Used Boat Shopping: 10 Tips Before You Buy

You should inspect a pre-owned boat meticulously before you buy it, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a certified appraiser on hand to look it over before you make a final decision.

Shopping for a used boat

However, if you’re determined to give it a go on your own without the help of a professional appraiser, here are 10 tips for what to do while shopping for a used boat.

Buy boat covers

Buy boat rigging components

1. Choose a Boat Type & Size

Decide on the style and size of boat that fits your budget and needs, and only look at boats that meet those requirements. Time is money. In other words, unless any old boat will do, don’t waste your time checking out a “great bargain” if that boat ultimately won’t suit your needs.

Used boat buying tips

2. Inspect the Hull and Deck

Go over every inch of the hull and deck looking for bubbling gelcoat, which is an indication of water penetrating the fiberglass. Pay particular attention to areas around fasteners, deck hardware and thru-hull fittings. Also look for cracks in the gelcoat. Smaller cracks are usually cosmetic and can be easily repaired, but larger cracks are indicative of more serious issues such as collision damage or structural weaknesses.

Buying a used boat

3. Inspect the Transom

Check the transom for stress cracks or warping around the outboard mount. Raise the outboard and try to rock it from side-to-side to see if the transom flexes, and to expose any hidden cracks masked by the engine.

Shopping for used boats tips

4. Check the Motor

Remove the dipstick and check the engine oil for signs of water mixing with the oil (milky appearance) or the motor overheating (burnt oil smell). Rub a little oil between your thumb and fingers to feel for debris. If the oil feels gritty or has tiny metallic shavings, it’s a sign of severe engine wear. Remove the lower unit drain plug and inspect the lower unit oil too.

Pull the spark plugs and check their condition. Carbon on the plugs means the engine is running too rich. Oil on the plugs means there’s a leaking gasket or piston ring, while burnt spark plugs indicate the engine is running too hot. Fire up the engine to see if it starts easily, runs smoothly on idle and doesn’t produce excessive noises or vibrations.

5. Test the Electrical System

Switch on every electrical component to see whether it’s working or not, including gauges, lights, bilge pumps and washdown pumps. Inspect the fuse box and wiring, checking that everything is properly taken care of (correct fuses, watertight wiring, etc.)

Used boat shopping tips electrical inspection

6. Check for Leaks

Look for watermarks around seams, hatches and thru-hull fittings for signs of leaks. Inspect the bilge for signs of excessive water and make sure it has an adequate bilge pump system.

7. Inspect for Mildew & Rot

Check seats and carpeting for mold or mildew. Surface mildew can be treated, but once mold starts to thrive deeper within upholstery, it may need replacing. Look for sign of rotting on wood decks, cabinets and transoms. Any spongy wood will need to be cut out and replaced. Don't forget to check the boat and its engine for signs of corrosion.

8. Check the Helm

Stand or sit at the helm and check that the instrumentation panel is clearly visible near eye level. Make sure the boat has essential gauges such as oil pressure, water temperature and ammeter gauges. Check that the controls are easily accessible by hand without having to look away from what’s in front of the boat.

Used boat buying tip helm inspection

9. Go For a Test Ride

Take the boat out on the water for a sea trial and put it through its paces from idle all the way up to wide-open throttle. Note whether it tracks in a straight line; whether it’s stable or lists; and how capable it is at getting on plane and staying there. The sea trial is also the best way to find out if you actually enjoy being on that particular boat. If the owner refuses you a sea trial, cross the boat off your list and move on to the next.

Used boat buying tips test ride

10. Trust Your Instincts

If your gut tells you something isn’t quite right with the boat, walk away. Whether the hours on the motor seem too low, the boat doesn’t appear well maintained, you didn’t feel comfortable riding it or the offer feels too good to be true, trust your gut, and keep in mind that there are other used boats out there for sale. 

As with any major purchase or investment, the most important thing to do before buying a used boat is to do your research and shop around before choosing a winner. Finally, even if it is used, make sure it’s the type of boat that will be able to maintain its resale value, just in case you decide to become its next seller down the line. 



Commercial Discounts

Special discounts for companies in the marine industry


Government Sales

Discounts for federal and most state and municipal agencies