Used Boats: Water Intrusion and Moisture Meters

When you’re looking at a used boat, water intrusion into the hull, deck, or stringers is definitely not something you want to see. It’s a telltale sign of repairs to come. But how would you know about it, anyway, unless water was obviously seeping out of the structure somewhere? Well, that’s where moisture meters come in handy. But first, some background.

Strands of fiberglass, whether in chopped or mat form, don’t absorb moisture. Neither does resin. If water intrudes into a panel that’s just a gelcoated fiberglass laminate, not much really happens — provided the resin was fully catalyzed and cured to begin with. (If that didn’t happen during the manufacturing process — and it’s largely impossible to know — it can lead to blistering and delamination.)

Moisture meters can range in price from reasonable to you’ve-got-to-be-kidding, but none of them, regardless of price, is foolproof. Further inspection for water intrusion will be necessary.
Moisture meters can range in price from reasonable to you’ve-got-to-be-kidding, but none of them, regardless of price, is foolproof. Further inspection for water intrusion will be necessary.

The moisture-intrusion problem lies with wood and coring materials, be they synthetic or organic. Marine-grade plywood, foam, and balsa wood can all absorb water; then the absorption spreads by capillary action and wicking — and that’s when bad things happen. The water adds weight, reduces strength in the structure, and can lead to the failure of important fittings like cleats and stanchions.

Moisture meters can help detect where water intrusion has occurred. There are different types of meter: One type uses probes inserted into the wood, and passes an electrical current between them to measure resistance, which is then related to the amount of water present. The other type creates an electromagnetic field in the nearby structure and measures frequency differences to determine water content. That type doesn’t require the insertion of probes.

Both kinds of meter have their advantages and disadvantages, and neither is foolproof. The really good meters are expensive, about the price of a survey of a trailerable boat. There are cheaper models available for about the same money as an infrared thermometer, but it’s important to note that there’s no standard scale of moisture measurement. One meter’s midrange reading can be different from another’s, so it’s important to understand that when using one.

In fact, moisture meters are best used by professional marine surveyors, who combine their readings with other ways to detect and verify water intrusion, such as tapping the structure with a mallet and listening to the sound it makes. Talk about a black art. (Surveyors cannot do any destructive tests. They can’t disassemble, or cut or drill, but they are looking for anything that might signal trouble.)

Again, the meters are best used for detecting moisture penetration around deck hardware, such as cleats and other through-hull fittings. If you’re looking at a stern-drive boat, the most critical area is the transom, where the gimbal housing bolts on and connects to the bell housing on the inside. Even through-bolts and self-tapping screws in the hull and deck can let in moisture, and should be checked.

Small areas of water penetration in a used boat can usually be removed, replaced, and sealed easily — and should provide a bargaining chip for you when it comes to negotiating price. Larger areas are another story. They require money, or advanced repair skills — or a brisk walk in the other direction.


 

Boat Trader has plenty of  Buying and Selling advice, but also check out the hundreds of articles in the Boating section, with tips on everything from seamanship to maintenance, how-to, where to find replacement parts, and much more.

 

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Five Resources Every Used-Boat Buyer Should Use

If you’re shopping for a new boat, you have it pretty easy. There’s a multitude of boat builders out there ready to do your bidding. There are hundreds of boats to choose from right in dealer showrooms, or you can even special-order a boat to get precisely the color and options you want.

Buying used is different. There are no boat dealers who keep a selection of the particular model you’re looking for with different colors and options, much less the ability to equip it exactly how you want it.

Boats.com recently published this interactive PDF with links to all 204 of their boat reviews in 2013. It won't be long before these boats will appear on the used market.
Boats.com recently published this interactive PDF with links to all 204 of their boat reviews in 2013. It won’t be long before these boats will appear on the used market.

Used boat buyers have to have the patience of a deer hunter, the awareness of a snow falcon, and the ability to strike as quickly as a cobra. With those skills you stand a much better chance of finding the perfect boat — or as close to that as you can get — on the used market. Here are five online tools you should be using.

1. BoatTrader.com — You knew that was coming, right? First, BoatTrader.com has more boats listed for sale than just about anywhere, as in more than 125,000 nationwide. It lets you select by brand or type, and because it’s nationwide, it lets you comparison shop the same model from all over the United States. It lets you save your favorites, which is good for seeing if an owner lowers his price after a couple of weeks on the market.

2. Boats.com — If the boat you’re eyeing isn’t very old, odds are good you’ll find a review of it on Boats.com that might help guide you, especially when you’re comparision-shopping among different brands. Boats.com recently published an interactive PDF with links to all 204 boat reviews they published in 2013. It won’t be long before a lot of those boats start showing up on the used market.

