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Long Distance Boat Shopping

Buying a boat long-distance presents challenges, but you can make the process work for you by having some expert eyes give a prospective boat a quick look before you bite.

Boat For Sale illustration

Illustration: Marcus Floro

It looked good! Except for one thing. To see the boat firsthand required a seven-hour drive — each way — and an overnight stay to break up the 840-mile road trip.

After two months of shopping my local market and perusing classified ads, boat-dealership brokerage listings, and the local Craigslist postings, I hadn't found a model that fit my needs. The Internet offered an easy way to expand my search, and almost immediately upon broadening my view, I was poring over advertisements of boats that fit my fancy. The problem? All the qualified craft were located at least a state away.

The best match happened to be the closest geographically: the walk-around cuddy cabin that still required a 14-hour investment in time and fuel and accommodations to see in person. Based on my four decades of used-boat ownership and related shopping, the odds for a positive outcome weren't in my favor. In my experience, most used boats don't live up to their advertised conditions. I've walked away from more boats that I care to recall, some without setting foot aboard, based on their appearance — which didn't live up to the description and/or photos. I've learned that, unlike books, a used boat can indeed often be judged by its cover. What I didn't want to risk was an estimated $200 out-of-pocket expense for travel expenses and two days of time to see a boat that may or may not be the deal it appeared to be on the Internet. Also, I knew that as a buyer, I'd lose substantial bargaining power, having invested an entire weekend and a lot of money on this boat; psychologically, I was more likely to overlook some issues or the price in order to feel that I hadn't "wasted time." (One way to prevent that feeling is to realize that some time — like boat shopping — is time well wasted.)


Scams are rampant on the Internet. Beware of counterfeit cashier's checks or money orders; a seller asking for your PayPal ID; and a seller suggesting escrow service accounts.

The Internet has opened the world as a market for boat shoppers, and most boats sold that way are trailerable. But no matter the boat's size, you're still facing the unsettling option of purchasing it without having seen it in person.

But there just happens to be a group of experts around the country that can help. Marine surveyors have served as qualified eyes and ears in the boat-condition and boat-valuing business for years, and they're typically hired by a prospective buyer to assess the value and overall shape of a boat. I had never hired the services of a surveyor, figuring my own experience was good enough to enable out a potentially punky transom when I suspected one. On the other hand, I have paid to have a marine mechanic look over engines on boats I was considered buying, not trusting my skills in that area.

So when faced with the dilemma of a long-distance shopping trip, I did a Google search for a surveyor in the boat's listing area. From the locator listing provided at the website for the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), I selected the state where my targeted boat-for-sale was situated, noted the contact information for the surveyor based nearest the boat's location, and fired off an email.

I received a phone reply that evening from Christopher Michael, of Michael Marine Services in Dallas, Pennsylvania. The marine surveyor said that not only was business brisk in the small-boat-survey segment, where about half of his inspections in 2015 involved trailerable-sized boats, but that like many of his peers in the profession, he offers consulting services precisely for off-site boat buyers who want a qualified "quick look" to determine whether a road trip — or a sight-unseen purchase — is justified. He stressed that the preliminary inspections are very basic and not to be confused with a traditional pre-purchase "condition and value" survey, which are comprehensive.

"These first looks are designed to give a prospective buyer an idea of whether or not a boat under consideration represents as it is advertised by the seller," Michael said. "It's a general inspection of the boat, hull, interior, motor, and trailer by an expert who is basically your eyes and ears to get an overview of the boat and offer information to help the buyer determine if he or she wants to proceed with getting the boat under contract or go to the next step in ordering a full survey." A surveyor on-site can also verify that the boat has proper ownership paperwork that matches the seller's name, potentially saving a huge headache later.

Michael said that most of his preliminary inspections include a quick inspection of basic systems, the overall condition of the hull and deck, and operating the engine — equipped with water-muffs — while checking starting, shifting, steering, and cooling functions. More comprehensive checks can be done as desired.

Michael said that photos are an important part of what such a consultation should include, as well as a recommendation based on the client's expectations and how and where the boat will be used. Surveyors typically know the quirks of certain models and can help you avoid those that have a bad reputation. The prospective buyer should expect a six- to eight-page written report accompanied by photos of the boat illustrating the findings — positive and negative — as well as a summary of what the consultant thinks of the offering and how the purchase may or may not be worth pursuing based on its condition, price, and the purchaser's situation and expectations.

Michael charges an average of $50 per hour for used-boat consultations, which includes travel time to and from the boat's location and any time he may spend discussing the boat with the owner in person or via telephone. That fee, he adds, may vary depending on the boat and its location. A typical preliminary inspection for a 22-foot boat might cost $200 to $300, while a full pre-purchase condition-and-value survey is billed by Michael at $22 per foot for boats up to 30 feet. You may be able to negotiate part of the preliminary inspection fee against a full purchase survey if you decide on one later. You also can instruct the surveyor to walk away if it's obvious from first view that the boat isn't right, saving you some money.

For consultations or surveys, local or long-distance, Michael recommends using surveyors who are members of SAMS or the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS), who he said follow strict ethical and professional guidelines, are required to maintain a program of continuing education, and whose members are recognized by leading lending institutions and insurance companies. Unaffiliated surveyors may also provide excellent service and advice, but gathering references to locate a reputable one from afar makes going through the SAMS or NAMS listings a more logical choice. And if the boat is offered through a dealership, Michael said, use your own surveyor rather than one recommended by the owner or broker.

"Purchasing a used boat at a distance is always a gamble," he said. "A good surveyor will put himself or herself in the shopper's shoes and be an advocate, answering not only the questions the buyer has about condition and value but determining whether it's both a fair value and a good match for the client."

Phishing Boats For Sale

In my search for a used boat on classified Internet sites, I responded to several advertisements for qualifying vessels posted on Craigslist both locally and regionally. Oddly enough, several never resulted in a response, even when I replied within a couple hours of their postings. When yet another popped up and my reply was ignored, I noted a pattern.

The postings for boats whose "owners" didn't respond appeared to be very well priced for their year, make, and condition. What's more, the photos were similar in that they were somewhat pixelated and their registration numbers were obscured by shadow, angle, or outright erased from the photo. Despite repeated inquiries from me to set up a showing, no one ever got back to me on any of these boats. After some research into the matter and reading about cases of other shoppers running into similar situations with both boats and automobiles, I learned that such advertisements often are posted as bait to gather email addresses and form lists of people looking for a particular type of boat; this information can then be sold to brokers.

If you suspect that a boat looks too good to be true, you may be simply giving up your email address for sale; worse, you may be entering into the world of online scams. See this article for more on avoiding boat buying and selling scams.

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Dan Armitage

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A full-time travel and outdoors writer based in Ohio, Dan is in his 20th season hosting the popular syndicated radio show Buckeye Sportsman. He gets around on a pontoon boat and an Aquasport center-console, which he uses for all his DIY editorial projects and fishing features. A USCG Captain (Master 50-ton), he’s a popular speaker at boat and sport shows.