Buy a Used Hot Tub? Don't Get Soaked!
How to buy a used hot tub is "hot topic" these days, with showroom prices over $10,000 it's natural that many people consider buying a "Gently Used Hot Tub".
For many, a used hot tub is not something they would consider, especially given that online portable spas can be purchased for less than $5,000.
Regardless, if you have your eye on a "pre-loved" spa or hot tub, here's some tips on making a smart purchase.
Will it Fit Your Space and Budget?
Setting a firm budget up front is smart - you don't want to pay more than you can afford and, you don't really want to pay less than you should. A hot tub in good condition, fully operational, will cost around $2500, in most cases. You can find a lot of used hot tubs for under $1000, but most are empty, non-working spa shells, that need a lot of reconditioning - new spa pack (heater and controls), pumps and perhaps plumbing.
Secondly, where are you going to put your new (used) hot tub? When full, they can weigh a ton (literally!), so it needs to be set on a solid base of reinforced concrete. Never set a spa directly on the ground, or on a wood deck, and absolutely never on a second story balcony or elevated deck. Spas should also not be placed indoors, unless you have plastic or tiled walls and ceilings, floor drains and a suitable dehumidification system.
Thirdly, will it fit? You will need room to access the equipment underneath the spa, and for other reasons, you may need to access the underside of the spa from a side other than where the spa equipment is located. Spa covers are big and bulky, and should be used with spa cover lifters, to protect the cover (and your back!). These require anywhere from 6" to 36" of clearance, depending on the model, and some cover lifts need room vertically (above the spa), for upright spa cover storage.
Fourth, choose a location that is out of direct sunlight if possible, and avoid lawn sprinklers, or placement under a roof eave that will allow rain water to fall onto the spa. The best location will protect the hot tub from sun, rain and snow.
Fifth, consider privacy if you have close neighbors. You can construct a privacy screen or a gazebo of sorts to block prying eyes and prevailing winds while hopefully preserving the best view to take in while soaking in the spa.
Ask the Right Questions - in the Right Way
Studies show that the way you ask a question about maintenance issues or problems affects the probability of an honest response. Framing your questions with negative assumptions elicits more honest responses. I know you want to be nice, but the get the best information you have to be almost accusatory.
For example, asking "What mechanical issues have you had with the spa" will produce a better answer than "There aren't any problems with the spa, are there?" Other questions to ask include: "Tell me what repairs you have made to the spa", and "What repairs will I need to do soon?", in addition to asking to see service records, or repair invoices.
When you want the unvarnished truth, you have to ask for it - don't throw soft balls, or you'll get soft answers. Ask pointedly negative questions to get the best negative answers, or the most believable responses.
Inspecting a Used Hot Tub
When buying a used hot tub, make sure that it's full of water and hot, as measured by a floating thermometer. Bringing your own thermometer is a good idea, because you can't always trust the temperature display. 104° is the maximum safe temperature, and for most people, an ideal hot tub water temp. If it only reads 100°, it could be any number of problems, or it just could be set too low. Turning up the thermostat should raise the water temperature fast, around 5° for every 10 minutes.
An owner's manual can be incredibly useful for running the spa through it's paces, to test out all features and to diagnose any error codes, if presented. If the spa owner doesn't have an owner's manual handy, you may be able to find it online and view it on your smartphone or tablet.
Be sure to bring a flashlight, so you can get a good look underneath the spa, looking for any drips or leaks, although on cold days some condensation water can be normal. Look closely at the pipes, fittings, pumps, blower and other equipment to check for leaks and also to check for smooth operation. Pump and Blower motors aren't quiet, but they shouldn't be loud, or screeching, which indicates near failure (most spa pumps last about 7-8 years).
Look and Listen when inspecting a hot tub. Be sure to also inspect the spa cabinet for signs of wood rot or decay, which can literally fall apart during removal, transport or set-up at the new location. Spa cabinets can be replaced, but not without significant cost and effort. The spa cover should not be heavy, or waterlogged, and the foam panels inside should not be cracked. Most spa covers last about 5 years before needing to be replaced, at an average cost of $400.
Alternatively, you can hire a local spa service company to inspect the spa for you for about $150, which could be the best way to go. I'd recommend using a spa repair service, rather than a local spa store, who may use the opportunity to downgrade the spa in the hopes of selling you a new one instead.
Transport & Installation
This is often the biggest hurdle to buying a used spa; getting it to the new location. Empty spas can weigh 750 lbs, and are quite cumbersome to move. In California and other "spa happy" states, you can find companies that specialize in moving spas, for a price of around $400. Most spa stores and spa repair companies can offer this specialized service. If not, you can hire a tow company with a Jerr-Dan type truck, or rent a flatbed truck to transport the spa to the new location.
But, transporting the spa is only half the job - you still have to get the spa on and off the truck, and move it through fence gates, or down hillsides or across rough terrain. Spa movers use oversized dollies, with large wheels and lots of straps to keep the spa from falling off the dolly. You could also use 4 burly guys to carry the spa by hand, but even so, that's 200 lbs per person, which could be dangerous to consider.
Once you get the spa to the new location, there will likely be electrical upgrades needed. Spas require a dedicated 220V service, with a breaker of 50-60 amps, and a cut-off box located near the spa. An electrician should be hired to perform these tasks, at a cost of $400-$800, depending on how far the main circuit panel is from the spa location. It could cost more than that if the main panel is already maxed out, and there is not enough amperage available for the additional breaker.
Deep Cleaning before Use
When you get your new (used) hot tub situated and filled with water, before you use it - I recommend using a chemical like Jet Clean or Spa Purge to strip the pipes of any biofilm. You'll also want to clean and condition the spa cover, spa cabinet and inside surfaces to remove any dirt or films, and replace the spa filter cartridge.