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Home Feature - Equipment/Terminal Tackle Shopping For a Used Boat

Shopping For a Used Boat

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By Scott Hammer

March 28, 2013

Perhaps you’ve reached that point in your fishing addiction where you feel it’s time to buy a boat.  Whether you are buying for the first time, upgrading or just feel it’s time for a change, there are some things you need to take into consideration. First and foremost, look at your finances; are you ready for boat ownership? There are a lot of hidden expenses with a boat besides the purchase price. Fuel, oil (even 4-stroke motors require an oil change), insurance (both boat and tackle), additional taxes, maintenance, etc.

hammer-boatbuyingThere’s a reason boat owners say, “boat” stands for “B”reak “O”ut “A”nother “T”housand!  Don’t forget launch fees, more fuel for your tow vehicle (possibly a new tow vehicle), US Coast Guard required equipment, life vests, drift socks, nets, anchors and all of those Yamamoto baits you need to fill up the storage compartments!

Whew! That sounds like a lot and I’m sure I’ve left a few things out, but if the water is in your blood like most of us fishermen, it’s all worth it just to be out there participating in the activity we love.

Seriously, though, after considering the cost of your new boat or upgrade, you need to decide if you are going to buy:

  • New or used
  • Fiberglass or aluminum
  • Big or small

Where and how you fish will help with these decisions. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these options. New vs. used is often dependent on your finances. Buying a new boat that you pull off the lot is like buying a new car. You’ve developed a relationship with the dealer who can be a huge asset if any issues pop up with the new ride. You get a motor and hull warranty and the dealer will go to bat for you if you ever need to use it. You can outfit the boat the way you want it (electronics, accessories, etc.) before it’s even delivered.

But what if a new boat just isn’t in the budget? Not to worry – there are some quality vessels out there that have been well taken care of. You just have to be thorough when checking them out. Things to consider, though, if you’re buying used: depending on the year of the boat you may or may not have any warranty left and have the distinct possibility of deferred maintenance. You’re also taking a risk that there are no hidden defects. However, there is a big advantage of buying used and that’s price. It’s no secret that boats depreciate very quickly and buying used can save you a substantial amount of money. You can buy used boats at some dealers and therefore still create that relationship.

If you are new to boating, I would advise you join a website of fishermen and boat enthusiasts.  They normally have an area specifically for new boaters and are willing to help with all of your questions (and believe me, you will have a lot of questions), from how to set up the boat, to prop options on your motor and even how to drive your new toy.

But before we get there, we have to know what to look for and what to lookout for when buying.  Let’s say you’re looking at a used fiberglass boat. I am a huge checklist guy, so sit back, get another cup of coffee and take a peek at my lists. I feel this is a very good representation of what you need to look for. Thanks to the members of Bass Boat Central for their contributions.

Opening Questions

You have called a prospective boat owner to inquire about the boat you saw in an advertisement; here is a checklist of some opening questions you’ll want to ask:

  1. What year are the boat, motor and trailer? You will check this later through identification numbers, but don't assume because it's a '94 boat that it has a '94 motor.
  2. How long have you owned this boat? Caution: people who sell boats after less than one season can be trying to pass off a problem.
  3. Are you the first owner? If you are dealing with the first owner you can trace the entire mechanical history of the unit.
  4. Does this boat have an hour meter? If the answer is no, then forget all the assurances of low hours because without an hour meter you can't ever be sure of this. You’ll need to take the boat to a dealer (depending on the year of the motor) and have the hours verified.
  5. Why are you selling the boat? This is a fair question.
  6. Will we have access to a water source when I come to look at the boat? You need access to a hose at least to properly evaluate the motor.
  7. Will I have an opportunity to Lake Test the boat? If the answer is no and you want to be absolutely sure of its condition, you need to make contingencies on the sale.  Ultimately it needs to pass a water test.
  8. Could you make sure the batteries are fully charged when I come to see the boat? There are many items that cannot be checked or verified if the batteries are dead.  Also find out the year and size of the batteries.
  9. Has the motor ever had major engine work, and when? You want to know the history of the engine.  If the answer is yes, find out when and by whom and ask to see the receipts or call the repair facility and verify.
  10. Has the boat ever been in a wreck or had major structure work? Just like cars, a rebuilt wreck has lower resale value than one with no structural history.

