How to Buy a Used Boat
If you’d like to buy a boat but have a limited budget or limited boating experience, a used boat is your best bet. The first step is to figure out what specific type of boat will best suit your needs. Then, visit the boat and fully inspect it. Talk with the owner to ascertain its quality, and take the boat out on the water to make sure it doesn’t leak and runs well.
Evaluating Different Types of Boats
Opt for a flat boat, or a bay or bass style if you’re an angler.One of these styles will suit you best if you plan to use your boat for freshwater fishing in lakes and rivers. You’ll be able to navigate the boat into narrow channels and streams, although the boat may not be suitable for holding more than 1 or 2 people.
- Anglers also typically prefer center-console or dual-console boats.
Purchase a pontoon for slow-paced relaxation.If you plan to use a boat for freshwater leisure but don’t plan to fish from it, opt for a reliable pontoon boat. Large pontoons can hold as many as 10 or 12 people, so they’re also a popular option for family parties or spending a day on the lake with your friends.
- New pontoon boats range from –,000 USD, but used models will cost less.
Buy a cabin cruiser, cuddy cabin, or dinghy for ocean cruising.If you want a fast boat that you can cruise in, check out cabin cruiser, cuddy cabin, and dinghy or dory designs. These are day-use boats that will allow you to cruise over the open ocean for hours at a time.Smaller cruisers can also be taken in rivers or large lakes.
- If you want a high-powered boat for fast cruising in the ocean, spring for a speedboat or sport boat.
Purchase a bowrider or towboat for towing wakeboarders or water-skiers.If you’ll be using your boat primarily for watersports on lakes, and want the option to tow an individual behind you, a mid-size towboat will be your best option. These boats will create a sizeable wake behind you, and feature a deck large enough to house several people.
- Bowriders and towboats would not be suitable for staying overnight on. New models will cost around ,000, but a used model will cost substantially less.
Setting Your Budget and Searching for Boats
Establish a reasonable budget.Used boats are cheaper than new boats, but can still become prohibitively expensive. Once you’ve determined 1 or 2 models of boat you’re interested at, look online to see how much these styles of boats typically sell for in used condition. Also look at your personal finances and see how much you can afford to spend on the boat.
- This is also the time to meet with a banker if you’re looking to finance the purchase of the used boat. Used boats can easily top ,000 USD, so you may want to take out a sizeable loan. When negotiating the terms of the loan, set up the monthly payments for an amount you can afford.
Read reviews of different boat makes and models.Before going to check out individual used boats for sale, read some online reviews. These will allow you to get a sense of which boat makes, models, and styles are popular choices for used-boat buyers, and which you should avoid buying. Narrow the type of boat you want down to 1 or 2 models.
- There are a variety of reputable online boat magazines that feature reviews of popular new and used boat types and brands. Check out boat reviews in publications like , , and .
Find and visit a prospective used boat.The best way to find a viable used boat is through online boat-sale forums and websites. Boat Trader and Boats.com will allow you to input specific criteria to narrow down the used-boat search results. Specify the condition of the boat, as well as the desired type, manufacturer, length, and location.
- Contact the boat’s owner, and make sure that the owner will be with the boat when you come by to inspect the boat at the marina where it’s stored. Coordinate a time and date that works with both you and the owner.
- Make sure that you have a boating license before buying a boat. You can get fined and/or taken into custody without one.
Asking Questions and Inspecting the Boat
Ask about the boat’s age and maintenance history.Just like when buying a car, make sure that the boat has been regularly maintained and is in good running order. Look for newer boats with fewer engine miles, as these will be in the best condition.
- Be aware that dishonest boat owners may have bought a heavily damaged boat as salvage, patched it up, and then try to sell it for a high price.
- Ask if the current owner was the original owner, if the boat has been in salt water, when was it last used, how was it stored in the winter, and if it has had any major or minor problems fixed (new wiring, crack in hull, replaced engine head) or still existing.
Ask about the boat’s provenance.The “provenance” refers to a list of the boat’s prior owners and locations. The current owner of the boat should be able to provide you with the provenance, whether in written or oral form. A boat that has had only 1 or 2 owners and has been well maintained is a safer purchase than a boat with multiple owners.
- Avoid buying a boat that has had many owners in the past, or that has a murky provenance. Boats that have changed hands many times—without these transactions being recorded—are often in poor condition.
Find out if you can transfer the warranty.New boats come with a warranty which protects them from damage or theft. The warranty will have expired on most used boats. However, it’s worth asking the owner if the warranty is still valid, or contacting the manufacturer with the same question. In some cases, you can transfer the warranty from the prior owner’s name into yours.
- For example, if the new boat came with a 5-year warranty, and you’re buying it used after 4 years, you should be able to transfer the final 1 year of warranty coverage.
