How to Buy a Used Boat

How to Buy a Used Boat

While most consumer dealings are relatively frictionless, there’s something about buying and selling a boat that turns people into lunatics. I’ve sold six fiberglass boats in my lifetime, and one Coleman Crawdad jon boat. I’ve also been on the buying end of an equal number of transactions, and I can’t say that any of them have gone as planned.

Actually, I’ve been fortunate that most of the actual exchanges of property and currency have been fine. It’s what leads up to that point that could send you over the edge. It’s an unending collection of tire kickers, barterers, and ne’er do wells.

Even when things seem to go smoothly, it ain’t over until it’s over. One friend was selling a mint little Ranger bass boat years ago. He’d taken the buyer on a test drive, gone over all of the features, negotiated a fair price, and when they were finally ready for the paperwork, the guy just had one question: “How many payments do you want?”

“Um, one,” my friend replied. The boat went back on the market.

I’ve had people ask if my dual axle trailer can be turned into a single axle, whether I can replace my Mercury with an Evinrude, and whether I’d drive 500 miles to their home, with no deposit, to give them a test drive. No, no, and no.

The Used Boat Market is Humming Now Fortunately, whether you’re a buyer or a seller, the craziness doesn’t have to follow you anymore. We have more resources at our disposal than ever before to find and evaluate boats. That’s good because the used boat market—like the used vehicle market—is insane right now. With interest rates still low, anglers are buying new boats (the prices of which have escalated substantially over the past four years) at heavy volumes.

Unfortunately, the prevalent supply chain problems affecting other industries are hitting the marine world too. That means not only are more anglers searching for boats, but there’s downward pressure from others holding onto their past tubs even longer as they wait for production to be finished.

The good news is that you can cast a wider net than ever before. When I bought my first glass boat in the mid-‘90s, the only viable resources I had was the classified section of the local newspaper and word of mouth. There were also quarterly mailers from some of the bigger national boat dealerships who’d taken boats on consignment, but that never seemed to work out for me. Every time I called about one that I liked, it was already gone.

Now there’s a wealth of internet sales pages like Bass Boat Central, along with Facebook groups dedicated to both used boats and even specific brands of used boats. If you’re willing to do a little legwork, and perhaps drive a bit, the market has grown exponentially.

Analyze Your Needs With more choices comes more room for error. It’s easy to get caught up in the “bigger, faster, shinier” horse race with Mr. Jones next door. Think about what you can afford, what you need and what you don’t, and target that search. Don’t overextend yourself, but don’t sell yourself short either. This is often a time-consuming process if you want to do it right, which means you likely don’t want to do it again next year.

Remain Firm but Flexible While you don’t want to get something too small for big water or too large for your vehicle to pull, remember that this is a used boat. If you’re a stickler for a particular color or a certain brand of electronics, you may have to wait a long time. That’s not to say that such decisions are necessarily wrong, but it pays to separate the wheat from the chaff. Don’t get sucked into missing out on a good deal over something that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter to you.

Can it be Serviced? You may stumble into the bargain of the century, but if there’s one thing I can guarantee you about this purchase it’s that eventually something’s going to break. It might be wear and tear, or it might be your fault, but you’ll need to fix or replace things. Make sure you have a servicing dealer (at least for the outboard) nearby. I continue to buy one brand of motor at least partially because I know that I have two great certified mechanics nearby. Under most circumstances, shy away from brands that are no longer in business.

Can it be Resold? While many of us think we’re buying our “last boat,” in all likelihood you will want to or need to sell it at some point down the road. Don’t buy something that’ll be a pain in the ass to unload. No crazy colors and no unpopular “off” brands. For me that also means nothing over a 250 HP engine, since anything bigger is banned by the majority of tournament organizations. You can still sell those boats, but it shrinks your market.

