Buying a Boat
Any captain will tell you they have a special love-hate relationship with his boat. This guide is meant to help you lean more towards the love side than the hate.
General process to buy a boat
Buying a boat is similar to buying any other large item, however, there are a few things that come with the boat purchasing process that may be a bit different. Here are the general steps. More information is in the sections below.
1. Listing out your needs
2. Searching listings
3. First visit to see the boat
5. Sea trial
Listing out your needs
Everything on a boat is a compromise is something you'll hear a lot in the boating world. It's important to list out your needs and wants before starting to search for a boat. It can be easy to fall in love with a boat or get bamboozled by a salesman so it's important to have this list to hold your purchase decision accountable and make sure you get everything you need. A few things to consider to have on your list:
- Type of boat
- Type of transom
- Bracket or no bracket (when applies)
- Single or dual
- Outboard or inboard (or I/O)
- 4 stroke or 2 stroke
- Maximum amount of hours you find acceptable
- Brand or model
- Electronics - GPS, etc
- Head or no head
- Cabin requirements
- Amount of work needed after purchase
Where to look
Pricing can depend on several factors -
- Engine hours
- Local market (demand)
Some people try to use the [nadaguides.com NADA Guides] (similar to Kelly Blue Book), however, the only true guide is to check around in your market for similar boats and see what they're going for. You can generally expect to pay anywhere from $500-$1500 less than the listing price. Take your time, get a feel for the local market, and don't be in a hurry is the best way to get a good deal on a boat.
Examining a boat
The best possible advice for examining a boat is to have a professional surveyor check the boat out, however, there are several things you can look for before spending the money on a surveyor to weed out the obvious bad purchases.
1. Check the hull condition. With the boat out of the water, run your hands along the bottom of the hull to find any imperfections. A few minor and shallow gel coat scratches should not be a sign of a bad boat, however, any major fiberglass work, fiberglass repair, or epoxy stuck to the hull should be a red flag. If there is obvious fiberglass repair, then likely it wasn't done professionally.
2. Check the electronics and all of the switches. Make sure things like the cabin lights, navigation lights, VHF, GPS, bilge pump, and windlass work. There are often surprises and better to know now. Often times none of these items are deal breakers, but they can help your negotiating power.
3. Check the wiring. Is it corroded? Are there many loose wires? Are the wires organized and easy to access?
4. Check the motor compartment or under the cowlings of an outboard. Look for fresh oil. Most motors will have a bit of grease somewhere, but you're looking for fresh runs of oil which signal a bigger leak. The cleaner the better for an engine. Check for corrosion. If the engine is painted, look for any bubbling. Crack open the flush ports and see if you can see any corrosion or salt build up. Ask for service records on the motor(s).
5. Check to see if the motor starts up easily. If it is out of the water, don't forget the muffs. 4-strokes should not smoke at all. 2-strokes may smoke more or less, but after they warm up there should be only a small amount of smoke.
6. Check all of the gauges to make sure they work.
7. Look for any stress cracking in the transom. This could be very costly if the transom is not holding up under the stress and duress it endures.
8. Check the stringers. Some boats have fiberglass/composite and some have wood stringers. These are best checked with a moisture probe, however, you can get a good idea of their condition and whether there is rot with a visual inspection and a ball peen hammer. Tap on the stringers and where there is rot you'll hear a tone change. 
9. Check steering cables and throttle/control cables for wear and play.
10. Check the prop for wobble
11. Drain the lower unit and check for water in oil
12. Perform a cylinder compression test and make sure the compression is within tolerances 
If nothing major jumps out at you, you'll want to have the boat surveyed before your sea trial (like a test drive). You may make an offer pending a survey and sea trial at this point.
Boat surveyors are often a valuable asset to have for a purchase, even for a salty captain. Most marine mechanics offer a surveying service that you'll need to book in advance and often this fee will be charged to the buyer. At this point you've possibly made an offer or indicated that you'll purchase pending a survey and sea trial so the chances of several survey fees are low. You'll likely have 1, maybe 2 if the the first boat that passed your inspection failed the survey. Do not have a mechanic or surveyor recommended by the seller. This is just asking for trouble.
There are a few things to know about sea trials that often catch green captains off-guard. First off, many sellers will require a deposit before they take you on a sea trial. This is, likely, not them being shady. It is to help prevent people who just want a joy ride from taking advantage of the seller and this is a common practice.
Also don't expect to operate the vessel. Remember, you haven't purchased the vessel yet. It is still owned, operated, and insured in their name so they may not want to take a risk on a possibly green captain operating their boat.
It can be a good idea to have the surveyor also come along for the sea trial so consider that before booking the survey.
Make sure to ask for at least an hour sea trial. You want to ensure that the vessel operates under several different normal operating conditions without issues. Make sure you see how the vessel shifts from neutral to forward/reverse, how the vessel operates at idle speed, minimal wake, trolling speed, cruise, and just below wide open throttle (WOT). See if the boat has issues getting up on plane, if it is under duress at trolling speeds, and how it handles in the water. If all goes well, the next step will be the purchase.
You've inspected the vessel, had it professionally surveyed, and taken it for a sea trial. Negotiate based on the results of these tests and close the deal. Sellers prefer cashier checks or cash. You'll want to make sure you have the documents below together, signed, and some prefer to have them notarized at the same time that you give the money to the seller. Do not give a seller cash or a cashiers check without at the same time receiving these documents. You always want a big paper trail and you always want to have all the paperwork in order before handing over payment. Caveats to this could be a reputable dealer, however, even then exercise extreme caution.
1. Bill of sale (2)
2. Drivers license
4. Title exempt (trailers - conditional on state)
Trailers often do not have a title depending on the state. What they will have that needs to be signed is the registration in these instances. Trailer registrations have a spot for a seller to list the price and the transfer information to your name.
5. Service records (if exist)
6. Receipts (if exist)
7. Cashiers check or cash
It's preferable to do the transaction in a place where you have access to a copier or to be able to take clear photos of the documents with a cell phone in order to make sure that you have backups in case something happens with the transaction or the documents.