Preparing Your Used Boat for Sale

Properly preparing your used boat for a sale is key to selling it quickly. Just as important as when selling a house, proper staging is critical to achieving your desired price. As a boat seller, you should make sure your boat is in the best possible condition before putting it on the market. A well-maintained boat will be more appealing to buyers and will help you sell your used boat faster. Preparing to sell your used boat can be a daunting task, but below we will take you through the steps to prepare your boat for a quick sale.

Set the Stage—Preparation is Key

In the real-estate business, “staging” refers to the practice of making a house look as un-lived in as possible by removing all but the essential furniture and basic living essentials. Your cluttered bathroom counter or magazine-littered living room may seem fine to you, but it can — and will — put off possible buyers. The same is true when you go to sell your boat.

When I sold my little 18-foot center-console, I removed everything (and I mean everything) from it and loaded it into the back of my vehicle. Fishing rods, tackle boxes, safety kits, two-stroke oil—everything. Then I scrubbed and cleaned out every last stowage compartment and locker on the boat.

When it came time to load my stuff back in, I neatly put back only the things I intended to sell with the boat. Think life jackets and flotation devices, a flare kit, two-stroke oil, stern flag, etc. I left everything else—my tackle boxes, fishing rods, chart books, cleaning supplies, drink koozies, and so on—at home. Even if you have a larger boat to sell (with lots more gear than a small center-console) consider removing all but the basics. It will help your prospective buyer imagine the boat as his or her own, versus one that’s piled full of someone else’s stuff.

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Clean the Boat Exterior Thoroughly

A clean boat indicates the current owners took good care of the boat. If you weren’t meticulous throughout your ownership of the boat, it is critical to thoroughly clean the exterior and set up a maintenance plan for a clean appearance while the boat is on the market. Be sure to put your best waxing and polishing skills to work, so your boat will shine for prospective buyers!

If there’s anything that turns off a potential boat buyer, it’s a boat that hasn’t been well cared-for, and nothing sends that message more than a dirty boat. Yes, that means you, Mr. Spilled a Beer in the Fishbox Two Years Ago.

A few hours of elbow-grease with cleaning materials can help justify a boost in asking price. Gary Reich photo.
Boat cleaning materials. Photo: Gary Reich

At a minimum, give the entire boat a good scrub-down from top to bottom, making sure you get into every nook and cranny. Scuppers and drains under hatches are places that get quite dirty, as are outboard wells and stowage areas under center-console units. The goal here is to remove all evidence of past fishing trips, visits by seagulls, or that last sundowner cruise where your neighbor spilled wine all over the aft teak decking.

Make sure you polish stainless and metal fittings; clean up clear vinyl enclosures; remove oxidation from Plexiglas ports or hatches; make sure exterior woodwork is in tip-top shape. The outside of your boat should gleam. If you have faded gelcoat that needs attention, consider polishing and waxing it up yourself, or paying a pro to do it.

Both inside and out, pay special attention to lockers, bilges, and out-of-the way places that you might not normally think of. Prospective buyers are going to open every single locker, drawer, and cabinet on your boat. If your boat has “that smell,” even after you’ve scrubbed heads, cleaned holding tanks, and beautified your bilges, consider buying or renting an ozone-generator to freshen up the interior. Also keep in mind that if you have gasoline-fueled inboard engines, most ozone generators are not ignition-protected.

Repair Minor Cosmetic Problems

When you are preparing to sell your boat, consider investing in a few inexpensive cosmetic repairs that will go a long way in making your boat most desirable. Canvas tears, broken canvas zippers, worn deck carpet or tears in seat upholstery can be an easy fix. These items make a big difference to a buyer’s perception of your used boat.

Organize Your Boat Service Records

Hopefully you’ve done the necessary upkeep and maintenance on your boat’s power-plant to keep it running in prime condition. Even better, perhaps you’ve kept all the receipts and records for that work in a binder. But even if you haven’t, you’ll want to make an effort to get your engine(s) current with the recommended service schedule. Why? Because every prospective buyer will ask about what’s been done about engine care.

This is sort of what you’re going for, in a nutshell: “Hi, Mr. Prospective Buyer. Yes, the outboards just had their 500-hour service, including a change of oil and oil filter, and a change of lower unit oil. The engines have been flushed after every use, and here’s a bottle of the fuel stabilizer I like to use. Oh, and here are some spare water/fuel separator filters. I always keep them handy.”

Same goes for inboard diesel or gasoline engines. Even if it’s been ages since a factory service has been performed, it’s worth the investment to have a tech come to your boat. Have the tech give it a good once-over, and bring it up to date service-wise. That way you can tell your prospective buyer, “Yep, John’s Marine Engines was just out and everything’s in good shape.” Or, you can show that anything broken was fixed. You can also do any work you feel comfortable with yourself. Either way, the last thing you want a buyer to do is pull the dipstick from your inboard and have it come up with dirty oil.

