How to buy a used boat from a private seller: detailed process

Many long-time boat owners see buying a used boat as financially sound advice. Many first-hand stories tell of money savings ranging from the not-so-low 8% to a head-spinning 20%.

Don’t be surprised if the same boat owners push you to learn how to buy a used boat from a private seller. “Wait a year or two before they flood the market,” they would probably add.

Having bought my boat this way, I can only agree. When the time comes, you need to be ready to grab that killer deal. I’ve put together this used boat buying guide to make the process easier.

How I smoothly bought a used boat from a private seller


These are the steps and advice I followed when I purchased my cruise ship.

1. Plan your budget and negotiate the price.

Assuming you haven’t set a specific price yet, do so first. I’m going to assume you’re looking for boats for sale by private owners since you don’t want to face an overpriced market.

Nothing beats the feeling of saving on used boats while getting maximum value for money. Here are the common factors that greatly affect the price:

  • Mark
  • Vessel size
  • Make model year
  • Engine brand, model year and hours of use
  • Engine type (e.g. inboard/outboard, outboard or inboard)

Once you have a specific number in mind, you can now start negotiating with the private seller. The seller may also require a down payment to build trust, so consider that route.

2. Personally inspect the boat and request/take a test ride.

Never buy a boat without seeing it. If the seller won’t allow you to do a personal inspection, that’s a major red flag! Make sure you are comfortable with the boat when sailing it for your specific needs.

Remember: you can always back out of a deal if you’re not happy driving the boat. If you still have any doubts about this, take a few minutes to watch this brief informative video:

Of course, trying out the boat at sea or on a lake means you’ll need to be prepared to drive to the seller’s location. It’s worth it once you think about it, because even if you save a few thousand or hundreds of dollars on the used ship, you’ll still be shelling out a substantial sum.

  • Talk to the seller. Ask how he or she took care of the boat and its boating habits if you can and get a sense of their personality.
  • If possible, invite a marine surveyor to accompany you on the trial. Incidentally, this brings us to the next important point as follows.

3. Hire a marine surveyor or mechanic to inspect the vessel.

While this is arguably an optional step, I suggest doing it to ensure you are getting your money’s worth.

  • Have the marine surveyor, or better yet, have a mechanic check the engine compression to find out its true current condition. Some engine problems are easy to overlook. Better if the seller has already prepared a recent and valid report or is willing to pay for said inspection (don’t hold your breath, though!).
  • Minor issues on small inconsequential items and equipment should be ok as this is a used ship. However, you should be prepared to cancel the transaction or have second thoughts if the surveyor highlights major issues.

The seller should be prepared to adjust the price after the inspection, especially if there are significant issues.

Meet the inspector while he is performing the inspection or simply ask him to call you after the inspection is complete. I took that advice to heart, and even after 5 years of continuous use, I’m still in love with the performance of my cabin cruiser.

Here’s another nifty tip: if you’re still weighing your options, ask the surveyor what the best local deals are. Chances are they know one or two private owners who want to sell their boat directly!

4. Don’t forget to ask for a bill of sale.

If the seller does not provide it automatically, you must request an agreement for the sale and purchase (i.e. the deed of sale). It provides legal protection for both parties and is often necessary when you are not buying from an official dealer or buying an out of state boat and need to travel miles.

  • The sales contract protects you from the possibility that the seller sells the boat to you. You will find this particularly useful if you are already paying for the used boat inspection.
  • Having the bill of sale can also be useful if you don’t yet have a temporary or permanent plate on your boat after buying it and bringing it home.

I have a friend who was pulled over by a cop for this. He only showed the bill of sale and explained that he was transferring the boat to the house, and the cop was cool with that. I repeat, however: it is not an infallible thing!

  • If the seller asks to be paid via PayPal, that should raise your eyebrows. You run the risk of not having any buyer protection if you decide to go this route.

5. Complete the transaction.

With each box checked, you can now complete the transaction.

You may be wondering, “Is there a way for me to quickly get a temporary or permanent plate for my boat?” Yes, if you agree to go to the DMV office to finalize the transaction.

Here’s how I did it: The seller and I agreed to finalize the transaction at the local DMV office. I got a temporary plate immediately and received the permanent two weeks later. Note that this was 5 years ago, however, but I’m pretty confident the SOP hasn’t changed much.

Other scenarios to consider


When buying a used boat, not everyone is in the same, well…boat. You may have to, as I said above, purchase the vessel out of state or want to do so without a broker and surveyor which will only further inflate your expenses. I suggest you remember these guidelines and things to look for.

Things to consider when buying out of state:

  • Consult the tax regulations of the state in which you will register the boat and where you will buy it. Google is your best friend when it comes to this. Find out about each state’s tax codes on their official websites.
  • You can waive paying sales tax since private sales are generally not taxable. However, you will need to confirm this in the regulations of your home country. In most cases, you must pay the state where you register your boat.
  • There may be other requirements and considerations (eg boat size and other tax obligations), so be sure to read up on the respective state sites.

What to keep in mind when buying without a broker or surveyor:

  • Although Craigslist is a gold mine for direct sellers, the best way to navigate its unpredictable waters is to learn, at least, some basic boating and boat maintenance skills. Believe me, you can quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • The video I shared above covers some boat surveying basics, so be sure to keep his tips in mind. The key is to learn how to inspect a ship yourself, which takes time and dedication.


Do! Let’s go back and summarize this checklist:

  • Identify your exact budget threshold and always be open to negotiation.
  • Settle in for nothing less than a personal, professional service performed by both a mechanic and a marine surveyor.
  • Take a test drive afterwards.
  • Complete the purchase and request a bill of sale.

How did you find my guide on how to buy a used boat from a private seller? Please share your thoughts below and pass the information on to others who may find it useful.

About Nunnally Maurice

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