Tips On Purchasing a Used Outboard Motor

Outboard motors don’t generally die — their owners kill them.

It’s really hard to find a used outboard for a cheap price that doesn’t need some repairs.  Sometimes you can become the proud owner of old motors for just carting them away.  If they are old enough or not of a popular make, even the free price is too much, especially if they have sat for some time collecting rust.   Also remember the “Snake Oil” salesmen, where everything is way better than it really is.   Also remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for”, well in most cases anyway.  If you are not capable of doing any repair work yourself, you probably are better off buying one that’s 100% perfect.   Not everyone has the mechanical ability to do these repairs, and I would not ask a auto mechanic to do heart surgery nor the other way around.

If you do decide to work on it yourself, then buy a FACTORY SERVICE manual specifically for that particular motor if possible, as most of the aftermarket manuals that cover multiple years and models are a waste of money simply because they are so general.    However if you are on a limited budget, AND have the time, an older economy motor many times can be restored to perform satisfactorily.  You may make a few mistakes in getting there, but that is life.

If you don’t want to do the work yourself, a 20 to 40 year old outboard will quickly cost more to fix than it is worth when paying a mechanic for his time.   That’s why a lot of shops refuse to work on them.   They want happy return customers.

Anytime you buy a second hand motor, ask when the water pump impeller was changed.   If they answer anything but yesterday, the suggestion is to get and install a new one.  Impellers are cheap, motors are not, plus a bad impeller is the number motor killer.

Not trying to run down one brand over another, but the older OMC (Johnson/Evinrude/Gale) motors are more user friendly for the average shade-tree mechanic than the older Mercury/Force motors.  And new replacement aftermarket parts are considerably more available for the OMCs, simply because of the quantity of these motors made and OMC pretty much standardized interchangeability of electronics though-out the years, so older OMC models have far fewer “No Longer Available” parts which just makes them easier to keep running.  This also allows the aftermarket manufacturers the ability to cover many motors with lesser parts. 

Mercury was trying to lead the industry and came up with new designs for the transmissions, which many did not survive the test of time, with no parts available now.  They are also notorious for having left hand threads on holding some parts on and requiring specialty tools for working on many of their models.

Generic brands made by a few companies but sold through mail order stores like Sears, Wards, Spiegel’s, Coast to Coast, Firestone to name some, were made by lesser know companies that have long been out of business.  And many times the design was not that well thought out or a one that tried to circumvent other well known patented designs, which at times proved weak.  For many of these, finding replacement parts can be challenging and expensive.

(1)  Does this motor really fit your needs, or is it just supposedly a low price?   Any NON-RUNNING motor may not be a good investment unless you are a handyman somewhat versed in outboard motor repair and are prepared to purchase a service manual.   Even “Vintage”50 year old motors are not worth a lot especially if they are not running.

(2)  Do you want it for a running/fishing/fun motor, or for a restoration project?   There is a difference.  You do not really want a fishing/fun motor to turn in to a restoration project where you spend way more than the motor is really worth.  Been There, Done That, to the point that I would be happy to simply regain my expenses for the repairs alone.   CLICK HERE  for an insight into a restoration project.

(3)  Is this motor a popular brand or made by a current production manufacturer?  Be very careful and shy away from some of the lesser known manufacturers that that could well be defunct, or were sold thru large retail chain stores 40 years ago that the current parts employees have no clue what you are talking about even if you can give them the model numbers, of course they no longer can provide spare parts.  Do some research before you lay out any cash.

(4)  If the manufacturer’s model/serial number plate is missing, there is a very distinct possibility that it is a STOLEN motor.  Even if it still has the plate, it may not be a bad idea to run the number thru a local marine dealer who specializes in repair of that brand to see if it may have been been stolen & reported to law enforcement, or go directly to a local law enforcement agency stolen properties section & have them run the numbers.

(5)  What year is it?   If the owner does not know for sure, then get the model and serial number so you do some checking on your own.   OMC has a very good model/date code.  Yamaha also has a date code in their model numbering system.  Mercury uses serial numbers, (sometimes) but these are not readily available to us commoners.  The internet is a good place to start.    And probably it would be a good idea to shy away from anything made prior to about 1980 (lack of parts availability).  Do not totally take the sellers word for everything he says unless he can prove it.

(6)  How long since it has been used?   Does it run??   How easily does it start from cold condition?   If a mail order sale, can the seller supply a video of it running?    Again, do not totally take the sellers word for everything he says unless he can prove it. 

I purchased one off e-Bay that the seller noted that it had been recently ran.  No possible way, as when I got it, the complete manual starter was missing (and on this model there was no auxiliary rope start provision on the flywheel) plus the carburetor was so full of very fine silt apparently from being immersed in a flood that it had to be completely rebuilt.  Of course by the time I found all of this out, he had my money but was over a thousand miles away. And of course he was selling it for a friend.

(7)   If it is a mail order sale, freight for motors will need to be added to your overall bid for your final out of pocket cost.  Smaller motors can be shipped UPS or even FedX, but heavier ones will have to go truck freight that can get expensive, plus it needs to be strapped to a pallet for most of them to even accept it.   Check the freight options before you bid.  Also most sellers will charge a packaging cost.  Do not allow them to just poke it inside a cardboard carton with newspaper packing.  This makes for broken or even missing parts during transit (been there – had it happen on the above mentioned motor).

