How to Choose a Used Sailboat: 15 Things to Look For

Just like buying a car, buying a used sailboat can be a stressful experience if you don’t know what to look for. You’ll never truly know what’s happened to the property you’re purchasing, what damages have been repaired, what parts may be bad, and a million other factors.

How do you choose a used sailboat? By checking:

  • the condition of hull
  • the navigational system
  • the structure of the sailboat
  • the onboard safety equipment

And finally, deciding whether it has integrity or not, aka, whether it’s worth the price and the cost of any repairs you may put into it.

How do you check all these things, then? It may seem simple, but to a beginner, that short list may seem overwhelming. We’ll break it down into chunks you can easily understand and apply when you go looking.

What to Look for When Choosing a Used Sailboat

There are a plethora of things to look for when choosing a used sailboat, making it far too easy to become overwhelmed. With the help of Boating Magazine, we’ve compiled a list of everything you need to check before purchasing a used sailboat.

Here’s a condensed version you can tuck in your pocket whenever you are going to look at a prospective boat.

Check the hull of the sailboat:

  • Look for scrapes on the hull
  • Look for any stress cracks
  • Look for any chips or gouges
  • Look at the paint job’s condition
  • Look for any missing hardware you’ll need to replace

Check the navigational system and structure of the sailboat:

  • Look at the rudder
  • Look at the tiller
  • Look at the keel
  • Look at the boom
  • Look at the mast
  • Look at the sails
  • Look at the line and ropes

Check the safety equipment of the sailboat:

  • Look for navigational lights federally required
  • Look for whether any sanitation devices are marine certified or not
  • Look for the height to determine if you have any more safety requirements
  • Look for any further safety requirements

Now, we’re ready to go into the details of these. It’s very rare you’ll find a used sailboat in the perfect condition that would check every last box on this list, so we’ll also look into which things you should be really concerned about when looking at a used boat.

Checking the Integrity of the Used Sailboat: Things to Look For

With motorized boats, you have to worry about the state of the boat as well as the engine. With sailboats, it’s a bit easier, as you typically don’t have an engine to examine as well.

It’s important to look past the outside appearance of a sailboat and see how much work it may take to fix it up. You’ll rarely find a used sailboat in perfect condition, or at least, not in most people’s budget. The trick to buying used sailboats on a budget is to know the cost of repairs and whether a boat is worth it.

If a sailboat still has “integrity,” it’s worth saving. This means the hull, mast, and/or keel are still strong enough to be worth the time and money of fixing it up. An example of a sailboat that doesn’t have integrity would be one that’s been struck by something and left a large hole in it.

How do you determine if a sailboat has integrity? You’ll need to thoroughly examine it, from the hull to the safety lighting, using the following list. At the end of your examination, you’ll have to determine whether the sailboat can be saved for a reasonable amount of money or not.

Check the Hull of the Used Sailboat Before Purchase

This is probably the most important part of your inspection. The hull is the body of the boat itself, and this is where you’ll lose the most money if you don’t know what you’re getting into before purchasing it.

When you inspect the hull, you’re looking for any signs of damage. You should expect some standard scrapes and cracks, but the key here is to know how much money you’ll be spending to fix any damages done or if they even need fixed.

1. Look for Any Scrapes on Your Used Sailboat Hull

Most scrapes on the hull will only require a quick coat of paint to repair.Typically, these are caused by minor incidences and won’t require much, if any, work to be done for them.

However, don’t just assume it’s merely a little scrape. Investigate it further by pressing on the exposed wood to ensure it isn’t showing signs of rot, which happens frequently when the wood is left exposed for a long time.

Deeper scrapes may need to be filled in. You can buy hull filler online, simply pack it into the scrape, and paint over it. There are also many boat repair shops that will do it for you, but it’ll be more expensive than if you did it yourself.

2. Look for Any Stress Cracks on Your Used Sailboat Hull

Stress cracks on the hull will tell you a lot about it.Boat hulls develop little spider cracks over the surface, called “stress cracks.” These are completely normal, to a certain degree.

