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August 24, 2010

Buying a Used Boat

Caveat emptor means never having to say you're sorry

So you want to buy a boat of your own, eh? That's certainly a dream of many anglers. But if you want to enjoy this adventure, you need to dose your dream with some reality. There are items in this column that apply to buying both new and used boats and other factors that will apply strictly to used boats.

Address several issues first and foremost: What kind of boat do you want, where will you use it and how much can you afford? Common sense may be in short supply in today's society, but employing some will save you money, disappointment and perhaps even your marriage.

What Kind of Boat?
Builders create different boats for a variety of applications. You need to evaluate what you really plan to do with your boat. You may dream of heading out to the canyons in search of big marlin and tuna, but in reality, you spend most of your time in the bay bottomfishing. Each of these applications has a style of boat all its own. You should match the majority of the fishing you do to the boat rather than matching it to your fantasy.

With Whom Will You Fish?
Buying an offshore center-console boat to indulge your fantasy may be fun but perhaps not practical. Do you plan to fish with just the guys? Or will your family members insist on using the boat for their recreation too? If you plan to take women and children out on the water, you will have to make arrangements for their comfort. Some boats accommodate such needs, and others don't. Always remember that if your wife and family aren't happy, you most certainly won't be either! In many American families, the wife keeps the books and writes the checks, so don't think you can pull a fast one and just cavalierly buy the boat you want without at least her tacit approval.

If family fits in your picture, then make sure the boat has a head, some comfortable seating for more than one and perhaps even a sheltered spot to hide in bad weather or just take a nap.

Where Do You Fish?
Backcountry, bays, rivers and nearshore waters all have different requirements. I once saw a group of fishermen running out a major inlet in steep seas in a bowrider runabout! The wind-against-tide six-footers quickly broke into the open bow area, swamping the boat.

I can honestly say that the majority of boats today are well made and safe when used for the purpose for which they were created. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that bowrider. The operators merely took a good boat into an application for which it was never intended.

When Should You Buy?
Is there really a better time or place to buy a boat? Should you buy at a boat show or in the fall when people get ready to haul their baby for the winter? In fact, yes, NMMA market statistics show more boats enter the market in the autumn as people consider winter storage fees and lack of use. More choices (supply and demand) mean better prices. Another good time to buy is at the end of the model year, which for most boatbuilders comes at the end of the summer. They want to move old inventory to make room for new models. And you can always expect deals at boat shows.

Research Options
Thanks to the Internet, consumers have never in history been savvier. Every significant boatbuilder has a website with information on models, features and benefits, plus photos and a means to contact the company and/or the nearest dealer. Magazines and numerous dedicated websites provide archived reviews of boats they've tested. For example, you can visit Many builders no longer want to quote suggested retail prices, as it steps on their dealers' toes. Consequently, you may have to turn to other sources for pricing guidelines. Several places exist for this such as BUCValu ( or NADA Guides (

But what about the power side of the equation? Most outboard companies provide online performance bulletins detailing how different horsepower products performed on specific boats.

And finally, check to see if the particular models that interest you have been NMMA certified. This one little approval means the boat has undergone exhaustive inspections and has been built to meet stringent regulatory requirements - more demanding than U.S. Coast Guard requirements, in fact.

Show Me the Money
There's more to buying a new or used boat than just the upfront cost. And as with a car, you might do better by financing with a dedicated marine finance company or your bank rather than going through the boat dealership. Having the cash to plop down on the dealer's desk can provide bargaining leverage.

But before purchasing the boat, make sure you can afford everything that goes along with it: Insurance, maintenance, fuel, equipment, storage and more add up over the course of a year. A general rule of thumb for ownership of a boat that you keep in the water (as opposed to trailering) is that it will cost you approximately 10 percent of the purchase price in operating costs each year.

Know Before You Buy
Boats have myriad systems and hidden places where trouble can brew. Some older boats may suffer from water intrusion into the laminate (osmotic blistering) that you often won't see. Wiring and connections in a marine environment can fail due to corrosion and vibration. Bolts that secure fittings on decks or consoles can rot away.

Before I discourage you, a well-maintained vessel won't suffer from these ills. Finding out the exact state of a used boat is the bailiwick of a marine surveyor. This trained investigator goes over your prospective boat and engine with a fine-tooth comb, crawling into places you will probably never see, using methods and tools to determine the exact condition of every structure, system, piece of equipment, coating, machinery and fitting. You can find an accredited marine surveyor by visiting Plug in your address and find a selection of surveyors and their specialties. Cost for a survey starts at several-hundred dollars for a small boat and rises from there as the boat grows. When contracting a surveyor, here are several things to consider. There are at least two kinds of surveys: A Condition and Value survey estimates the current market value of a vessel and how much it would cost to replace and provides a detailed assessment of the overall vessel condition. This will likely be what your insurance carrier will want to see. Often, a seller will have a recent survey that you can buy from him. If not, be sure to let your surveyor know that you want to be sure the boat meets all standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, American Boat and Yacht Council, U. S. Coast Guard and National Marine Manufacturers Association.

A second type of survey (and considerably less expensive) is called an insurance inspection. Don't waste your money on one of these. Your insurer probably won't accept it, as it doesn't dig deep enough.

Ask any prospective surveyor for references, a resume and samples of some surveys similar to what you require. Be sure that the surveyor belongs to either the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS).

In addition to the surveyor's fees, be prepared to pay to have the boat hauled if it isn't already on a trailer. And speaking of trailers - if one comes with the boat, have the surveyor inspect it too.

What You Can Request
Ask the previous owner if a survey has already been done and request any records of maintenance. Also inquire if it has ever been damaged or repaired. A history of insurance claims can help with this. And finally, if your prospective boat is a recent model, ask if it is still under warranty. Many builders offer transferable warranties.

Take a Sea Trial
When negotiating the contract, make sure to include several escape clauses for yourself. For example, stipulate that the purchase hinges on a successful sea trial, the vessel passing a survey and obtaining satisfactory financing. With these caveats, you have a legal out should any of these factors fail.

When conducting your sea trial, try to run the boat in as many conditions as possible. Make sure you find the handling and performance of the boat to your liking and that it has no unfortunate character traits that make you uncomfortable.

While under way, listen for unusual vibration or squeaking where bulkheads might be shifting. Can you get it in and out of the dock confidently? If there's anything about the boat you just can't stand, then walk away. It failed to meet one or more of the contractual stipulations.

Boat shows and friends who own the same boat can be gold mines of information. Stay away from most online forums that discuss various makes and models of boats. Many of the participants know very little but spout incorrect information with great authority and conviction.

Buying and owning your own boat that doesn't tax your wallet, patience or sanity can be one of the most rewarding acquisitions you'll ever make. It gets into your blood, and so far there is no known cure.