Boat Buying Tips
Capt Ed Wiser for Coastal Angler Magazine, Feb and March 2014
We all know the phrase, “The two happiest days of a boat owners life is when he buys the boat and when he sells the boat.” This article is to help make the days in between as happy as the first. Boat buyers come in all types. Some rush into a purchase based upon the appearance of a boat, personal or family enthusiasm, and recommendations of friends and the seller, of course. Others look and ponder for years and can never seem to make the leap off the dock. And there is everything in between. Wherever you fall in the spectrum, check your emotions and testosterone at the door – and leave the kids at home. Kids are a lot of fun but they can make it tough to remain objective and negotiate the best deal.
First, look for a clean boat. I often see pictures on craigslist, ebay, yacht world or other online venues where the featured pictures show a dirty boat. Gear is scattered about inside and out, the topsides are stained with algae or rust, the interior shows mold, and a number of other problems. The most common failure is taking a picture with oak leaves everywhere. These pictures are intended to sell the boat. If an owner is too lazy to remove the leaves from the boat he is trying to sell, chances are good he can’t be bothered to do simple routine maintenance. And remember, the boat will always show better in the pictures than it does in person.
Terms like “runs good,” “excellent condition,” “turnkey”, have very different meanings to different people. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything. If someone says he has his boat serviced regularly, ask him to produce the records. He should have no trouble handing you a stack of receipts. If he can’t show written documentation, proceed cautiously. He either did not do the service as claimed or he is so disorganized he can’t be sure what he did – or didn’t do.
A common problem with older boats is loose fasteners that have been removed and reinstalled so many times they no longer hold. These are common on any type of control or instrument panel. Get in the tight spaces and see if the deck hardware is through-bolted with backing plates. I recently worked on a Mako where the cleats were attached to the deck with oval head bolts but not only were there no backing plates, there were not even nuts on the bolts. All deck hardware that will take a load must be through-bolted with backing plates. i.e. Cleats, chocks, windlasses, stanchions, davits, etc. No exceptions. And if they don’t have large “fender” washers you need to plan on installing them.
Check steering. If mechanical, is it free, smooth, and easy? Does the wheel turn smoothly or catch in places? Is the stainless rod sliding easily through the tilt tube? Are the cables pinched in tight turns that make steering hard?
With hydraulic steering, check for smooth easy steering without “bumps” or hesitation. Jerkiness in steering is a sign of air in the lines. Check for leaks in the hydraulic pump, lines, and fittings. Properly working hydraulic steering should be smooth, easy, with a steady pressure throughout the turn.
Check every element of the fuel system. Is it grounded with 6 or 8 gauge wire? Are the hoses serviceable and clamped with stainless clamps? Is there a fuel/water separator? I would be very reluctant to purchase a boat where unfiltered fuel had been run through the engine.
The electrical system is often overlooked because so much of it is hidden. This will tell you a lot about the manufacturer and the seller. Look for automotive crimp fittings, corrosion, undersized wire, electric tape around fittings, and you may even find household wire nuts. Beware fuse panels that do not have a cover to prevent accidental shorting across the terminals. Cole-Hersee continues to make these garbage components but they have no place in a boat. Is the wiring secured or is it lying loosely about in danger of being snagged? How old are the batteries? Are the cells full or are the plates showing?
Don’t forget to thoroughly examine the trailer. More than once over the past thirty years, I have encountered boat owners who were looking forward to getting on the water only to have bearings freeze on the way to the ramp. I still get calls on Saturdays and Sundays from stranded boaters who got caught unaware many miles from home. Check lights, tires, axle, coupler, and especially bearings. Your first step after (or before) purchase should be to have the bearings repacked by a pro.
Sound the hull for delamination, gel coat crazing, cracks, etc. Boats are occasionally dropped from forklifts, lifting straps break, or poorly secured boats slide off the trailer going down the highway. Cosmetic damage from such accidents is relatively easy to repair but there are often structural defects as well. These can make the boat dangerous and a total insurance loss.