Another thing to watch on a mail order sale is how good are the photos?  Are there enough to show different views of the exterior and with the cowling off?  Are they a good enough resolution or are they so dark that you can not make out even if it is a motor?  Be very careful on these.  Sure you may pick up a good motor from someone who is diminished in their photography skills, BUT not always.  And if you question then after the sale, they will say well you got what you saw in the photos.

(8)  Pull the spark plugs and take a look at their internal condition.  Clean and dry, gray color on the electrode and ceramic, (GOOD) or black carbony oil fouling) (BAD, seized or broken rings)?  Another thing look for water intrusion (blown or leaky headgasket),  often the cylinder, spark plug, and piston head will appear “steam cleaned” especially compared to the other cylinder.  While the plugs are out crank it over so that the pistons are up, look inside each cylinder with a flashlight to determine if they appear the same?

If you are buying a motor in unknown running condition, pull the recoil and check the whoomp, whoomp.  It should be strong and even between the all cylinders.  Bring a spark tester and check for at least 1/4″ spark jump from each lead.

(9)  Shift to Forward and operate twist grip throttle, check for for full armature plate/throttle movement.

(10)  What is the overall general physical condition, outside & under the cowling, broken or missing parts, badly scratched paint, well used but not cared for?  Very possibly the rest of the not so readily seen motor parts are the same condition.

(11)  When was the last time water pump impeller replaced?  Does the water pump put a good stream of water out thru the overboard water indicator (pee hole) when running?  If you can not run it, or verify a replaced impeller, then build into your offer a new impeller replacement on your part.

(12)  What is the compression?  If it is more than one cylinder motor, they need to be close to even on all cylinders and above about 80#.   If the compression numbers look sketchy, then you can pull the bypass covers and exhaust cover and get a good visual of the pistons.   99% of the time, you can see any ring/cylinder damage, through these ports.

(13)  Has it been used in saltwater, if so was it flushed after every usage?  The head may have to be pulled for a full investigation of possible salt deposits in the water jacket or a seized thermostat.

(14)  Does the motor shift in and out of gear when the motor is running?   If shifting when the motor is NOT running is hard, do not force the shifting lever unless you pull the starter rope slightly at the same time you try to shift into a gear, as the shifting clutch dogs may not be in true alignment (unless the motor is being turned over) as you could bend or break the shifter lever as some levers are made of plastic.

Spin prop slowly and operate shift handle to check gearcase function – not a definitive test, but will at least tell you that things are moving as they should. Bring a large screwdriver and remove the lower gearcase plug quickly and check for water/milky lube which means water intrusion (not good).

(15)  Does the lower unit have evidence of oily leaks?  If so, this could just be a leaking washer under the drain plug screw, or worse a leaking shaft seal.   Or if the older non unitized units, the spaghetti seal may need replacing.   Check the gearbox oil (lower drain plug hole) for water contamination, (BAD if THICK CREAMY OIL).  If there is no oil in the gearbox,  (THIS IS EVEN WORSE) then pass on this purchase as you will probably have MAJOR internal damage to the bearings, shafts, and possibly the gears.

(16)  Where has it been stored for the last 20 years?   Outside in the weather, or inside a building?   Do I need I expand to on the obvious answer here.

(17)  Any history could be beneficial as to who owned it, any previous repairs etc.   Got a bigger boat and this one was not used for years.  Grandfather bought it new and has recently passed away?  If the seller says he got it from (or is selling it for) a friend and can not supply information, or will not guarantee it will run, then there usually is a problem with the motor, otherwise the friend would have gotten it running.

(18) Do a under the cowling check.  Is there any indication of burned/discolored paint on the upper block behind the flywheel or the head?  These are a good indicator of severe overheating or possible seizing of the motor.  An overheat /seize situation is not a good situation and could be an indication of a faulty water pump.  Low compression can also mean badly scored pistons, which is another end result, from an overheat.  

(19)  Does the fuel tank and fuel lines come with the motor if not a small motor that uses integral tank?   If it is a mail order sale, some shipping regulations will not allow a used fuel tank to be shipped.  To replace both tank and fuel lines may well add another $75 to the price before you can have the pleasure of running your new purchase.    Portable boat fuel tanks sold in the USA since 01/01/2012 must be the EPA-mandated “self-venting” design instead of the previous version with a screw-type vent in the cap.   The new tanks have a vacuum valve in the tank so manual venting is not required.

(20)  Has the fuel line primer bulb deteriorated and is HARD to pump when even not hooked to a tank, (BAD) ? Then you probably also really need to replace the whole fuel line assembly as the hoses may also be deteriorating.

(21) Finally, take a minute to look the entire outboard over to be sure it’s complete. You should have a really good idea at that point what will need attention, and you can make an informed offer.

These are probably the basic questions.   However be prepared to be somewhat of a disbeliever to any private sale unless you can personally see it run and make your own decisions, ESPECIALLY on any non face to face long distance sale.  As they will have your money AND you may have something you were misled on, AND they are MANY miles away.   So unless you have a traveling hulk of a friend named Gledo, who you can send on a mission, it may be best to pass on this GOOD deal.


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