The Under $10K Bass Boat Buyers Guide
by Bryan “BayBass” Novotny
I often hear guys say they can’t afford a big flashy $60K bass boat, or even a used one for $20-30K and for this reason they remain on the bank and have currently given up on the chances of owning a boat. I'm also one of those guys who can't afford a $60K new Ranger or even a 3 or 4 year old boat for $20-30k. I buy my boats for under $10K and I do my homework on them prior to handing over the cash. I want to provide some hope to those that believe they must spend $20K+ to fish the big water in a “glitter rocket”. There is nothing wrong with learning and enjoying the sport from the bank or kayak, however owning a bass boat capable of covering water quickly and proficiently is key to upgrading your knowledge and experience as an angler. Using sonar while finding offshore structure combined with eliminating water on big lakes and river systems will take you to the next level in this sport. There are also lures and patterns one can not experience or practice from shore such as deep cranking, verticle jigging, and more. For these larger bodies of water you do need a fiberglass boat or a V hull all welded aluminum boat 18’ or greater with a 115hp or larger motor. This boat and motor combination will allow you to cover water and get around safely without breaking your back and/or ruining your chances of having children.
In this article I will explain what to look for when buying a boat such as warning signs, good motors to choose, boats to stay away from, and the exact models and manufacturers which will fit your budget of under $10K. I break it down to basics for a first time boat buyer. There are great fiberglass bass boats available on the market for less than $10k, and I’ll review your best options. If you’re not a first time boat buyer and already own a $60K boat, you may want to pay attention also because you never know what may happen. You may have to sell it to afford the divorce attorney, or you’ll be selling it to put your daughter through college, and you’ll be back to square one searching for a 90’s 18’ Ranger 350V with a 150 Merc XR2 for $5k. This article is long so strap in. Reading this is an investment in your future. If you see yourself one day purchasing your first bass boat, you must continue on reading and print this article for your records. Please note that I have no business/sponsor affiliation with any boat brand.
For those who fish horsepower restricted waters, such as the Occoquan Reservoir which requires a 9.9hp or less, or at least a motor that is not much larger in size than a 9.9 with 9.9hp stickers, you have several hulls to choose from. I would not recommend an all welded boat for reservoir use. They are heavier, more expensive and not needed for smaller waters. The point I made earlier regarding the use of an all welded boat on the Bay and Potomac is due to the rough water factor. Riveted john boats can be damaged easily in rough water and you’ll spend many weekends constantly running the bilge pump and welding the rivet seams back together. For reservoir use, I’d highly suggest building an Alumacraft MV1448 with a brand new 9.9hp or equally “sized” motor for around 6K brand new, such as my fishing partner’s boat above. Keep in mind that NO fully built (decked) 14’ jon boat will plane with a “legal” 9.9hp motor, two 200lb anglers, 10+ rods, 50lbs of tackle, (3) 12v batteries, and a 60-80lb livewell/aerated cooler full of fish. The decks on this boat were built professionally and the build was $1,000 in materials and labor. The boat pictured above owned by Dennis Nease is one of the nicest rigs on the reservoir and I fish out of it often. The boat, motor, and trailer were purchased brand new for $5,200 in 2014 from a Baltimore small boat dealer. After the deck build, 74lb/24v Minn Kota, and some decent sonar, the boat totaled $7K including tax and tags. This boat will run for the next 25 years without a single issue.
