Whether you’re eyeing an old, beaten-up fiberglass skiff for crabbing, a gleaming fishing boat, or you’re dreaming about a rugged trawler that will help satisfy your dreams of cruising to the islands every winter, buying a used boat is an excellent way to stretch your boating dollars. By purchasing a previously owned vessel, you can often get a much nicer, better outfitted vessel than you’d be able to afford compared to buying new. There are a number of advantages for buying a used boat, to boot.
Still, used-boat buying is not without its pitfalls. In many cases you won’t have a new-boat warranty to back you up if something goes wrong, and used boats are, well, used. Much like a home, they can have all sorts of hidden deferred maintenance issues that can make your ownership experience less than pleasant, especially if you’re not particularly handy. Arm yourself with the following bits of knowledge ahead of time, however, and buying a used boat can be a fun and affordable way to get out on the water.
Before going any further, take our quizzes, Used Boat Buying: Are You Ready For This and Used Boat-Buying Quiz, Part 2: Still Ready? to see if you’re cut out to be a used-boat buyer. If you’re not — no worries! Just make friends with someone who’s already gone down that path, and all you’ll need to bring is your cooler and your fishing rod.
Another good resource to peruse before getting started is our Five Boat Shopping Mistakes to Avoid feature.
Ready? Let’s get started.
What’s Your Boat Type?
Among the first things you’ll want to do is decide which type of boat you’re after, as well as the general size range you’ll consider. Think about this carefully; choosing a vessel that’s incompatible with your own boating mojo can have sad consequences.
First ponder what you’ll use the boat for. Anglers will often home in on center-console, dual-console, bay, bass, and flats boats, while folks who plan to cruise will seek out express, cabin cruiser, and cuddy cabin designs. Maybe wakeboarding or waterskiing is your thing—consider a capable towboat or runabout. Boaters who plan on day-tripping around the lake or their local riverfront might want a pontoon boat. Don’t worry; there’s a boat type out there for just about everyone.
Once you’ve decided on a platform that suits your needs, spend some time reading print and online reviews to help you narrow the field down to one or two makes and models that you really like. In the online realm we’re partial to the ones you can find here on Boat Trader or at our colleagu sites boats.com and YachtWorld. In print, look for reviews in magazines that cater to your style of boating, whether it’s fishing magazines, watersports rags, or cruising periodicals. Before you know it you’ll have a couple of candidates for your used boat search.
Balancing the Budget
One of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make before setting out on your search is how much money you have to spend, and whether you’ll finance the purchase or pay with your own money. Prospective used-boat buyers who jump into a boat deal not knowing what their financial limits are often have an ownership experience that’s less than pleasant.
If you’re financing, we recommend working with a bank ahead of time to get pre-approved for a loan that you know you’ll have no problem paying back each month. That will allow you to search out and find the perfect boat without worrying whether you’ll have the loot to pay for it. If you’re paying with your own money, consider what you can afford without depleting essential household accounts such as savings and retirement. Trust us, you’re going to have a difficult time enjoying your new boat if you’re working all the time to pay for it or worrying about whether you can afford to send your kid to college.
Also know that your new-to- you boat will come with maintenance, storage, fuel, and other expenses that can be potential budget-busters. Let’s say you buy a boat that’s at the upper end of your monthly payment budget. Add in slip fees, engine maintenance, fuel, upkeep, and unexpected repairs, and you can easily obliterate your monthly budget. Instead, factor in all the ancillary expenses and your boat payment to come up with a total monthly spend you know you can handle.
Think about whether you want to buy a boat that’s in good to excellent condition, or save money by getting one that needs some love, with the plan of fixing it up. The danger for used-boat newbies is agreeing to purchase an old, worn-out boat at a rock-bottom price without having an understanding about how much time and money repairs will require. That $5,000 boat purchase can quickly balloon beyond your means if you underestimate repair costs. And there’s not much worse than having an unusable boat sitting in your driveway because you miscalculated the cost of repairs it needs to be seaworthy. For more on this, see What’s it Going to Cost to Fix This Thing?
Finding the Perfect Boat
As you know, the Internet has made everything from booking an airline ticket or ordering a pizza to binge-watching all 50 episodes of Gilligan’s Island easy. It’s also made searching for and finding the perfect boat relatively simple. With geographic limitations removed you’ll find the range of boats to choose from expands exponentially.
Obvious places to begin your search include the thousands of listings you’ll find on Boat Trader, boats.com, or YachtWorld. But other online resources can help you find a boat, too. Honing in on your local scene, check out sites such as Craigslist, or the online classifieds in your local or regional newspapers. Stretching your legs a bit you might try eBay, as well as the classifieds in the back of your favorite boating or fishing magazines. Also give Internet chat forums such as The Hull Truth or similar enthusiast sites a look.
Sticking with the online theme, you should also use social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to your advantage. This can not only help get the word out that you’re on the hunt for a used boat, but also show you prospective boats for sale. You’d be surprised how many of your friends and acquaintances might have a boat they’ve been meaning to sell but just haven’t had the time to list in the conventional places. Social media can help jostle folks into action.
Charitable organizations such as your local Salvation Army and Goodwill are also great places to find a deal, as people donate their boats to these places for a tax write-off. Also check your local yacht clubs and boatyards for boats for sale. The more you think outside the box, the better your chances are of finding a great boat.
