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Tips on What to Look For When Buying a Used Bass Boat

It’s time to start the big hunt for a bass boat.  Maybe it’s your first boat, or maybe you have years of experience driving boats, but either way it’s always good to be armed with knowledge of what to look for.  What follows can be used as a buying guide and checklist on what to look for when buying a used bass boat.  There are three parts to the used boat buying process: Phone or email conversation with owner, Onsite Inspection and Lake Test, and Marine Mechanic checkup.  This mechanic inspection is sometimes overlooked but it is the best and only real way to know what you are buying.  It will likely cost $100 or so but can save a lot of wasted dollars later on.  Boats aren’t cheap, there’s a reason that you will here that BOAT stands for “Break Out Another Thousand“.  Don’t skimp on this step unless you are very comfortable working around marine engines.

The first contact with a boat owner will usually be via a phone call or email.  This will give you the first impression of the boat and the owner.  Your impression of the owner might very well be as important as the boat itself.  Only if everything meets your criteria here will you move forward and see the boat in person.   Here are some of the questions you should to be asking prior to actually seeing the bass boat.  This list is by no means inclusive, and may not have the most obvious questions, but it is helpful to keep in mind some things you might forget to ask.

  • Is the boat stored indoors?  Evidence to the contrary is UV damage to the tires, usually worse on one side than the other if it sat outside.
  • Does the motor have a warranty?  If not, when did it run out?
  • What year is the hull, motor and trailer?  Do not assume that the engine or trailer is the same year as the actual boat hull.
  • Are you the first owner?  Typically the more owners, the more chance the boat has had to have problems.  This certainly isn’t always true but generally if someone bought the boat new they take better care of it.
  • How long have you owned this boat?  A person selling a boat after less than one fishing season is sometimes trying to get rid of it because of problems.  Be careful.
  • How many hours are on the motor?  Some older motors don’t store this information but the newer ones should.  The owner should be able to tell you or at least figure it out with a trip to a dealer or mechanic.  This is basic information that every owner should get before selling the boat if possible so insist on it.
  • Why are you selling the boat?  There’s not really a perfect answer here and this question is really just a feeler to see if the boat may have unforeseen problems.
  • What needs to be fixed on the boat?
  • When was the last time it was serviced?  Who did service work on the boat? You’d expect them to volunteer a boat dealer’s name if they were really taking it in.
  • When was the last time the wheel bearings were inspected/repacked?
  • Has the motor ever had engine work?  If it has, try and find out who did the work.  You want to know the history of the engine.
  • Has the boat ever been in a wreck or had fiberglass repair?  Wrecked boats are out there, and they’re not something you want to deal with without a great value.
  • What kind of batteries does it have? How old are they? Do all banks of the charger work?
  • What is the total length and width of the boat sitting on the trailer?  This question is only really necessary if you have space concerns.  This can change whether or not the trailer has a swing away tongue and whether the motor is trimmed down or is turned to the side so be specific.
  • Anything else included that hasn’t been mentioned?  Sometimes sellers will provide extra oil, life vest or other gear that they have kept in their boat.
  • Can we take the boat out on the water when I visit?

Assuming this boat is everything you’re looking for on paper, the next step is seeing the bass boat in-person and getting it on the water for a lake test.  If you are not sure how to check out some of the things on the list, take a buddy along who knows bass boats to help you out or take notes to make sure that you address everything with a marine mechanic that you are unsure about.

The whole process should take an hour or more.  Take a notebook, jot down the owners name, phone number, and asking price just so you have them handy.  Make notes on anything you find, both good and bad. Take pictures of the boat while inspecting  inside compartments, electronics, really anything you may forget later when trying to decide between boats.  This will help you with negotiation if you decide to buy the boat.  With digital cameras on phones, there’s really no reason not to take a bunch of pictures.  You may find something that the owner did not photograph well and see a problem, or at least you have a record of everything about the boat to go back to.

After your inspection and lake test is complete and you are still interested in the boat, then it’s recommended that you get a professional evaluation by a marine mechanic.  Unless you are really savvy with working on boats and engines, it’s the smartest move and the best money you can spend.  Some mechanics will meet you where the boat is located and others will want the boat to come to a shop.  The mechanic will do a compression check, , maybe leakdown test if desired, lower unit check, and make sure everything in the engine looks good.  The mechanic will probably give the boat hull a once over as well since they are used to seeing problems quickly.  If your marine mechanic gives you the thumbs up, you can be certain you’ve got the right boat.  If he doesn’t give you his approval, then he can explain why and there still might be room to negotiate with the seller for repair or price adjustment. In either case, you are making an informed decision and staying away from problems in the future.  If you are a novice boat owner, be sure to ask the mechanic a lot of questions.  They are usually glad to help create a future customer.

Items to be aware of for the Engine:

  • Compression test: Compression on all cylinders should not differ by more than 20%.
  • Pull the lower unit oil and look for milky colored oil, i.e. water in lower unit
  • Spin the prop shaft to be sure it’s not bent  i.e. uneven wobbly spin
  • Look at the condition of the prop/skeg (i.e. bent)
  • Take it for a test drive and run it wide open and check the max rpms rated for the motor, ie you don’t want excessive overage in rpms rated for the motor and also know what the min water pressure is for your motor.
  • Your eyes can be a valuable tool in assessing your potential future purchase.  You want to just assess the general condition of the engine.  Spin the prop and watch the prop shaft for wobble.  Pull the cowl and look over the motor closely.  Powerheads are painted after assembly, look at all the head gaskets.  Powerheads are assemblies and if the gaskets aren’t painted then it’s an indication the motor has been apart.  Bolts that have the paint removed or skinned up indicate someone has been inside the motor.   This isn’t a bad sign if the owner has been upfront about the service history.

