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Buying used sailboat without testing on water

Feb 5, 2019
Siren 17 Alex Gonzalez Private
Hi everyone, I'm looking into buying my first sailboat: a used keelboat between 16 and 25 feet long, between $2k and $4k, equipped with a trailer and a small outboard motor (less than 10 hp). I've contacted many private sellers and I've asked each one if it would be possible to test their sailboat on the water before I decide on making the purchase. To my surprise, almost all of these sellers are reluctant to launch their boats into the water so I could test the important functions (engine operation, sail operation and performance, keel operation, leaks, etc). Do most buyers of used sailboats from private owners simply have the boat inspected without a water test before buying? Is this sufficient in order to purchase? I thought a "test drive" on the water was a reasonable request, much like someone would test drive a used car before buying it. Can people with knowledge and experience please shed some light on this? Thanks!
Jan 5, 2017
Beneteau First 38 Lyall Harbour Saturna Island
I've bought boats both ways. Sometimes with a survey sometimes without. The boat before our current one had no sail and no survey. How ever my first sailboat was 65years ago.
Oct 22, 2014
CAL 35 Cruiser Portland OR, moored EVERETT WA
It is a reasonable concern. You want to be able to see the boat float. You can always put your money in an escrow account that only is released if the boat passes inspection. They feel safe you get money back if the boat sinks.

If they have the boat on the hard there may be a reason. You might want to keep looking.
Jun 14, 2010
Quorning Dragonfly 1200 home
The way many (most?) handle this with used boats is to write up the sales agreement contingent on the inspect and sea trial, with the money on deposit in escrow. It is customary for the buyer to hire the surveyor and pay for the launch of r seal trial. If you find something wrong that was not revealed prior to writing the agreement, the buyer can negotiate an adjustment to the sale price. If the parties can’t agree the buyer can cancel.
Jan 5, 2017
Beneteau First 38 Lyall Harbour Saturna Island
As it's your first, I'd do it like John or Larry rather than my way. You are not planning to spend a lot of money for the boat but remember that a survey will cost$.
Sep 24, 2018
O'Day 25 Waukegan
While it is a reasonable request, it is a good amount of work for most owners. Most outboards can be tested in a bucket or tank. Youre far more likely to have leaks from deck fittings than from the hull. Centerboard issues suck on a trailer sailor. While it's good to know that you can fix things, you should add up how much time it will take to fix those things. Most of us would rather sail than work on a boat.

One more thing to add... You're almost always better off spending more upfront. Boat owners always lose money on upgrades and repairs. My O'Day 25 was listed for 4900 OBO. I wish I had gotten the S2 in showroom condition with a trailer for $7500 OBO as I have been spending tons of time and money on repairs
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Oct 19, 2017
O'Day 19 Littleton, NH
Does it need to be a keel boat? If it cost the owner money to rent lift time at a marina, $2k - $4k doesn't look worth it to a seller who feels like they are compromising anyhow. Consider a CB trailersailer that can be easily launched at a public boat ramp for free. There are a few great boats in your price range and size range that launch easily off a trailer. These owners may be more amenable to demonstrating their sailing abilities. Also, if the price is too low to make a professional surveyor worth the cost, paying the price to launch and inspect the boat in the water yourself may be more economical.
I snapped a picture of my boat sitting on the roadside in NY, went home, showed my wife and called the owner from my house in NH. I asked for a set of current pictures to be emailed, then I told him I was coming to buy the boat. Never believe an owner when they say the boat can be sailed tomorrow. I knew I had a project boat. I just had to go by what I expected my abilities and desire to handle a project are.
Good luck

-Will (Dragonfly)
Jun 14, 2010
Quorning Dragonfly 1200 home
@Ace214 probably the biggest reason most sellers won't do a test sail prior to a purchase commitment is that they have no way, in advance, to separate the serious buyers from those who are time wasters. People who put up the money are serious, without that it's just talk. That's why the purchase agreement with contingency clause and deposit makes more sense to them.


