8 Key Steps to Successfully Buying a Used Boat

8 Key Steps to Successfully Buying a Used Boat

Both seasoned boat enthusiasts and newcomers alike are drawn to the irresistible charm of navigating the local waterway and the exhilaration that accompanies owning a boat. However, purchasing a used boat comes with its own set of challenges and considerations. This basic guide provides eight essential steps to help you navigate the process smoothly and make a more informed decision.

Importance of a Written Agreement

Before finalizing any boat purchase, it’s critical to agree to terms and have a signed contract in place. This step ensures fairness for both parties. A standard procedure involves placing a 10% deposit, contingent on a satisfactory survey and sea trial. In case of an unsatisfactory survey, the contract should allow for a full refund of the deposit. Using a generic contract like our one here can simplify the process, providing a clear framework for both buyer and seller.  I’ve seen too many verbal agreements where buyers lost their deposits after finding major issues with boats that hadn’t been disclosed prior.

Assessing Boat Covers

Boat covers, including canopies and clears, are often overlooked but can be quite costly to replace. A thorough inspection of these elements is essential, especially for mid-sized sports cruisers, where replacements with full camp covers and clears can exceed $10,000. Is there also a set of storm covers if needed? What condition is the canopy in? Assessing the condition of boat covers can prevent unexpected expenses after the purchase.

A Chris Craft with a full set of storm covers, being test fitted during the survey

Understanding Vessel Age and Inspection Limits

When considering older boats, it’s vital to have realistic expectations. Boats that have been in saltwater for 15-20 years will inevitably show signs of wear and tear. Surveys provide a snapshot of the boat’s condition but are limited by time and the fact that you do not yet own the vessel. An experienced surveyor can offer a balanced view, but comprehensive inspections that uncover every possible issue would require extensive time and money.

Inspecting for Visible Damage

A close examination of the boat’s exterior is crucial. Look for signs of damage, such as gouges or scrapes on the hull. While high-quality repairs can be adequate, visible damage can indicate potential issues.
This physical damage ended up being rot to the entire hard top!

Evaluating Service History

The service history is a valuable resource for understanding the boat’s maintenance. It’s important to differentiate between planned maintenance and repairs due to breakdowns. Regular, annual maintenance performed at a qualified marine shop is a good sign. For guidance on service history essentials, consulting dedicated resources can be beneficial. For example, each engine manufacturer will publish service recommendations to be followed. A good place to find manufacturer specific publications can be www.boatdiesel.com. Alternatively we have a basic guide that can be downloaded on our About Us page.

Checking the Transom

Inspecting the transom, especially on small trailer boats, can reveal significant information. Visible cracking and staining can be immediate red flags. For moored vessels, this might not always be possible, but it’s an important step when you can conduct it.

Observing for Corrosion

In the engine bay, look for signs of rust or corrosion. If these issues are not mentioned in the service history, it could indicate underlying problems. A corroded engine bay can lead to significant repair costs.
This heavy visible corrosion was a tell tale sign of a leak, which ended up being the heat exchanger end cap

Insisting on a Sea Trial

A sea trial is indispensable for assessing the seaworthiness of the vessel. Performance issues, leaks, and alarms often become apparent only when the boat is under load. Opting out of a sea trial can result in taking on unnecessary risks, especially for boats older than five years.  

About the Author


Aaron O’Donoghue is a qualified Marine Surveyor & Engineer with nearly two decades of experience in the industry. He is an experienced boater from Sydney who grew up on the waters of Sydney Harbour. He left school at 15 to complete an apprenticeship as a Marine Mechanic. In 2015, he founded BoatBuy, where he has inspected thousands of boats and is passionate about helping others enjoy their time on the water. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field. Do you have a boating related question? Feel free to reach out to me via email here.

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