5. Value Guides — Did you know that the National Automobile Dealers Association publishes used boat values? It’s true. NADA guides can give you an idea of whether a given boat is priced, well, optimistically or is a good deal. In fact Boats.com offers good step-by-step instructions on how to use NADA Guides in combination with its own listings to zero in on accurate selling prices. BoatTrader.com has a boat price checker, too, and the American Boating Association offers a similar service, too. The more information you have on pricing, the better prepared you’ll be to negotiate.

4. Networking — We used to have actually talk to people face to face to do this, and we still can, but internet forum sites such as thehulltruth.com and boatertalk.com can be a big help. Even BoatUS has a forum incorporated into its site. Talk with people who own the boat you have in mind. If they like it, they’ll say so. If they don’t, they’ll be just as forthcoming and the information could save you a lot of headaches. Also, kick it old school: If you see the boat you’re considering out on the water, flag down the driver and ask him face to face what he thinks. You’ll pick up more nuance than you would on a forum site. And talk to people who have experience on a lot of different boats. A friend of mine was looking at a particular brand of boat because he was impressed with the amount of standard equipment for price of entry. Well, having been on a number of those boats and seen the lack of quality of all that equipment (which is why they were such bargains)  I was able to steer him in another direction.

5. Surveyors — It’s a good idea to take a boat you’re close to purchasing to a professional surveyor, but before you even get that far, call one and (without taking up too much time) ask him or her what he or she thinks of the models you are considering. Odds are good they have inspected the model or brand you’re looking at — maybe even more than one — and they can give you an overall opinion of the build quality before you waste your time narrowing your search to something that’s ultimately not the caliber you want.


 

Boat Trader has plenty of  Buying and Selling advice, but also check out the hundreds of articles in the Boating section, with tips on everything from seamanship to maintenance, how-to, where to find replacement parts, and much more.

 

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What Marine Surveyors Look For

If you’re choosy enough to hire a surveyor, it would be helpful to know what they’re looking for. I asked Edward R. Cozzi, president, CEO and professional master surveyor with Performance Marine Surveyors in Boca Raton, Fla. what he looks for. Cozzi specializes in performance boats, but the trouble spots are the same for most recreational craft. If you’re looking at something older or a later model with a lot of hours, a professional survey might be worthwhile.

Hiring a marine surveyor might be money well spent. Photo courtesy of Performance Marine Surveyors.
Hiring a marine surveyor might be money well spent. Photo courtesy of Performance Marine Surveyors.

“Hulls don’t get babied,” said Cozzi. “It may be pretty, it may have the greatest paint job on it, but if the bottom is showing evidence that it’s flexing too much and it’s cracked, then that’s a red flag. And I really have to look at it. I’m also looking for repairs — evidence of repairs in strategic areas where the bottom takes the most abuse.”

Cozzi checks the bottom and the transom for cracks and blisters and evidence of water intrusion using a specialized moisture meter. Any wood or coring in a hull acts like a wick that draws water in through the cracks. What he finds on the bottom tells him where to look once he’s inside.  If he finds any problems during the hull inspection, Cozzi gives the buyer the option to proceed. Oftentimes, his findings can be used to renegotiate the price or have the dealer or owner make the necessary repairs. Or the buyer can just walk away to look at another boat.

“The great thing about fiberglass boats is that if the repair is done by the right person, it’s stronger than the original,” he said.

Surveyors cannot do any destructive tests, Cozzi points out. They can’t disassemble or cut or drill, but they are looking for anything that might signal trouble, such as evidence of water or oil leaks, excess corrosion in the engines or drives, excess wear in gimbals and steering systems. He also looks for loose or broken motor mounts.

The most expensive repairs are probably leaking fuel tanks, which are among the first pieces of hardware installed in a boat. That means they’re one of the most difficult to get to. Many times the repair involves cutting the cockpit sole out of the boat, then glassing it back into place.

“Every customer is different,” Cozzi said. “Some guys want turn-key. They only want little minor things to be wrong with it. They want something that someone has really taken care of and they’re willing to pay more money. Then there is the guy who’s looking for a project.”

Though it’s usually the buyer’s responsibility to pay for the survey, it’s money well spent. Cozzi charges $15 a foot for a survey. He also performs a sea trial for $150, which is critical because there are things that don’t show up at the dock or on the trailer that will be revealed on a sea trial. You might consider making any deal contingent upon a sea trial.

Another service Cozzi offers, which is important, is performing compression and leak-down tests on the engine. Simply put, a compression test shows the engine’s ability to generate cylinder pressure, and a leak-down test demonstrates its ability to hold that pressure. Unless it requires removing exhaust or other components, he charges $150 per engine.

Again, it might be money well spent for a boat you’re serious about.


 

Boat Trader has plenty of  Buying and Selling advice, but also check out the hundreds of articles in the Boating section, with tips on everything from seamanship to maintenance, how-to, where to find replacement parts, and much more.

 

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