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What To Look For In a Used Boat

Dennis Fria
Copyright 1998, Use Only With Permission
from TELLTALES Magazine, May 1998

Well, you've made the decision to buy a boat. Maybe you're moving up. Or possibly it's the first one. So, what do you know about boats? You're probably going to want a surveyor to look at the boat, but before you reach that point you'll want to survey her yourself.

What do you look at to adequately assess a boat's condition?

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The Exterior

  • What you want to know is how well the current owner and maybe the previous owners took care of her. Like it or not, cosmetics always indicate how well a vessel has been cared for. For cosmetics are certainly an important system in a whole group of systems. While this article deals mostly with sailboats, many of the ideas presented carry over to power vessels also.

  • Start with the overall appearance. Cleanliness. Moss growing on anything on the North side indicates she's not been looked at for a while. You'll find it on the canvas, or on lines that have been lying dormant for a while. While it may grow fairly rapidly on coiled lines on deck, if it's not been washed recently you'll see moss.

  • Pick up those coiled lines. If there's a dirty mark beneath then you know the boat hasn't been washed. If the boat isn't washed regularly, salt attacks everything. Especially the metal surfaces.

  • Look at the stanchions. Are they rusted? Are the bases rusted? Look at the standing rigging. Is it rusted? All of this deterioration can be avoided with care. And that's exactly what we're looking for. Indications of care.

  • Unprotected aluminum parts will pit rapidly. If they've been washed and treated regularly they'll look nice. Maybe not new, but severely pitted aluminum is a dead give-away.

  • Next, look at the life-lines. Badly discolored and cracked lifelines indicate neglect. Also, look at the terminals. If you see rust, they've not been taken care of. Look at the pelican hook and see if it secures properly.

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  • Next, go up to the bow and examine the bow-roller. What condition are the rollers in? Is the stainless polished or rusted? Look at where the anchor stock rests. Is it on the deck? If so, has it worn the deck? What shape is the anchor and chain in? Look at the thimble in the rode. They need to be replaced regularly.

  • Look at the gel-coat. It needs to be waxed at least annually. If left to weather it will never come back to bright again. Even compounding won't bring it back. If the topsides are severely chalked the boat may need to be painted, or be happy with a dull finish.

  • Look at the woods on deck. Most boats now use teak exclusively. If it's varnished, and looks good, then you know the boat has been well cared for. Honey Teak is the latest finish, and it's great! A fresh coat of anything indicates the owner cared for this vessel.

  • Teak neglected is unsightly. It doesn't have to be varnished or Cetol'd, but simply cared for. Some folks like oil. If it's been freshly oiled and looks good, that's good. Oil finishes take a lot of time. Anyone who puts that much care into a boat has certainly put a lot of other care into her.

  • The worst case is neglected wood, or wood that has been repeatedly scrubbed in an attempt to make it look fresh. Using a teak cleaner (which is usually an acid product) and a brush will rapidly eat all of the teak off a boat. The result of scrubbing with any brush and a teak cleaner is the "raised grain" look. Actually it's more appropriately called "subtracted grain". The cleaner softens the soft grain, and the scrub brush removes it.

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  • Raised grain teak requires a lot of work to get it back to a pleasing appearance. All of the top grain that's left must be sanded down to the level of whatever is left. Then it must be either varnished or Cetol'd

  • If you like the oiled look, after sanding back to smooth, clean with a 3M pad and mild soap. Then oil.

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  • Look at the canvas. Unless polyester thread was used in the stitching, the canvas will come apart. Look for deteriorated seams.

  • Also look at the top of the Bimini. If the boom has been allowed to rub than it will be worn through. Booms must be kept off the top by tightening the topping lift.

  • Walk around the deck. Feel for soft, springy areas, which would indicate decay in the core. This can usually be found around fittings such as stanchions. People on docks always want to help, and inevitably grab and push on the stanchions. This will loosen their seal at the fittings and allow water penetration. If you suspect core decay, tap the area with a closed pocket knife or other similar object. You'll hear the difference between good spots and bad. Core repairs can be extremely expensive.

  • Examine the hull sides for damage. Discolored areas in the gelcoat indicate damage that has been repaired. If you suspect it, look inside to see how it has been repaired.

  • Look at the bow pulpit and make sure it is straight. If bent, then it has probably contacted the dock or a piling.