Check the boat’s hull for cracks.Begin your inspection by taking a walk around the boat and looking for any obvious signs of damage. Pay special attention to the fiberglass hull just above and below the waterline. Small, cosmetic cracks are normal. However, if you see large cracks longer than 2 inches (5.1 cm), the boat may have structural problems within the hull, possibly as a result of collision or damage.
- Large cracks or signs of damage anywhere on the hull are reason for concern. That said, the area of the hull just above and below the waterline is where large stress cracks are most likely to show up.
Confirm that the boat is in overall good condition.When you look at the boat, note any fixed hull cracks, see if any parts look newer than others, and look for signs of neglect. Make sure that the generator and electronics work, the seats swivel correctly, and that the hatches open properly and are not filled with water.
- Neglect in one area, such as the hull or upholstery, may mean neglect in other areas, such as the engine.
Look for mildew or rot.Get in the boat and walk around inside. Sit in all of the seats, and inspect the consoles and carpeting. A well-maintained boat with a sturdy hull shouldn’t have any patches of mildew or mold growing on it, and should not display any signs of rot. Extensive mildew is often a sign of water damage or a faulty hull.
- Signs of rot include loose or squeaky floorboards, loose seats and consoles, and a squeaky or flexing hull.
- Keep in mind that damaged upholstery can easily be replaced. Look past the seat covers and focus on signs of structural damage.
Have the boat inspected by a qualified marine surveyor.If you’re relatively new to the boating world and not confident that you can evaluate the quality of a used boat on your own, bring in a marine surveyor. The surveyor will provide a detailed inspection of the used boat—for a fee—and will inform you whether or not it’s a wise purchase.
- Most marinas have a marine surveyor on staff. Contact your local marina and ask to be put in contact with their surveyor.
- Alternately, contact the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors. Find them online at: .
Take the boat out for a sea trial.A “sea trial” is essentially a test drive done on the water. The boat’s current owner should either volunteer or readily agree to take you out in the boat. The sea trial allows you to see how the boat handles on the open water, and can help you determine the boat's true condition and value.
- Put the boat through its paces during this trial: make sure the engine works well and doesn’t overheat. Also observe whether the boat steers properly and doesn’t rock or roll too much.
- Confirm that the electronics and navigational instruments function properly, and that the hull doesn’t spring any leaks.
Making the Deal
Research the boat you’re buying and competitive models.The more you know about the specific make and model of boat that you’re planning to buy, the better you’ll be able to haggle over the price. In fact, you may find that the seller has over-priced the boat, in which case you can certainly talk them down.
- Before you meet the seller, find out the selling price of used boats like the one you plan to buy.
- You can find the value of any boat model through the NADA Boat guide. Check the guide online at: .
Negotiate the price with the boat owner.Since you’re purchasing a used item, the price will be somewhat flexible. Try to talk the owner down from the listed price. If the seller refuses to lower their price, you can explain that you believe the boat is overpriced and that you can find a better deal somewhere else. This will often prompt the seller to lower the price.
- For example, if the boat is listed as selling for ,000, ask if the owner will take ,000. They’ll likely decline, but may revise their offer to a more reasonable ,500.
- Be aware that boat owners may accept your lower rate for the boat itself, but then over-charge you for ancillary items like radios, safety items, or an engine. If you have the time and patience, negotiate over each individual item you’re buying.
Transfer the legal ownership of the boat.Once you’ve agreed on the purchase price, ask the boat’s current owner to give you the boat’s title and other legal documents.Just like when buying a car, this will conclude the purchasing process. Making sure that the current boat owner transfers all ownership papers to you will also confirm that the boat was not stolen.
- Although laws vary by state, boats over 12 feet (3.7 m) typically have titles, while smaller boats do not.
- If you live in the U.S., you will also need to register your boat with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Natural Resources. Even if the previous owner registered the boat, you will need to re-register the boat with yourself as the given owner. For your state’s guidelines, look online at: .
QuestionWhat is the advantage of using a marine surveyor?Community AnswerThe cost of a good marine surveyor can be justified if he/she discovers a structural imminent failure in a boat you plan to purchase. To insure your boat, you will need a survey.Thanks!
If buying a used boat that has a current license, does the boat need to be registered before use?
How do you know if it is a saltwater boat?
How do I know a boat isn't under a lien?
- Generally if the owner doesn't offer to take the boat out on the water or to take it to a mechanic, it has a major problem.
- Like any other vehicle, boats require maintenance. Keep this in mind for financial planning. You’ll need to pay for fuel and regular upkeep on top of the boat’s purchase price.
Sources and Citations
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Video: What to look for when buying a used boat
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