When it comes to buying a fiberglass boat you must know how to inspect the boat. I will inspect the boat myself and pay someone local like the guys at Potomac Marine or S&L Customs to look over the boat and run compression and leak down tests on the motor. You must review the following:
Motor- Does the previous owner have maintenance records? Those who keep maintenance records are MUCH more likely to take better care of their equipment. There are few exceptions. Have a certified mechanic who works on boats for a living such as Lee Campbell of S&L Customs in Manassas or the guys at Potomac Marine in Woodbridge run a compression and leak down test as well as take a good look around. Test drive the boat through the power band once it is warm. Never hammer down on the throttle right after start up, especially if it is cold. If the motor does not run right, do not buy the boat regardless of whether the current owner says it just needs new plugs. Have this claim verified by a mechanic. Before purchase I’d even pay to have plugs put in and then test run the boat. Be wary of boats that have NEW LOWER UNITS. This is usually due to an accident running aground or hitting a submerged object, often on plane at high speed. This will often damage the transom and a transom can be just as expensive to fix as a blown motor. Make sure your trim is working properly. Trim the motor up in the air and measure the height from the prop to the ground. Inspect the rest of the boat for a while, or grab lunch. When you return to the motor, re-measure the distance from the props center point to the ground. If your motor moved it's due to a leak in the trim cylinder/pump. These are expensive and a new one from Mercury for a 80's or 90's 150hp motor is $1,000. You can find them for less in the aftermarket (non OEM), which I did for a boat 8 years ago. I paid $400 and it worked fine.
Transom- A boat’s transom is the most stressed part of the hull. The transom not only has to support the weight of the 350-500lb motor, but it also must support this weight for over 10+ years while running 50-70+mph over 1-3’ waves/chop as well as trailering down streets and highways with bumps and pot holes. This constant jarring puts tremendous pressure and stress on the transom which is where your motor is connected to your hull often via jackplate. A jackplate provides “offset” which in turn allows the boat to handle better in rough water, attain higher speeds, and increase handling in turns and sharp evasive maneuvers such as dodging logs on the Potomac at 60+mph. The transom can crack and begin to flex, often not noticeable to the naked eye. You may feel the motor’s weight causing the transom to flex as you run around the river but it’s best to catch the problem before you're on the river at 60+mph. This flexing or cracking is a tell tale sign of a soon to be catastrophic failure which can kill you and your partner. I’d estimate over 50% of older bass boats with wood in the transom are “wet” boats, meaning the wood has rotted out and the bolts which the motor or jackplate is attached are literally anchored into rotting 20+ year old wood. Many companies used wood encapsulated in fiberglass to seal the wood which prevents moisture from entering. Despite this manufacturing process, many of these transoms are still “wet”. The motor will eventually rip right off the back of the boat in rough water or after hitting something submerged and you will be hurt or killed after being thrown out of the boat or when the 400lb motor lands on your back and head with the prop still spinning at 5,000 rpm’s. Newer boats are built with no wood in the transom, and some manufacturers ended this wood transom in the 90’s, with Ranger leading the way in July of 1987 when they ended their wood transom production. This does not mean that a “no wood” boat can’t have a bad transom.
All fiberglass transoms can crack and weaken from abuse while driving or trailering. Using a transom saver bar on your trailer/motor is a must. You can use the “light tap hammer test” or “motor push down test” to inspect the transom for a dead give-away, as well as looking around the attachment points bolts/jackplate for cracks. The top of the transom near the carpeted rear compartment will also often show wear or separation. Have your mechanic inspect this area carefully as this area is often the first to go bad. A transom is easily $2.5k to $3.5k to fix and requires major surgery by a well qualified fiberglass repair shop. Often times when dealing with older bass boats, you’re better off taking the hull to the junkyard after stripping it of the motor, electronics, trailer, and other OEM parts and finding yourself a new hull for under $2,000.
Jackplate- The larger the jackplate, the further the “setback”. The average older bass boat has a 6” jackplate with the larger and faster 20’-21’ boats running 8” to 12” jackplates. If you’re buying a boat with a hydraulic jackplate which allows the driver to instantly lower or raise the motor height/prop height such as 1” below the pad, vs. manually adjusting from outside the boat, you must make sure the hydraulic jackplate is functioning properly when inspecting a used rig. These hydraulic jackplates will set you back $1,000 easy. Test your trim and hydraulic plate during the test drive. See above pic of my old Ranger 350v's manual jackplate.
Trailer- The trailer is the most underrated and forgotten aspect of any used boat purchase. Have an auto or boat mechanic go-over the trailer and check the hubs, axle(s), electric, brakes (if any), and every other part imaginable. Most boat mechanics also work on trailers and this is a MUST INSPECT before purchase. Trailer work can be VERY pricy, and driving a boat with a bad trailer down the road at 60mph can be just as life threatening as driving a boat with a bad transom. If the trailers tires are dry rotted, do not drive it. They could potentially rip apart at any moment. If you still buy the rig, let it stay in place jacked up until you get down the street to a tire shop. Make sure the tires you are buying are TRAILER TIRES, not automobile tires. There is a difference.