Check and Repair Your Boat Trailer

If your boat is a trailerable one, making sure your trailer is in tip-top shape before listing it for sale is crucial. Think about it: No one is going to want to buy your boat if the trailer beneath it is peppered with rust spots, rests on dry-rotted tires, and has lights that don’t work.

You can do simple things to spiff up a trailer without breaking the bank. Rust removal and refinishing aren’t as difficult as they may seem. All you often need is a wire brush, some metal primer, and spray paint to touch up bad spots on the frame and wheel wells. Rusty emergency chains and hooks can be easily replaced with new ones. Cracked and worn rollers and guides can also be easily replaced. You’ll want to ensure that all of the lights are working properly, and also tidy up any loose or messy wiring. Neatness counts!

Finish Your To-Do List

Nobody likes a nag. But remember that list of little odds and ends you’ve been meaning to fix on your boat since… forever? Well, you’ll want to take care them before you put your boat up for sale. Whether it’s a loose hinge or a rusty gas-assist strut on your livewell lid, fixing all the little nuisance items will go a long way toward catalyzing a successful boat sale.

A lot of items that fall into this category are things that have been broken. And worse, you may not even notice them any more. Maybe it’s that hatch that sticks when you open it, or the VHF antenna mount that’s jury-rigged with a pair of ViseGrips. But things that need fixing can also be as small as a missing knob on your VHF radio, a cracked lens in your bow light, or that leaky hatch up under the V-berth.

If the list is in your head, get it on paper. Next, walk around the boat and use everything. Turn on your VHF radio. Lower and raise your VHF antenna. Open and close all of your hatches and ports. Flush the head. And check every light bulb and light fixture. In other words, check everything. If it isn’t perfect, fix it. Because if you don’t, a prospective buyer will likely spot an issue. Those flaws could be used as bargaining chips in reducing your asking price.

If you’re preparing to sell a used boat, a moderate amount of time and effort will add genuine value and help justify your asking price.
Used boats for sale in a boat yard

Give Engines a Tune-up

Engines are one of the most important and expensive parts of a power boat. Make sure your engine(s) is running well with clean oil and oil filters. Gasoline engines should also have clean carburetors that are set to a proper idle. Be certain to present a clean engine room, bilge and working bilge pump prior to listing your boat. For more, read Selling Your Boat? 10 Tips for Sprucing Up Your Engine.

Fix any Known Mechanical Issues

Unless you have set a fire-sale price, repairs should be made to any electrical, mechanical or engine issues that exist on your boat prior to sale. Whether you have any specific concerns or not about existing mechanical issues, it’s a good idea to consult a marine technician or hire a surveyor for a pre-sale marine survey. Mechanical issues have a high probability to ruin a sale opportunity if they are discovered by the buyer during a survey.

Downsize and De-Personalize the Cabin Clutter

Ample storage space is a big selling point for boats with interior cabins. Eliminate unnecessary personal belongings and clutter to make your boat cabin feel more spacious and ready for quick possession. A tidy and neutrally styled boat interior is more inviting for buyers and will help showcase cabin features and amenities. The removal of your personal effects will prevent potential buyers from being distracted by the evidence of your past experiences, and better allow them to imagine their future adventures in your used boat for sale.

Eliminate Mildew Issues on the Boat

Excess moisture getting into a boat cabin is very common and becomes a big problem if neglected. Signs of mildew or musty smells often turn off a buyer. Clean up any mildew issues and keep the inside of the cabin smelling fresh and feeling dry with moisture absorbers and fresheners. Even if you think your boat smells and feels fine, preparing for the possibility of increased sensitivity in your buyer is a smart move.

The ultimate goal is to make your boat superior to its competition, and spending the time to thoroughly prepare your boat for sale will demonstrate, without debate, that your boat is well-maintained and free of any issues for potential buyers.

Make a Serious Effort on Photos, Ad Copy, and Ad Placement

Just as important as preparing your boat for sale in the real world is making sure it appeals to potential buyers online. For a complete rundown on what’s involved, read How to Sell Your Used Boat, which includes tips on how Boat Trader can help in your selling efforts, and more advice that will help maximize your efforts in whatever marketplace you might use.

Interested in listing on Boat Trader?

Most sellers choose to list their boat online with reputable websites like Boat Trader and With Boat Trader, 75% of those who list a boat for sale sell it within 12 weeks. Listing your boat for sale takes less than 3 minutes. And with Boat Trader, most fields and descriptions are auto-filled using our extensive listing database, which will save you from writer’s block! Boat Trader for sale by owner packages are available from $59.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in September 2016, updated February 2021.

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Written by: Gary Reich

Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.