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June 19th 2018. By Alex Smith.

Buying a used boat

If you know how to control the process, buying used is often the most effective way to get the boat you want.

While buying new brings with it the chance to replicate the boat in your mind’s eye down to the smallest detail, buying used encompasses a degree of choice, value and convenience the new boat buyer cannot hope to match. The fact that there are so many boats on the used market, new and old, classic and modern, ongoing and discontinued, factory-standard and entirely bespoke, means there is really no limit to the size, type and value of craft available to you. More to the point, the fact that the choice is so great means that you, as the buyer, are very much in the driving seat, able to negotiate the price from a position of strength, knowing that the cost and complication of keeping a boat on the market is often a much keener consideration than the inclination to resist any downward negotiation.

If you know how to control the process, buying used is often the most effective way to get the boat you want.

As for the idea that a used boat is necessarily a less attractive proposition than a new one, the fact of the matter is often the reverse. A used boat can in fact be more capable, competent and reliable than a boat that’s just emerged from the shed, because after two or three years of vibrations and impacts, all the stiff mechanisms, loose screws and imperfect systems tend to have been found out and remedied under warranty. And while a new boat can often involve a lengthy process involving a great deal of buyer input and untimely delays, the used boat market enables you to buy what you see and to get on the water with virtually no delay whatsoever. In terms of condition, price, history, finance and ownership status, there are of course some questionable boats around, but if you conduct the process in the right way, the used boat market is a wonderful place to go shopping.

Find the right boat

The greatest impediment to enjoyment of your boat is ceasing to use it because it doesn’t do the job you require. It can then become a liability rather than an asset, draining your resources through marina bills, maintenance, insurance and depreciation, so you need to be rigorous with your research. Read magazines and websites, talk to existing boat owners about their experiences and go out on charter boats, cruises in company and day trips with friends.

You should also talk to the people you intend to go boating with. Do you want to cruise for long weekends? Do you want to fish? Do your kids want to enjoy towed watersports? Do you want to have guests on board for dinner parties? Do you want the galley on the main deck, limiting day space or down below, limiting sleeping accommodation? Does your partner want a toilet? Do your kids want sun loungers? Does it need to be trailerable? Is the size of boat you are looking at manageable for you, your family and your wallet? Do you want a vigorous and engaging driver’s boat? And what kinds of speed, range and fuel flow rates will enable you to enjoy your boat to the utmost? The list of questions gets longer the more you think about it, so take your time and make sure you have a shortlist of two or three specific boat models and a firm budget in mind before you begin your search in earnest.

Read more about choosing a boat

Conduct the viewings

It’s easy to get excited about a boat and miss the pertinent details that enable you to make a sensible decision and to negotiate from a position of knowledge, so when you go for a viewing, take a compact camera. Get into every nook and cranny and photograph everything from one end of the boat to the other. When you get home, you can then sit down calmly and rationally with a cup of tea and revisit the boat through your photographs, cropping in to see details you will have missed and getting a much more realistic sense of the boat’s layout, its strengths and its condition. If it’s still of interest to you, you should go back for a second viewing, alongside your likely crew. Whether that’s your family or friends, you will know in very short order whether your keenness is shared and whether there is merit in persisting with the process.

Ask the right questions

The dictates of Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) mean that a boat seller is not obliged by law to volunteer negative information about his boat. If, for instance, it has missed a series of services, been involved in a collision or requires a serious repair, it may not be made evident either in the ad or during your viewing. On the other hand, the seller is not permitted to misrepresent the product he’s selling, so you need to tutor yourself to ask the right questions. Then you need to note down the answers and, should the purchase progress to a more committed level, you need to include the details of those in the Sale and Purchase Agreement – a contractual document outlining the terms of the sale that both parties will agree upon and sign.

While you’re addressing the key questions, you also need to investigate two of the most crucial issues for the used boat buyer – title and finance. Firstly, is the seller the owner of the boat and in a legitimate position to sell? And secondly, is there any ongoing finance you should know about, perhaps for an outstanding loan against the boat or for outstanding fees related to its use. While there are several documents that will help prove the seller’s ownership of the boat, you should get written assurances from the seller on both counts before progressing with the purchase. Again, while in UK law a boat sale requires nothing more than the exchange of funds and a handshake, the generation of explicit written documents creates a point of reference for legal recourse should a disagreement arise after completion.

Ask the right questions to the owner and note down the answers. Photo: Diego Yriarte.

