There are few feelings worse than the feeling after purchasing a lemon.
It’s a root canal for the spirit.
A kidney stone for the mind.
And a grave reminder that spending money on leisure can cause the stressful opposite.
Before looking for a used boat, it’s important to determine what boat is best for you. That’s the first step. A boat that’s wrong for your needs can be a lemon in its own right.
It’s also important to know the bottom line of what this boat will cost per year and plan accordingly.
Once that’s determined, the best way to prevent being sold a lemon is simple: Water test at all costs.
You wouldn’t test the totality of a car’s function by letting its wheels idle on a treadmill. Sellers who want to pull a fast one will advocate for an out-of-water test. However, any used boat that still has years left of fishing, water sports and recreation should be able to perform in its environment.
Another question that should always be asked is to see the service record. Problematic trends and lack of services appear in paperwork so that you can tell if a boat was looked after or left to rot.
Lucky for potential boat buyers, there are significant ways to tell if a used boat will sink your wallet before making the big purchase.
9 Foolproof Ways of Telling If a Boat Is a Lemon
1. Gel Coat Discrepancies
The gel coat is the history book of the boat. Look out for cuts in the fiberglass beyond a few inches deep. These could show structural damage below the surface.
Also, inspect the keel for signs of beaching. Since anchoring off the beach can be seen as extra work, some decide to beach their boats for convenience, which causes premature wear.
Blistering in the finish can also be a problem, showing a lack of quality materials in the gel coat or shoddy repair.
A professional gel coat repair can cost hundreds for a small repair and thousands for a large one. For this reason, some owners decide to do an amateur repair. Anyone with a sander can take a crack at repairing the gel coat, but this amateur work can be spotted with wavy, uneven surfaces blending into the original gel coat.
While on the gel coat, it’s important to take a look at the rub rack too. The occasional scratch and scuff is acceptable normal wear and tear on a used boat. However, if it shows big dents and chips, you can tell the boat wasn’t treated with care and might have suffered some serious impacts.
2. Mysterious Engine Hours
If tantalized by a low price and engine hours, make sure the seller isn’t pulling your leg with a tampered or broken engine hour meter.
Write down or take a photo of the number on the meter hours before you set off and compare it after the water test. If the meter didn’t move after time on the water, pass on the buy. It’ll save you the disappointment of being swindled.
3. Transom Cracks
The transom is a high stress point on the boat that shouldn’t be glanced over. The cost to repair is astronomical. Luckily, there’s an easy test that can tell if a transom is legit. Bring a hammer when testing and knock it a few times around the motor.
Starting at the bottom, the tapping should produce firm, high-pitched sound. The farther you move up, if you start getting deep, hollow thuds, the transom is likely compromised.
A visual inspection can turn up transom cracks from the inside of the boat. Be wary of resin coats over cracks. They’re just buying time before the big repair.
4. Squishy Flooring
A sure sign of rot and mold, floors that sink show costly problems ahead that could possibly threaten the integrity of the hull.
This problem is especially serious when the rot spreads to the stringers or structural beams. Repairs could involve a lot of labor, including yanking out the motor, fuel tank and cutting out the rotted structure.
This will run in the thousands and should be a strong deterrent of purchase. The deck dictates all boat interactions.
5. Haphazard Wiring
Bad wiring is more than an inconvenience. With essential functions like the blower and bilge pump dependent on good connections, unstable wiring can be a dangerous problem.
First, check under the dash for loose wiring and pieced together ends with electrical tape. There should be none if everything is connected correctly. Then proceed to push all the buttons and make sure they respond. This is important because installing a new wiring harness can push up into the thousands.
Keep an eye on the gauges and make sure they’re reading properly as well. Does the alternator gauge show that it’s charging? The last thing you want to do after the big purchase is tracking down and replacing shorts in the system.
6. Junky Trailer
It could be the greatest deal in the world, but without a reliable trailer that boat’s going nowhere. If the trailer is included in the deal, you don’t want to waste your money on a piece of junk.
Check simple things like brake light function and tire pressure first.
Then move on to the checking the tire tread for bulging patterns that could indicate internal ply separation—a problem that could result in blowouts in transit that will leave your boating plans landlocked.
Also, get the boat off the trailer and check the carpet bunks, safety chain and trailer jack to see if they’re in working condition. Fully unwind the winch, checking for any damage as well. Don’t forget to check the grease in the bearings too. Maintenance of the trailer is just as important as maintenance of the boat.
7. Cracked Block
Signaling a total engine replacement, cracked blocks are serious business. If it runs through a cylinder wall, it can warp the cylinder and leave you stranded with a major engine failure.
Even though some cracks on the block are hard to spot, luckily there are signs of JB Weld with amateur attempts to fix this major problem. By doing so, it inadvertently highlights the problem for your inspection.
Remember, though the boat may test well and look great, a cracked block means it’s living on borrowed time.
8. Signs of Ethanol Degradation
Starting in 2007, ethanol was implemented in gasoline, which is great for cars but terrible for boats. Look for a fuel/water separator and ask the seller if it was changed regularly every 60 to 90 days. Inquire about what steps the owner took to winterize the boat if applicable.
Since ethanol degrades seals and tubing over time, it’s a quiet killer if not taken care of. This is especially a problem with boats that sit around: Ethanol wreaks havoc on lines, seals and the engine itself if left untreated.
9. Engine Knock
Hard to diagnose, but certainly a bad omen, engine knocks are not to be taken lightly. To narrow down the culprit, first check the voltage, engine temperature and oil pressure for bad readouts.
A bad knock could mean a rod will break through the block, an exhaust leak, a stuck lifter and a hodgepodge of other problems. If the owner isn’t willing to pony up to track the problem down, pass on this potential disaster.
Lastly, though these methods can help diagnose the most obvious lemon symptoms, it can never hurt to be a 100 percent sure that your purchase is a smart one.
Accredited marine surveyors are available for hire to help advise you on used boat purchases.
Embrace the water with confidence and let the only lemon you have be on the edge of your cocktail.
Dennis Burck is a freelance journalist in the Detroit area that boats on Michigan’s many lakes. With family history in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula marinas, he enjoys Chris Craft wooden boats and studying Great Lakes shipwreck history.