Red Flags to Spot Before Buying a Used Boat

A big reason to buy a used boat vs a new boat is of course, the price. However, you may end up spending more than what you saved if the boat is in poor condition.

Used boat buying red flags

Shopping for used boats can be stressful, especially if you don’t know how to spot red flags on a potential dud. You’ll want to bring an experienced boat mechanic or surveyor with you before buying, but there are some inspections you can do on your own before hiring a professional. 

Used boats are unlikely to still have warranty coverage, so if something breaks, you'll be responsible for repairs. With that in mind, here are some red flags to look for when shopping for a used boat.

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Boat Seller Sounds Shady

When looking at a used boat, ask the seller to allow you to inspect it, and observe the seller’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice while you’re doing it. 

Red flags buying a used boat

Does the seller sound confident about the condition of the boat, or do they sound insecure or defensive when you ask questions? Also, does the seller have records of past maintenance and repairs done on the boat? Are they hesitant or simply refuse to provide a copy of the boat’s service history? Red flags.

Many sellers want to get rid of a used boat because something is wrong with it, and they may refuse to disclose vital information to scam you into buying a lemon. If you feel the seller isn’t being honest, sounds shady and/or won’t provide service records, move along. 

General Boat Decay Red Flags

Check the boat for visible signs of corrosion and decay. Look for any obvious red flags such as rust or rotting on the deck, engine, cabin, helm and hull. Here are some of the red flags to look for when it comes to spotting general used boat deterioration.

Used boat buying inspection

Water Damage

Water getting into a boat is inevitable, but visible water damage is a major sign that the seller didn’t address the problem. Inspect the boat for water spots in the cabin and galley, around the hatches and on the deck. Signs of water damage could also mean the boat has a faulty bilge pump

Hull Damage

Inspect the hull above and below the waterline carefully for dents, holes, rotting, barnacles and noticeable repairs. These are all signs of neglect and/or past collisions the boat has experienced. The hull should be clean and free of marine growth. If the hull isn’t clean, free of decay and structurally sound, find another boat.

Used boat buying red flags inspect the hull

Deck Decay

When inspecting the deck, simple things like shaking and pulling on the hardware such as cleats and rails to see if they’re loose are a good way to tell if the boat has been properly cared for. Check the deck for cracks, soft spots, chipping, rusted hardware and faded paint. 

Look at the condition of the furniture. Are the boat seats and tables sturdy and clean? What about the metal fixtures? Are they clean and intact, or rusty and loose? If the boat has a teak wood deck, inspect it for cracks and rotting. Does the deck feel mushy or spongy when you walk on it? Walk away.

Helm Neglect

At the helm, give the navigation equipment a quick visual inspection. Does it look clean? Check the captain’s seat for cracks, rotting or discoloration. Cracks and/or fogging on the control gauges are signs the seller has neglected the boat. If the helm looks good, turn on the electronic equipment (radio, GPS navigation, etc.) to make sure everything works. Otherwise, navigate to another boat.

Used boat buying red flags helm neglect

Cabin/Interior Neglect

Inspect the cabin as if it were your home. Check for worn out furniture, rotted cabinets, and broken appliances and hardware. If the cabin smells funky when you walk in, it could be a sign of water damage from leaks and/or mold and mildew decay. 

Take cabin deterioration as a sign the owner didn’t bother much with interior maintenance. Neglect of the very area you’re supposed to relax in is a huge red flag that this is the wrong used boat to buy.

Bellow Damage

Bellows are accordion-like rubber protectors for control cables and other parts that keep water, dirt and debris away. Look at the bellows for splits, rotting and rusting at the clamps, and take it as a hint of neglect if you find any.  

Shopping for a used boat red flags to spot

Now that we’ve covered a handful of immediately noticeable red flags, here are some red flags to look out for on used boat engines.

Boat Engine Deterioration Red Flags

When considering buying a used boat, checking the condition of the engine(s) that power it is just as important as the boat itself. 

Chipped/Faded Outboard Engine Paint

If the boat has outboards, look at the paint job. Any chipped, scratched or faded paint on the cowl or powerhead is a potential sign of engine negligence by the seller.