Wiring and Dash Switches- Do not expect all dash gauges to work in older boats. The speedometer will often not work properly and if you want to know how fast you are going, your smart phone, or newer model GPS/depth finder/fish finder will tell you. Your livewell aerator, trim, navigational lights, bilge pump(s), horn and tachometer are most important. You can blow up an outboard quickly by running over the recommended rpm’s. Older boats have often been re-wired by 3 different owners and the back compartment and console wiring often look like a terrible backlash. This is not a good sign and chances are you will be ripping it all out and re-wiring everything. In these older boats with older wiring left in place, there is often no way to tell what does what and what goes where and you’re better off ripping it all out and starting over.
Before you start re-wiring, check the fuse panel. Know where the fuse panel is located and know how to tell the difference between a good and bad fuse. On the cover of the panel there should be a diagram depicting what each fuse is for. When in doubt, check them all and replace them all even if they do look ok. Often your culprit to a non functioning livewell or dash lights is a $0.15 fuse. Always carry a spare fuse kit with you such as the exact kit pictured above which I purchased from Harbor Freight. I bought mine for $8, and it will last me the next 10 years. It has saved me on several occasions over the years. This same fuse kit will save your day if your vehicle has issues also.
Compartments & Carpet- Compartment lids can be loose in older boats. They are not hard to re-attach. Don’t be scared off if the boat has loose compartment lids. The compartments should be water tight and they do need to have the rubber lid seals which are also easy to install and cheap to purchase. For re-attaching the loose compartment lids, you will need to purchase/use a larger electric drill bit than the original hole and some screws with plastic inserts/plugs. The old hinge is often re-usable. Carpet is cheap but the install is not easy. It's not as simple as it seems, especially if you're looking to do it correctly and make it look right. A carpet job on a 18-19' bass boat runs around $1,000 installed professionally. A friend could help you in the garage for a day and the job will only cost you $280 in materials. It's up to you which route you take but personally I'd pay a professional to do it right the first time.
Trolling Motor and Electronics- Do not expect your 10k or less used boat to have current/upgraded down-imaging/HDS sonar and a brand new 36 volt Minkota. You do not need a 2k sonar unit to catch fish, nor do you need a 36volt 101lb thrust trolling motor. You also do not need a power pole, let alone two. Yes these items are nice to have, and they will help you locate fish and structure as well as navigate big waters and stay anchored if used correctly. I would highly recommend you not put $5K in electronics/sonar/power poles in your $5K Ranger. You will not get this money back when you re-sell, so if you do upgrade the boat, plan on keeping it for 5-10 years or take the stuff off when you re-sell, and put the original equipment back on. A nice GPS/down imaging sonar unit can be purchased for $500 or less. It may not have a 10” screen but it will work just fine and do what you need it to do. A new 24V 70+lb thrust Minn Kota is $700 shipped.
Gell Coat/Paint- The gell coat in these older boats is often cloudy/faded with what appears to be a milky white substance. This is oxidation. The boat cannot be fixed with another layer of clear coat or wax. The top cap of the boat will tell you a lot about the way the boat was kept and cared for. A terribly oxidized top cap is often the sign of a boat which was kept outside in the elements with no cover, and usually boats kept outside with no cover were also neglected mechanically. The oxidation can be removed and the boats gell coat/sparkle finish can often be brought back to near new condition with a high speed orbital buffer, 1,000 to 1,500 grit sandpaper for wet sanding by hand using Dawn dishwashing detergent as your lubricant. My old Ranger’s picture above is the result of a “read and go try” wet sanding and polishing job I did in 2014. Prior to this work, you could not see any sparkle as it was covered by a milky white layer of oxidation which made the boat look 20 years older.