Back in the 1990s there was a 54 Bristol in Lauderdale that had been poorly blocked and had fallen over at the boatyard. This is a common occurrence. The insurance company said the damage could be repaired and was mainly cosmetic on the exterior, though some interior bulkheads and furnishings were popped loose. The owner wanted a second opinion. His surveyor sounded the hull with a phenolic hammer looking for delamination and he found a lot of it. The separation of laminate was not visible from observation but it dangerously compromised the integrity of the hull. The boat was ruled a total loss but was eventually sold off to another buyer. It may have found its way back into the market to an unsuspecting owner.
Which brings us to surveys. Surveys are usually warranted in any used vessel valued at over $20,000, but this figure is highly subjective. The real clincher is that lenders and insurance companies want a survey by a certified professional. There are a number of people in our area who claim to be surveyors. They state they are members of the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS) and/or National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS). Being a member is not the same as being certified or accredited. Anyone reading this article can be a member and that alone is no indicator of skill, knowledge, experience or ethics. These men may be knowledgeable but it is disingenuous and deceitful of them to infer that by joining SAMS they are certified. Having at least one current ABYC certification is a big plus.
These certifications are not easy to obtain and while not a guarantee of professionalism, they are a good beginning. If you hire a surveyor, be sure he is certified by one or both of these national accredited professional associations, that he is insured, and that he is approved by your lender and insurance company.
One more caveat is in order. The surveyor is supposed to be working for the man who pays him, but it does not always work out that way. Surveyors depend upon referrals from brokers, dealers, and boatyards. Without them they would starve. This may result in a conflict of interest and may result in a superficial report that ignores and/or understates many defects. This happened to a very good friend of mine in Mobile. The selling yacht broker sent him to a local surveyor to examine and report on a very poorly maintained vessel. The result was the most misrepresentative survey I have seen in over thirty years in the boat business and the buyer paid far, far too much for the boat as a result. There is a very well-known surveyor in Lauderdale who has gotten far too close to the brokers. He was once hired to inspect a boat that I had listed. During the survey, he took me aside and asked what market value I wanted him to report on the boat. Any surveyor who does this needs to find a new vocation.
As I write this, I am half way through an extensive and expensive electrical refit on a 20-year old trawler. The previous owners butchered the electrical system and the current owner is paying the piper. He did everything right – went to a “knowledgeable” local broker, got a survey with haulout – but still got ripped off. The surveyor was recommended by the broker and he did a miserable job, the broker proved to be either grossly lacking in knowledge or ethics, and the seller was a complete SOB. The fact that the bilge was full of oil should have tipped off someone to problems but no one raised it as an issue. The man I am working for and with is a gentleman of the first magnitude and a fine human being in every respect. It is a terrible thing that such a good guy should be so badly abused. Sadly, this is a common tale. Use caution. The seller, broker, and surveyor have their own agendas and they rarely if ever place the buyer’s interests foremost. And yes, in case you ask, both the broker and surveyor are in Punta Gorda.
Lesson learned – with boats as with real estate get your own surveyor and ignore the seller’s and broker’s recommendations. It might be money well spent to hire a surveyor from outside the area and pay his travel expenses. Less chance of a conflict of interest that way. And if you suffer an insurance casualty, you don’t have to accept the insurance company’s opinion. The insurance company “surveyors” are often nothing but claims adjusters in disguise and they get well paid to look after the company’s interest, not yours.
The hull surveyor is rarely if ever qualified to do an engine survey. It is wise to get an engine survey from a mechanic or technician fully certified for that engine. Don’t take your four-stroke Honda to a two-stroke Evinrude mechanic. He should check compression, ignition, look for signs of wear, particles, water, or other impurities in the lower unit oil and crankcase oil for four-strokes. Check everywhere for corrosion. If you are looking at a later model engine, get a computer diagnostic done. These tests are not foolproof. There is no mechanic in the world who can guarantee the shaft won’t break two hours after you first launch the boat, but these steps will reduce the risk of buying a lemon.