Feb 14, 2017
Catalina 310 211 Lake Guntersville, AL
@Ace214 lots of good comments, not unreasonable for a motivated owner to offer a compromise to me. As a seller of a boat in your range, I can say the amount of ridiculous calls I have got is a pain to deal with. Serious buyers ask to see the boat first in person and then ask for follow up if we can make an acceptable agreement. In my case I'm not taking every person who shows up for a sail if they haven't seen the boat first and given me an acceptable offer, condition of test sail is fine then.
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Aug 2, 2005
Celebrity Class 19 Penn Yan, NY (Seneca Lake SP)
Many wise suggestions have already been floated! Consider that they have all been formulated through experience. A few more thoughts: (1) If it is difficult or costly for the present owner to launch the boat for a "sea trial" (read here - just a daysail) it won't be any easier or cheaper for you to launch and sail the boat when you own it. (2) My wife and I have bought and sold many sailboats since the mid '90s. When selling a boat we most often offered the serious buyer an opportunity to sail with us on the boat in question. We thought that was our best selling tool. (3) A keel boat will have sailing characteristics you may admire (or perhaps there are other reasons for your stated choice of hull design), but it will require a more complicated launch process (deeper launch ramp, more complicated launch and retrieval, bigger tow vehicle, launch using a travel lift) and perhaps a dock space that a CB boat or other shallow draft boat will not need. (4) What is the draft of the boat you are considering and/or what boat is it? How do you plan to use it? Will you need to consider tidal change to accommodate when you launch or retrieve the boat? There might be great reasons for the choice you are considering. Best Wishes.
Sep 30, 2013
C-22, Albin Vega central Florida
It is not an unreasonable request, but ... my answer to a test sail request would be (and has been) a polite "no". Especially when asked via email/text/phone call, by some random stranger who has not even seen the boat, let alone agreed on a price, or given me any assurance he is a serious buyer. There are far too many scammers, hagglers, and just good old garden-variety idiots out there, who see nothing wrong with wasting your time.

It takes the better part of a day to get a trailer sailor hitched up, towed to the water, rigged, launched, motored to open water, sailed for a while, motored back to the ramp, put back on the trailer, de-rigged, towed back home, and cleaned back up ... all so the random stranger can say "thanks, we'll think about it" ... or worse yet, offer you some absurdly lowball sum for a boat you're already offering at a bargain price.

Please, forgive me if that sounds grouchy. I don't mean it that way at all. I'm just trying to explain my reasoning, and perhaps that of the sellers you have been in contact with. There are no grouches here at sailboatowners.com! ;)
Nov 7, 2011
Catalina 30 Mk II Barnegat, NJ
Welcome @Ace214 , You've come to the right place to answer your questions.

I thought a "test drive" on the water was a reasonable request, much like someone would test drive a used car before buying it.
Consider the ease of testing a used car. You and the seller get in and drive it around for 10 minutes. You're done.
Launching a sailboat takes quite a bit more time. Raising the mast, putting sails on, putting it in the water, go for a sail and reverse the process.

Your question may also have been misunderstood. Do you want to try out the boat to see how it sails or do you want to do a systems check? About the only system that cannot be checked while the boat is on the trailer in somebody's side yard is a swing keel or centerboard. Sails can be raised, outboards can be run, hulls and interior can be checked. You can do a visual inspection of the swing keel or centerboard raising/lowering mechanism.

If you want to know how well a boat sails you're better off looking for reviews of the boat on line. The sailing characteristics of a certain model won't vary much from boat to boat.

Overall condition and maintenance of the boat will probably tell you a lot more than a quick test sail will.

Good luck in your new adventure.
Dec 14, 2003
Hunter 34 Lake of Two Mountains, QC, Can
Welcome to the group. Your request is not unreasonable but most owners will say no for all the reasons given in the other posts. Look at it this way however: the owner has what will become your boat and you have what will become his money. The trick is to find a way to make it happen that is safe for you and not time wasted for him. The idea of having the boat survey is not worth it on a boat valued in your price range. So, do everything yourself or with a knowledgeable friend. Inspect everything, including sails, then ask the owner to run the outboard in a barrel. If he refuses, walk away ! Then make your offer such that the money is in escrow to be paid after the boat has been launched and you're satisfied that the boat shows no major issues. If you live in the same area, you could make it conditional that the owner delivers and launches the boat for the first time, showing you everything once in the water. It shouldn't be a big deal since he is not wasting his time: the deal is done and the money will be his ! Good luck !
Oct 26, 2008
Starwind 27 Barnegat, NJ
I think you would have better luck approaching a seller for a "test sail" if the boat is already in the water, or perhaps you would be interested in sailing with the seller on a day when he or she is planning to sail. Unfortunately for you, most sellers are probably interested in selling a boat they have lost interest with and don't want to put out any more effort than they have to in order to sell the boat. Many have already gone thru enough potential buyers that never pan out so the whole effort finally just gets tedious. That's when launching a boat for a buyer just isn't going to happen.

