10 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Used Boat

The advantages of buying a used boat are huge, especially if you have a limited budget. But as is true when buying anything used and without a manufacturer’s warranty, laying down your hard-earned cash on a used boat does carry a certain amount of risk. If you’ve weighed the new vs. used boat conundrum and come down on the side of buying used, naturally, you’ll want to do everything you can to minimize that risk. And that includes avoiding these used boat buying mistakes.

  1. Failing to determine overall boat condition, and how comfortable you are or are not with the work it needs.
  2. Skipping a close examination of the engine and transom.
  3. Misjudging hull integrity.
  4. Misjudging deck integrity.
  5. Failing to fully check out the controls.
  6. Failing to thoroughly inspect the bilge and pumps.
  7. Failing to check the fuel system.
  8. Failing to check the electrical system and electronics.
  9. Ignoring boat trailer condition.
  10. Accepting improper or missing documentation.

Check out our video 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Used Boats: Part 1 – Backyard Boaters. This segment includes a deep-dive into mistakes 1 through 4.

Failing to Determine the Overall Condition of the Boat

Sure, you know it’s important to inspect the boat from stem to stern. But more importantly, have you asked yourself the hard question of just how big a rehab job you’re willing to take on? Obviously, the worse shape a used boat is in, the less expensive that boat will be. But there’s a huge difference between a turnkey boat, one that needs a week or two of work, and one that requires rebuilding from the ground up. Don’t make the mistake of biting off more than you can chew. That means figuring out just how much work you’re willing to do prior to deciding what you’ll buy. That also means figuring out how much you can afford to invest in the repairs. See Used Boats: What’s it Going to Cost to Fix This Thing? to get a handle on the scale of some potential costs as well as the investment of elbow-grease.

Used Boat Engine and Transom Inspection

The engine and transom are two parts of a used boat that are critical, and are also common problem areas that can be make-or-break. When it comes to the transom, grab the motor and shake it vigorously. Look out for flexing or visible cracking, which may indicate it needs to be replaced. As for the engine, first see if it starts (with a water supply, of course). Make sure the water pump is working, check the condition of the spark plugs, and run a compression test; each cylinder should be within 10-percent of each other.

boat transom repair
If the transom is in bad shape there’s some serious repair work in your future. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Misjudging Hull Integrity

You want that used boat to float, right? The integrity of its hull is about as critical a factor there is. Yet just looking at a boat’s hull it can be difficult to spot significant problems. Hiring a boat surveyor is the safest way to get a read on hull integrity but for small, inexpensive boats may be unrealistic. Still, you can sound the hull by tapping it with a hard object and listening for different sounds in different areas. And if you see raw fiberglass exposed, take the hint – significant repairs are likely to be necessary.

Misjudging Deck Integrity

As with the hull, a close inspection of the deck is a must and if you make the mistake of misjudging its integrity a lot of unexpected work is probably in your future. Make sure it’s not spongy, soft, or the fiberglass is rippled.

boat deck needs repair
Sections of deck that are spongy or springy will need to be cut out and replaced, so don’t fail to give the deck a hard look. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Ready for the next three mistakes? Here’s episode 2 of 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Used Boats.

Checking the Boat Controls

Throttles, cables, and linkages are common problem items on used boats, so these should all be checked thoroughly. That means physically manipulating them and making sure they move smoothly. Same goes for the steering system and the wheel itself, which can freeze up if the boat’s been sitting for a long period of time without being used.

Checking the Bilge and Pumps

As a matter of safety, it’s critical that the bilge pump(s) are operational. Test them to be sure. But if the boat’s in the water and the bilge pump runs often or even continually, don’t just take that as a sign the pump works. Where’s all that water coming from? A bilge that’s pumping too much indicates that the boat’s taking on water.

Checking the Fuel System

used boat fuel tank
A used boat fuel tank and fuel lines can have all sorts of issues. As a rule, the older the boat is and the longer it sat unused, the worse the problems will be. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Whenever a boat hasn’t been run for extended periods of time you have to expect that the fuel has gone bad and needs to be replaced. But beyond that, also check the fuel filters, carburetors (if the engine has them), and the fuel lines to make sure there’s no water intrusion and everything is sound and leak-free. The tank itself needs to be inspected, too, to be sure it isn’t corroded or leaking. See Beware or Foul Fuel in Boats to learn more about these issues.

Ready to see the final three mistakes? Check out episode 3, the final installment of 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Used Boats.

Checking Boat Electrical Systems and Electronics

Each and every switch, light, and electrical component needs to be activated and checked to make sure it works. Not only is this a matter of convenience, it’s also a matter of safety and legality. Items like running lights are required gear that must be kept in functional condition. And if anything doesn’t work on the first attempt, don’t forget to check the fuses before you start replacing switches and wires.

Ignoring the Boat Trailer Condition

It’s easy to fall in love with a used boat and spend lots of time inspecting it, yet never pay the boat’s trailer the attention it’s due. Trailering a boat over the asphalt can be as or more dangerous that actually running the boat itself, and a trailer in poor condition can easily prevent you from using the boat. Be sure to inspect the tires, lights, hubs, jack stand, winch, coupler, bunks or rollers, etc. In addition to making sure everything is sound and working, remember that in many states the trailer will need to be inspected by a licensed pro before you can get plates. If these items are in poor or nonfunctional condition, you may be forced to spend extra time and money before you can even get your boat to the water.

boat trailer broken light
A broken tail light is an easy fix, but it’s a fix that must be done before you can enjoy your boat. And if you didn’t give the trailer a close inspection you might never have noticed it in the first place. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Accepting Improper or Missing Documentation.

The boat and trailer title and a bill of sale are must-haves. The proper boat documentation is absolutely critical and without it, you may discover you can’t legally used the boat you just bought. If the previous owner kept them, getting maintenance records is also good since it gives you documentation of the boat’s history.

No matter how careful you are there’s always an element of risk when buying a used boat. But if you avoid all 10 of these used boat buying mistakes, the deck is stacked in your favor. So consider all the different angles, set a budget, and check out all those used boats for sale on Boat Trader.