Make sure the boat is cleaned very well prior to sanding and polishing. After the wet sanding is complete use some medium cut polish with the hi-speed sander and a polishing pad. Start slow and work faster. If your RPM’s are too high you can damage the gel coat. Finish with a good marine wax. Always start high on the grit number, meaning less coarse. You can always come down later by using 800 grit if the oxidation is really bad. I researched how to do this myself in 2014, and after spending 24 hours of labor on my boat with $120 in supplies, my 15 year old Ranger’s finish went from terrible with no sparkle to nearly blinding. A professional detailer can also do this work for $500-$1,000 depending on how bad the oxidation is. Make sure you cover the entire boats interior and trailer when you do this because you will sling polish everywhere, and after it dries hard it’s very tough to remove. Bass Boat Central has a great forum titled “Detailing” which goes into extreme detail on this and the guys on there will help you through it if needed. YouTube is also a terrific resource for learning how to wet sand and polish a boats gel coat. Start on an area of the boat which is less visible such as the rear near the motor. You may need some practice space and if you screw up, it’s best to do it on the rear of the boat near the transom, or in the splash well.
Prop- I would not expect the prop to be perfect or even to be the best choice for the motor/hull. Check on the internet on sites like Bass Boat Central or The Bass College and ask the other owners in your forum group such as the Ranger forum. You want to find the best prop for your boat which can make up to a 5mph difference in speed with a 150hp, and 7mph+ with a 200-225hp as well as a HUGE difference in handling. If your prop is a little beat up, it can be “re-worked” by a place like Miller Propeller in MD. Shipping a prop is around $20, and re-working/polishing a prop can run around $100 shipped. A new prop for these motors I will review below is between $300-600. Used in good shape pricing is $180-$300. Remove your outboard and trolling motor prop after every trip and check for fishing line. All lines, especially braided line, can cause some big problems around your prop shaft.
Motors/Oil Pump or Pre-Mix?- The Mercury 1990’s carb motors are the motors to look for along with the fuel injected EFi and XRi. Johnson is no longer is business, and parts are not as readily available as the Mercury parts. The older Johnson/Evinrude motors you will run across are the GT150, GT200, and XP, as well as the Johnson Faststrike which I prefer. The Faststrike during a certain year period around 1991 or 1992 if my memory serves me correctly, was rumored to make around 170+hp out of a 150hp engine, and 200hp out of the 175. They were dialed down on paper as 150’s, and 175’s and they blew away the competition in tests and racing circuits. Mercury was not happy about this and Johnson was soon forced to change them and cease their “special” production.
Used Mercury power heads built in the 1990’s are very inexpensive and if you happen to blow one, finding another used powerhead in good condition will not be hard. Yahama motors are most expensive to fix due to used parts cost and the lack of availability. The older Yamaha motors you may run into are the Pro-V and the later Vmax. Many boat owners opt to disconnect the oil pump on these older motors and pre-mix their oil into the gas by dumping the right amount of oil into the tank during fill ups at the gas station. You need to consult with your mechanic about the ratio as you can’t just estimate it, use a measuring bottle. If you run too rich you will smoke like a chimney and foul your plugs. If you run to lean you can blow your motor or damage internals. The reason for disconnecting the oil pump is to avoid the chances of blowing up the motor due to a failed oil pump. If your oil pump does fail on these older motors, by the time your console alarm comes on the damage is already done, especially at high RPM. At low RPM, immediately shut down the engine, and check your oil reservoir. If full, aggressively pump the oil bulb, even if it’s hard put all your weight on your palm and give it a few hard presses. From my own experience I’ve found that the oil pickup line in the bottom of the reservoir can become clogged/gummy and a few solid pumps can free it and the alarm will turn off. Only try doing this after mixing some oil in the gas to be safe. If you do get the oil pump to start working again, you will smoke and possibly foul plugs, but plugs are much less expensive than a new powerhead, and you will make it back to the ramp. You can also disconnect the oil pump and just run the pre-mix gas. Make sure your mechanic shows you how to disconnect your oil pump! I always carry some spare oil in the boat so if needed I can mix some in with the tank to avoid being towed back to the ramp.