B uying a new boat is like buying a new car—the moment you take it out of the showroom, it loses value. That’s a tough pill to swallow. On the other hand, buying a used boat is risky—extremely risky.
Although you don’t have to worry so much about devaluation, you do have to worry about getting a bum power plant, a hull or deck with structural problems, or an electrical system with gremlins. And that’s a pared-down list.
In fact, whenever I talk to boaters who are looking for a new ride, my advice is always to buy new. Yes, that’s tough economically, but it can save you from the utter disaster of buying someone else’s problem. That said, we have to recognize that not everyone can buy new all the time.
If you’re one of those folks who simply doesn’t have the option of shopping for a new boat, and you absolutely, positively must buy used, however, it pays to take your time and do your research. That starts right here and now. Here are five things you need to check out carefully when looking at a used boat.
1. The Power plant: Obviously, this is a prime area of concern. If the power plant turns out to be in bad shape you could be paying your hard-earned cash for something that’s essentially worthless. If you’re not very familiar with marine power plants, find someone who is and bring them along for a test-run.
Some key items to check include things such as power head and lower unit oils (make sure they’re not milky in color, which indicates water intrusion. Check to make sure they’re clean, which indicates how well the owner has, or has not, maintained the motor); look for visible corrosion; run a compression test; and more. Again, this is a partial list—if we put everything about engines on these pages, we’d quickly run out of room. The point is, if you’re not very familiar with issues like these, find a friend or hire a pro who is.
Note: automotive mechanics don’t count, unless you’re buying a boat with a marinized automotive engine (like many stern-drive bowriders or runabouts). Marine power plants, particularly outboards, are significantly different from engines designed for use on land.
I once watched a friend of mine who’s been an auto mechanic for close to 30 years buy an outboard that he thought was in good shape, and he spent the next two years battling problem after problem. The third year, he got rid of the boat.
A few other power plant-related items you need to look for, which may not be foremost on the mind of a mechanic, include propeller condition (if it’s chewed up, it’s an indication that the engine has lived a tough life), the steering system, and the throttle and shift controls.
TIP: When you first show up for a sea trial, feel the motor and make sure the owner didn’t pre-start it and warm it up. If it’s warm to the touch, tell them you’ll be back tomorrow and ask them specifically not to pre-start the engine, so you can experience a “real” cold-start.
2. The Hull: Again, obviously, this is an area of significant concern. The only real way to check into the hull’s condition (assuming you’re not looking at a very large boat or yacht which warrants a full-blown survey) is to take the boat out on the water, and run it. If the boat is decked be sure to open the hatches and look in the bilge, and keep an ear out to listen for the bilge pump(s) kicking on and off. Make sure you also shine a flashlight around down there, and eyeball the stringers and bulkheads. Look for excessive cracking or separation, especially where they meet the hull and each other.
On fiberglass boats, you’ll also want to look for deep chinks or cracks where fiberglass is exposed. You might have potential water intrusion. Blisters, which look like small bulges in the hull, are another sign of trouble.
If you’re looking at an aluminum boat, check welds in high-stress areas (like the corners of the transom) to make sure they aren’t cracked or coming apart. If the hull is painted with anti-fouling bottom paint, press against the bottom with a screwdriver or metal probe to make sure they used the proper kind of paint and didn’t damage the aluminum. Painting with a copper-based anti-fouling paint can set up an electrolytic reaction that causes corrosion in aluminum hulls, and eats right through them.
3. Decks: The biggest danger when it comes to decks is that plywood is often used as a coring material, and it can rot away. Yes, modern pressure-treated marine plywood is far more rot-resistant than “regular” plywood, and some companies even offer a lifetime guarantee against rot. However, some are better than others and I’ve seen these rot away in as little as seven or eight years—including, in at least one case, a brand that was guaranteed for life.
In another case, a reputable builder who had major parts of the boat laminated in a distant manufacturing facility failed to adequately train its employees. When they ran out of marine plywood they ordered the wrong kind. As a result, dozens of boats were built with the sub-standard materials—and were sold—before anyone noticed the problem.
Fortunately, this issue is fairly easy to spot. Simply walk all over the deck, and maybe jump or stomp a bit here and there. Decks that are going bad have a spongy or springy feeling underfoot, while decks that have maintained their integrity feel solid no matter how hard you stomp.
4. Transoms: Like decks, the use of wood coring and rot are the major issues. It may be a bit tougher to spot in the transom, however, since you can’t walk all over it. What you can do to detect rot in a transom is tap it with a solid metal object, like a quarter. When you tap an area that’s solid it sounds solid, but when you strike a transom that has rotted away inside, it has a distinctly hollow sound to it. Any flexing in the fiberglass is also a dead give-away. Another indication of rot in a transom can be found where there are screws well below the waterline, such as at a fishfinder transducer or a garboard drain. When you pull a screw (with the owner’s permission, of course) if brown water runs out, you should expect problems.
We should note that in the case of both decks and transoms, rot shouldn’t necessarily be considered a deal-killer. Unless the problem has progressed to a rather severe state the bad wood can usually be cut out and replaced. Depending on the size of the boat and the size of the job this can actually be less expensive than one might imagine, and a few thousand dollars in repairs will often set things right. Naturally, you’ll want to either have the current owner pay to have to work done or figure it into the price you pay for the boat.
5. Electrical systems: Electrical systems on boats are notoriously finicky. In fact, it’s rare to see a boat with 10 years or more of age on it that doesn’t have some sort of electrical problem. Make sure you spot whatever may be an issue, by turning on and off each and every item that’s wired. Bilge pumps, anchor and running lights, live wells, navigational electronics—if it has wires and a switch, put it to the test.
Also, look at fuse boxes and breaker bars, to check them for corrosion. Seek out hidden connections (like those in the bilge or behind the console), shine a flashlight on them, and make sure they look good. If the boat has a volt meter at the helm, watch for it to jump or twitch as you flip switches, which can indicate a bad connection.
Bonus Items: Canvas, upholstery, carpet, and vinyls–all of these things are found on boats, and all of them have decidedly limited life-spans. Replacing them takes time and money, so you want to make sure you understand the need to replace that clear canvas dodger or those seat cushions before you settle on the price you’re willing to pay. Give these items a close visual inspection before the negotiations start.
One final parting word: Remember what I said earlier—if you can afford to buy your boat new, do it. In the long run it’s a move you won’t regret. And if you can’t, when you go shopping for a used boat be careful out there. Very, very careful.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]