When buying used

Published online: May 06, 2014 Feature Katie Burke
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We are so close to spring that it’s almost becoming painful to throw on winter gear. We all know what spring means: boating season! Now of course this doesn’t apply to those of you down south. I want those of you reading this to know that I am jealous in an unhealthy way of you. It’s something I’m working on.

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of newcomers on our forum and Facebook page asking for advice on buying a boat. This got me thinking about how overwhelming it might be for someone who has no experience, but does know one thing for sure: boating is fun so they need to get a boat. I’ve decided to take this time and put together a checklist of things people should look for, especially when buying used. Aren’t you excited? 

Now I’m hardly a professional marine surveyor. I’m actually very far from it. These are just some things I’ve picked up on over the years. A marine surveyor will be an additional expense and so this checklist is intended to help you decide if it’s even worth it to move to that next step.

Boat Checklist

  • Do a cursory walk around. Check out the pontoons and lifting strakes to make sure they don’t look compromised or were in an undisclosed accident.
  • Find out how many hours are on the engine and ask the owner if he can provide receipts for any maintenance performed on the boat, including engine repairs, steering maintenance and any other work.
  • Switch on and operate all application systems including bilge pump, lights, stereo, freshwater sink, livewell and anything else that turns on and off.
  • Turn the steering wheel and operate the trim/tilt to check for full range of motion.
  • Stand on every inch of the boat floor. Is it soft anywhere? You may have to replace the floor if you find any weak areas.
  • Make sure all hardware is still firmly attached and there are no random holes that would point to something missing.
  • Open and close storage compartments. It’s a huge red flag to smell gas or see sitting water.
  • Check out the fuel tanks, fittings and lines. Once again, smell for leaks.
  • Look under the helm at the wiring. You want to see some kind of protection on the wiring. Bare wire and terminations that are twisted together are bad.
  • Check for corrosion around the motor and under the helm.
  • Are the batteries securely fastened in acid-proof containers?
  • Is the upholstery in good condition and the stitching still holding? Does it look like it’s been left sitting in the sun for long periods of time? This may be a concern because it means the engine has not been regularly run.
  • Can you smell mildew? Inspect the underside of cushions for green algae at the seams. This would be a great indication for mold hidden in the foam.
  • Check electrical items and connections for rust.

Once again, I’m not a pro. So if you think everything checks out on the surface, consider paying for a survey. A survey will most likely be required if you are seeking financing and/or insurance. Always choose an independent marine surveyor that will survey both in and out of the water. If the survey turns up any additional problems, you’ll have to decide if the boat is still worth it and negotiate the price based on what you find out. If the boat you are planning to buy doesn't pass, you may not have to rule it out immediately. It will definitely take time and money to make things work properly. But if you have the resources, you can use problems as bargaining chips to try and get a lower price.

Now since the engine is a major part of the overall cost, you have to be vigilant so that you don’t end up with major future problems. For me, a professional technician’s review would be a must. On the other hand, my husband would consider himself qualified. So again, before you pay to bring someone in, here are a few simple things you can do yourself.

Engine Checklist

  • Remove the outboard cowling. The shift and throttle lines should be greased and their springs should snap back.
  • Ask about the fuel and oil. Remember, gasoline can be sold with up to 10 percent ethanol. Ethanol draws moisture, which can easily separate in the fuel tank and you never want to suck water into your engine. Additionally, water in engine oil can mean a cracked block.
  • Ethanol is corrosive, so if the boat was left sitting for long periods, the fuel lines and the tank could have developed leaks.
  • Is there oil in the bilge? This could mean an oil leak.
  • Are there signs of lubricant seepage around gaskets, plugs or hoses?
  • Are the hoses, belts and fittings cracked?
  • Pull a spark plug and, optimally, it should appear relatively new.
  • A chalky residue on the engine could be a concern because it means the engine has been running hot.
  • Are there signs that the drive or propeller has been damaged?
  • Look for signs of cavitations damage on the propeller, which will look like burn marks. Cavitations occur when pressure on the water across the blade’s surface is reduced to the point of becoming water vapor and forming bubbles. Under normal conditions, water boils at 212 degrees, but if you reduce the atmospheric pressure sufficiently, water can also boil at room temperature causing cavitations burn, which will affect the performance.

Outboard issues can be extremely costly. Remember if the outboard is a brand that you’ve never heard of, you might have problems getting simple spare parts or maintenance. Sticking with something that is prevalent in your area will only make repairs easier.

The last thing that I want to leave you with is use common sense with any boat purchase and you should be okay. I’ll try to keep it simple: check everything, take a lake test run, check everything again and at least ask the seller to consider giving you a one-month warranty/guarantee in writing. That part might not happen, but asking never hurt anyone, right?

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