This gets asked almost as often as "why does my boat pull to the right?" And each time it comes up, the responses vary. As a result, just searching the topic may not get someone very far. This information was compiled in hopes of consolidating the list of what all to kick in addition to the trailer tires when used boat shopping. Then, it was posted with the request that the forum members submit revisions or suggest things that were initially omitted. Thanks to all who contributed.
Guide to Buying a Used Ski Boat
1. Overall Appearance. My philosophy is that if someone did not care enough to take the basic steps to prevent the interior or exterior of the boat from being trashed, they likely did not do the necessary maintenance to make the boat one that will last a long time. Brittle upholstery, dingy carpet, and oxidized gel coat can be cleaned and restored, but red flags to other potential problems. If you are looking at the boat at the owner's house, take a look at the house, the cars, or other big toys. Do they appear to be well cared for? It may seem silly, but it never hurts to keep the big picture in mind. When I bought my last boat, I had two long phone conversations with the owner before I ever went for a look. I also had a friend go look before I made the drive. I asked my friend what kind of feeling he got from the owner. His response was just what I wanted to hear. He said, "If you lived here, you'd want to ski with him."
2. Hull. It may shine, but has it touched anything but carpet and water? You're looking for scuffs, scratches, shoddy gel coat patches, spider cracks, and blisters resulting from what's commonly called "gel coat osmosis." The former of these conditions are minor and you could use them to get the price down. The latter require major work and would be deal breakers. Look at the keel and around the prop for scuffs, scratches and patches. If the boat has been beached, these should be expected. Spider cracks are most likely around attachment points for things like the windshield, tower, grab rails and anything else that attaches to the hull. Blisters will be on the bottom and commonly result from a boat that has been stored in the water, although they have been known, in at least one instance of which I'm aware, to show up from boats that sat on wet bunks for too long. When the boat is in the water, turn it off, and reach down and feel the hull where it would sit on the bunks. This would be a good time to check for scratches if it was kept on a lift without carpeted supports. Check the decals as well. The older the boat, the more likely the decals will have to be custom made by a sign shop if they need replacing.
3. Upholstery. Boat manufacturers tend not to offer replacement upholstery forever. For example, if it's a MasterCraft, the cut off for replacement skins is 2001 or newer. So anything you're considering that's over five and may need skins in the future may mean going to a local shop or have them made aftermarket. Depending on the vinyl, a local shop may not be a bad option. However, quite often, the local folks will not be able to exactly match the weight and texture of the OEM vinyl. But regardless of where you get replacement skins, one thing is for sure, they are expensive. I've heard of closed bow reupholstering jobs running upwards of $1,500 for the skins and often much more after installation. So unless you're willing to live with holes or torn seams in your vinyl, inspect it closely. Ask the owner what vinyl protectant was used. If the answer is Armor All, that's a problem as it tends to dry the seats out. Feel the seats. Are they soft? Push down on them. If water comes out of the seams, you might be looking at potential rot issues down the road. When they rot the seams will tear and you probably can't get them resewn. Also check for discoloration. It's not uncommon for there to be a faint yellow stain around heat stamp emblems in the upholstery, but the odds of getting it out are slim to none. Look for little pink spots. Look for orange spider dung stains. By and large, this kind of stuff is permanent albeit common. Use it to negotiate if you decide you can live with it.
4. Canvas. Check the condition of the cover. If it looks perfect, ask how often it was cleaned. If you don't get a good answer, ask how often it was used. Covers get dirty when they are used. That's what they are supposed to do. If they're well maintained they can last a long time. Put the cover on the boat and look for holes, lose threads, and ripped straps. These things can be patched and it is reasonably inexpensive to do so. But this is another negotiating point because new covers that are high quality are expensive ranging anywhere from $300--$650 or more. If the boat has a bimini top, put it up and check the canvas and frame poles. If you're a skier, where are the rear attachment points? You don't want them too far back. While not a deal killer, keep a list of these minor things as negotiating points.
