for excessive wear, mold and mildew. If the hull and deck are in good shape, carefully inspect the rest of the boat.

Trailer

Many states require boat trailers undergo an annual safety inspection. Make sure the inspection sticker or placard is up to date. Inspect the frame for rot, damage, twisting or severe rust on the suspension and brake systems. Check the tires for dry rot, bubbles and gouges.

If possible, remove the wheel bearing grease caps. Silver bearing grease indicates wheel bearing damage, while a milky color means water intrusion into the bearing hubs.

Family in a used motorboatMalcolm Hanes/Getty Images

Engine

The engine is easily the most expensive part of the boat so inspect this carefully as well. First, look for corrosion under engine cover. Start the engine to give it a test run. Ask the owner to run it at full throttle for at least 10 seconds. There’s a problem if the engine is loose, smoking, running rough or noisy.

Check the belts and hoses for deterioration, fraying or cracks. Rub a little engine oil between your fingers to check for grit, moisture or metal dust. If you’re thinking about buying a larger boat, consider hiring a boat engine mechanic to examine the engine(s) or conduct a fluid analysis test. A fluid analysis could save you from future problems that can be tricky to identify during a physical inspection.

Battery

Batteries have about a five-year life span. Inspect the battery(s) terminals for corrosion and look for a cracked or leaking case. And be sure the battery(s) is securely anchored in the battery tray. A loose battery can short circuit, causing a fire or explosion.

Starter Motor

A defective starter motor won’t spin the engine. Listen for clanging, grinding or a loud spinning/whizzing noise when starting the engine. Internal components corrode and fail due to water that enters the starter and cannot drain out.

Electronics

It’s not unusual for a boat to encounter electrical problems. Most are easily fixed. However, issues with electronic components — radios, GPS, radar, flickering lights, electronic shifter/throttle — all suggest a problem with the wiring or electrical system.

Check wires for melted or damaged insulation, corroded wiring connections or excessive splices where wires have been repaired. These can be warning signs of bigger issues.

Bellows

Made from rubber and resembling the pleats on an accordion, bellows protect control cables, mechanical systems and other boat parts from dirt, debris and water intrusion while allowing them to move freely. Like an automotive constant velocity (CV) joint boot, once damaged, expensive parts will quickly fail or allow water into the boat. Inspect the bellows for cracks, splits, loose clamps or rust near its end.

Cables and Hardware

Cables may operate many systems on a boat. Check that all shifting, steering and throttle system cables and controllers move smoothly and are free from rust and fraying.

Deck hardware can be expensive to repair or replace. Shake the seats, pull on hinges, rigging and cleats to ensure they are securely held in place. Wobbly parts can be caused by loose or stripped screws, which are easily fixed. However, corrosion or loose hardware could indicate hidden rot or other damage.

The last word: Ask to see the boat’s maintenance and storage records. This ensures you are aware of the boat’s upkeep and if the boat has been stored outside year round.

Buying a used boat can save you a lot of money and bring you years of fun and enjoyment on the water. If you don’t trust yourself to evaluate the condition of a used boat, consider hiring an accredited marine surveyor. Similar to a house inspector, a marine surveyor will perform a comprehensive structural integrity and systems inspection.

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Bob Lacivita
Bob Lacivita is an award-winning ASE and General Motors auto technician, educator and freelance writer who has written about DYI car repairs and vehicle maintenance topics. His work has been featured in The Family Handyman, a Reader's Digest book and Classic Bike Rider magazine. He has been a career and technical educator for 25 years teaching automotive technology, as well as writing state, federal and organizational foundation grants. He also helped design a unique curriculum delivery model that integrates rigorous, relevant academic standards seamlessly into career and technical education.