Consider Salt Exposure In the middle of the country, boats live longer lives than they do near the coasts. Saltwater oxidizes metal and plastic and wears through engines, transoms, and accessories quite quickly if it's not managed. Before you even go look at a used boat, you should find out how much time it's been in the salt, and especially if it was ever moored or kept in a slip. That's to be expected in some areas, but you should still pay close attention to the salt build-up and oxidization or rust inside the engine and around the bilge. Forgetting to hose down a boat after it comes out of the sea will drastically reduce its runtime.

Drive It A test drive is not optional, it’s mandatory. Even if you’ve driven a boat exactly like it before, and certainly never buy a boat sight unseen. While you’re out there, make sure to test out every pump, switch, and accessory. Once your name is on the contract, any problems now belong to you as well.

The Old Eyeball Test Before you even put the boat in the water, take a close and careful look at it. Are there spiderweb cracks around the fittings? Is the fiberglass scuffed up? Does the prop look like it has been sandblasted? Are there three years’ worth of Vienna sausages ground into the carpet?

Any of these could be signs of major trouble, or they could be signs of a bargain waiting to happen. While you’re at it, check out how the seller takes care of his or her tow vehicle and other possessions. If they’re all about to fall apart, it shouldn’t bode well for their adherence to the required maintenance schedule. If you’re willing to put in a lot of work, a beat-up boat might be a great deal. If you don’t have time, it’s going to be trouble.

Compression Matters If you’re the buyer, be sure to ask for maintenance records. If you’re the seller, be sure to have them. It’s transparency that benefits everyone, but in the interests of complete forthrightness once the buyer decides to purchase a particular boat he should have the certified marine dealer of choice check out the engine for likely problems. Most modern outboards can be hooked up to a computer to get any fault codes. At the very least, get the compression checked to make sure that you’re not about to invest in an expensive replacement powerhead.

Consider the Trailer It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamor of the boat itself and the roar of those horses under the cowling, but without a trailer to get you to and from the lake you’re left at home watching sitcom reruns. Check the tires for excessive wear, look at the brakes (yes, you want trailer brakes), and examine the frame for rust. It’s not a cheap replacement if you have to get a new one, and being stranded on the side of the road is about the worst way to spend an afternoon (ask me how I know).

Inquire About a Warranty Check through the seller, his or her servicing dealer, or the manufacturer as to whether you can buy an extended warranty on any or all of the components, but especially the motor. You don’t want to buy someone else’s problems, known or yet-to-be-discovered. When possible, a factory warranty is better than something from a third party.

Fix It Now or Fix It Later Once you agree to a price and a delivery date, the terms should be “as is.” That’s why you, as the buyer, checked out every pump, switch, and accessory before making the deal. You know what works and what, if anything, does not. If there are things that can or should be fixed, it should be abundantly clear whose responsibility that will be. As a seller, I endeavor to have everything in working order before the transfer and will disclose if I do not. That prevents any misgivings or ill feelings later. That’s also why I insist upon a compression test. I can’t vouch for anyone else, however.

Ancillary Considerations Before the deal is consummated, the buyer should go over all of the other factors that go into boat ownership. Those include the cost of insurance, a place to store the boat, and the need for a vehicle with a certain towing capacity. When in doubt, wait. Despite the current paucity of inventory at fair prices, there will always be more boats for sale and more opportunities to buy.

In fact, it might behoove you to wait until a slower time of year. From winter through early spring, anglers start planning what they’ll be driving, but if you can wait until late summer or early fall, that’s when the really good deals often creep up. People who know that they’ll be in a tree stand sometimes don’t want to pay carrying costs during those months. Great deals do pop up, but you need to be ready to pounce because the best ones don’t last long.

Ultimately, no matter which side of the deal you’re on, full disclosures and honesty are critical to both parties feeling that it was a fair exchange. I can’t say that I never want to see my sold boats again, because I enjoy hearing how much enjoyment the new owners are getting out of them. I’m confident enough that I take good care of my boats that I’ve sold several to close friends. At the same time, I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings or bad blood. Go through these steps and you’ll minimize the chances of that occurring.

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