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Getting Afloat: Buying a Used Boat

A used boat is no different to a used car – except there are slightly fewer safeguards for the buyer, with nothing in the way of log books or even service records.
Caveat Emptor – buyer beware – is at the heart of the buying process is crucial, as Peter Underwood explains.
This is the fourth in a series of nearly a dozen videos looking at getting afloat on Britain’s wonderful canals and waterways which have been produced for Norbury Wharf Ltd, based on the Shropshire Union Canal in Staffordshire.
This fourth episode takes in the buying process, the role of surveyors and the best ways of making sure you are buying a vessel that will serve you and your family well into the future.

*Video transcript* 

Buying a used boat, which most people do, is no different to buying a second-hand car or even a house. It will always be a balance between price and condition. 
You're buying what you can see in front of you, and you only have one opportunity to bargain with the seller, and it's essential to get it right. If you were a car dealer selling a second-hand car, you clean it, polish it, touch up the paintwork and present it in the best possible light to get the maximum price, wouldn't you? Even the estate agents these days give thoughtful advice to sellers about making sure their home has neutral colours on the walls, make sure it's clean and smells fresh before potential buyers are given a viewing. So why do so many of the people who sell second-hand boats, both brokers and owners, happily offer for sale scruffy, often dirty vessels, showing all the signs of neglect? 
When you begin your trek around the brokers and private owners, don't expect to be dazzled by cleanliness, shiny paintwork and spotless engines. In fact, if you find a boat like that, I'd look at it very closely, simply because the trade as a whole is so bad at presentation that you have to wonder what's being hidden! The plus side of that approach, of course, is that you will still see your potential boats' warts and all, and it should be easier to identify potential problems. 
Once you see the boat you like, don't assume that the asking price is the real price, make an offer. It may well be that the dream boat you thought you couldn't afford is now within your reach, especially if you're a cash buyer. Brokers across the country will admit privately that any seller who overestimates the value of their craft and refuses to accept offers, is likely to see his or her vessel on the broker's books for a very long time. 
Before you set off, you'll have gone through the business of narrowing down the sort of boat you're looking for, length, width, layout style etc. So you should be comparing like with like, unfortunately, second-hand boats are not like cars as we've said, with ownership registered on some central computer, nor are they like houses with deeds stashed at the Land Registry. That means you need to be able to trust the people you may be buying from. 
If it's a broker, it will help if the firm belongs to one of the trade associations with an enforceable code of conduct, such as the British Marine Federation, the Boat Retailers & Brokers Association or the ABYA. It's worth asking if the broker operates a properly administered client account and whether the money you pay over will be kept in this account during the brokerage transaction. 
You should ask whether there's marine finance on the boat and the detailed arrangements for it being paid off before the boat becomes yours. Knowing who really owns a boat, especially an older one, can be difficult, so ask about title documentation. It could have a part one registration builder certificate if it's newish, or there could be previous bills of sale. Evidence of compliance with the recreational craft directive and the VAT status are also helpful, but above all, make sure you're satisfied with the service title documents before you sign a binding agreement. There are standard contracts, and when you're buying second-hand, you really need to make sure any contract is subject to an independent survey. 
It wouldn't be a bad idea if the contract included a specification and an inventory, so there are no future arguments about whether a specific item of kit is included or not. Some brokers offer extras like an opportunity to moor, but don't overestimate the value of such perks; marina berths are not in short supply these days. Finally, it's important to spell out when you will become responsible for licensing and insuring the boat, and all those precautions make sense. 
Still, I would flag up that buying second-hand vessels is very much a case of buyer beware. You'll have little or no come back on the broker or the previous owner unless they've actually misled you in some way and even then it could take a court case to get satisfaction. That's not said to put you off, merely to drive home the need to ask all the right questions and make sure you're happy with the answers. Most of the questions are basic, you'll know as soon as you step on board whether the boat has been well looked after. Check the paintwork, look at the fridge, the cooker, the heating system and the shower, are they all in good working order? Make sure there are central for and aft ropes and that they're staying on the boat along with a windlass and mooring pins. If the boat is out of the water, make sure you know who's going to pay for it to be craned back in. 
You need an expert to check what you can't see or don't know about, primarily this is things like the thickness of the hull and whether any repairs are needed, having said that, even surveyors make mistakes. Ask when the boat was last blacked in the dry-dock with the hull protected with several coats of bitumen, and if you're not a mechanic, it may be worth getting one to check over the engine and gearbox, as some older crafts have weird and wonderful kit in the engine room. Check the batteries, make sure they're still working well and look for a battery management system and an inverter to convert 12-volt power to 240 volts if you want to run mains equipment on board. 
You have to go over the paperwork that comes with the boat, if the vessel is less than four years old as we've said, it must have a certificate of recreational craft directive, Class D inland waters, which says it's built to lay down those standards. Boats older than that must have a boat safety certificate, which is a bit like an MOT. This confirms the basic safety systems, engine installation, ventilation, heating, gas, electrics and fire extinguishers are all as they should be. Then it's just a matter of taste, get out there and pick the one you really, really like!
Browse all canal and narrowboats for sale currently here.
Peter Underwood
Published on 2020-07-14