Worn/Faded Outboard Decals

While you’re checking out the paint job, look at the manufacturer’s decals and see what condition they’re in. Just like with the paint, if the decals on an outboard are chipped, scratched or faded, consider it another sign of potential neglect.

Next, take the off the engine cowl and see what’s “under the hood”. Corroded wiring and hardware, cracked hoses and belts, signs of leaks, dark fluids, chalky or black spark plugs: all red flags that the motor hasn’t been well maintained. 

Old/Contaminated Engine Oils

Pop out the dipstick and check the engine oil, as well as the gearcase oil. If the oil looks dark, milky or murky, this can mean the lubrication fluids don’t get changed regularly, or that there’s water intrusion in the engine. Metal shavings in the oil are also a huge red flag for severe engine problems.

Bad Fuel

Inspect the fuel tank for rust, and look at and smell the fuel to see if it seems fresh.  A funky odor coming from the gasoline can mean a corroded fuel tank or a bad batch of fuel. Either way, take the condition of the fuel tank and the fuel itself into consideration.

Used boat red flags bad fuel

Corroded Battery

Do a quick battery inspection. Is it secured in place on the battery tray? Are the terminals and wiring loose or corroded? Is the case leaking? A peek at the battery can also tell you whether the seller of a used boat pays attention to the simple stuff.  

Used boat buying red flags corroded battery

Electrical System Problems

Electrical issues are common on boats, and most are easy fixes. However, problems with electrical equipment such as flickering boat lights or malfunctioning marine electronics can be signs of problems with the electrical system. Inspect wires for corroded or split connections and melted insulation. Avoid buying a used boat with symptoms of electrical issues.

Bad Control Cables 

Cables control a range of operations on a boat from shifting to steering and throttle. Inspect the control cables of the boat to see what condition they’re in. If any look frayed, dirty or rusty, it’s another sign of neglected maintenance on a used boat.

Noisy Starter

Fire up the engine and listen for a noisy starter. Any unusually loud noises such clanging, grinding or a loud spinning when starting the motor are red flags of an engine that will experience starting problems.

Depleted Anodes

A simple way to check for engine corrosion is to look at the anodes on the motor. Known as “sacrificial anodes,” these metals (usually zincs) absorb corrosion to protect other metals. However, if the anodes (which are easy to replace) are severely depleted or absent altogether, you’ve spotted another red flag.

Propeller Damage

Make sure the blades on the engine’s propeller aren’t bent, scratched, pitted dented or broken. Check the prop shaft as well to make sure it’s not bent. Any signs of prop damage should tell you the owner failed to do a simple prop inspection and repair before trying to sell you the boat. 

Of course a test ride is the best way to determine whether a boat has engine problems such as a jerky throttle, vibrations, rough idling or anything else. However, the simple engine inspections we covered are a good way to spot red flags if taking the boat for a test ride isn’t an option (which is a red flag in and of itself). 

Boat Trailer is in Poor Condition

If you’re looking to buy the trailer for the boat, check the condition of that as well. Look for rust and corrosion on all the trailer parts, including the frame, rollers, coupler and even the leaf springs. Test the all the trailer lights to make sure they’re in working order. 

Used boat buying red flags trailer

Are the wheels and tires in good shape? Look for dry rot on the tires, including the spare, and for rusted or bended wheels. How about the wheel bearings? Are they in good condition? If you’re buying a used boat with a trailer in a state that requires inspection, is that sticker up to date? Any damage or corrosion on the boat trailer is a red flag of a negligent boat owner. 

Hire a Professional Boat Surveyor

The red flags covered are just some of many you can spot yourself to detect a bad boat purchase. However, it’s always best to hire an experienced mechanic to inspect used boats with or for you. 

Used boat buying red flags hire a pro

You can shop around for used boats, do your own inspections first, narrow down your selections to one or two strong finalists, and then bring a professional for a second inspection to appraise each boat before you decide which one to get. Whatever you do, don’t be cheap. Hire a pro to evaluate any used boat you want to buy. Otherwise, you could end up paying more than the boat is worth in maintenance and repair costs along the way.




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