5. Running gear. I'm using this term a little more loosely than its technical meaning to mean anything somewhat structural on the exterior of the boat top and bottom that is not the hull. Start at the bow and work your way back on each side. Check the bow eye. Double check for cracks. It should be sturdy and not move. If the boat has a lifting ring, it will move a little, but should be pretty sturdy. As you walk back, take hold of the grab rails. They should be sturdy and firm. Look at the rub rail and inspect it for cracks, chips and other abrasions. Check the intake vents as well. If the boat has a tower check for blind spots (may have to wait until you climb in for this) and check to see how much flex the tower has. At the transom, check the two lifting rings and the grab rail if the boat. All should not move. Kneel down and inspect the rudder and prop. Look for nicks and dings. These things will affect performance. The rudder will be offset to one side. Make sure the kill switch is pulled and turn the prop by hand. It should turn, but not spin freely. Look for movement in the shaft. Inspect the strut and bearings if possible. Look at the skegs/tracking fins. Make sure they are not bent, dinged, or cracked. Inspect the intake grate for damage. If equipped with a paddle wheel speedometer, inspect it as well. While you're at the transom, shine a flashlight up the exhaust pipes and inspect for blistering, which is indicative of a previous engine overheat. How does the platform look. If it's teak, it can likely be refurbished, but you will be able to quickly tell if it has been cared for. How are the brackets? How are the attachment points at the hull? See if you can remove it easily? If it is hard to remove, the brackets may need to be redrilled.
6. Records and Receipts. Always ask to see records and receipts. If an owner claims to have done his own work, ask if he kept a log. Ask about oil change intervals, transmission fluid change intervals, impeller replacement intervals, fuel filter(s) replacement, spark plugs, wires, distributor cap, rotor, how often the flame arrestor was cleaned, when the last time the shaft packing was changed, when the drip rate was last checked, when was the steering last greased, how often the boat was washed and waxed, when the carpets were cleaned, etc., etc. The more definite the answers, the better. If the owner hands you a computer disk with scanned records, receipts and a log on it, you're probably looking at a well maintained boat. If dealer maintained, ask for a contact at the dealer. Follow up by calling them. Make sure the owner has let them know to expect your call. Ask what kind of fuel was used. With MC's especially with the carbureted boats, and pretty much all Ford marine engines, 89 octane or higher would be a good answer.
7. Interior other than upholstery. I always like to see the battery. If it looks positively awful, that's a sure $60 and up payment you'll have to make within the first year. Make sure it's a marine battery while you're at it. Walk the floor and feel for soft spots. Open the glove compartment and have a look inside. Keep an eye out for spare impellers just because. Does the owner still have the key to the glove box? Take hold of the windshield frame and gently apply pressure. If it moves, it may need tightening. If not, remember to watch for movement during the test ride. If an open bow, look for a gap or sag in the walkthrough section. Ask if the rear view mirror is included. Open the storage compartments. Look around. Do the gas lifting struts have any life left in them? Check the plastic cover for the radio. Does it open smoothly? How is the radio. Check it to see if it functions. Check the speakers, too. Turn the key on and check the blower (put your hand over the rear vents when its on. if you can't feel it, the hose may be toast), bilge pump, lights (don't forget to put the pole in, gauge back lighting, is anything hooked up to the accessory switches). How are the switches, how is the panel. Do they move smoothly? Is the panel cracked? How about the dash panel as a whole? Are the screws holding it into the dash tight? Do the gauges appear to work? Are they cloudy like they have moisture behind them? Are they original or replacements? Does the tilt steering work? Does the seat adjustment work? Does it lock in place afterwards? How many sets of keys are there? How many hours are on the boat (note, if it's a Chevy engine, a dealer can hook it up and tell you if there's a discrepancy between the meter and how many hours are actually on the engine, but this isn't an option with a Ford engine).