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  • What condition is the Lexan in the hatches? If they've been covered, they'll probably be in acceptable condition. If left to weather you'll see noticeable degradation of the plastic. Are the frames in good shape? Are they plastic or metal? What shape are the frames in?

  • Look at the exhaust through-hull. If it's a diesel, is there black soot on the hull? Feel it. If it's oily better talk to the mechanic about that!

  • Look at the compass. The plastic should be crystal clear. If not, it's been left exposed to UV's. Make sure there are no bubbles in the liquid. If there are, it's leaking and needs to be replaced.

  • Turn the wheel or tiller and notice how the rudder swings. Worn bushings will feel loose. There should be no play at all in either a wheel or a tiller steered boat.

  • Next look at the standing rigging. Carefully examine the terminals. Swaged fittings eventually must be replaced. Water wicking down the cable and into the swages will deteriorate the fitting, and the result is cracking. Examine with a magnifying glass for hairline fractures. A surveyor may use more sophisticated methods to examine better, but a magnifier may very well pick up cracks.

  • Look at the wire rigging. Is it kinked anywhere? If there are plastic guards on it lift them up. I never recommend using plastic rigging covers as it holds in the salt and prevents proper flushing when washed with fresh water. Another not-so-great idea is the clamp-on cleats used to tie off flag halyards. The clamps may damage the wires if tightened too much, and again, salt is retained underneath, encouraging rust.

  • Look at the running rigging. Is it chafed? Many sheet stoppers damage halyards and they subsequently need replacing regularly. Lines that are stopped with cam-cleats will likely be damaged where they are held by the teeth.

  • Dock lines should be in good condition. No frayed ends. Again, we're looking for an indication of care or neglect. Someone who really likes their boat and cares how it looks won't allow a frayed line on a boat.

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  • Are white fenders blackened with creosote and mildew? Are they inflated properly. Flat fenders do no good!

  • Turn winches with your hands. Winches need to be lubricated at least annually, and preferably semi-annually. If the boat is raced a lot, they must be serviced quarterly. Winches that have been neglected will not turn easily. Stick your finger into the handle socket and see if you can turn it. If they're 2-speed winches, turn both ways. If they've been kept up you should be able to turn both ways, though it may be difficult. Inner pawls that are rusted in place from neglect may not actuate properly, and the result is a free spinning winch.

  • Look at the mast base. A deck stepped mast will show serious signs of deterioration if neglected. If it's painted, look for bubbles. Bubbles indicate degradation of the metal.

  • If the mast is keel stepped, examine where it goes through the deck. On deck look at the boot. See if it's sealing properly. Later, inside, look for leaks on the overhead trim and headliner.

  • Look up at the foredeck light and the steaming light. What condition is the fixture in. How about spreader lights? Turn them on. If they work, good. If not, the fixture may need replacing, or the wiring, or both.

  • You should have noticed by now that you should be carrying a clipboard and making note of all the items you've examined.

The Interior

  • First look at the companionway hatch. Does it slide evenly? Is it worn unevenly? Next examine the hatch-boards. How is the finish? Are they loose in their track, or are they wedged in?

  • Climb down the ladder and notice the smell. Does it smell musty? If so suspect mildew. Or maybe you smell diesel fuel. Better look for leaks in the lines or tanks. If you smell gasoline, leave! Don't buy this boat!

  • Start with the galley. Look around the stove. Is it greasy? If it gimbals, move it and look underneath and in back. Food products left there encourage roach infestations. Look for what looks like little mouse poop. If you see it, it's roach feces. Better look for roach bait, next! I'll bet you find that, too.

  • If it's a propane stove, is there a sniffer and solenoid? If so, test it. You'll also need to examine the placement and condition of the tank and its lines.

  • An alcohol stove needs to be examined for clean burner orifices. Ask for a demonstration of its ability to light. Don't do this yourself, as they are known for flare-ups.

  • Look in the ice box. If it has been kept clean, it'll smell clean. If dirty, it may also have mildew. If it is a refrigerator unit check for operation. Turn it on and then locate the compressor and condenser and listen to it operate. Later check for cooling.

  • Go to the electric panel and turn on the fresh water pump. It will pressurize in a second or two at the most. If it takes longer, something's wrong. Leave it on. If you hear it operate again and no water is running then there are leaks in the system.

  • Turn on the fresh water. How does it smell? How does it look?

  • Look at the condition of the sink. Rusty? Look beneath. If the drain leaks you'll see it. Is there a seacock attached to the through-hull? There should be.

