How to Buy a Used Boat: Government Boat Auctions?

Imahe of schooner bought at a boat auction
Bought at a boat auction? Not mine! Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

Boat auctions are a massive business

Government boat auctions are a massive business. Yes, besides clapped-out office furniture, trucks, planes and Humvees, governments sell off boats. It can be cheap way to buy a good boat – if you know what you are doing.

A study done by the University of Pennsylvania revealed that US government-run boat auctions are fairer and less biased than private online boat auctions. The study was done by comparing the prices of boats at various government-run and private online auctions. The researchers found that the average price of boats sold at a government auction is $1,000 cheaper than those sold on a private auction website.

The researchers also conducted interviews with both sellers and buyers to find out what they thought about these two types of auction systems. They found that most people prefer a government-run auction because it is more transparent, fair, and has better customer service than a private one.

Maybe $1,000 doesn’t sound a lot saved, but remember that many government auctions have no reserve prices. Plus prices are usually well below the typical price paid through a yacht broker. But it’s a more risky route to take.


Included under the general heading of government boat auctions are disposals of police and coastguard seizures.

Boat seizures may often be drugs-related (one of my boats was arrested by customs with drugs aboard – before I bought her, I hasten to add. Then she was sold through a government boats auction).

Boats at auction may also come from the military – for example the Navy has fleets of sail and power craft which they use for training ratings and officers.

These may have been worked hard but are usually well maintained. When they are replaced they come up for sale at government surplus auctions. You will usually be buying ‘sold as seen’ and that is a risk unless you really know what you are about.

One of my boats was once a training vessel for the French Navy.

What are the risks of buying at boat auctions?

You may be worried about ‘Sold as Seen’ – yes it can pretty scary. It’s not easy to test a boat and claim against the government.

You may have a few hours after buying to return the car at a car auction – with a boat you may have a few days, you may not. It depends on the auctions terms and conditions, so read them carefully.

The main risk is that you may have little time to get the boat properly surveyed – she may be afloat. In that case though, you can easily tell if she shipping water. If she’s ashore then it’s easier, though you obviously can’t easily tell if hull is tight. Either way, you will certainly be able to look her over beforehand. It may be worth hiring a boat surveyor if you are not an expert yourself.

You need to be careful about vessels with steel or alloy hulls – they are usually more risky buys.


If she’s been used by the government (or an agency) itself, then the vessel may have been worked hard – rigging may need replacement (not easy to judge without specialist equipment). Also the engines might have a lot of hours on them. Probably, she will have missed her last service and not all equipment will be working (especially electronics). Sometimes there may be a simple condition report and specification.

If the vessel is a seizure, then it can be even harder to tell.

Where has she been? Where was she seized?

On the other hand, if a vessel has been used for drugs transportation, then it’s likely that it will be sound. People don’t put a load of dope in a vessel that’s either likely to sink or have a failure and need a tow into harbour. Not good business. Watch out for these vessels.

Find your boat

There are plenty of ways to find the boats – one is to join a site which provides you with listings of upcoming auctions.They will mail you when a boat within your parameters comes up on an auction catalogue.

If you have identified the boat you want to bid on, and she is a recognised design (maybe say, a Catalina or a Westerly), then search the web. Find out if there is an owners association. There may be reviews too, maybe on a boating magazine website. These may give you clues as to the faults that you should watch out for with that particular brand or model.

As with all auctions, set yourself a maximum bid level, and don’t go beyond it. If it’s open bidding, then there’s no point in bidding earlier. Let the others do that – it’s always good to see what other bidders value the boat at. Step in at the end and put your own boat auction bid in, if your ceiling hasn’t been exceeded. If you do buy and there’s a problem, then at least you have a feel for what the current market is if you decide to sell her on quickly.

Other Auctions

Of course there is eBay. People do sell boats there, big boats.

Here’s one I just saw in the UK.

Sailing yachts for sale on boat auction
For sale at a boat auctions on eBay

South Coast One Design – SCOD 26ft Wooden Sailing Yacht, Pre-owned £2,050.00, 2 bids · Time left12h 44m left (Thu, 06:40). Postage not specified from United Kingdom ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣

Postage, yeh ok! But seriously, the SCOD is a classic 1960s racing yacht.

And power boats too.

I don’t know about eBay’s rules about refunds on boats, but if you know what you’re about then it’s way to go.

If you’re interested in living aboard a boat and making money as you do so, then there are at least 29 ways I have identified. Check them out

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