Boat buying season is fast approaching. Here’s what you can do to avoid getting burned.

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, there were 11,000 new boats sold in Minnesota in 2015 at an average of $34,427 per boat.

That is why many boat buyer’s first purchase is a ‘pre-owned’ watercraft, to borrow a term from the used-car business.

As new boat prices have gone up, buyers have either chosen to take the plunge, often with loan terms of 10 years or more, or purchase a more affordable ‘used’ boat.


A quick check of Craigslist shows over 200 listings for boats and trailers in the St. Cloud area. Most area dealers will carry a limited supply of used boats as well. Most of these will carry some kind of assurance that they are water-ready.

The hottest season for boat buying coincides with the first open water in Minnesota. That means prime time is right around the corner. Couple that with the fact that all the purchasers of new boats from the winter boat and sport shows will probably looking to unload their used boat, this makes it a perfect time to shop for a pre-owned watercraft.

How can you be sure you are getting a quality used boat? There are a few things you can look for to avoid getting burned.

Take a look at the boat on the trailer from a distance. How does the boat sit on the trailer? If it is straight and the keel rides on the rollers correctly the trailer is correct for the boat. While it is on the trailer, take the time to crawl underneath and inspect the keel and hull for signs of trauma or repairs. Use a flashlight if the lighting is marginal. Ask the seller if the boat has been repaired. Any evasive answers should be a red flag. ‘Dock scratches’ are almost inevitable and are usually cosmetic.

Tilt the motor up and wiggle the lower unit back and forth. Movement in the transom could indicate problems that usually require an expensive repair.

Take the cover off the engine and pull the dipstick. The oil should be in good condition. Milky, off-colored or burnt-smelling engine oil indicates a problem. Check the spark plugs for carbon. Carbon on the plug means the engine is not running efficiently. Open the lower unit drain screw slightly and inspect the gear oil. Again, an off-color or milky appearance means water has breached the seals. If you can, pull the drain screw entirely check it for metal shavings. Most have small magnets attached just for that purpose. The presence of metal on the drain screw indicates a major problem with the gears or linkage.

If the boat you are considering has a console, look under the dash at the wiring. Nothing is harder to diagnose or fix than an electrical problem on a boat. Connections should all be factory shrink wrapped sealed tubing. Electrical taped connections indicate something has been repaired and will usually fail in the near future.

Turn on all the accessories one at a time. Then, turn them on all at once to make sure the system can work under load. Look at the fuse box. If you see a mixture of brands it means some fuses have been replaced. Now is the time to ask the seller what the problem was and how it was fixed.

If possible, ask for an on-the-water session with the current boat owner to assess the operating condition of the boat. Look at the boat as it sits on the water. If it floats low or lopsided, it may have problems with saturated flotation foam.

Once onboard, look for water in the bilge (usually the stern on most fishing boats) while drifting and while under power. Some boat’s lowest point at rest is not the bilge area. The momentum while under power should raise the bow and force any water to the rear. Any indication of accumulation of water means there is a leak somewhere. While it is often said a boat is a hole in the water that you through money into, in this case it might be true.

Ask the owner to wait until you arrive for the on-the-water test to cold-start the engine. A hard-to-start outboard will be a constant source of irritation and has the potential to ruin your fishing outings. The outboard should start after a few pulls or after a few seconds of cranking in the case of an electric start.

Once started make sure the water pump is circulating water to keep the engine cool. Weak or sputtering flows could indicate a worn-out water pump.

At some point it might be wise to do a compression check on the engine. Borrow a gauge to check all the cylinders and make sure they align with the recommended pressures for that particular model. They are available online.

Check the prop and lower unit for signs of damage or repair. Major repairs to the lower unit means the outboard has been through a catastrophic event that could indicate there is internal damage. Spin the prop and watch the shaft. If it appears to wobble the shaft could be bent.

It is always wise to have the engine looked at by a local trusted dealer. It may cost a few dollars but it will save you the headache of major repairs.

Don’t overlook the trailer. Make sure the trailer is built to handle the weight, size and type of boat it is carrying. Check the hubs for grease. Check the light bulbs by plugging it in to YOUR tow vehicle. Inspect the springs for rust. Does the tongue jack work? Are the safety chains in good condition? If it is equipped with trailer brakes, do they work? Check the strap and winch for wear and tear. Tires have good tread and properly inflated?

What price should you pay? Like automobiles, there are several boat pricing guides available online. Run the numbers on several and look at an average. And, like buying a used auto, condition is everything.

Questions to ask the seller

What year is the boat and the motor? This will give you a starting point for value in the price guides. How many hours are on the motor? This will indicate what maintenance will be required and how much life expectancy is left. Are there service records for the engine? A well-documented service log can tell if the engine has chronic issues or has been well-cared for. Any major repairs to boat or motor? While most dealerships and marine repair shops offer certified repairs, beware of the do-it-yourself home marine repair.

Keep in mind the requirements for title and license in Minnesota include all motorized watercraft and all non-motorized watercraft more than 10 feet in length. The following types of watercraft are exempt from registration with the MN DNR:

• Vessels currently registered in another state used in Minnesota for no more than 90 consecutive days.
• Boats from another country kept in Minnesota for no more than 90 consecutive days.
• U.S. government-owned vessels (except those used for recreational purposes).
• Documented vessels.
• Ship's lifeboat.
• Duck boats used during duck hunting season.
• Rice boats used during the harvest season.
• Seaplanes.

The DNR requires certain vessels over 16 ft. in length to have a Minnesota title.

Exceptions to this rule include:

• Boats registered out-of-state, being used in MN for more than 90 days.
• Vessels manufactured before August 1, 1979.
• Watercraft measuring 16 ft. or less.
• Rowboats with oar locks that have an outboard motor with less than 40 HP.
• Documented vessels.
• Canoes and kayaks.
• Lifeboats.
• Waterfowl boats used during the hunting season.
• Rice boats operating during the harvesting season.
• Vessels owned by manufacturers up for sale OR used only for testing purposes.
• Boats owned by a licensed resort or recreational area.
• Rowing shell or scull.
• Watercraft owned by an entity of the U.S. government.

Doing your homework now will save you bigger headaches in the future. Boating is supposed to be fun and stress-free, right?

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