Items to be aware of for the Boat Hull:

  • Do not pick the boat up in the rain. You can’t make a good evaluation on the condition of a boat in the rain. It makes it very hard to find the gouges and cracks as many of the finish problems are hidden with the water.
  • Start from one end of the boat and work your way around it in.  Rub your hands and scan with your eyes all along the side of the boat looking for scratches and stress cracks especially around the console and splashwell area where most occur.  If they are there it’s not necessarily more than a cosmetic problem.  What you want to do it trim the motor up and put your foot on it.  Push down on the engine.  If those cracks widen or there is any flex, it is a good indicator that the transom is bad.  A bad transom is a very expensive repair.
  • Look at the keel very closely especially around the U bolt where you hook it up to the winch. Make sure the U bolt is solid.  Check for impact marks on the keel.
  • Get under the hull between the tires and the trailer tongue of the boat between the bunkers. Normally when someone hits an object in the water it will be toward the back of the boat. Be looking for exposed fiberglass and deep gouges.  Another place to frequently find damage is the very back of the pad right in front of the engine.  If the glass has turned brown or is soggy there could be lamination damage.  If the hull is clean and free of big scratches, it is a good indicator that it is a boat that hasn’t seen harsh running and fishing conditions.  It may be a good idea to take a mechanic’s creeper to make this easier.
  • Look at the bilge area and see if there is any water in there. If there is, make sure to drain the water and recheck it after you take the boat on the water. Any water in the bilge after a short test ride is cause for concern, it’s either coming from the live wells, water connections through the hull, or the hull itself is damaged.
  • Make sure all of the electrical components work.  This includes bilge pumps, battery charger, depth finders, rpm gauge, water pressure gauge, lights, and trolling motor.  Most boats have speedometers that read from a small pitot tube on the engine.  A lot of times this tube gets clogged and the speedometer won’t read correctly or at all.  Don’t give this too much thought especially if the boat has or will have a GPS on it.
  • Check all of the lids and seats for tears, cracks and hinge condition.  Carpets and seats aren’t terribly expensive to repair if there are tears but just be aware.
  • Walk on the floors and decks.  Soft spots are a very expensive repair.
  • If you know you aren’t buying the boat and leaving with it right then, write down the type of battery in the boats and mark them.  Some people will switch good batteries for weak ones when they sell a boat.  This actually goes for anything removable like trolling motors but it is most often seen in batteries.
  • Make sure the seller has proof of ownership. If you aren’t completely confident that the boat is owned by the seller, then move on without hesitation.  It happens.

Items to be aware of for the Trailer:

  • Look for rust issues especially if the seller lives near saltwater. Get on your back and look at the trailer from an underside view, especially at the joints and welds.  Again, a mechanic’s creeper helps with this.
  • Check the trailer over thoroughly after you have launched the boat. Cracked running boards can be found.
  • Do all lights and wiring work?  Is the visible wiring cleanly installed?   This could be a sign that the trailer has had wiring problems and has been rewired.
  • If the trailer has disk brakes, do the pads and rotors look okay?
  • Do the tires look old, cracked, or dry rotted?  Uneven wear on a trailer tire is not a good sign.

Items to be aware of for the Lake Test:

  • The Lake Test should consist of three basic parts: On the ramp before launching, in the water, and on the ramp after being on the water.
  • After arriving at the lake or meeting the owner, feel the hubs of the wheels on the trailer to make sure they aren’t hot.  They should be no more than warm.
  • Do not just start the motor on muffs in the owner’s driveway.  A lake test will reveal more issues than while on land.
  • Pull the plug and make sure there is no water in the boat before putting it in the water.  Back the boat in keeping on the trailer.  Fill and test the livewells.  Pull the boat back out and pull the plug again to make sure it has not taken on water.  Re-launch the boat again.
  • At the dock while in the water, test and use all systems.  Test all pumps, lights, and equipment. Walk on the deck, is it spongy?  Are all hinges and clasps in good order?  Is anything loose?  Look at the electrical wiring and see if it is kept organized. A mess can mean that there has been wiring problems in the past.
  • Start the engine yourself. Some owners will have the boat already started by the time you arrive.  This may be a sign that they are trying to hide something. Check hoses, connections and cables. Look for wear and lack of care. Take off the cowling. Look for rust, leaks, and worn fittings. Check the oil pressure and water temperature when on the water.
  • Look for oil and gas leaks before and after the test drive. After your test run look at the water around the boat.  Is there an oil film on the water?  This is a sign of some engine issues.
  • While on the test run you want to pay careful attention to the maneuvering of the boat. Is steering easy, or does it hang up or bind? Make sure the boat trims out properly and all hydraulic and electrical equipment is working. Run the boat long enough to check for overheating problems.

With all the items above accounted for, you have the best possible view of the boat you might take on.  If it doesn’t have any serious problems, go ahead and make an offer or buy the boat for the asking price.  If a few problems are uncovered but they aren’t show stoppers, try and work with the seller on price.  Don’t be afraid to back out, even at this point after investing time and money looking at the boat.  You should look at the whole process objectively, and not buy simply because you are itching to get on the water.  Good luck and have fun!

Beyond the information above, check out our Boat Buying Inspection Checklist.  You can print this out for every boat you are interested in to keep notes on.  It will also help you remember everything to check when you see the boat in person.  Should you purchase the boat, be sure and print out our Bill Of Sale or find one specific to your county to use for registering the boat.