When it's time to think boating, and you are contemplating a boat purchase, do you go with new or used? You may be new to boating, or replacing an existing boat. Either way, if you are going to shop in the used boat market, be prepared with some often overlooked criteria that can steer you away from more expensive cost of boat ownership, less time on the water, or unsafe conditions.
Often when we see a gorgeous boat, and fall in love with it, it is easy to gloss over the inspection part and be lured into talking about the performance aspects of the boat. Really, you just want to get boating! On the water testing is THE MOST CRUCIAL step in the buying process; we always recommend a thorough lake test before accepting a boat and making the final payment - EVER. However, don't skip these important "on land" steps first! In case you aren't sure what to ask or what to look for, here is a list of the 12.5 most important things to look for when inspecting a potential used boat.
- Osmosis may not be your friend. Hull condition is always the first place to start as in a lot of ways it could be considered the "foundation" of your boat. Osmotic blisters are pockets of moisture that get trapped between the layers of fibreglass and/or between the fibreglass and gel coat layer. They appear like blisters and can often be seen or felt as bumps on an otherwise smooth surface. They are predominately found on the hull below the waterline. Overtime they can grow and even pop as more moisture collects there. Although the osmosis may not degrade the structure if the boat, they could reduce your boat's resale value and will likely need to be repaired at some time in the future.They are fairly common, and on a 10-15 year old boat, a few very small ones are ok. Larger blisters should be avoided though.
- Cracks can be concerning. Look carefully for cracks in the gel coat above and below the water line. Almost every boat will have a crack or two (often found where fittings are mounted and stress points). Because fibreglass is flexible, and gel coat is brittle, not all cracks are cause for concern. However, multiple cracks in one area, or ones that seem to radiate in a pattern could indicate structural or impact damage. Also, multiple cracks in the transom or hull could hint to delamination.
- Chips, scratches, old repairs can cause issues. Check over the entire surface, looking carefully for scratches (minor), chunks of gel coat missing, or areas that had a different colour or texture. The latter may indicate an area of previous repair. Any of these issues are common, and may not cause any usage problems (unless there is exposed fibreglass below the waterline). However, they do cause a reduction in value.
- Steering is a key to safety. One of the most dangerous and expensive problems with a boat can be a worn steering system. The most common points of wear are in the cables, or mounting areas. The easiest thing to check for is a tight out/drive (lower unit) or outboard engine. To check this, grab a hold of the drive or engine and with a lot of force, try and move it back and forth. There should be limited (less than a centimetre or two) play or slack. If you can easily move the drive back and forth while the steering wheel remains still, the is a major safety issue and in is likely a very expensive repair.
- Bellows are the key to floating. What are bellows? They are a rubber "accordion type" sleeve that allows components to pass through your boat's transom, but keep water out! They are present on I/O models only, and are most visible with the drive all the way up, and the wheel turned to either side. Make sure to check them for cracks. They should be soft and pliable, and absolutely not have any cuts, tears, or holes! If they look bad, be cautious. A sunk boat is not a good way to start off the season.
- Keg and props should be damage free. Check the lower unit/skew for missing chunks, and rough areas. Sometimes damage can be masked by cutting the rough part of the skeg away. If possible, compare the length to another unit. Also, the propeller should be void of bends and similar damage. Check for numbers stamped on the hub of the prop from rebuild shops as clues to the unit being impacted at some point in the past. These damages may be minor, or hint to internal issues to come out later. Impact to the lower unit can cause gear failure in worst case scenarios. This is especially true with stainless steel propellers.
- Lubricant can hold clues. Check the condition of the lower unit lubricant. It should be free of metallic fillings, have no water (which may appear as a milky colour), and not smell "burnt", or foul. The last condition may just point to pour maintenance practises, the first two can signal major problems. Also, check the engine oil for the same. There are marinas that offer lubricant analysis for a reasonable price which can pick-up trace chemicals that hint to problems. They often offer a short warranty along With the analysis for a very reasonable price.
- Fuel smell can tell. Crack the cap of the fuel tank and take a whiff. If there is a foul odour, or it smells like "varsol", the fuel may be old and/or contaminated. If the tank is portable, try to look for floating derby. Some good marinas can offer fuel testing to verify alcohol/water concentration.
- Canvases keep the inside protected. Bimini tops and mooring/cockpit covers are important protection, wear out over time, and are expensive to replace. Check all the fasteners, stitching, and zippers. Put the covers on, and check for fit. Make sure the framing seems solid and straight if equipped.
- Upholstery can be TO clean! That may be a hard one to believe, but it's true. Boaters have made the error of over cleaning vinyl upholstery with harsh chemicals. It can remove protectants that are added to the fabric at manufacturing that protect against molds and UV damage. If the upholstery is brilliantly clean compliment the owner on it and ask what he/she uses to keep it looking that way. There are a list of products that shouldn't be used. Check the seams for pulling apart, and make sure the vinyl is soft to the touch and doesn't feel papery or brittle.
- Corrosion is a killer. Most of the metal on the boat is subject to the corrosive environment of sun and moisture. Add salt into the mix and it gets magnified. Look for excessive amounts of grey/white chalky corrosion (on aluminium) or streaks of red/brown on steel. An abundance of this may be a warning sign that the unit has seen salt water. A marina can run an engine serial number for you to see where it was initially sold. It may give you some clues too.
- Wires tell no lies. Check the battery connections to be free of corrosion and be tight, clean, and organized. Look for loose connections, cuts and frays. Take a look under the dash if you can for the same issues. How old is the battery (ask, and look for a date on it)? Is the battery bulged, cracked, or sitting in liquid?
12.5 Water should stay outside the boat. All of these items can be trumped by the one "big one", a boat that has been sunk! Look for oil stains in the upholstery, extensive corrosion on terminals in the engine compartment. This can be tricky to spot.
After you have inspected everything, you need to decide if any of the deficiencies you have uncovered are deal breakers, negotiating points, or ok to accept as is. You may want to seek the advice of an expert in the field (good marina with trained Service staff, a surveyor, or perhaps a boating friend who has years of experience). Used boats command a high value relative to new boats, so be picky and do not be satisfied with poor condition. You are paying good money and deserve to receive a quality product.
All of these risks can be DRAMATICALLY reduced by working with a great marina and boat dealer. They will have done these checks first, and should reject any suspect trades. If they found issues, they should have remedied them and told you what they were and how they were fixed. Look for marinas and dealers with a code of ethics or membership in organizations such as Boating Ontario, MICD Five Star Certification.
The above list is not exhaustive, and should serve as a guide to some of the common things to look for. It can be used whether you plan to do your boating on the Big Rideau Lake, Thousand Islands, Kingston, Ottawa, or any other body if water in the world. Ultimately used boats can provide good value through lower initial purchase price, and potentially reduced overall depreciation. However, a few repairs and higher operating and maintenance costs can push the cost of ownership towards new boats if you are not careful. Want even more tips? Check out this Used Boat Buying Guide as a complete resource that is full or articles and video to help you.
Ok, so you are satisfied that you are getting good value for your money, now get out on the water and test that boat through all it's sea-trial paces. Have fun out there!