Stress cracks can merely be a flaw in the gel coat over the fiberglass on the boat, which is only cosmetic. These aren’t in the fiberglass hull itself but in the paint.

Deeper stress cracks can go through the fiberglass hull, allowing water to leak in. It’s hard to tell shallow cracks from deep ones without the aid of water, leaving you gambling most times. However, with experience, you’ll develop an eye for it.

Another thing to look at with stress cracks is any unusual patterns. Some cracking around the bow and any connection point is normal, but excessive cracking or cracking in odd places are indicators of something worse than normal cracking.

3. Look for Any Chips and Gouges on Your Used Sailboat Hull

Unlike scrapes, chips and gouges can be a big deal. These are caused by all kinds of things, from debris that may have been hit with the boat to bad steering, throwing it into rocks. Whatever caused it, you need to keep a sharp eye out for it.

Chips are typically easier to deal with, only requiring a touch of paint or a half hour in the repair shop. This is when only the paint and a bit of the fiberglass is taken off the hull, leaving a mark, but not seriously damaging the hull itself.

Gouges, on the other hand, can be a lot harder to deal with. These are typically deeper and may even go all the way through, allowing water to leak in. However, as we mentioned earlier, buying used sailboats is all about knowing what repairs you can and cannot make.

Gouges can be hard to repair. You’ll probably need to patch the entire area, which, if not done properly, will leak just as much as the original gouge did. However, if you’re comfortable patching your sailboat hull, gouges can lower the price immensely.

4. Look at the Paint on Your Used Sailboat Hull

This may seem obvious, but make sure and check the paint job on a used sailboat before you purchase it. Repainting your boat is a pricey adventure, especially with gel coats.

Gel coats look nicer and last longer than your typical paint job, but they can also be a lot more upkeep. With gel coats, you can take them into specialty shops to have the gel refilled. However, this is expensive. Leaving your coat unfilled, on the flipside, leaves it looking worse than a scratched typical coat.

Because of how expensive repainting is, you may be able to get a really good deal by settling for something that needs to be repainted. You can then either repaint it yourself or leave it until you have the funds to have it professionally redone.

5. Look for Any Missing Hardware on Your Used Sailboat Hull

Finally, once you’ve assessed any damages done to the hull and decided whether you’ll need to repaint, look for any missing pieces on the hull.

Screws and bolts fall out more than most people realize. It’s easy to strip the threading off during production or standard repairs, leaving screws and bolts to fall out on their own later.

Just because a boat is missing a couple of screws doesn’t mean it’s about to fall apart. As long as you can determine the size of the bolt or screw, you can buy a replacement. However, do some closer looking to see if the hole itself is stripped or if the screw was.

If you find anywhere that’ll need to rethread to hold a bolt, you should factor the cost of having that done as well.

Final Thoughts on Checking the Integrity of Your Used Sailboat Before Buying

It’s easy to give the outside of a boat a quick glance over to make sure everything looks correct, but the outside of a boat is one of the biggest aspects of the price point.

For instance, think about how much a paint job can affect the price. The boat will sail just the same as a freshly new painted boat but will be much less expensive to purchase. Little things like this will save you big time in the end.

On the flip side, if you aren’t careful when looking over a boat, you may end up in over your head. The most important part from this section is remembering to look closely at any signs of damages and determine whether you can fix them yourself or not.

Even if the boat isn’t fully up to your standards, consider how much work you can do yourself. This will help you save your budget while allowing you to purchase a quality sailboat. Just be careful not to overwhelm yourself and end up over your head!

Check the Navigational Equipment when Choosing a Used Sailboat: Things to Look For

There’s a number of pieces of equipment you may use in a sailboat for navigation, and it’s important to check them all. If you buy a sailboat and it doesn’t have a fully functional navigation system, you’ll end up spending a lot of money.

Navigational equipment is more detailed and can be harder to work on. However, if you understand how to do most of the basics and you’re willing to put in the time, you can save yourself a lot of money by buying used boats that need some repairs.