Agree a provisional price

If having satisfied yourself of the boat’s merits, you want to go ahead, now is the time to negotiate a price. Once you have reached a figure, you should then work with the seller to generate a Sale and Purchase Agreement on which you both agree. This should detail exactly what the boat is, as well as an inventory of what is included in the sale, including a list of necessary documents pertaining to the ownership, finance, and upkeep of the boat that will be provided upon completion. To protect your interests, this contractual document should state explicitly whether this price is subject to the satisfactory completion of a survey, an engine assessment, and a sea trial. If so (and in most cases it should be), the Sale and Purchase Agreement may well have to be adjusted, agreed and re-signed to reflect the newly agreed value of the boat once your investigations are complete. Approved Sale and Purchase Agreement templates are available through the RYA.

Commission a marine survey

A marine survey is a professional assessment of a boat’s condition and value.
It can be carried out on behalf of an insurer who needs to evaluate the risks of potential cover or on behalf of a lender who needs to assess its value as security against a loan. But the most relevant form of survey for the used boat buyer is a Pre-Purchase or Full Condition survey, which should identify both the good and bad points, giving you an itemised list of issues that need attention, with a clear indication of their relative urgency and importance.

Just be aware that a survey commissioned or provided by the seller is of no practical use to you. Any form of accident, neglect or breakdown may have occurred since an old survey was conducted – and even if it’s a recent one that appears to carry some genuine credibility, the fact that you didn’t commission and pay for it means you have no right to make a claim on the basis of faults or failings not picked up by the report.

Your survey report will give you the leverage to get any remedial works completed prior to purchase, to reduce the ‘subject to survey’ price or to retract your offer and back out. Not only does that buy you peace of mind, but it can also be a vital document in the financing and insurance process. In short then, unless it’s being sold as a very low-value ‘project boat’, it makes good sense to get a marine survey – and while you’re at it, you should also commission an engine assessment. Marine surveys make no specialist account of the condition of your engine and, given that it represents a significant proportion of a boat’s value, it’s a crucial consideration.

Carry out a sea trial

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a novice or not. If a boat purchase involves a functioning boat, it pays to know that it does indeed function as it should. So while this stage is often about confirming your previous findings, it’s also about investigating the things you can’t check ashore, so think about the noise, the vibrations, the visibility, the ergonomic sophistication, the security, the ride, the handling and the ease of use. Sit in every seat, operate every system and take someone along as a second pair of eyes.

You should expect to pay the bill for the fuel and marina services involved in a sea trial, but be aware that you can often strike a deal for the return of this money in the event that you go ahead with the purchase. If buying through a broker, it may well be the case that a sea trial will only be conducted once a deposit has been left and a provisional deal agreed, so if you want to be able to claim that back or walk away from a deal, you need to make it plain from the outset that refusal on the basis of your findings during the sea trial remains at your discretion. And if buying through a broker, you should also bear in mind that he represents the interests of the seller and has a vested interest in protecting his commission (and his portfolio) by selling it for a strong market price.

If a boat purchase involves a functioning boat, it pays to know that it does indeed function as it should.

Get affordable finance

While finding the right boat in the right condition at the right price represents a major part of a happy boat purchase, the knowledge that you’re not pushing yourself to the limit to afford it is equally vital. The unique conditions of a boat as a mobile and depreciating asset can bring about a tough set of challenges for the lender, so while there are plenty of specialist marine finance providers, it often pays to take out a conventional unsecured loan or to use your house (rather than your boat) as security. That way, you can often achieve much larger sums and more favourable rates than are available for loans secured upon your boat – and because your boat no longer forms part of the finance arrangement, the buying process is radically simplified. There’s no longer a need to satisfy the lender in regard to the boat’s value and condition or to list the lender’s interest in your new boat’s insurance policy. With a non-marine loan then, not only do you stand a good chance of saving significant amounts of money, but you also adopt the position of a cash buyer, improving your ability to strike a favourable deal with speed, clarity and confidence.

Read more about boat finance

Complete the deal

When the time comes to complete, the Bill of Sale is the document required to transfer the title of the boat from the seller to you. It should include, as a minimum, details of the seller, the buyer, the boat and the agreed (post-survey) purchase price, alongside dated signatures and the advocacy of a witness. While you and your seller may wish to incorporate details that are specific to your agreement, there are approved standard templates available from the RYA that enable you to tailor the conditions to your needs. Once the Bill of Sale has been signed and the balance of the funds transferred, you should receive the boat, the keys and the full set of documents listed in the Sale and Purchase Agreement. If the boat is registered, all that then remains is to change the title on the register into your own name. Job done. You are the proud, legitimate and documented owner of a great value boat that suits your needs, your lifestyle and your finances.



Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.