Buying The Right Used Boat

"FOR SALE" Doesn't always mean a boat or trailer (or both) is worth it. To find out if it is, the right questions need to be asked.

Photo of used boats for sale

Buying a used boat isn't as easy as walking onto the dealer lot, pointing at a shiny 21-footer sitting off in the corner, and saying, "I'll take that one." It requires a lot of work whether it's searching for the right boat, making sure that the boat doesn't have any known problems, or finding out if the price is right. Buying a boat involves a lot of homework. Consider the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau your study guide to boat buying.

Finding A Boat

First, there's no "right way" to find the right boat for you. Besides searching newspaper classifieds, online, or on the local dealer's lot, some buyers just ask around their marina or pick the brains of fellow boaters. If you are unsure of different types of boats available, check out boating magazines and manufacturers' websites, or spend a beautiful day at a local boat show. A schedule of upcoming boat shows is online at Make sure you use all the resources available to you.

TIP #1: Sign up for the BoatUS Free Weekly Classifieds Email and have BoatUS fill your inbox folder chock full of boats for sale!

Buy Local

Dealer or private seller? This argument just may have been going on as long as the debate of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Buying from each has its pros and cons. The going dealer commission rate on used boats is 10% whereas a private seller doesn't charge a commission. On the other hand, a dealer may provide after-sale service or even a warranty and might be able to help with a loan if you need to finance the boat.

Whether you end up buying from a dealer or from a private seller, BoatUS recommends, "Buy local." In fact, consider it your mantra when looking for a boat. You will come across all kinds of beautiful boats online or in boat classifieds; however, if you are in Moon, VA, and the seller is in Disco, WI, you can't just hop in the car and take a look at the boat without taking some major time off from work. Also, if the dealer is five hours away and the boat develops problems, you aren't going to be happy having to drive back and forth to the dealer, wasting precious boating hours.

TIP #2: Local boaters know local dealers. Your fellow boaters are good sources of information about how dealers treat their customers.

Fact-Finding Missions

Poring through countless pages of boating magazines, wearing out the soles of your Sperry's at local dealers, and spending hours on the Internet going through classified ads (and playing a little solitaire) have finally paid off: looks like you've finally found the "right" boat for you. Now it's time to go on a fact finding mission to find out if that boat really IS right for you.

Mission #1: Price. Nobody wants to overpay for anything. Used-boat price guides like BUC, NADA, and ABOS can be found at any bookstore or library. Take some time to leaf through them.

TIP #3: "Check out" BoatUS Value Check A service to BoatUS members, Value Check has a "dynamic and current database well in excess of 750,000 quotes, sales, and purchases being reported daily by BoatUS Members and the general boating public.

In addition, pre-qualifying for a loan can get you better rates. Call BoatUS Finance, 800-365-5636, for more information.

Mission #2: "Dig up the Dirt." Obviously, no boat is defect-free. There are some models that are known to have problems. But where can you find out this information?

1. Recalls on boats and engines can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard's website:

2. Call the boat and engine manufacturer [have the boat's Hull Identification Number (HIN) and engine serial numbers handy] to try to obtain service records and any additional information on the boat.

3. Do a lien search on the boat's title and registration with the state in which the boat is registered to make sure that the boat is free of any liens.

4. Contact the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau. We maintain the only database of consumer complaints, recalls, and service bulletins about boats, marine engines, and related products and services. Call 703-461-2856 or e-mail

TIP #4: Post a message on an Internet message board [like the BoatUS message boards inquiring about problems with certain boats. While your fellow boaters might love their boats, they'll usually tell you the negatives as well.

Purchase Agreements

You've completed your fact-finding missions and the boat has come up clean. Now it's time to PASS ... Purchase Agreement, Survey, and Sea Trial. These are the steps you need to take to make sure the boat makes the grade.

Purchase agreements are important because they protect the buyer and the seller. The agreement should clearly state that the purchase is contingent on a satisfactory survey and sea trial and the ability to obtain acceptable financing (if you are getting a loan) and marine insurance. A "good faith" deposit of about 10% should be included with the stipulation that the deposit is refundable if any contingency can't be met. Also be sure to specify a delivery date when the sale will be completed.

It is extremely important that you read the agreement before you sign it. Not only should you look for the above contingencies but also the details of what you have to do to get your deposit back if the deal falls through. The Bureau has dealt with many complaints where buyers have lost their deposits due to the contracts being broken without cause. Protecting yourself is important because the majority of used boats are sold "as is," which means that you will have little or no recourse against the seller if problems become apparent after the sale. Finally, be sure that all signature lines are signed by both buyer and seller.

TIP #5: Contact the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau for a copy of the model purchase agreement developed by the BoatUS Finance division. We would be glad to e-mail, mail, or fax you one.

