Buying a boat

Classic boat

Whatever the type of boat you are buying, be it a dinghy or a super yacht, the same general rules apply. Follow these principles and you can buy your boat with confidence.

New or used?

After you've decided what type of boat to buy, the next step is to decide whether you want to buy a new or used boat.

Buying a new boat from a dealer will avoid many of the difficulties that are associated with buying a used boat. For example, new boats will come with a warranty and you'll have more confidence that the boat you are buying has not previously been stolen. The down-sides to buying a new boat, however are that the initial cost is much higher, the value will depreciate rapidly and new boats are generally less well equipped than used boats.

Buying a new boat

If you choose to opt for a new boat, you can often save money by buying around the end of July, just before new models come out. At this time, many dealers will lower their prices to clear out old stock making way for the new. Of course your boat may not be the newest model for very long if you go down this route.

If you're undecided on the make and model of boat, then visiting boat shows is an excellent way to compare several types. A boat show may also allow you to haggle the best deal from a selection of rival dealers.

Buying a used boat

If you'd prefer to save some money and buy a boat whose value will not drop so sharply, then buying a used boat is the sensible choice to make. The rest of this article is devoted to tips on buying used boats.

If you are buying a used boat from a private seller, it will generally come with no warranty, so you need to check it out carefully to avoid making an expensive mistake. Many brokers and dealers sell used boats as well as new, and may offer a limited warranty. Whilst this may provide some peace of mind, the broker/dealer needs to make a commission on the sale and this will be reflected in a higher price than if the boat was being sold privately.

Before you even inspect the boat there are a few checks that you can make to ensure you don't waste your valuable time and effort:

Check out the builder of your chosen boat

Is it a highly regarded brand? Are they still trading? If not, it may prove difficult to obtain replacement parts when needed.

Why is the boat being sold?

This question can give you some clues as to how well the boat has been looked after before you even see it. If the boat is a repossession, it may indicate that the boat has not been looked after; if the owner didn't keep up payments to the financer, then he may have shown the same lack of care for the maintenance of the boat (of course this is a generalisation).

If the boat is being sold because the owner is moving up to a larger boat, then this might indicate that the owner is a real boating enthusiast, and thus may have taken greater care in the upkeep of the boat.

If the reason for selling is that there's a problem with the boat, then be aware that if you buy that boat, you will be the new owner of that problem!

Find out if the boat has a full maintenance log

This should list all services, repair, and oil changes. If it's missing, it can be hard to tell how well the boat has been looked after.

Does it have all the equipment you need?

For example, navigation, lights, winches etc. If not present, you will have to buy that equipment separately, so build that into your budget.

What was the main use of the boat?

The purpose that the boat has been used for may have an effect on its condition. For example, boats that are used mainly for fishing tend to run up a large number of engine hours.

Inspecting the Boat

The next step is to arrange a viewing. This is a vital part of the buying process; it enables you to see what you are getting before you part with any money.

It is recommended that you use a surveyor to carry out a detailed inspection of the boat. You may want to be present at the survey so that you can ask questions.

At the moment, anyone can call themselves a marine surveyor, so it is important to make sure that yours is accredited by the relevant authority (see the list at the end of this article).

Using a surveyor will give you peace of mind, and your finance company and insurance company may insist upon it. You should never rely on an old survey - new problems may have occurred since it was carried out.

