Used Cars, Used Boats: Big Differences

I’ve always been against comparing used cars with used boats, and I’ve written about some of my concerns here in Boat Buyers: Beware of Auto Parts and Boat Wiring is Not Car Wiring. Honest.

It’s true that some boats and cars share the same kinds of engines, and they are both means of conveyance.  And it’s true that you can use a few things from an auto parts store. Spark plugs come to mind. But that’s about where the similarities end.

Unlike auto assembly lines, boatbuilding operations are almost all labor-intensive -- few things are stamped out and mass-assembled. Photo courtesy of Hornet Marine.

Unlike auto assembly lines, boatbuilding operations are almost all labor-intensive — few things are stamped out and mass-assembled. Photo courtesy of Hornet Marine.

Even though General Motors belts out most of the small inboard engines for recreational boats, the only shared items are likely the block, heads, and valvetrain. Everything else (OK, except the plugs) is different, and that means adopting a different mindset when evaluating the purchase of a used boat model. And it’s why you take a boat to a marine surveyor, not your local mechanic. You don’t want the mechanic’s advice and trust me, he doesn’t want to mess around with a boat, because they are not the same.

Here are just a few ways used boats and cars are different. Some are pluses and some are definite minuses, but getting something as close to exactly what you want on the used market has never been easy.

Boats are built largely by hand. Cars are not.

If you do an Internet search for assembly-line photos of a car manufacturing plant and a similar search for a boatbuilding operation, you’ll see a distinct difference: people. Car plants have comparatively few people for the amount of product they’re churning out. Boat plants, by contrast, need a lot of people to produce much smaller numbers.

Therein lies not only a key difference in how boats are made, but also how you shop for them. Say you’re focused on one model. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need to test drive as many of that same model as you possibly can, because with hand-built products comes variability in performance. Sure, it can be subtle, but if you knew what day your boat was built, you’d take one built on a Tuesday or a Thursday over one built on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, wouldn’t you?

You would, and that’s why it’s important to see, touch, and drive as many as you can, so you get the best possible boat for your money.

Cars are built in the hundreds of thousands, boats in the hundreds. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Cars are built in the hundreds of thousands, boats in the hundreds. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Cars are built in the hundreds of thousands. Boats, in the hundreds.

Cars are built in huge quantities, largely by machine. So, there won’t be much difference from one to another, and if you miss out on one, another one will come along. I believe that’s true about boats, too — that another one will come along — but the wait is likely to be longer.

For that reason, maybe it’s wise to have a Plan B in mind, the equivalent to a backup school, if you will. But be sure to maintain high standards. Think of it as making Stanford your first choice, and your safety school U.C. Berkeley. That way, if you can’t make Plan A happen, Plan B is still good.

Drive your Buick over six-foot speed bumps — it’ll break, too.

A used Buick is probably one of safest bets on the used-car market. Try as Buick may to lower the average age of its buyers, most of them are owned by people 65 and older, who, let’s face it, aren’t that hard on their equipment. That’s why there are still Buicks from the 1980s — a deplorable decade for GM cars — on the road. They get driven gently and serviced regularly.

However, all boats are subject to harsh conditions, no matter who owns them. Seas kick up and you still have to get home, sometimes in a hurry. So, a boat might have to be driven back to the marina at three-quarter throttle in six-foot seas. Even if a given used boat’s current owner reminds you of your grammy and pappy, check it out thoroughly. True, owners differ in the level of care they dole out on a boat, but the environment a boat is used in is the same, and less than forgiving.

Open boats are convertibles

OK, there is one kind of used car that does in some ways compare to a used boat — the convertible. If you’ve ever looked at used convertibles, you know they feel different from hardtop cars. It seems their interiors are always rattier, things fall apart sooner, colors fade, they sometimes smell of mildew, and they tend to rattle more than cars with a roof.

That’s because a roof adds structure, which adds stiffness and blocks the UV rays from attacking the interior with such vigor.

Open boats have no roofs, so all the things that go wrong with convertibles go wrong with boats. Tenfold if they’re stored outdoors and don’t have appropriate canvas covers. Fivefold if they do.

Look under everything and use all five of your senses when you inspect a boat.

 

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