The Basics of Buying a Used Boat
Let’s assume that by now you have a good idea what you’re looking for, and it’s safe to say you know the differences between a center console bay boat, a bigger rig for offshore, a bass boat, a flats boat, a do-almost-everything aluminum semi-vee aluminum utility, and a jon boat (also a bare-bones utility that’s ideal for ultra-skinny water use, and also lends itself so well to extensive, also inexpensive, customizing).
So now it’s primarily a matter of finding what you want without getting burned in the process. Price, of course, is a major consideration – otherwise you’d likely be looking for something new.
First, if you’ve never bought a used rig before, when you go to look at a potential buy it is a good idea to at least take an experienced friend with you. If the boat is reasonably large (e.g. over 20 feet), it might even be a good idea to spend a few bucks on a professional marine surveyor. Most surveyors charge somewhere around $10 to $15 per foot, a small cost compared to the big bucks it can save you later on. And if it’s over 20 feet, you may not even be able to get a bank to finance it and/or an insurance company to cover it without the services of an accredited marine surveyor.
Even if you do take someone with you to help “survey” the vessel, you can still do a lot yourself if you keep your eyes open. There are some tell-tale signs you should definitely look for.
A boat that has been well cared for will look almost new, even if it is 10 years old. Especially if kept under cover when not in use. Of all the materials out there, wood suffers the effects of weather soonest. Fiberglass and Kevlar resist the sun and rain much better, and aluminum – other than perhaps cosmetic damage to paint and graphics – is certainly the most durable.
This doesn’t mean that wood is a no-no. I’ve fished out of some really nice wood boats, a few of which were 20 years old and looked like new. Proper storage and periodic repair/refinishing can do that. And hulls made of the stuff are wonderful for certain fishing applications because they make so little noise. And in my eye, at least, a well finished wood boat is truly a thing of beauty. But at the same time it is high maintenance. You just have to be into that sort of thing.
I’ve also been aboard fiberglass hulls that in just three seasons looked like a 20-year-old pigpen. Neglect and lack of basic maintenance can do that, too.
Wood rot is always the biggest enemy in almost any boat. It is usually obvious on wood boats if you look carefully enough. But the stringers, decks, and cockpit floors of most older fiberglass boats are also backed with wood, and thus subject to rot where you cannot see it. About the only way to find it is to put weight on those surfaces. As you walk around the boat, pay careful attention to what’s underfoot. That spongy feeling is a sure indication that something inside is definitely not what it should be.
Wood rot can be repaired. Even inside fiberglass hulls. If you find some and don’t know how to do this yourself, check with a reliable boat repair shop. And if the cost, plus the price of the boat, still adds up to reasonable numbers and the rig is otherwise just what you’re looking for, this option is worth serious consideration.
Is It Repairable?
If price is a major consideration and you’re handy with tools, the right “fixer-upper” cannot only save you a lot of hard cash, it can also become a fun project. By far the easiest boats to refurbish are aluminum, even if dented and/or with some loose rivets. As part of the reconstruction process you can also add such extras as rod racks, bait wells, water-tight storage, etc. There are lots of really nice boats out there that were once so battered and dented they looked more like a candidate for the dump than a potential fishing craft. But, before leaping into a rebuilding project, make sure there is no structural damage you cannot deal with. Cracks along the bottom of fiberglass or Kevlar boats that parallel the keel usually indicate stringer and hull damage. This could be seriously expensive to repair – if it is even worth repairing at all. Very often it isn’t.
As tough as aluminum boats may be, if the interior ribs are cracked or broken, the remedy may be more costly than the boat is worth. Usually the aluminum hull itself has also been cracked or seriously weakened in areas where rib damage occurs.
I would have to rate the engine(s) as the biggest risk in buying used. Careful inspection can usually reveal most hull damage and flaws, but engines can hide some serious problems.
First and foremost, if the exterior of the engine shows obvious neglect and abuse, pass, especially if there’s a lot of rust and/or corrosion that might indicate serious saltwater neglect. If it’s an inboard or stern drive, definitely have it checked by a competent mechanic. Many qualified mechanics will even come to the boat on their off time and do this for a reasonable fee.
Outboards are a little easier. Age and model are a good starting point. Also where it has been used. Outboards last a lot longer in freshwater than on the coast unless the latter has been cared for carefully (e.g. frequently lubed, and flushed with freshwater).
As for age, figure most boats average 100 to 150 hours of cruising engine time per year (trolling doesn’t count for any of this and engine wear at slow speeds in minimal anyway). With proper care, the average outboard is good for around 1,000 cruising hours before expensive repairs are needed. Thus, if the engine is more than five years old, check it over with extra care.
The two biggest indicators of wear and hard use are the main bearings and the cylinders. The top main bearing is under the flywheel, so if you grab it and try to rock it from side to side, it should move very little. Check all cylinders with a compression gauge. There should be only a little difference in pressure among all the cylinders; anything over 10 percent is suspect and indicates uneven wear. Find out the recommended compression range for the make/model you’re contemplating and make sure the cylinders are all within tolerances.
Any signs of cracked wiring and/or blistered paint on the powerhead should also be cause for concern.
Check the lower unit carefully for signs of visible damage. Especially the skeg; if it’s chipped or broken there obviously was a significant impact somewhere in that engine’s past.
And last but hardly least: Try before you buy! A thorough water test (sea trial) is an absolute must.
If it shows signs of neglect and/or abuse, figure the cost of a replacement as part of the price. Check the tires for uneven wear that could indicate worn bearings and the lights to see if they are working correctly (including the turn indicators).
If the springs are badly rusted, be wary, that also means bumpy roads are especially tough on the boat hull, too. How about the rollers and bunks, do they provide adequate support of the hull? Is the trailer even the right size for the boat? Heavy rust on the frame is cause for concern as well.
by Bob Stearns
Bob, the editor-at-large for Saltwater Sportsman Magazine and a senior editor for Center Console Angler, has published over 1,600 feature articles and columns in many popular national magazines, such as Boating, Rudder, Motorboat, Field & Stream, Salt Water Fly Fishing and many others. He has also authored several books and appeared on numerous fishing TV programs. As a consultant, he has worked with boat and boating materials manufacturers, and fishing tackle manufacturers on product development and design.