Used Boat Shopping: Caveat Emptor

Having spent time at the Miami Boat Show this year, I still feel a bit dizzied from the shimmer of polished stainless and the intoxicating smell of fresh fiberglass. Long nights at South Beach bars probably didn’t help, either.

As I wandered the show, which many exhibitors said felt busier than it had in years, I marveled at how fortunate some people are to be able to go to Miami to purchase a new boat. Then I thought of the greater majority of boaters who buy their boats on the secondary market—and if you’re reading this—from the listings on

If you’re not at the point where you can shop for a new boat, doing your homework can help you find the best of what’s on the used market. Photo courtesy Miami International Boat Show.

Truth is, the marine market needs used boat buyers because they eventually purchase new boats. If you’re not at that point yet, don’t worry. I’ve assembled a list of tips for avoiding the pitfalls of shopping the used market. There’s a lot to the art of finding a good used boat, and you’ll discover the obvious fine points along the way. What I hope to offer here is the less obvious but equally important.

Research online. Once you have an idea of the kind of boat you want and need, online forums are a good way to get opinions on different brands of boats. Many will be conflicting and biased—and some will be penned by nitwits—so be aware of when and how much salt to take with the advice you find. It will be a good way of collecting anecdotal evidence of people’s experiences with different kinds of boats.

Hire a surveyor. As important as it is to seek owners’ opinions, it’s even more important to seek an expert’s opinion. Hire a surveyor for any boat you’re serious about buying. This probably isn’t news to anyone, but it’s important enough that it bears repeating. Figure about $10 to $20 a foot for an inspection, and a couple of hundred bucks for a sea trial. While the surveyor is there, you might consider having him perform compression and leak-down tests on the engine, particularly if it has more than 500 hours on it. 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.

Pay attention to the trailer. One more mechanical detail to consider is the boat’s trailer. Believe it or not, lots of new-boat  buyers don’t invest in a quality trailer because they know they’re going to trade up in a few years. Because they’re not going to keep the boat more than three or five years, they don’t spend money on a quality trailer. They just go for “good enough.” So, the next guy who thinks he’s found a bargain on the boat—that’d be you—could end up spending a lot on trailer repairs or a replacement, which might make what was a sweet deal not so sweet after all.

Consider tax advantages. Another little-known tip for buying a used boat is that there may be tax advantages to buying from a dealer, particularly if you have a trade-in. Depending on where you live, you might be taxed only on the difference between the trade and the boat you’re buying. For example, if you buy a $35,000 boat with a $20,000 trade-in, you only pay tax on the $15,000 difference. If you buy from a private party, you’ll be taxed on the full price. There isn’t one website to point you to, so check with the DMV in your area and neighboring states. It might make sense to shop across state lines.

Be ready to look inshore. It also might make sense to shop elsewhere if you live on the coast. You will be better off buying a boat that was used solely in fresh water than one used strictly in saltwater, or even one used sporadically in the briny stuff. There’s no way to tell if a saltwater engine has been flushed regularly,  because the damage comes from the inside, not the outside, and what it costs in transportation to get it home is probably less costly than the internal damage from salt water.

For good or ill, buying a boat is tinged with emotion, which is why you need to be aware of a boat’s shortcomings before you fall in love with it. Doing your homework now saves time and money later. A few years on, when you can afford to buy a new boat  at the Miami show and toast your latest purchase at some swanky art deco hotel, you can rely on the manufacturers’ warranties. Until then, caveat emptor.

Brett Becker





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