Buying a Used Boat - 02/04/2009

A favorite indoor sport of many boaters these days seems to be searching for unbelievable deals on used boats. Most people think that there will never be a better time than now to get a great deal on a used boat. Blood is in the water and deal sharks are circling, hunting for vulnerable prey that are willing to give up pearls for the price of a sow’s ear. BoatTEST.com studies indicate that about 65% of the boaters currently in the market for a boat are searching for used boats and while there are definitely some great deals to be had, there are also some pitfalls. We’d like to help our members avoid the turkeys and score the peacocks. Below are some tips for used boat buyer --

1. Identify with as much exactitude as you can exactly what type, length, power, and brand boat you want. (Use BoatTEST.com to zero-in on the type boat, brand and model right for your needs.)

a. Understand the brand and its standing in the type of boat that you are considering. For example, is it an “affordable” brand – which is code for low-priced? Is the brand still in production? What is its reputation? Brands with high production will generally sell for less than the “marquee” brands in any type or category of boat which will nearly always be fewer in number. Understand the “pecking order” of brands in the region you will be boating. What may be considered a Mercedes or Lexus in some areas, may be considered a Chevy in others.

b. Make sure you understand the status of the engine -- which is to say, is it state of the art, or obsolete, or inefficient, or does it carry some other “baggage” not readily apparent? For example, old 2-stroke diesel engines are generally not considered as desirable as 4-stroke diesel engines. EFI engines are easier to start and generally more fuel efficient than carbureted engines. The boat with the less desirable engine(s) should be less costly and you must decide if the savings in purchase price is worth the compromise in performance, operating costs, and resale.

c. Historically many boaters have bought the largest boat they could afford, but remember that virtually everything will cost more when operating a larger boat.

2. Decide how much you can comfortably afford as a down payment, annual operation budget and monthly carrying cost for the boat you want.

3. Determine the range -- both in years and engine hours – of the boats you can afford that meets the criteria established in #1 and #2. Use Internet classified websites such as BoatTEST.com, Boattrader.com, and Boatshop24.com (in Europe), to determine about how much your dream boat is selling for.

4. Now, determine the condition of the boats that fall into this pool. Obviously, you are looking for the newest boat in good condition with the lowest engine hours. Put these on your “short list.”

5. Are there any transferrable warranties left on any of the boats offered for sale? If so, what are they worth? If not, you generally can buy service contracts on boats built during the last six years, which may bear your investigation. (Go to SeaSafe.com to find out how much a service contract will cost.)

6. Why is this boat being sold and what is is its history? It is important that you know the “provenance” (list of owners and its relevant history since it was first sold) of the boat you buy. There are many apparently “good deals” – even “steals” – on the market. “Apparently” is the key word here. Some are, in fact, stolen. Some have gone through a hurricane, been bought as salvage, referbed and offered for sale. Some have been repoed from owners who neglected the boats for years and finally stopped making payments. Generally, boats owned by a single owner are more desirable than those which have been passed through several hands.

a. Check the HIN number and make sure it has not been tampered with.

b. Get copies of the title, registration or documentation and bills of sale.

c. Try to get maintenance records. Owners of well-maintained boats will often have them.

d. Make sure the seller owns the boat.

7. How is the boat equipped? First, make sure all required and necessary equipment is on the boat and in good working order. Second, with so many boats on the market you can generally find boats that have not only everything required, but also virtually everything you will need or want. Be picky.

8. Make your own detailed and careful inspection. You are looking for clues of neglect, damage, poor construction, and harsh use and abuse. Examine obvious features such as the gel coat, woodwork and upholstery. If these haven't been maintained then there's a good chance the rest of the boat has not had much care either. Is there gel coat cracking and “spiders” or “cobwebs” at corners?

Check all decking for any soft spots. Is the deck spongy? If so, exit immediately. Look for rust in the engine room, oil under the engine, old, soft hoses and the like. Look for water lines inside the boat or on the engine. These indicate that the boat has flooded in the past.

Are any parts of the exterior paintwork or gelcoat poorly matching? This may indicate a previous accident.

Check that all the control cables (for steering, throttle etc.) are in good working order.

Open and close all the hatches and sea cocks to ensure they're in good working order. Water marks inside the hatches would indicate that they are no longer water-tight.

You should test all the systems such as bilge pump, winches, freshwater system, lights, heater and air conditioning, generator, stove etc.

Check that all hardware is attached firmly, and that electrical items and connections are free from rust and corrosion.

9. If you are reasonably sure you have found the boat you want to buy, then ask for a sea trial. Don’t assume that the boat will behave the way you think it will once on the water. You must experience the boat for yourself. Does the boat fit your body? How does the boat handle? Is the steering responsive? Hit waves from different angles. Is the boat wet? Stable? Rolly? Make sure that all the instruments are working correctly, and run the engine for long enough to see if it'll overheat. Will the engine turn its maximum rpms? Is the boat under powered or overpowered?

10. Time for professional inspection. Once you have found a boat you want to buy, have done your own inspection, and you have negotiated a satisfactory price, then you need to have the boat and engine inspected by an expert. Hiring a professional surveyor is worth the money. Most surveyors are not mechanics and you will need a mechanic to inspect the engine(s), checking compression, doing an analysis of metals in the oil to check for wear, and generally making sure all is in good working order.

No matter what the price of the boat, money spent on good inspections will help insure (but not guarantee!) that you know what you are buying. Good places to start are The Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), The National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS).)

11. Beware of fraud. Just as in virtually every other business, when buying a pre-owned item you must be on guard for fraud. Does the price seem too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Yes, there are good deals out there and there are boat owners who need to raise cash and take a “hair cut” on their boat – but this situation is also an ideal cover story for con men. BoatTEST.com recommends that you deal with a well-known and well-regarded boat dealer or broker and get them on the hook to vouch for the boat.

12. Be extra careful when buying a boat directly from an owner. The best boat to buy may be from a good friend of yours and be a boat with which you are already familiar. Deposit money should always be put in escrow or held by a trusted third party until all of the inspections and paperwork are worked out. The boat may either be stolen or the seller may take your deposit and never be contactable again. Make sure that you get the real address of the seller; you should be suspicious of anyone who only uses a PO Box.

Verify all the contact details of the seller. If there is an email address, make sure you can get a reply. Get a telephone number for them and make sure it works. Visit both the boat and the owner’s home in person.

If the boat is in a different country to the seller, be extra cautious, and take even more care if either is outside of your own country.

If anything just doesn't seem right, don't dismiss those feelings until you've checked them out. Often your instincts are correct. When in doubt, throw it out!

13. A word to “bottom feeders”: Yes, it is true that to come out as best as possible when you sell your boat, you must buy it at the right price. However, buyers hell-bent of finding the lowest price for any given boat are at the highest risk of getting a mess, a disappointment, and a “good deal less” than what they bargained for. People pay a premium for a good boat for good reason. If you are a “bottom feeder” and get bitten yourself, you will find few who will offer you any sympathy, much less help.


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