Surveys and Sea Trials

A survey inspection of the boat prior to purchase can either make or break a deal. A professional marine surveyor is an expert who should be well versed in boat construction, as well as safety and manufacturing laws, requirements and practices. Surveys cost an average of $10-$15 per foot, depending upon the size of the boat and region. The boat should be inspected in and out of the water. Although hiring a surveyor is an added cost, consider it a good investment against buying an unsafe boat or one that needs expensive repairs. If you spend $300 on a survey that reveals $3000 worth of damages to the boat, you can decide whether the boat is worth owning. A surveyor's report can be a bargaining chip when it comes to negotiating with the seller. You can use the problems identified in the report as a way to lower the price or get certain items taken care of before purchase. Remember, though, a surveyor's report is not a guarantee against defects in the boat but the opinion of a professional.

TIP #6: If you do renegotiate the sales price or if the seller agrees to make repairs following the surveyors inspection, make sure these changes and a detailed list of the repairs are written into the purchase agreement.

Should you just go to the yellow pages, look up "marine surveyor," and choose the one closest to you? No. A good surveyor should have "certified marine surveyor" status with the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or "accredited marine surveyor" status with the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), two professional groups for surveyors. Also, the surveyor should be someone you hire and pay for yourself.

Remember, because the surveyor represents your interests, not those of the seller, never use a surveyor recommended by the seller or rely upon a surveyor's report provided by the seller.

TIP #7: The BoatUS surveyor referral list is online at

Also, have an independent marine mechanic inspect the engines. Most marine surveyors do not perform this service. Ask the surveyor for referrals.

TIP #8: A survey is a great way to become familiar with the boat that you are buying, so plan on being present during the inspection. Follow up the survey with a sea trial. You wouldn't buy a car before you test-drive it, so don't buy a boat without taking it out on the water and putting it through its paces. See how it performs in varying conditions. See if all the gauges and electrical equipment work properly. Things might show up during the sea trial that wouldn't be apparent while the boat was on land or at the dock.

TIP #9: Consider asking the surveyor to attend the sea trail. A boat in motion is a lot different than one at its mooring.

Making The Purchase

The purchase agreement's signed, you've paid a 10% deposit, and the boat has passed the surveyor's inspection and sea trial with flying colors. It's time to write the seller a check and take the boat home, right? Not just yet. Ask to see the following documentation to help authenticate the seller's ownership:

1. A bill of sale showing that the seller actually owns the boat. The document should show his name and a description of the boat and its HIN (Hull Identification Number). Make sure the HIN on the boat (located on the starboard side of the transom) matches the one on the seller's records.

2. Boat insurance policy listing the owner's name and boat description.

3. Boat's certificate of title and/or state registration.

TIP #10: Some states don't require titling, so if the seller doesn't have a title, make sure you see the bill of sale from when he bought the boat.

If you have all the proof of the seller's ownership and everything looks fine, get out that checkbook and buy that beautiful boat.

After The Sale

At last, the boat is yours! Before you hit the water, here are some things to consider:

1. Call BoatUS Marine Insurance at 1-800-283-2883 for an insurance quote.

2. Take a boating safety class. If you are a new boater or a seasoned captain, you can benefit from a boating class. For online boating classes, visit or find a list of classes near you at

3. Have the United States Power Squadron or the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary perform a Vessel Safety Check, a courtesy examination of your boat, to verify the presence and condition of certain Safety Equipment required by state and federal regulations. Find out more at

Get Out On The Water!

You've found the right boat, done your digging, hired a surveyor, taken a sea trial, negotiated a great price, signed the papers, and taken a helpful safe boating course. Now what? Launch that beautiful boat and enjoy. Congratulations on finishing your homework assignment with flying colors. Just remember, boating is a lot more fun than algebra.

TIP #11: If you have any questions about buying a used boat or to request a copy of the BoatUS Guide to Buying and Selling a Boat, call the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau at 703-461-2856 or e-mail us at

A Purchase Agreement Should Include:

  • Date
  • Name of purchaser and (if applicable) co-purchaser, their address and phone number
  • Name of seller and co-seller, their address and phone number
  • Broker (if applicable) If a broker is used, they will provide the purchase agreement
  • Description of boat, including: Manufacturer, Model, Year, Length, Hull #, Engine #
  • Trailer Documentation # (manufacturer, model, year, and serial number, if applicable)
  • Location of boat
  • Selling price and terms/conditions of purchase
  • Deposit received $ _______ and date the deposit was received _______
  • Closing date
  • Liens of encumbrances (the boat is sold free of any liens, bills unless otherwise stated and agreed to. The owner warrants that he has a marketable title and the lawful right to sell the boat (and trailer if appropriate) and will deliver all the necessary documents for the transfer of title.)
  • Additional terms and conditions: Transaction is subject to acceptable survey; acceptable sea trials and (if applicable) financing; the boat must be insurable; the deposit is refundable in full to the purchaser if any of the above items are unsatisfactory; copies of current state title and registration and current certificate of documentation (if applicable) should be attached to this agreement.

