If you are weary about spending $5000-$15000 for a brand new hot tub or simply cannot afford new tub prices then the used hot tub market can be a great entree into hot tub ownership. There are tens of thousands of used hot tubs available on the used market and Craigslist is one of the best resources for finding used hot tubs. Used prices can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars for a “functioning” hot tub. The savings can be great, however, there are many potential pitfalls with used hot tubs that need to be considered before making an actual purchase. Getting educated and avoiding these pitfalls as much as possible is critical and can make the difference between a good and bad used hot tub experience.
The goal of this guide is to teach you how to evaluate a used or pre-owned hot tub so that you aren’t buying someone else’s problems.
First we must understand a new hot tub’s useful life. Of course, the useful life of a hot tub will depend on the quality of the hot tub as a new hot tub built with lower quality materials and workmanship will not last as long as a premium quality hot tub but we can safely assume that the useful life is a between 10-15 years. The interesting thing about the evolution of hot tubs since they first came out is that that the useful life has decreased over time. Older hot tubs would easily last 20 or more years. The reason being is that in the 1970s and 1980s hot tubs were simple. They had around 5 jets, one motor, simple pneumatic controls, and were easier to repair. Today’s hot tubs have between 20-150 jets, as many as 6 motors, complex digital controls, water management systems, extra features such as stereos and LED lights, and, of course, they are more difficult to repair. So it’s easy to see that buying a used tub in today’s hot tub world can have more downside risk associated with it especially if it hasn’t been well taken care of.
Used Hot Tub Evaluation Checklist – Here is a quick checklist that can help identify problems when shopping used hot tubs.
- Make Sure It Runs – this may sound silly but the first thing you want to do is make sure the spa is running. Many times sellers will have the hot tub drained and turned off claiming everything works and that you should take their word for it. I would avoid making a purchase in this situation. Even if the seller has good intentions a used hot tub that sits for an extended period of time can incur problems. Hot tubs that sit drained and unused can have dried out seals, corroded electrical components from condensation, mold and mildew growth in the plumbing lines, or cracked plumbing lines if it sat thru a winter (freeze damage). You should, with your own eyes, see that the tub is running with the pumps on, individual jets on, lights on, and water hot. If the tub has a stereo, TV, or other special features then we would recommend turning those on too.
Note: If the jet pump (motor) is on and there is a grinding sound then the pump is likely to fail in the near term because the bearings are wearing out.
- Inspect for Leaks – Ask that all of the panels be removed with the spa running and inspect around all of four sides for leaks. You can start with the access panel side where the equipment is located and look around the base of the motors and heater assembly for signs of past or present leaks. You can see water staining on the base of the hot tub if a leak had occurred in the past. Also look around the other sides of the spa for traces of past or present leaks. Any wet concrete on a dry day around the perimeter of the hot tub is also evidence of a present leak. If the spa is fully foamed then you can push on the foam to see if it is spongy or wet.
- Look for Corrosion – Remove the hot tub cover and inspect the area inside the hot tub, above the waterline for signs of rust on any exposed metal (handles, grab bars, etc.). Also look for heavily discolored or disintegrated pillows. Rust and disintegrated pillows typically happen as a result of poor water chemistry. If the water has not been well maintained then you can expect it has also caused damage over time to other components such as heaters, pumps, plumbing, and jets.
- Waterlogged Cover – It’s pretty safe to assume that most used hot tubs will require a new hot tub cover. You can easily identify the need to replace the cover by its weight. Hot tub covers are made of a vinyl exterior and Styrofoam core and should be very light and easy to open. A hot tub cover that is extremely heavy and hard to open is waterlogged. Waterlogging can happen about 3-5 years into the life of the cover due to the hot steamy nature of the hot tub. The R-value or insulation value of the cover also diminishes greatly 3-5 years in and the cover needs to be replaced.
- Brands – It is always wise to do some research on high quality brands before shopping the used market. Finding a well-known, premium brand gives you some assurance that the spa was built with high quality components and workmanship and it also lets you know that you can still find parts.
- Avoid Proprietary Parts – Avoid brands that use proprietary parts. The reason for this is that you are locked into purchasing parts only from that manufacturer and its dealers. Prices are generally much higher for proprietary parts/labor and fewer independent service techs work on them. Brands like Jacuzzi, Hot Springs, Sundance, Bullfrog, and Caldera are just a few that use proprietary parts and although they are premium brands they can be very expensive to work on. Look for other quality brands that don’t use proprietary parts and can be serviced and repaired by any qualified service technician (parts are also readily available online).
