Select Page

One of the first questions many boat buyers want answered about the boat they are interested in is the number of hours on the boat. While the answer may provide cursory knowledge of the boat’s expected mechanical condition, there are many factors that should be taken into account beyond the numbers on the hour meter.

What Is Considered ‘Normal” Hours?

Unlike the vehicle you drive to work every day and to grandma’s house a few times a year, your new boat will not have a mileage odometer. Most boats manufactured in the last 15 years or so come from the factory equipped with hours meters. What is considered “normal” or average hours can vary greatly depending on where the boat has been used. Boats used in freshwater lakes with three- to six-month long boating seasons are considered to have average hours if the total shows 40 to 60 hours per year since the boat was first floated. On the other hand, boats used on the coast where the boating season never really ends can expect those averages to be around the 100-hour mark.

What Do the Hours Mean?

Again, the answer will vary depending on where the boat has been used, so here are few things to consider.

If you are looking at a boat on an inland lake of about 50,000 surface acres, the hours on the meter won’t necessarily mean the boat has been running for those total hours. Since the hour meter starts counting as soon as the key is turned to the ‘ON’ position, the hour meter is ticking upward whether the motor has actually been started or not.

Most recreational boaters on freshwater lakes don’t spend hours underway. They may pull the kids around for a little while on tubes or skis and then find a place to hang out with friends in local coves or on islands. While hanging out, they may leave the key in the “ON” position in order to play the stereo or charge phones or other accessories. This means for several hours, the engine isn’t being used but the hour count is continuing to climb. After a few years of weekend use, you can see how the total number of hours on this boat may add up to less than half of what’s showing on the meter as far as actual run time is concerned.

Conversely, a fishing boat used on the coast may have a long run to open water and fishing grounds so the hours showing on this boat’s meter are more likely to indicate actual running time.

As you can see by the above examples, there is much more to consider than just the number of hours and what they may mean to the boat you are considering.

Is It Important to Know the Hours?

The short answer is, yes. However, there are many factors to consider beyond this piece of information. 

I have seen boats come into our service department that looked like they had been blown ashore by a hurricane and then dragged to the dealership without a trailer, yet had hardly any hours on them, so severe was their neglect.

I have seen others come in that looked like they just left the factory with several thousand hours on them. 

While knowing the hours is important, one should always dig deeper to determine the boat’s overall condition.

At boatbuyersconsulting, we help our clients to look beyond the hours to make certain the boat they are interested in will last them for many seasons to come.

What if the Hour Meter Doesn’t Work or is Nonexistent?

The good news is most late model boat motors are equipped with an ECM (Electronic Control Module) that a technician can plug into to pull the hours directly off the motor. Unfortunately, boat motors more than about 15 model years old are not likely to have this, and there is simply no way to ascertain hours on these motors. In this case, you’ll have to go “old school” by asking for a compression check and hoping there are some maintenance records available. A compression check will go a long way to finding out the overall health of the engine and recent maintenance records can show how often the boat has been serviced and what types of repairs have been made. 

Can Hour Meters Be Trusted?

A number of old salts out there will tell you that hour meters are nothing more than decoration and shouldn’t be trusted any more than a politician on November 4th. I don’t completely disagree with them because the meters are easily manipulated and can be replaced with just the turn of a screwdriver. 

So like anything else, trust but verify should be the rule. 

If the hours indicated seem too low, dig a little deeper. There are many reasons for boats to have lower than average hours, but if it’s 10 years old and looks like it has hit everything but the lottery and only showing 20 hours on the meter, you may want to rethink this one.

Bottom Line

Boat motors are built to be operated in one of the harshest environments on earth. With proper use and maintenance, these motors should have no problem achieving many thousands of hours. So, while I would never suggest walking away from a purchase based solely on hours, it is a piece of the buying puzzle that should be considered before casting off.

Until next time, this is Captain Rob wishing you fair winds and following seas. Remember to contact Boat Buyers Consulting when you are in the market, whether it’s your first boat or your tenth, for sound advice and guidance.