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A Quick Guide to Buying a Used Boat

Spring and summer will arrive before we know it, and here in Southern California, one of the best ways to enjoy the warm months is aboard our own boats, either motor or sail. If you intend to purchase a boat in the near future, consider hiring a professional boat surveyor, who will provide you a detailed description of the vessel’s strong and weak points. If you want to conduct a quick inspection of your own, follow this short list of details to make an informed decision before opening your checkbook.



The first and most obvious thing to inspect on a boat is the condition of the hull. If the boat is out of the water, check for cracks and unintended holes. A long, deep crack in a fiberglass hull is a quick disqualifier. That kind of damage is difficult to repair properly and almost certainly an indicator of further damage inside the boat. However, a small hole or crack is easy to mend with a fiberglass repair kit from your local chandlery.

A steel or aluminum boat should be relatively free of oxidation, which will be obvious by powdery or crumbly discoloration. Providing the damage is not widespread, this can be repaired rather easily by a certified welder. Prevent further damage by installing sacrificial zincs to the bottom of the hull.



A gasoline inboard engine should reflect an ongoing regimen of care, particularly to the electrical system, including battery cables, starter motor, distributor and spark plug cables. A saltwater environment can wreak havoc on these items if they do not receive regular attention.

A diesel engine, on the other hand, is an easy read. If it starts up with minimal smoke from the wet exhaust and the gearbox turns the propeller, you should have little trouble getting underway. As with a gas engine, you may need to change the water separator and secondary fuel filter, but these are part of the normal maintenance regimen.


Steering System

On a motorboat, generally speaking, the steering wheel controls the rudder via stainless steel cables, chain linkage or hydraulics. A sailboat might have one of the same systems or a traditional tiller, which is still found particularly on older models, such as my 1966 Cal 30 sloop. Some larger, vintage sailboats have heavy worm gear linkage between the wheel and the rudder.

Your immediate concern with steering should be excessive play between wheel and rudder. This could indicate a failure in the cable or chain, which could be falling apart. However, a new steering cable or chain should solve the problem, so this is not necessarily a reason to turn down a good deal on a boat.


Galley and Head

If the boat includes a fully functional galley, ensure there is a sink, along with a propane stove. The sink should be backed up by a clean water tank, preferably stainless steel. Test the sink water pump or faucet to ensure it works properly. With the owner or yacht agent present, test the stove to ensure it lights with a clean, blue flame. An orange flame indicates a dirty fuel line, which will need to be replaced.

The toilet in the head should be connected to the holding tank via marine sanitation hose at the inlet and corrugated bilge hose at the outlet. If the hoses appear damaged, either the current owner or you, the buyer, will need to switch those out to prevent a break in the hose at the worst possible time­ – like during a deck party with friends and family.


Sail Rigging

Selecting a sailboat, particularly a used one, is a bit more complicated than finding the right motorboat. Aside from the hull, engine, steering system, galley and head, the mast, rigging and sail inventory also will require close inspection. Again, a history of poor maintenance is not necessarily disqualifying; au contraire, it is an opportunity to haggle over price.

Start with a visual inspection of the mast and spreaders. Are the spreaders made of wood and showing signs of splitting or rot? How about the standing rigging, which means the wires holding the mast in place? Are they rusting or showing any breakage, particularly in the swaged fittings at deck level?

If there is any running rigging (rope) out on deck, is it seriously discolored or frayed? Replacing top-quality, polyester, double-braided line, such as New England Sta-Set X or Samson, is not cheap, but here again, this is a bargaining chip, not a disqualifier.


Sail Inventory

A set of well-made sails in good condition adds significant value to a sailboat because replacing them can be quite expensive. As an example, I spent $2,000 on a new, 10-ounce mainsail from Rolly Tasker last year, and I was happy with both the price and the exceptional quality. But among the uninitiated, that price tag for a piece of cloth might raise some eyebrows. Hence the need to check the present sail inventory closely.

For a simple sloop rig, there should be a usable mainsail and jib, the latter probably in the form of a roller-furling genoa. Raise the mainsail to make sure the slides move easily up the sail track. Also use this opportunity to inspect the condition of the sail. Then unfurl the jib to verify the roller reefing system works without a hitch and to inspect the sailcloth. Better yet, unfasten the jib halyard and let the sail drop to the deck to allow for a closer inspection. If there is an obvious tear or a parting seam in either the main or the jib, this is one more bargaining point in your favor.



Smaller boats, both motor and sail, are often stored and towed on a trailer, allowing the vessel to be launched anywhere there is navigable water. Inspect the trailer to ensure the frame is relatively free from rust and damage. Long exposure to saltwater will cause serious corrosion in a steel frame unless the metal is washed with fresh water after use and repainted with rust-resistant paint often.

Pay especially close attention to the axle, leaf springs and wheels, taking note of any flaking metal indicating serious and possibly dangerous rust intrusion. The specter of a boat and trailer flying apart on the freeway is not a comforting thought.

Finally, ensure the trailer taillights and wiring are intact and secured properly to the frame. If not, this again is a bargaining point, not necessarily a disqualifier. With a handful of items, you can have the taillights working in little time: two rolls of wire (one red and one black), some waterproof wire crimps, a cigarette lighter to melt the crimps tight, plus wire cutters and a screwdriver.

Finding your dream boat will not be easy, but by learning everything you can about the type of boat you desire and then verifying the quality and possible repair needs, you will find your floating palace with little trouble. Have fun and be safe!

Editors Note— This is not an all-inclusive list, and every boat is unique.  It is always advisable to have a professional surveyor evaluate a vessel prior to purchase.

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