  • Look in the pantry lockers and examine for evidence of roach infestation. Food stored in boxes or cellophane bags are roach diners. All food must be kept in sealable containers.

  • Look under the Nav desk. If it's neat, that's good. If it's cluttered it's another indication of care or the lack thereof.

  • Look at the electrical panel. If modifications have been made, and they frequently are, you'll see plastic tape labels. You'll need to look behind to see if the wiring is neatly done. While there look at the wiring terminals. If corroded, you'll certainly have problems. It's amazing how many boats leak in the electrical panel area! Suspect major electrical problems.

  • Next look at the upholstery. Is it tailored, or does it look home-done? Examine the zippers. Plastic or metal?

  • Look in the head. Does the toilet pump leak? Operate it and see if it does. Smell the flush water. If it smells putrid than the boat has been sitting for a while. Are the fasteners at the base rusted?

  • If there's a shower, where does it drain? Is there a curtain? Check the shower sump. Stale water left in it smells very sour. Is there a float switch on the sump-pump? Operate it.

  • Run the water in the head, both at the sink and the shower.

  • Move to the V-berth and look under the cushions. Look in all the lockers. If there's access to the anchor locker from the V-berth, look in it and see if water drains appropriately. What shape is the anchor line in?

  • Do the drawers openly smoothly? Look at the overhead and examine for mildew. Look for mildew on the teak joinerwork. Oiling interior teak invites mildew.

  • Pull up the floorboards and carefully inspect the bilge. Is there water in it? Most bilges will have some water. See if the bilge pump operates. Lift the float switch to cycle it. Smell the water. If there's diesel or oil in it there's trouble. If the keel is fastened with keel-bolts, look at them. What is their condition? Is there wiring in the bilge? If so, is it secure or loose?

  • Look at the port lights. Do they leak? Are they plastic? Metal is better, but some plastic ports may be acceptable. Open them and see how they work. This will tell you if they are quality or junk. Look at the gaskets. If they're hard they'll need replacing. Look for localized discoloration indicating leaks.

  • Turn on the lights and check for operation. Don't forget to try the VHF, stereo, and any cabin fans.

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  • Look at the engine. See if there's coolant in the pan beneath. Look for oil leaks. A grimy engine is a good indication of neglect. A rusted engine indicates there are problems with the salt water cooling system. How is the paint job? Pull the dipstick and look at the level. Diesel oil will always be black, even if fresh. You might want to take a sample of the oil to a testing facility. There they can analyze the contents in the oil and give you a good indication of the condition of the engine. This simple test usually costs less than $50.

  • Check the batteries for water. If dry, you'll know they need replacing. How many batteries are there, and how big are they? Are they secure?

  • Look at the stuffing box and prop shaft. If it's leaking it'll be a black awful mess. This could be the source of the water in the bilge. Stuffing boxes should drip once every 10-15 seconds while the shaft is turning. If it drips at rest the packing needs to be replaced.

  • See if you can see the gland at the rudder stock. It is also a stuffing box and should not be leaking.

  • Tug on the steering cables of a wheel-steered boat. Are they loose?

  • If it's a gasoline engine, you must have a good bilge blower. Turn it on. Some diesel installations may also have a blower.

  • Lastly, look inside lockers near bulkheads and see if you can examine how the bulkheads are attached. Frequently the laminations of the plywood where they are glassed to the hull will separate leaving the bulkhead loose. Under no circumstance should you consider purchasing a boat with loose bulkheads.

  • Examine carefully the attachment of the chain-plates. This is often the weakest point in a poorly designed rig. A well designed vessel should be able to be lifted by any single chainplate. Will this vessel stand up to that kind of scrutiny? Are they leaking where they come through the deck?

To sum up, then, what you are looking for is abuse, neglect, damage, and inoperable systems or components. A careful examination will turn up many deficiencies. Hardly any vessel will stand up to meticulous scrutiny. A cared-for vessel, on the other hand will appear clean and neat, and any alterations or repairs will be orderly and professional in appearance.

Your job, then, before getting to the contract stage and the expense of a haul-out and survey, is to ferret out as much as possible so that you'll be sure that this is the boat you'll trust your life and your family's lives to.

Careful examination will keep you from joining the ranks of the boaters whose happiest days are the day they buy the boat and the day they sell the boat.

Boating is a great experience if you have a good sound vessel. It is a nightmare if you pour money and time into that hole in the water.

Forewarned is fore-armed!

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