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Marine Electrical Equipment, Marine Lighting and Boat Wiring Supplies

TEN THINGS TO CHECK if you are considering a second hand boat

by fafb 26th June 2023
Ten things to look out for when buying a used boat

Buying a used item can mean getting a bargain but it can also mean making some compromises about the condition of what you are buying. This is true of cars, furniture or fishing boats. When it comes to second-hand, you need to be sure that pre-owned means pre-loved.

You should always seek a professional opinion before parting with cash. However, there are some common things you can look for before you start instructing costly surveyors.

Whilst we would always recommend that you instruct a surveyor to thoroughly inspect a boat before you purchase it, having some prior knowledge of potential problems is worth a longer initial visit. As with any purchase of this nature, the more information you have the better informed you will be before making a decision. Where possible, it's a good idea to use a search engine like Google to see if you can dig up any extra history. Experience has also shown that talking to other boat owners in the same port can also provide useful information.

As we work with Boat sellers and buyers we get to see both sides and in this guide, we take a look at the top ten issues that you can examine on your first viewing to help decide if a boat is worth its salt.

The Engine

The most important part of any motorised boat is the engine - experience problems with this at sea and you could be in for a whole world of trouble. If you don’t know much about engines, then bring along a friend who does or it might be worth paying a mechanic to come with you.

Check the oil doesn’t have a milky residue which could indicate water ingress. When looking at petrol outboards, ensure that the spark plugs aren’t fouled up with carbon.

Always listen to how the engine sounds when it’s being started and whilst its running. If you’ve arranged for a sea trial (which is always recommended) then it’s a good idea to show up early so that the seller hasn’t had the chance to warm the engine up in advance.

The Electrics

One of the most costly and time consuming jobs on a boat is re-wiring so it is important to go through as much of the electric system as you can on a first viewing. Turn each and every single electrical item on and off and assure yourself that they work.

Ask to see the fuse box and look at the brand of fuses used. If they are all of varying manufacturers, then it may indicate that there has been quite some replacement over the years. This might be down to the age of the boat but in a relatively new vessel it could indicate a problem. Ask the seller.

Where the wiring is visible, make a note as to the general condition. Is it well loomed, straight and well supported or is it like Spaghetti Junction? Whilst the electrics may be working now, wiring that is poorly run and maintained could be storing a world of pain in future years when trying to trace a problem.

Lower Units

The issue of leaking lower units can be a problem in stern drives and outboards but can be quite difficult to spot. Leaks arise because of hairline cracks in the casing or because of a bad seal which allows the ingress of water. There is only way to check that a lower unit is completely sealed and then to examine the oil in the lower unit itself; a milky appearance is a sure sign of water intrusion.

Check with the seller when the engine has been running so that you can open the drain screw a little to check the oil.


In modern boats, rot isn’t nearly as common a problem as it used to be, as untreated wood is a rare component used for construction. However, with older boats and in some areas of a boat, wood is still prevalent. Most commonly this can be seen in deck coring or transom. Look for signs of large cracks at the edges of the transom which could indicate early signs of structural failure. In the deck, the feeling of springiness or a spongy surface could also indicate rot.

Waterlogged Foam

This isn’t a problem you can see but there is an easy way to check it by looking at the way the boat sits in the water. With an absence of any heavy gear onboard the scuppers should be above the waterline and the bow tilting slightly up. If the boat is loaded with heavy equipment, then any seller who has nothing to hide and wants to make a sale should be willing to remove it so you can observe the natural float position. It is worth taking a moisture meter along if you have one to check cored areas. If you don’t have a moisture meter then you can always use a simple rubber mallet to tap along an area you suspect of being saturated and listen to the change in tone from dry areas.


The backbone of any boat, stringers should be well connected to the hull or else the boat is destined for the breakers. You may need to access tight and dark spaces so be prepared with a torch to climb into small hatches or bilge space. A visual inspection of the stringers is a must and any signs of separation or damage should make you cautious.

Deck to Hull Joint

What you are looking for here is any signs of separation which isn’t easy as, in most boats, it isn’t visible. One way to check is by soaking the rubrail well with a hose around the entire circuit and the looking for signs of water in the bilge or any spots where the water has come through; this may indicate a joint seal that is damaged. Generally, you should be looking for any signs of deformity in the rubrail, like twisting or bending, which could indicate a sign of stress on the joint.


You should have checked, along with the rest of the electrics, that the bilge pump runs but of course that doesn’t mean that the float switch is operational. The only way to do this is to trigger it manually.

Cabin Leaks

A watertight cabin at sea is important and problematic signs of leak are easy to spot via tell-tale watermarks. If the seller is trying to hide this kind of problem, then these can sometimes have been cleaned away. One easy way to check is using a hose and spraying hatches, ports and seams at full-blast to see if any moisture ingresses to the cabin.

The All-important Sea Trial

Though there are plenty of other areas that you will want to check the best way to be sure of how well a boat fares is to test its sea legs. By all means, enjoy the ride and admire the views of a different coastline but don’t forget to check for a sticky throttle, loose steering and complaining engines.

Buyer Beware

The Latin phrase ‘caveat emptor’ is still relevant in UK law and means that goods may be sold as seen with the onus of checking an item being borne by the buyer. Whilst false advertising and fraudulent sales are exempt from this and are covered their own legislation, it does mean that there is an element of risk when making a purchase of any second-hand item. That being said, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 does provide some protection that goods purchased via a company (such as a dealer) are of a satisfactory quality and fit for purpose. When making a purchase through a private seller, these caveats still apply but can be more vague and can only be applied to the title and description of the goods being sold – so of a satisfactory quality and fit for purpose as ‘implied by the seller’.

Where possible you can always protect the purchases you make by buying using a credit card such that the transaction becomes protected under the Consumer Credit Act.

As ever, the advice provided in these guides is informal and offered in good faith. Information should not be regarded as professional or legal advice. will not be liable for the consequences of following this advice. Best practice would be to employ the services of a surveyor and/or a solicitor when purchasing a large-value item such as a boat.