Don’t try to fix navigational equipment if you aren’t sure of yourself and your ability to work on it. This often only leads to frustration and can be dangerous if you attempt to take it out when it isn’t fully repaired and operational.

1. Look at the Rudder on Your Used Sailboat

Very few things are as important to your boat as the rudder. Without the rudder functioning properly, you’ll be trapped going in a circle or, at the very least, unable to steer very well. Not only do you want to examine the rudder itself, you also should try to use it.

If you see any cracking, gouges, or scraping on the rudder, you’ll need to further examine to see how bad the damage is. In some cases, the rudder won’t be salvageable. For the right price, this isn’t something to worry about. It’s relatively easy to find rudders online for any kind of boat.

After you’ve completed your examination of the rudder, you should adjust it. Many times, even if the rudder is in good condition, something else may be interfering with it and will make it difficult for you to steer.

2. Look at the Tiller on Your Used Sailboat

Now that you’ve looked at the rudder and fiddled with it, you should know if you have a problem with your tiller. The tiller is the piece connected to the rudder, which controls and adjusts it.

The tiller itself may be in bad shape, but it’s a minor repair to simply swap it out for another one. What you really want to look at here is the gears and mechanism the tiller and rudder are connected to.

In here, you may find some rust, mold, or broken parts. Again, this is a relatively simple fix, but it can really lower the price for you. While the parts are cheap and simple to put together, it’s tedious work and can rack up a major repair bill if you have to take it in.

3. Look at the Keel on Your Used Sailboat

The keel is the piece that sticks straight down into the water. Without the keel, you’ll find yourself sailing sideways instead of forward. The keel also keeps the boat staying upright in the water without tipping over.

The keel is typically a separate blade bolted onto the bottom of the boat instead of a part of the boat’s hull, which means it can be removed and replaced whenever it’s been damaged. While you can quickly unbolt it and remove it, it’s large and bulky, making the job harder.

Keels aren’t designed to hit the bottom of the ocean, especially if you happen to be looking at a racing keel. Many times, any kind of hit will jar the keel loose. In these situations, you’ll need to examine the bottom of the hull as well for any damages done by the keel being hit.

Just as you checked the overall hull, you should check the keel for any signs of damages or missing hardware. Missing bolts should be immediately replaced to prevent any further damage being done to the keel or the underside of the hull.

4. Look at the Boom of Your Used Sailboat

The boom is the pole coming off the mast, sitting horizontally over the deck, and holding the end of the sail down. The boom helps you control which direction the sail is facing and thus, which direction you’re headed.

The boom is imperative for adjusting your sails. Without it, the foot of the sail will flap in the breeze off your mast. It weighs the sail down as well as dictates with the direction it’s facing. The boom is also one of the most dangerous parts of the boat, as it can catch people off guard and sweep them off the deck.

When you’re inspecting the boom, you’re looking for any damages or signs of weakening. Booms have to be replaced occasionally, just because of aging, and it isn’t overly expensive. This is one repair you can’t do yourself, as it requires machines to hold the heavy boom in place.

You’ll also want to inspect the gooseneck joint holding the boom to the mast. An old gooseneck may have collected rust, debris, or any number of other things that can work their way into joints. Again, this isn’t exactly an expensive fix but does require a professional to do.

5. Look at the Mast of Your Used Sailboat

The mast of the sail is as important as the hull of your sailboat. Without the mast, you’ll have no sails for your sailboat, for goodness’s sake. You want to be sure your mast is in good condition.

There are many obvious signs of a bad mast. Cracking, rot, or feeling “loose” when you grab it or “wiggling in the breeze” are all immediate signs you should pass on it. Unless you’re attached to the hull, most times, it’s best to pass on a bad mast. The cost of replacing it is too high for most people.

When you’re looking at the mast of your sailboat, check all the gears near it as well. Just as you checked the gooseneck joint holding the boom, you want to make sure all the connection points are tight.

