When it comes to buying a boat, there are many variables to ponder when trying to identify a second-hand yacht that will meet your needs and budget (see: how to choose your first yacht). But without knowing how to inspect a second-hand boat properly, you could waste a lot of time and money on the process.

In particular, given that the many different models of yachts available were often produced in small numbers, in a lot of cases each boat you view will need to be judged against two sets of criteria. Firstly, is the model suitable for your purposes? If the answer to that is affirmative, the second question is whether that particular example is in a condition and equipped to a level that justifies its price.

How to inspect a second-hand boat – stay open-minded

The wide variety of boats on available on the second-hand market can make it difficult to know in advance whether a specific model will suit your needs.

It’s important to have a realistic list of key priorities in each of these two areas worked out before you set out to viewing any boat on your shortlist. At the same time, it’s important to recognise you’re unlikely to find a boat that's exactly perfect for your requirements, so it’s also worth identifying a list of points on which you might be happy to compromise.

Once you’ve found a boat that looks as though it will suit your broad requirements it’s worth spending time looking in more detail at the inventory and also the general condition of the vessel. The latter doesn’t preclude having a survey on a boat – or mean replicating the work a surveyor would do. At this stage you’re simply trying to get a better indication of the boat’s general condition, and how well it has been looked after, in order to figure out whether it’s worth putting in an offer.

This would normally be subject to survey, so that you can get the boat independently checked by an expert whose primary role is to ascertain whether there are any significant underlying and unidentified problems.

Inspecting the boat

It's important to inspect the boat and all its gear thoroughly and is therefore worth taking along someone who knows a lot more about boats than you, if you're inexperienced. While a broker may list what sounds like a comprehensive inventory of gear it’s only by looking at each item that you will get an indication as to whether it’s decades old and caked in salt, or has been properly maintained.

How to inspect a second-hand boat – see beyond the surface condition

Unfortunately not all boats are as well presented as this 12-year-old 43 footer – it can help if you’re able to visualise beyond any clutter that’s left on board.

If the boat you’re looking at is of a popular type it’s also worth checking out class association websites to identify whether there are any typical faults found on second-hand boats. In any case, start by checking the cosmetic condition of hull and deck, including gelcoat or paint. Also look for evidence of structural damage such as impact damage, or significant cracks in high stress areas, including chainplates, deck fittings, the hull-deck joint and so on.

On sailing boats check the rig carefully, and ask when the standing rigging was last changed – racing yachts may need it to be replaced every five years, while 10 years is a more usual interval for cruising yachts.

Viewing a second-hand yacht

The cracks around the floors of this 36-footer clearly need further investigation by a surveyor to ascertain whether any repair work is needed.

Below decks look for any signs of water leaks – in some cases these may cause only minor cosmetic damage, but it’s also possible for them to create more significant – and expensive – problems. Try to look beyond any surface grime when assessing the condition of interior headlinings, joinery and soft furnishings.

It’s also worth looking at any areas of the structural framework that are visible, particularly bulkheads, stringers and ribs, including under the floor and around the keel. All such structural members should all be neatly bonded in place with no cracks or gaps.

Ideally it should be possible to operate all domestic, sail handling and other systems to figure out whether they are operating correctly, however this may not be possible, unless a trial sail can be arranged (this is usually negotiated at the stage of making an offer). Similarly, you will want to be able to see the engine running. Does it start easily? Are there any leaks of fuel or water and is the engine compartment reasonably clean? If it’s a boat in which a major engine overhaul or replacement would be a high proportion of the vessel’s total value it’s worth commissioning an engineer’s report. This will look in much more detail at this aspect than is included in standard yacht surveys.

Will it fit the budget?

Working out whether or not a particular used boat is competitively priced is a lot more complex than simply comparing asking prices. In many cases, a seemingly expensive boat that’s well equipped can turn out to be much better value than a lower priced model with a bare inventory, providing of course that all the extra kit has been carefully maintained and is in good order.

If you’re still interested in the boat at the end of the viewing, note any deficiencies you find so that you can figure out an approximate overall cost of getting the boat in commission and operating with the equipment you deem to be necessary. Be wary of older boats that have been cosmetically improved, but still have much of their original equipment – these can be expensive to bring up to date and can prove to be a costly purchase. By contrast, boats that are well equipped and have been properly maintained are harder to find – if they are offered for a fair price they tend to sell quickly, often for a figure close to the asking price.

Making an offer

Any offer should be subject to a survey, valuation, evidence of title, and finance approval (if appropriate). You will also need evidence of payment of VAT if the seller is claiming that this has been paid – see our guide to VAT on boats for more information. If you’re buying through a broker it’s part of their job to deal with the legal aspects of the sale on behalf of boat vendor and buyer.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.