Buying a Used Boat: The Step-by-Step Guide

While shiny and new, a brand-new boat comes with a bigger price tag. A used boat, however, can help you realize the dream of boat ownership—without the sticker shock and financial headache.

Generally speaking, a used boat will be priced 28% to 34% below what a boat costs brand new.

The used boat market is strong, but there’s an art to buying a used boat.

Though the buying process may not always be smooth sailing, this used boat checklist will help you understand exactly what you should be looking for, helping you avert buyer’s remorse.

Understanding the Used Boat Market

The used boat market is vast and diverse, with a wide range of models and brands available at varying price points. Factors such as age, condition, size, and brand all impact the price of a used boat. Popular models and brands, such as Sea Ray, Bayliner, and Chris Craft, are sought after for their quality and reliability.

Finding the right boat can be challenging. It requires research, communication with sellers, and thorough inspections.

Building Your Boat Buying Checklist

Before you can start inspecting a boat to make sure it’s the right fit for you, you first need to determine your needs, set a budget, and figure out where you will purchase your boat. There are dealers, a private party, friends in your network, etc.

Determining Your Boating Needs

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will you trailer the boat?
  • What types of waterways will you navigate?
  • What are you using the boat for?
  • Who is going with you? (Friends, family, the whole neighborhood, etc.)
  • What type of water? (Salt, fresh, calm, rough?)

Setting a Budget

Establishing a budget for a used boat is crucial for making a smart purchase decision. When creating your budget, consider the following expenses:

  • The cost of the boat
  • Any necessary repairs or enhancements
  • Insurance premiums
  • Mooring or storage fees
  • Fuel and maintenance expenses

It is recommended to set aside 10-15% of the purchase price for maintenance and repairs, depending on the type and age of the boat. Additionally, allocate a budget of 5-10% of the purchase price for insurance, depending on the type of boat and coverage required.

Finding the Perfect Pre-Owned Boat

Once you’ve determined your boating needs and budget, it’s time to find the perfect pre-owned boat. Utilize online resources, boat shows, dealerships, and word of mouth to find the best deal on a used boat.

Some boat owners will choose a quick and easy sale post on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, or a bit more a bit more detailed listing on Boat Trader. Set notifications for yourself to be alerted of new listings that come to the market. 

Conducting a Thorough Inspection

Chances are you wouldn’t purchase a house without first hiring a house inspector or a used car without going through an auto inspection. We won’t tell you that you need to hire a marine surveyor to do this inspection for you (although you could), but you will need to know how to carefully inspect a boat to ensure it’s in the right condition before purchasing.

Although it would be great to take the current owner’s information and trust them, if you want a good deal, you’ll need to check the following in your inspection:

  • Hull
  • Deck
  • Engine
  • Outboard motor
  • Interior
  • Electrical system

Hull and Deck Inspection

Inspect the hull and deck for signs of damage, wear, and repairs, and check for:

  • Soft spots
  • Delamination
  • Water damage
  • Holes or scratches that extend into the core or laminate material

Additionally, when inspecting a boat, make sure to:

  • Examine the seats for excessive wear, mold, and mildew
  • Assess the condition of the cables and controllers for smooth operation
  • Conduct a thorough hull and deck inspection to ensure the boat is in good condition and safe to use
  • Use the hull identification number to see if you can pull up a boat history report

Engine and Outboard Motor Inspection

Examine the engine and outboard motor for corrosion, noise, and performance issues. Check the belts and hoses for signs of deterioration, fraying, or cracks, and look for any signs of leakage, corrosion, and damage in the engine bay. Confirm the number of engine hours with the owner.

Consider hiring a mechanic to inspect the engine(s) or perform a fluid analysis test for larger boats. The last thing you need to find out is that the boat is being sold because the owners are looking to avoid some hidden repair totaling $5000.

Interior and Electrical System Inspection

Check the interior and electrical system for signs of leaks, damage, and faulty wiring. Test the electronics components like radios, GPS, radar, flickering lights, and electronic shifter/throttle. These issues can signify problems in the wiring or electrical system.

Inspect the battery(s) terminals for corrosion, check for a cracked or leaking case, and ensure the battery(s) are securely anchored in the battery tray. You can confirm the boat’s overall safety and functionality by thoroughly inspecting the interior and electrical system.

Taking a Test Drive (Also Known as a Sea Trial)

A test drive, or sea trial, is essential in the used boat buying process. During the sea trial, you’ll have the opportunity to evaluate the boat’s:

  • Features (all the bells and whistles)
  • Systems (navigation equipment, steering, bilge pumps, etc.)
  • Engine performance (acceleration, power, cooling, vibration)
  • Handling (responsiveness, stability)

This hands-on experience will provide valuable insights into how the boat performs on the water, allowing you to decide whether it’s the right boat for you.

Save up to $1,200/year on boat storage

Handling the Paperwork: Titles, Liens, and Purchase Agreements

Before finalizing your used boat purchase, handling all necessary paperwork, such as titles, liens, and purchase agreements, is essential. Ensuring all documents are in order and properly executed will provide a smooth and legal transaction, giving you peace of mind in your boat purchase.

  • Verify the title confirms ownership, and that there are no outstanding debts
  • Draft a purchase agreement. Be sure to include warranties, purchase price, and date of sale
  • Register your boat following the legal requirements in your state

Financing Options for Used Boats

Financing options for used boats include secured and unsecured loans from banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates may vary depending on creditworthiness and loan terms.

  • Traditional Bank Loans: offer fixed interest rates, can be harder to qualify for, and will limit the age of the boat
  • Marine Financing Brokerages: competitive rates, assistance in finding access to a loan, more flexible terms
  • Private Seller Loan: loan held by the current owner of the boat

Used Boat Storage

Now that the boat is picked out and in good shape with no engine issues or title problems, it’s time to figure out where you will put it. Marinas and boat yards may not have space for you right away. Common sense would say to keep it at your own home, but restrictions with HOA and space make that a problem.

That’s where Neighbor can become a good option to consider.

Neighbor is a peer-to-peer storage marketplace that can help used boat owners. 

You can find options for covered, uncovered, wet, and dry boat storage based on your boat’s needs. Let’s face it, you went the used boat route to save money, don’t throw all that savings away on storage.


At this point, you have enough knowledge to get a used boat in good working order and use it for years. Buying a used boat is a fun and exciting project, but keep your eye out for any red flags or things that don’t seem right.

It may take some time, but before long, you’ll be on the water in your perfect boat, boating safety equipment and all.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it a good idea to buy a used boat?

Buying a used boat can be a great choice, with a lower cost per year of ownership and less on the line if you change your mind. Plus, there’s peace of mind in knowing you won’t have to put the first scratch or ding in the boat.

How many hours is a lot for a used boat?

With an average serviceable life of 1500-2000 hours, 1000 hours is generally considered a lot when buying a used boat. Condition and maintenance are potentially more important than total hours.

How do I test a used boat before buying?

When testing a used boat before buying, check the gauges, lights, head, raw and fresh water, transom condition, floor, hull, motor, lower unit, motor tilt, trim, lights, cracks in the hull, and price. 

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