6. Look at the Sails of Your Used Sailboat

In cases where you’re buying from a lot, you may not have the option to buy the sails with the sailboat. However, if you’re buying from a private seller, you’re more likely to have the option to purchase the sails as well.

When you’re examining the sails, you want to look for any signs of:

  • Mildew
  • Tearing
  • Mold
  • Burns
  • Loose stitching
  • Frayed ends

And any other signs of wear and tear you may find on top of these. In many cases, you may be able to get a deal by passing on the sails and just taking the boat. However, if they’re in really bad shape, the seller may leave you with them to get rid of.

7. Look at All the Lines and Ropes on Your Used Sailboat

Any time you buy a sailboat, you’ll have to consider buying all new line and rope for it. Many times, the rigging used frequently will have been replaced, but other sections have been left neglected. Unless it’s only a year or less old, you don’t want the seller to say he has all the original line.

On the flip side, you may be able to save a few dollars by purchasing a boat with ruined ropes. Many sellers understand you’ll have to put a lot of money into replacing all the line and will cut you a bit of deal because of it. Don’t be afraid to mention old lines, especially if they’re in bad shape.

Ropes can be expensive to purchase, however, especially after the big purchase of a new, used boat. Obviously, any tearing or worn ropes should be thrown away and replaced immediately after purchasing the boat. On your initial look over the boat though, you may find a few worth keeping.

Being able to use the current riggings can save you a lot of money and time. You won’t have to spend hours swapping out ropes just to be able to go out and sail. Instead, you can be out on the water!

Check the Safety Equipment when Choosing a Used Sailboat: Things to Look For

Most of the safety equipment you’ll be using on a sailboat, you’ll bring on board with you instead of having installed on the boat itself. Things like lifejackets, buoys, flares, etc. won’t come with the sailboat when you purchase it, obviously. However, did you know there are a couple things to look for?

Federal law has some requirements for any marine vehicle, regardless of if it’s motored or not. You must have a buoy and a life jacket for everyone aboard, as well as a sound signal. They also have a couple requirements for your sailboat itself, which we’ll cover what to look for.

In addition to these, check with your local state and county law. They may have extra, local laws to follow as well as the federal law.

1. Look for Navigational Lights Federally Required on Your Used Sailboat

If you’re only going to be out on the water during the day, you don’t need to worry about mounting lights on your boat. However, if you may end up out on the water during the night, you should be prepared with the lights required by federal law.

In many situations, the seller won’t have installed a navigational light be they either don’t go out at night or they prefer to only use emergency flares. If this is the case, you may need to figure up the cost of putting one in yourself.

For the person who frequently goes out at night, you’ll need a mounted electric light. You’ll only need one for your boat, versus three emergency flares if you choose not to purchase an electric light. These aren’t expensive or hard to install.

2. Look for Certified Marine Sanitation Devices and/or Fire Extinguishers

If you don’t have an enclosed cabin in your sailboat, you won’t have to worry about either of these. However, if you have an enclosed cabin, you’ll need a fire extinguisher, and if you have a toilet in that cabin, you’ll need to make sure it’s certified.

For sailboats today, you need to make sure your toilet is certified as safe for use on marine vessels. If you’re looking at a sailboat and someone has simply put their old toilet from home inside, know you’ll need to take that out.

For enclosed cabins, you have to have a B-1 fire extinguisher just in case of emergencies. You should require change these, just as you would the ones at your house.

3. Look for the Height of Your Used Sailboat for Further Safety Requirements

Finally, depending on the height of your sailboat, you may have further federal law safety requirements. This article on is a great resource for important information on federal laws about sailboats, including the details of safety requirements by heights and for motored vehicles.

Final Thoughts

When going out to choose your used sailboat, go at it like you would when buying a used car. Do your research beforehand and go with a plan of attack!

Also, know what you can do yourself. This list is all about the integrity of the boat, what’s really important when looking at a possible sailboat. You can save a lot of money simply by working on small aspects of the boat yourself, like cosmetic work and adding safety navigation lights.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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