- Warranties – This checklist item only applies to a used hot tub that still is under warranty. Hot tub industry manufacturer warranties range between 1-5 years on equipment and between 5 years and lifetime on the shells. This exact length depends on the brand and model. It is important to note that warranties do not transfer from a seller to a buyer even if it is within the warranty period, therefore, there should be no value considered when purchasing a used hot tub that is still under factory warranty.
- Cabinets – Avoid wood cabinets as they deteriorate over time especially in wetter climates. They also require staining or painting every couple of years. Look for a synthetic cabinet or composite cabinet. These are much lower maintenance, keep their look, and insulate better.
- Shell Damage – It is also important to visually inspect the hot tub shell for any signs of cracking, blistering (delamination), or crazing (small spider web like fractures). We would recommend doing this inspection when the tub is drained as it is much easier to inspect. If you see evidence of any of these aforementioned signs then we would recommend walking away even though in some cases the damage maybe repairable. Please note that there are lots of different types of shell construction, however, our recommendation is for a fiberglass backed acrylic shell which is the strongest shell design used in the industry.
- Maintenance Records – It is helpful when evaluating a used hot tub to see the maintenance and service history of that hot tub. It can give insight into how the tub was cared for as well as reveal past issues.
Additional Costs and Considerations– When purchasing a used hot tub there are a handful of costs outside of just paying for the tub itself. You may want to negotiate some of these costs with the seller so that you don’t have to burden them all yourself. The price estimates below are only a range and can vary depending on where you live.
- Disconnecting Electrical – If the hot tub you are purchasing has a 220-240v electrical hookup (most do) then it requires shutting the hot tub off at the breaker and safely disconnecting the four wires from the control box inside the hot tub. You may also have to remove a fair amount of conduit as well. This step should be done by a licensed electrician for safety and reliability reasons. Most licensed electrician will charge between $150-200 for this service.
- Removal, Transporting, and Delivery – Removing a hot tub from a seller’s backyard can be tricky depending on access and location. Hot tub companies can use three professional hot tub movers, a forklift, specialized dolly, or sometimes a crane truck to get hot tubs in and out of backyards. Once the hot tub is removed then it is placed on a flatbed truck or trailer and transported to the next location for delivery. The delivery process is very similar to the removal process. Fees for these services can range between $300-$1000 depending on the nature of the removal and delivery. Fees are also calculated based on the distance traveled between the pickup location and delivery location.
Note: Although it may be possible to move and transport the hot tub yourself you may risk injury to yourself and damage to the hot tub. Older hot tubs can be very challenging to move because the cabinets and frames can become brittle over time and can fall apart during the moving process. Internal equipment may also shift if dropped or bumped causing unnecessary damage. We would suggest using a professional moving company for that reason.
- New Electrical Hookup – Once your hot tub is delivered and placed in the desired location in the yard then it will need an electrical hookup. Most hot tubs require a dedicated 220v/50amp electrical line run by a licensed electrician. Most electricians will charge between $900-$1300 for this service if it is fifty feet or less.
- Buyer’s Inspection – Although buyer’s inspections are not a requirement, we would advocate doing so to help put your mind at ease when purchasing a used hot tub. Having a qualified hot tub service professional come out and do a detailed inspection can uncover any issues going on with the tub or anticipated expenses coming down the road. Buyer’s inspection can run around $200 but can be a nice hedge against a potentially bad purchase.
- Purge & Sanitization – This is another optional but highly recommended expense because using someone else’s hot tub can be like using someone else’s toothbrush. Once you have the used hot tub delivered and the electrical hooked up it is wise to do a purge and sanitization. Basically, you want to fill the hot tub and run a heavy duty purge product through it which you can find at many local hot tub stores. The purge product is designed to run through jets and plumbing lines and remove any hair, oil, or other organic matter referred to as biofilm (biofilm builds up on the walls of the plumbing lines inside the hot tub). Once the purge product has circulated through the spa for the recommended time then tub can be drained and refilled. Depending on the cleanliness of the hot tub it may be wise do several spa purges. We would also recommend doing a sanitization in conjunction with this. A sanitization could be running bleach through the system or running a heavy amount of chlorine through the system and draining the spa. Once the purge and sanitization are complete then you can place brand new filters in the spa and fill it up with fresh water for heating and use. The cost for the purge products is around $100 and the process is something you can do yourself.
