The key to boat buying is so simple it should be obvious. But in case you missed it, here it is: Purchase only what you need. Forget about buying the "best" boat out there. Good value doesn't automatically come with a boat that has been built to the highest standards. Of course, your boat has to be built well enough to perform the tasks demanded of it. Beyond that, you're tossing money overboard. So don't get talked into purchasing a level of refinement that you don't need, will never use, and shouldn't pay for. Start by evaluating the boat's intended service-where and how it will be used. I've simplified this into three categories: Hard Service for unforgiving environments such as offshore racing and fishing, long-distance cruising, or speeds above 40 mph; Moderate Service for coastal waters, open bays, large lakes, and speeds under 40 mph; Light Service, which is for slower boats that don't venture beyond small lakes, reservoirs, or narrow rivers. Here's what, and where, to look for as indicators of each type of service. Find them and then don't pay for anything more.
The most obvious sign of how strongly a boat is built can be seen in its hull-to-deck joint. To inspect this, go into the engine compartment and look at the inside of the gunwale. Hard Service: Look for a continuous fiberglass surface with small, evenly spaced lumps. This joint has been bolted (the small lumps) and then glassed over. Many serious offshore racers are built like this. Others use only a tenacious adhesive such as any of the methacrylate family, which some claim to be equal to bolts and fiberglass. Moderate Service: There should be a wood or aluminum strip with the protruding tips of screws. Ideally, this joint is reinforced with an adhesive. Sealant works too, but not as well. To determine which is being used, sink your fingernail into the material squished out from the joint. Adhesive is usually hard, sealant is typically soft and rubbery. Light Service: These boats use rivets or screws and a sealant, with no wood backing strip.
While you're in the engine room, look at the stringers (the longitudinal supports) and the floors (the lateral supports). Hard-to-Moderate Service: Fiberglass over a foam core is common-it's strong and long lasting. It will make a thin, sharp sound when tapped. Fiberglass-encapsulated rot-resistant plywood is also good. It makes a solid, booming sound when hit. Light Service: Plywood with a glaze of resin is smooth, without fiberglass' textured appearance. Thankfully, this is almost never seen anymore.
Check out the cockpit sole. It's a structural component as much as it's something to stand on. The hull's twisting and bending forces put it under a lot of stress. Open a hatch and feel the sole from underneath or look at the edges to tell what type you have. Hard Service: The sole is cored-fiberglass bonded to the hull or part of the inner liner. This is easy to spot and virtually impervious to water damage and rot. Moderate Service: You can get by with a sole of fiberglass-encapsulated plywood. Light Service: A sole of resin-coated plywood is acceptable if it's done well and not stressed, otherwise it's prone to rot.
Usually, one-piece construction is stronger than when many parts are joined together. Fewer parts make for tougher construction. A good place to check is in the cabin. Look inside a locker to check out the manner in which things are put together. Hard Service: A single molded-fiberglass cabin liner can make a boat exceptionally tough. Look at the cabin sole, bunks, galley, and lockers to see if it's made from one seamless piece. Moderate Service: Fiberglass-covered or resin-coated plywood components are built outside the hull. Once in the boat, they're joined to each other as well as the hull and deck. Light Service: Instead of a few large components being joined, there are a lot of small parts-which is rarely as strong. Panels and supports are joined in the boat, as if building a house.