After you’ve made the decision to meet the seller, here are some things you should look at when evaluating the boat:


  1. Compression test.  This can be done at a dealer/mechanic or you can use a handheld gauge. Compression should be equal or within a certain tolerance for your motor (usually +/- 10%).
  2. Pull the lower unit (sometimes called the motor “foot”) and look for milky colored oil, indicating water in the lower unit.  This is a dealer/mechanic task or you can just pull the bottom drain plug to check a sample of the oil.  Water in the gear case is an indication of bad seals or bent prop shaft and is a serious repair item.
  3. Spin the prop shaft to be sure it's not bent (uneven wobbly spin).  Look at the center of the prop shaft to verify.
  4. Look at the condition of the prop/skeg. The skeg is directly below the prop and sits the lowest in the water. Make sure it is not bent or broken. Keep in mind it is normal for the skeg to have paint missing.
  5. Take it for a test drive and run it wide open to check the max rpms rated for the motor.  You don't want excessive overage in rpms rated for the motor which indicates the wrong prop on the motor. You also want to know what the minimum water pressure is for your motor. I can't stress enough the importance of having a boat motor mechanic check over the motor for you. They can tell you a lot more than what meets the eye: hours run (and at what RPM), if all factory updates have been performed, and compression and maintenance history.


  1. Do not pick the boat up in the rain. You can't make a good evaluation on the condition of a boat in the rain. Adverse weather makes it very hard to find the gouges/stress cracks, oxidation, flaws etc.
  2. Start from one end of the boat and work your way around it.  Rub your hands against the surface and scan with your eyes all along the side of the boat looking for scratches, stress cracks, etc., especially around the console and splashwell area. Look at the rubrail, if it is lumpy or bumpy it is an indication of loose top cap screws.  This is easily fixed.
  3. Look at the keel (standing at the front it is the centerline of the hull) very closely especially around the U bolt where you hook it up with the winch. Make sure the U bolt is attached firmly.  Some scratching is normal here due to a worn roller.
  4. Get on your back and look at the hull between the tires and the trailer tongue of the boat between the bunks. Normally, when you hit something with a boat it is going to hit toward the back of the boat in the “pad” area (this is the flat section of the hull in the very rear). On the entire underside of the hull be looking for fiberglass exposure including exposed fiberglass matting and major gouges.  Some scratching is normal.
  5. Get on your back again right under the motor and look at the very back of the pad. another popular place to hit an object. If the hull shows very few scratches chances are pretty good you have a pampered boat!
  6. 6. Take a look at the bilge (very bottom of the inside rear compartment where your batteries and pumps are) and notice if there is any water in there. If so drain the water, take the boat for a test drive and re-check the bilge. Any water in the bilge after a short ride can equal a lot of water on a long run (see bilge pump!).
  7. Make sure all of the electronics work including bilge pumps (very important safety feature), battery charger, fish finders, rpm gauge, water pressure gauge, and lights.  To check the bilge pump(s) you can put the hull plug in and fill the bilge with water and turn the pumps on. They should pump the majority of the water out.  If the boat is equipped with an auto bilge it should kick on automatically when the water level gets high enough in the bilge.
  8. Look for anything obvious in all the storage compartments like loose carpet, cracked fiberglass, and check the lids themselves by standing on them.  They should not be spongy or mushy. This also applies to the entire deck area.
  9. Now it's time to check the transom. First look for stress cracks in the transom.  If they are there it's not necessarily more than a cosmetic problem. What you want to do it trim the motor up and put your weight on it. If those cracks widen or you get any flex in the transom just walk away. A bad transom is an expensive repair and you don't want any part of this rig.

Let’s move on to the boat trailer, after all you have to get it to the lake and back home again!

  1. If you meet at the lake, feel the trailer hubs (very center of the wheels) to make sure they aren't hot. They should be cool or warm to the touch.  Take note, the axles/hubs equipped with brakes will be warmer due to the brake friction.
  2. Be looking for rust issues, especially if the current owner lives near saltwater. I would again get on my back and look at the trailer from an underside view. Check for rusty areas around welds, bunk supports and the drain holes in the trailer (if it is a channel style trailer).
  3. Check the trailer over thoroughly after you have launched the boat. Inspect the carpeted bunk boards, they should be tight and the carpet in good condition.  Check the channel supports as some of them can be damaged while trailering the boat form hitting concrete curbs, steep ramps, etc.

Are you worn out yet?  I’ll admit my head hurts from trying to make this a pretty inclusive list. Remember, no one can predict the future durability of any used product. Things break, malfunction and just need to be replaced through normal wear and tear. Hopefully this guide will be a good primer for evaluating a used boat. Without careful consideration, your "Dream Boat" can turn into a nightmare quickly.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 28 March 2013 14:07