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What to Look For When Buying a Used Boat. 7 Hidden Problems

Filled with excitement you set off on your journey to buying a used boat. It can be a long one, as you seek out the perfect boat to suit you and your family’s needs, one which is in the best condition for the budget you have. Along the way you might get close to buying several boats before you put pen to paper, and it’s important to ensure that emotions don’t take over common sense (or even your gut feeling). 

There are thousands of used boats on the market, all across the world. Online selling sites such as Rightboat.com offer a portal to peruse, enquire and arrange viewings on boats you’re interested in, whether they are just down the road or on the other side of the world. In doing so, you’ll be able to separate the ‘possibles’ from the ‘absolutely nots’ until you find ‘the one’. Whether you want to buy a boat from a private seller, or from a broker, the same considerations apply. 

So how do you know when it’s the one? And what are the pitfalls of buying a used boat? Whenever you buy something second hand, there is a risk involved which isn’t there when buying new, and this goes for buying a second hand boat as much as cars or any other mechanical equipment. In fact, because boats have so many hidden systems, compartments, and accessories which it can be even trickier to identify any problems without a comprehensive marine survey. 

We always recommend consulting a professional broker and/or a surveyor when making a boat purchase. It's really important to protect yourself against anything going wrong with such a big purchase.

Here we dive into what to look out for when buying a used boat.


  1. Engine Issues

Problems with the engine of your new boat could spell disaster and cost a lot of money to put right. So it is important that your first focus is on this. Start by pulling the dipstick to check the oil and to ensure it isn’t milky. Milky engine oil is a sign of water ingress. Start the engine and listen for spluttering and coughing. Does it start smoothly? Ask the seller not to start the engine before you arrive (which allows time for it to run smoothly), or show up a bit early and surprise them. When it comes to engines, bringing along a marine surveyor or someone with experience is invaluable, but you can tell a lot about the condition yourself as a first inspection. 


  1. Electrical System Faults

Re-wiring a boat is a big job, so this will be something you want to inspect closely. Start by switching on every single electrical item on board individually – from the light switches to the navigation systems. Then turn them all on at the same time to ensure the boat is able to handle the electrical surge. Inspect the fuse box for wear and tear as well as replacement fuses. If there have been lots of obvious repairs and replacements you can enquire as to why. You’ll also want to check out the state of the wiring itself to ensure it’s straight, supported, has the correct connectors and meets fire safety regulations. 


  1. Hull Damage

While a full hull inspection will be part of a marine survey once the boat is out of the water, even if it is still in the water you can get a good preliminary idea of its condition. On sailing boats, check the rub rail where most damage is found. Look for holes or scratches which penetrate the core or laminate material - this is a red flag as it is costly repair. If the boat is out of the water, spray a hose all around it to check for any water ingress. A bent or twisted rub rail indicates an area where the boat came into contact with a hard object which stressed the joint. 

Get deep into the boat and look at the stringers, which are essentially the backbone of the boat. If you spot any damage or separation this is major issue. In fact, look for any areas where water might have penetrated the boat, including in the bilge, which might indicate a joint’s seal isn’t complete. 


  1. Failing Pumps

While there are many pumps to investigate on a boat, from heads to air conditioning systems, water makers and fresh water pumps, bilge pumps top the list of worrisome hidden problems as they too are an expensive repair or replacement. Activate the bilge pumps electrically, but also get into the bilge and trigger it manually to be certain it is working efficiently. 


  1. Mast and Rigging Issues

When buying a used sailing boat, the mast and rigging is one of the major considerations. Even one fault could mean the entire complex system doesn’t work as it should do. Start your inspection at the chainplate, where the rig is affixed to the structure. The main things to look out for on the chainplate’s turnbuckles are corrosion, cracks and correct fitting. After that, move on to the mast and particularly the spreaders where they meet it for damage, corrosion and cracks. 


  1. Interior Leaks

We’ve already looked at major hull damage, but you also want to ensure there is no water coming in elsewhere, such as from hatches and portholes. Spray the entire boat with a good amount of water and then inspect cabins and salons for water ingress. It can sometimes be easy to see water damage, but if the boat has been cleaned and spruced for sale it might be trickier to spot. 


  1. Anything that doesn’t seem right

This might be a vague and obvious thing to point out, your gut instinct will play an important role in telling you if something doesn’t seem quite right. You may not even be able to put your finger on it, but if that niggle is there, then listen to it. After you’ve been through the above buying a used boat checklist, just get a feel for the boat. Look through the lockers, sit on the upholstery (and give it a sniff), look into all storage areas and under bunks. Allow yourself plenty of time, and don’t feel rushed by the seller or broker. A serious and honest seller will feel confident with your inspecting their boat with a fine toothed comb. 


The Bottom Line

Looking for problems with a used boat shouldn’t be a demoralizing activity, but instead empower you in knowing you’re doing your best to find a sound and worthy boat. Understanding where things can go wrong is vital long before you get a marine surveyor in, and allows you to whittle down your list of possible boats to one final one before splashing out for the survey. Check out Rightboat.com’s huge library of articles, how-to guides and advice pieces to learn all you can about buying a used boat, and you’ll be well on your way to a life-changing adventure. 



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4. EUROPE - Do You Need a Licence to Sail a Boat?

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Written By: Samantha Wilson

Samantha Wilson has spent her entire life on and around boats, from tiny sailing dinghies all the way up to superyachts. She writes for many boating and yachting publications, top charter agencies, and some of the largest travel businesses in the industry, combining her knowledge and passion of boating, travel and writing to create topical, useful and engaging content.

Get in touch:Linkedin

More from: Samantha Wilson

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