Your thoughts about a test sail aren't unreasonable, and if you come across as a serious buyer, or even just somebody that would be an interesting crew for a day, you might run across a seller whom won't mind showing you the ropes. I know that I would in the right circumstance, but I wouldn't launch my boat just for a potential purchaser. As usual, it often comes down to whether or not you can make any kind of relationship with the seller.
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Oct 24, 2010
Hunter 30 Everett, WA
Do you really want to hire a surveyor for a $2,000 to $4,000 boat? My last survey cost me $645. The survey would be a huge portion of the boat. You wouldn't hire a mechanic if you were buying a car at that price point, would you? Most of us would just have a careful look and decide for ourselves. If they know the sale is dependant on seeing the boat in the water they may change their mind.

The last trailerable boat I sold was from my driveway and the buyer never asked to put it in the water. It was a pretty simple boat (MacGregor 26D) and I know it was in good shape. I did raise the mast and put on the sails in the driveway. I think I ran the motor with a flush attachment.

Oct 22, 2014
CAL 35 Cruiser Portland OR, moored EVERETT WA
Perseverance JRT, they come and they go until the right one knocks on your door.

Brokers be it boats or houses know it is about numbers and a matter of time. They do not get invested in the process only the results.

I had several Nigerians very interested in my 15 foot boat. Offered wealth and fame for me to sell them my boat.
I had several regional folk wanting to own the boat just not pay for it.
Finally I got a call from an 80 year old who said he had wanted my boat his whole life, but could not afford it or find one to buy. We struck up a friendship and a sale occurred. He was like a kid in a candy store. Took 6 months of patience.

You'll find that one.
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Mar 23, 2017
Hunter 30 Snug Harbor, Lake Champlain
Hi everyone, I'm looking into buying my first sailboat: a used keelboat between 16 and 25 feet long, between $2k and $4k, equipped with a trailer and a small outboard motor (less than 10 hp). ... I thought a "test drive" on the water was a reasonable request, much like someone would test drive a used car before buying it. Can people with knowledge and experience please shed some light on this? Thanks!

With all due respect - you are looking at a small, inexpensive boat.

I'm selling a small boat right now, a 17 foot Trimaran, a little above your price at $5K.
If someone were to ask me to go for a test sail, I'd laugh at them (well, if they looked like a serious buyer I'd probably just politely decline - otherwise, I'd actually laugh). I'd tell them I can show you the sails, put up the mast, etc. show how everything works and runs, but unless you are putting cash in my hand, don't waste my time. You can visually inspect the entire hull, all three of them, and see there are no holes, cracks or anything else that would make it not float. I'm not hooking it up, driving it to a launch ramp, setting it all up to go sail unless you have bought my boat and have a test sail as a purchase condition, which I would have absolutely no problem accepting. But just to go for a sail? why? you wouldn't get a "test sail" without paying me for my time unless you just bought my boat.

Hopefully this is not taken with any bad intention... Just a simple how it is...

Feb 5, 2019
Siren 17 Alex Gonzalez Private
Thanks everyone for your valuable feedback. Yes, an escrow account conditional on a successful test sail might be the solution, thanks for suggesting it. I also thought of paying the seller $100 or $200 in cash up front to motivate the seller to do a test sail on the water. I live in Montreal, Canada, so tides are not an issue because the city is surrounded by the Saint-Lawrence river. I do plan on keeping the boat anchored in the water all summer in an area that's sheltered from strong wind and waves. In this price range, the boats I've looked at were all built in the 70's and 80's. The models I'm considering are the MacGregor 25, Tanzer 22, Siren 17, and DS 16, to name a few. I'm only looking for casual day sailing (no racing), but I want the boat to be equipped with a cabin in the front, so I can occasionally take a short rest indoors out of the sun, or for nature calls. The reason I'm looking for a keelboat is to help provide more stability and reduce the chances of capsizing. A retractable keel would be the ideal thing to allow shallow water anchoring and easier trailer launching in the spring and retrieving in the fall. Regarding the sales and inspection contract, is there a template that exists that I could use where I could simply "fill in the blanks" with information such as the boat model, ID number, required state of the boat at the time of sale, selling price etc? Thanks again everyone.