Viewing the Boat
Once you’ve found a boat or two to check out you’ll want to prepare for meeting with the sellers to give each prospective boat the once-over. This first look is one of the most important steps in the buying process, and a time when you’ll want to keep your emotions in check. While the process should definitely be enjoyable and exciting, you don’t want to get over-enthused. This can cloud your judgment and impair your ability to look objectively at any given boat.
When you get your first glance at the boat in question take a mental checklist by asking yourself some questions. First and foremost, how does the boat look? Is it clean, or has it been left uncovered and abused? What do the bilges look like? Is the canvas in good shape, or torn and tattered? Open up lockers and stowage areas—are they neat and well-kept or messy and in disarray? How does the bottom look? Are the engines shiny and clean or covered in dirt and grease? These initial visual clues can tell you a lot about how an owner has cared for a boat. Another issue, especially important in used boats, is your access to important parts. A hard-to-reach hose-clamp or wire terminal may be fine for the early years of a boat’s life, and then need replacement or maintenance—right after you buy the boat.
You can also ask the owner some questions that will help you ascertain how the boat was used such as, “How often did you use her last season?” or “When was the last time you had her out?” This can give you an idea if the boat has been sitting unused for an extended period of time, which can lead to problems. Also probe with questions like, “Who maintained the boat?” and “Do you have maintenance records for the engines?” and “Where was the boat stored during the winters?” The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how much or how little TLC the boat has received. And always ask, “Why are you selling the boat?”
All that said, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes used-boat buyers make is passing on a used boat purchase because the vessel is not absolutely perfect. A good example is a buyer who lets an otherwise cherry-condition cabin cruiser go because its cushions need replacing, or because all of its woodwork isn’t in tip-top shape. Used boats are just that—used—and prospective buyers should expect to do some work to make their new acquisition look perfect, inside and out. Remember, you’ll generally enjoy a substantial savings over a new boat by purchasing a used vessel that needs a little care. Maybe you’re considering an old runabout that’s in excellent mechanical and structural shape but will need lots of elbow grease to make the gelcoat gleam. Or perhaps you’ve got your eye on a center-console that’s got dingy brightwork, but has been very well cared for in every other way. Always take into consideration what you’re saving by buying used, and what you’re willing to invest. You’ll often be glad you overlooked a minor cosmetic detail or two for a boat that is in otherwise very good shape.
If the boat is still a candidate after the first go-over, you’ll want to take it on a sea trial to assess the condition of the engine(s), steering, and other mechanical systems, as well as to see how the boat performs. To get an idea of what you should look for, read What to Look for on a Sea Trial and Buying a Used Boat: Five Overlooked Things to Check.
If a purchase is imminent after the initial examination and sea trial, it’s often a good idea to get a pro involved to assess the condition and value of your potential purchase. The bigger the boat and the more complex its systems, the more important this is.
That’s where a surveyor comes in.
Professional Boat Surveys
A professional surveyor is a person who’s been trained over many years to carefully examine boats and spot hidden problems and defects with a vessel’s structure and systems. They also are qualified to place an estimated market value on the vessel for the purposes of insurance and financing. Prospective buyers can also have the engine(s) surveyed by a qualified engine shop. That said, knowing when to hire a surveyor is often a confusing issue for rookie used-boat buyers.
The cost of a survey will depend on how large the vessel is, as well as how complicated its systems and structures are. For example, a 23-foot open center-console isn’t going to cost you as much to have surveyed as, say, a 34-foot trawler. You can plan on a basic survey costing about $500 to $700, while more a more complex survey can cost as much as $1,000 to $1,500 or more. For that money you’ll get a detailed written report describing the boat’s systems and structures, as well as any defects or problem areas the surveyor finds. The report should also include a reasonable market value.
If you’re borrowing money to buy a used boat or plan to have it fully insured, the decision of whether or not to hire a surveyor will usually be made by your bank or insurance company—or both. The bank wants to make sure its collateral (the boat) isn’t a hunk of junk or overpriced. The insurance company not only needs a value on the boat, but also wants to make sure it isn’t going to sink to the bottom or catch on fire when you take it out for the first time, causing you to file a costly claim.
However, if financing and replacement insurance are not concerns, and you’re confident in your own ability to spot problems and hidden defects or the boat in an “as is, where is” purchase, then you can probably get away without a survey.
Negotiating the Deal
Once you’ve had a survey done, or assessed the condition or value of the boat yourself, you likely know whether or not you’re going to make the purchase. Heck, maybe you knew even before the survey was done. In either case, taking delivery of your previously loved boat is as important as any other step in the process. Before the exchange of money takes place it’s worth giving the boat a final inspection. You’ll want to make sure that any gear that was included in the purchase price is still on board. You’d be surprised how often pieces of essential gear included in the sale go missing at the last minute—think electronics, safety gear, and fishing gear. Next, give the entire boat (and trailer, if included) a close inspection to ensure that no damage has occurred since the vessel was surveyed. Also peek in the bilges, open stowage lockers, and eye the engine(s) to make sure everything is A-OK there, too.
If everything checks out, then it’s time to wrap up any final paperwork and make sure that you’ve secured necessary documents such as title, boat and trailer registration, documentation, maintenance records, warranty papers, etc. No matter the price paid for the boat, always ensure you’ve got a bill of sale; you’ll need it to re-title and register the boat. It’s also handy to have if any sort of dispute arises after the sale.
It’s a Wrap
The only thing left to do is take your new pride and joy home and enjoy it. If you’ve done everything correctly, you’ve got a boat you love and you’ve saved a significant amount of money versus what you’d have spent buying a new boat.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Boat Trader in June 2016, updated in January 2019 and March 2020.