8. Engine. Okay, this is the part that always scares me because I'm not an engine guru. You'll be doing this again during the test drive, but a quick inspection of the engine is always a good idea. Is it stored closed, or is there something that keeps the motorbox propped up to let air circulate? Open the cover. Do the gas lifting struts (if any) feel strong? Are the hinges where it attaches to the floor solid or is there some wiggle. Do you smell the overwhelming odor of gasoline? Is there gas pooling on the intake manifold? Is the bilge filthy? How do the belts look? Brittle and worn? How about the hoses? How rusty is it? Some rust is to be expected, especially on the manifolds. But significant corrosion is obviously bad. Ask the owner if it has ever been in salt or brackish water. This sounds gross, but if you suspect salt water use, go back to the spot where a rider would first set foot back in the boat from the platform. Run your finger across that spot and taste for salt. Hey, I know it sounds nasty, but this is important. Look at the manifolds. If there is no surface rust, does it appear that someone has painted over rust? That can be a problem if not done properly. Also, check for hairline fractures in the manifold as it might be a sign that it wasn't winterized properly and froze. Look at the gaskets on the risers? Do they look worn out. Are there water stains beneath them? If so, they'll need to be replaced. Reach down and grab all of the engine mounts. Will they turn at all? They shouldn't or if they do, they should bite. Inspect the bilge. Is there any indication of oil or gas down there? Check the transmission fluid and oil. Look at it. It shouldn't be milky in color. Pull the hose from the hull side of the transmission cooler and look for debris with a flashlight. This is just a basic inspection, but if anything looks amiss, make a note of it and see if you can get the owner to talk about it.
9. Trailer. Some people take great care of their boats and neglect the trailer. On the way to the test drive, see if you can tow the boat with your vehicle (or at least pull it around the parking lot at the launch). Can you feel the actuator banging on the hitch when you make a stop? Make sure the brakes still work. Check the brake fluid reservoir on the actuator. Is there fluid in it? Are there any leaks visible at the actuator? If not, it might be the brake lines. Brake repairs can run several hundred dollars. How does the boat buddy/bow stop look? How is the winch strap/hook? How about the winch mechanism? Does it stay in the locked position well? How is the jack stand? Is the locking pin on the jack stand loose? What about the safety cables? What about the emergency break cable? Make sure these things are in good shape. Is there still a reverse lockout pin and actuator lock pin? Moving on, a little surface rust on the frame is not uncommon, but a lot could mean trouble. How are the tires? Are they trailer tires? Check indicators on the bearings to see if they need grease? Ask when and how often they were greased. When the boat has been launched, get a closer look at the trailer. Are the fenders showing cracks? Are the bunks solid? How about the bunk carpet? Check the angle irons that support the bunks. They may be extremely rusty, but they can be ground down and repainted. But it's a good negotiating point. Check the keel roller. These can rot out from the inside. See if it turns true. Check the leaf springs for excessive wear. These just wear out over time. How is the prop guard? Dented up? Rusty? How are the lights. Check them all and make sure they all function. If not, it could be just the light, a bad ground or something more problematic.
10. Test Drive. Now is the fun part. If the seller is unwilling, then you need to just keep looking. Take your time test driving a boat. Sometimes problems don't present themselves until things get good and warmed up. Don't just cruise around the no wake zone. Don't just let them start it on the hose to show you it runs. Put the boat through its paces. Check the hour meter. If it's the same when you come back from the test drive you either weren't out long enough or it doesn't work and you need to start peppering the owner with questions if this is the first time this is come up. When you crank it does it sound strong or could the starter or battery be about to go? Did it start up immediately or was it a process? A process with a carbureted engine isn't uncommon, but it shouldn't be a trial. Is the idle smooth? Did it screech (indicative of a water pump belt that may need replacing). Open the engine box and do another visual inspection? Do the belts appear to need tensioning? Are there any leaks? How does it sound? As it warms up, keep an eye on the gauges. How is the oil pressure. It will be lower at idle (maybe around 40),but will increase at cruise. What is the rpm at neutral? What is it at idle speed? When the boat warms up (usually about 160 degrees), take it out and run it at various rpm. Do the speedometers work? If so, take the boat to 3,000 rpm and set the speedometers to 30 mph. How does it feel when you put it into gear. It should be pretty smooth. If it hits hard, there may be forth coming transmission issues confront. Does it lose power at any particular rpm? Is there any vibration at a particular rpm or overall? Listen for rattles when crossing rollers or pounding over chop. Bring it back to neutral. How is the idle now? Turn it off and let it sit for a few minutes. Start it back up? Was it easy to start? How is