If you are experienced and confident enough, you may be able to perform an inspection yourself. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Has the boat been looked after well? Start by looking at obvious features such as the gel coat, woodwork and upholstery. If these haven't been maintained then there's a good chance the rest of the boat has not had much care either.
  • Check all wooden decking and interior woodwork for any soft spots.
  • Are any parts of the exterior paintwork poorly matching? This may indicate a previous accident which, in itself, may not be enough to dismiss the boat, but if the owner has not already mentioned it to you, then what else have they not told you?
  • Check that all the control cables (for steering, throttle etc.) are in good working order. The steering and transmission should move freely.
  • Look for water lines inside the boat or on the engine. These would indicate that the boat has flooded in the past.
  • Open and close all the hatches and sea cocks to ensure they're in good working order. If there are any water marks inside the hatches, it would indicate that they are no longer water-tight.
  • You should test out all the systems such as, bilge pump, winches, freshwater system, lights, heater and air conditioning, generator, stove etc.
  • Check that all hardware is attached firmly, and that electrical items and connections are free from rust.
  • Examine the hull all over, taking note of its general condition and looking for any dents, cracks or chips in the gel coat if applicable. Tapping a fibreglass hull lightly with a rubber hammer, listening for voids, can help reveal any blistering or delamination. Any fittings that go through the hull should be checked to make sure they are tight and won't leak.
  • Find the hull registration number, and make sure it is present, doesn't look like it has been tampered with, and matches the number on the boat's registration and title documents. Missing or altered hull registration numbers indicate that the boat may be stolen. It is crucial that you ensure that you are not buying a stolen boat; if you do, you risk losing the boat and your money. Check out the stolen boats lists below.
  • It may not be practical to view the boat out of the water, but if possible, it'll allow you to continue your hull checks below the waterline. You can also check that the keel runs in a straight line from fore to aft, and that the propeller, shaft and rudder are straight; do they show any signs of a collision accident? Look for signs of cavitation, this manifests itself as an erosion of the surface of the propeller blades - an indication of poor performance. Make sure that the propeller and shaft do not wobble.
  • On a sailing boat, check that all the sails and rigging are in good order.
  • If possible, it may also be worth contacting the boat's previous owner, to get any further information; as they no longer have any interest in whether the boat is sold or not, they may be more likely to give you an impartial viewpoint than the current seller.

Engine checks

If you don't know a lot about engines it would be best to get a mechanic to look over the engine for you.

  • You should check for the presence of oil in the bilges - a sign of an oil leak.
  • Check for any oil leaks around gaskets and hoses.
  • Inspect the level and condition of the oil. A milky appearance to the oil is a sign that water may be leaking into the engine. A burned smell or any grit in the oil, are additional indications of mechanical problems, whilst a chalky residue on the engine or drive would signal that the engine has been running hot.
  • Pull out one of the spark plugs and examine it for age. If it's old, perhaps the engine hasn't been serviced as often as it should.
  • Examine all the hoses and belts. Are they cracked or degraded? Smell for fuel leaks from hoses, and check that the fuel tanks are sound.
  • Are the engine mounts sturdy?
  • Do the sacrificial anodes (if applicable) need replacing?
  • Compression check the engine.

Sea trial

If everything is up to your standards, it's time to take the boat for a test drive.

Before you start the engine, you should check to make sure if the engine is already warm; if the engine has trouble starting or smokes a lot when cold, the seller may have warmed-up the engine prior to your arrival to disguise such problems.

You should check the bilges, both at the start and end of the trial; you're looking for any evidence of an oil leak.

See how the boat performs when moving around. Is the steering responsive? Experiment with hitting waves from different angles, looking for excessive pitch or roll. Try out these factors whilst above and below deck.

Test that all the instruments are working correctly, and run the engine for long enough to see if it'll overheat.

If you're trialling a sailing boat, put the sails up, and see how she manoeuvres under wind power alone. Try out different points of sale. Examine the mast and rigging under load.

If the boat does not pass on any of your tests, you do not necessarily need to rule it out, as long as you are willing to put some time (and money) into putting things right. Any imperfections can be used as bargaining tools to try to negotiate a lower price.

Get it in writing

If you decide to purchase the boat, it is best to get everything put down in writing in a Sales Agreement. This should state the terms and amount of payment, and detail any pre-sale repairs that have been agreed on - making clear who is responsible for carrying them out and paying for them. It should also list which accessories are included and the delivery and payment dates.

Beware of fraud

There are a few things to watch out for to make sure you are not the victim of fraud when you buy a boat:

  • Does the price seem too good to be true? If so, it probably is. The boat may either be stolen or the seller may take your deposit and never be contactable again.
  • Make sure that you get the real address of the seller; you should be suspicious of anyone who only uses a PO Box.
  • Verify all the contact details of the seller. If there is an email address, make sure you can get a reply from them. Get a telephone number for them and make sure it works.
  • If the boat is in a different country to the seller, be extra cautious, and take even more care if either are outside of your own country.
  • If anything just doesn't seem right, don't dismiss those feelings until you've checked them out. Often your instincts are correct.

Further information

Stolen boats lists

Check internet lists of stolen boats to make sure that the boat you are buying is not listed on any of them. Here is a selection of such web sites: Limited is not responsible for the content of external web sites.

Boat price guides

It is important to check that you are not paying "over the odds" when buying your boat. Here are some useful sources of boat price information:

Some accreditation authorities for marine surveyors

Remember, if you are enlisting the services of a surveyor, make sure that they are accredited by a well known authority. Some examples are listed below:

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