Eyeing a Used Trailer? 10 Questions BEFORE Going on the Road

From Butch Williams, Sales and technical specialist at Midwest Industries (manufacturer of Shoreland'r Trailers,

Buying a used boat is always an activity focused on the hull, the engine and, to a lesser extent (sometimes), the accompanying bells and whistles. If the inspection and negotiation take place over a half-hour period, the last thirty seconds of the deal will usually involve the trailer. It goes with the territory. Trailers are never the focal point ... unless something goes wrong.

So while it's a given that boat trailers are unexciting, it's well worth the time to answer these 10 trailer questions before saying "I'll take it!" And if you are buying just a trailer from a dealer or an individual, this becomes all the more important. When you arrive to take a look, be ready to crawl beneath in order to know what you're getting. And be sure to bring not only your checkbook, but the tow vehicle you'll be using.

Is the trailer NMMA Certified? These are industry guidelines for safety and structural integrity of boat trailers. Currently, 19 trailer manufacturers are certified (you can view these at Every trailer that has passed certification standards will display a sticker on the frame.

Will it fit the boat? While obvious, there are too many stories of someone being told by a dealer or a seller, "Sure it will fit," only to realize the trailer and the boat are incompatible. Sometimes, an unscrupulous dealer will "package" a used boat with a used trailer and offer a "good deal." Buyer beware!

Do some homework. Most boat and trailer manufacturers know the specifics of each other's boat designs and trailer models and will be able to tell you if the combination you are considering is a good "fit." Know the weight limit of the trailer and determine if the boat and motor are within the maximum capacity. In addition, examine how the hull sits on the trailer and look for areas where a roller may be stressing a small section of the hull. If the trailer is being sold separately, don't make a deal to purchase until you've been able to put your boat on the trailer (unless you have already researched the specific trailer model and the specific hull design).

Will it fit the truck? Bring your tow vehicle. Hook the trailer up (if possible) and take a look at how it sits on the hitch ball. Give thought to the possibility that a higher or lower hitch is needed to accommodate the trailer (it should be level).

Corrosion? Inspect the trailer for areas that are scratched and look for signs of corrosion. If the trailer is aluminum, this won't be necessary but, in any case, inspect for stress (i.e. cracks or bent frame).

Suspension? If the trailer has leaf springs, check to see if any leaves are cracked or broken.

Tires? An effective method of checking tire tread is to place a penny in the grooves (hold the bottom of the penny so Lincoln's head is in the tread. If any part of Lincoln's head is obscured, the tread is fine. If, however, you can read the words "In God We Trust," the tire isn't legal and will have to be replaced. Next, check that the tires are "ST" (meaning "special trailer," designed just for trailers).

Bearings? Many BoatUS Members who have purchased used trailers have the bearings replaced and repacked just for the peace of mind that they know the maintenance history of this essential trailering system. This is especially true if the seller is offering the trailer "as is." The price is always better but the chance of something going wrong increases proportionally. Prior to making the deal, however, inspect for any evidence of grease coming out of the rear seals or grease on the frame near the axles. That's proof the trailer may not even make it out of the driveway.

Brakes? Unless your boat weighs less than 2,000 pounds, the trailer is going to require brakes (States have a different rules regarding weight and brakes, so know the requirement). If you are looking at a double (or triple) axle trailer, brakes may be required on each axle (again it depends on the state). The next question to ask (and this presumes the trailer uses a surge brake system) is: Disc brakes or Drum?

Lights? If you have your tow vehicle, try connecting the trailer to the truck's electrical system (this may be tricky since trailer and truck connections commonly need adapters). If the lights aren't operating properly (brakes, turn signals and running lights when headlights are on), check the truck's connection with a meter to ensure it is producing 12 volts. If it is, then there could be a ground problem or a faulty fuse or bulb. If at all possible, inspect the wires running along the frame (although many are now run inside the frame). If replacements are necessary, consider LED lights.

Paperwork? Does the state require a trailer inspection? Does the owner have the trailer registration? Is the serial number visible and does it match the registration? And, see #1, can you see an NMMA certificate?

"More than 60% of all used boats are bought from a private individual. In 2003, 130,000 new boat trailers were sold." National Marine Manufacturers Association  

This article was published in the June/July 2005 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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