the idle now? Keep an eye on that temperature setting. Although it might go up over normal with the engine off, when the boat is restarted, it should quickly return to normal. Let the boat run in neutral for a minute or so? It should be smooth. If it is sputtering and stalling, there may be carburetor issues. If the boat has an integrated ballast system, load and unload the ballast to make sure all that works. Put it into gear and give yourself a hole shot. Was there hesitation? Take it up to the speed at which you ride/ski? How do things look? Make some turns? How hard is the wheel to turn? It shouldn't be difficult to turn and this may indicate the need for a new steering cable. If you let go of the wheel at speed, does it spin? This could be normal if the boat has a loaded rudder but is worth checking so you won't be surprised later. Take the boat up to wide open throttle. How does it sound? What are the rpm? What is the top speed? Are the speedometers still functioning? Max RPM and Speed should be in the neighborhood of 4,600--4,800 rpm and 45--48 mph for most 351/350 cc engines (but confirm this in the manual depending on what you're test driving). Is there any porpoising or surging? Is the engine temperature normal? How is the oil pressure. How does the boat handle at various speeds? Bring it back to neutral and shut it down for another 5 minutes. Start it back up and look for stalls. How is the engine temp when you restart? Does it still idle well? Shut it off again. Grab your ski or board. It's why you're buying the boat right? Don't worry about whether the water is rough. Jump in. Have a good set. How is the wake? Is it short or tall, wide or narrow, soft or hard? How is the hole shot? Have the driver vary the speeds. How is the wake now? Does the exhaust appear to be flowing evenly out of the pipes? When you're done, with the engine off, give a feel under the hull where the bunks would be to check for blistering. Climb back aboard and dry off. Offer to let the owner have a set. While you've got your ski or board handy, check to see if it fits in the various storage spaces provided. Jump back into the driver's seat (make sure you're dry) and start it up again and check all the stuff you checked before. Drive it around some more and vary the rpms. Take it up to wide open throttle one more time and check all the gauges. When you get back to the dock, let the owner trailer the boat and see how he does it. If he runs it up fast and hard, it's probably not the first time that has happened.
11. Other Questions. How did the previous owner(s) use the boat (recreationally on weekends, private ski) lake, tournament skier/wakeboarder, etc.)? Really talk to the owner to find out how they used it, i.e., what is a typical 'outing' for them. This may give some insight as to how the boat was used versus what they are going to tell you to make the sale. Where was the boat used (you're mainly looking for more indications of salt or brackish water, but depending on local lakes, there could be other indicators here, too. Just remember that salt water can erode engines and various other items on a boat very quickly. Most buyers will avoid salt water boats altogether, but some may still be a good deal if properly cared for (closed cooling system would be good if it is a salt water boat). How many owners has the boat had?
12. Other things to consider. Is the trailer a tandem or single axle trailer. Think about how far and how often you will trailer. Also consider how maneuverable you will need the trailer to be as tandem trailers are more difficult to move around in tight spaces (especially by hand). Does the boat have wooden or fiberglass stringers? Is there any other wood in the boat? MasterCraft no longer had wood stringers by mid 1983. But there was still some wood in the seats and behind certain panels into the late 80s or so (maybe later, but I could be wrong). Correct Craft didn't go wood-free until 93. Obviously, water & wood do not go well together and over time the wood can rot. Look for soft spots in the floor and carefully inspect the stringers if you think they may be wood as dealing with floor and stringer replacement is very time consuming and/or expensive. Decide whether or not you want a carbureted or fuel injected engine. Fuel injection first appeared in 1993 with MCs with the LT-1 and was standard as of 1994. Correct Craft's first fuel injected boat appeared in 1994. Fuel injected boats start easier & tend to need less tweaking than carbureted boats, but also tend to cost a little more. But if you're doing your own maintenance, you might be able to accomplish more without dealer support with a carburetor versus a fuel injection system. Also, before buying a boat, it may be a good idea to pay a mechanic to check the compression on the engine & the overall running condition of the engine, especially if your wide-open-throttle test during the test drive yielded lackluster results. While this may be money that you don't want to spend, it can save you some trouble that might not be evident from just looking, listening, and driving.
13. Final Considerations. You will be best served if you compare lots of different boats. Only then will you truly know that, when you buy, you've bought the right boat for you. Boats are expensive, and they cost a lot of money to maintain. Rarely are they perfect, and when they are approaching that level, the price may be higher. Be picky and be patient. Don't put your money down until you are satisfied that you are getting what you're paying for.