Where to Buy a Used Hot Tub or Swim Spa – The three best resources for finding used hot tubs are Craigslist, Newspaper, and Hot Tub Dealerships. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages but it all comes down finding the right hot tub that suits your needs.
- Craigslist.com – Craigslist is by far the largest resource for finding a used hot tub. There are hundreds of listings to comb thru with hot tubs in all shapes and sizes (even swim spas).
- Newspaper and Online Classifieds – Sellers are less inclined to use newspapers or less frequented online classifieds, however, it’s wise to browse these resources as well since the occasional gem can be found.
- Hot Tub Dealerships or Hot Tub Service Companies – We are big advocates for buying used hot tubs from hot tub dealerships and service companies. There are several reasons for this recommendation. First, these companies generally inspect and test the used spas they sell. Second, they typically replace bad components and fix issues with the spa before they sell them. Third, they handle the delivery and placement of the hot tub for you and many times include it in their price. Fourth, they typically give the hot tubs a warranty ranging from 30-180 days. At the end of the day, they are a business and their reputation is at stake and want to make their customers happy. These hot tubs may be slightly more expensive than a similar hot tub on Craigslist but are worth it when you consider the peace of mind.
Hot Tub Repair Costs and Estimates – Here is a list of typical service and repair costs for common hot tub problems. Please keep in mind that the price estimates below are only a range and can vary depending on where you live.
- Control Pack Replacement – Hot tubs use computer control packs that have a circuit board, processor, sensors, etc. all integrated into one pack. The control pack is the brains of the hot tub and the most essential component of running a hot tub. Although these don’t commonly fail, they are the most expensive, single item to replace.
Note: Older hot tubs with pneumatic control systems must be retrofitted to a digital system if they fail as parts for these antiquated systems are very difficult to find and are very expensive due to the rarity. There are many retrofit kits available on the market that can be installed on older hot tubs.
- Topside Control Panel (Keypad) Replacement – The topside control is a the waterproof digital keypad that is flush mounted to the top rail of the hot tub and is usually located on the side of the access panel for the equipment. The keypad is used to control temperature, turn motors on/off, turn lights on/off, and program filtration cycles. The topside control panel is connected by wires to the control pack referenced in item #1.
- Leak Repair – leaks can be one of the most frustrating things to deal with on a hot tub. Leaks can come from a cracked shell (rare), plumbing glue joints, equipment, or from rodents. Plumbing glue joints are the most common and keep in mind that the more jets you have the higher the incidence for leaks. For example, an older, 5 jets hot tub, can have 25-30 glue joints where a newer 50 jets hot tub can have upwards of 300 glue joints. If you do some simple math then you quickly realize that you can increase your likelihood for leaks by ten times simply from going from a 5 jets hot tub to 50 jets hot tub. Keep in mind that higher quality hot tubs typically use barbed plumbing fittings as well as clamps in addition to the glue to seal the joints and prevent leaks. The second most common leak problems come from equipment. Things like heater gaskets, light lenses, or shaft seals on motors are all items that can cause leaks. The third reason behind leaks is rodents. Hot tubs provide a warm environment that can attract pests and in some cases these pests can find their way inside the cabinet of the hot tub and chew thru plumbing lines and wires. When shopping for a used hot tub be sure to ask the seller to remove the panels around the hot tub and inspect for any evidence of rodents (droppings on the base or burrow holes in the foam). Leaks from rodent infestation can be the most expensive as the damage can be severe and random making it difficult to find and repair the leaks. Extensive leak repair may require the hot tub professional to lift the spa on blocks for better access.
- Jet Pump (motor) Replacement – Depending on the size and horsepower of the jet pump the cost of replacement can range. The labor is generally minimal as it doesn’t take long to swap a similar size pump.
- Heater Replacement – Heating elements or heater assemblies are usually the heating components that get replaced.
- Ozone Water Purifier or UV Purifier Replacement– Ozone generators or UV light purifiers typically last a few years before needing to be replaced. They functions only to reduce the chlorine or sanitizer level in the water and are not a requirement for hot tub function. The spa will consume more sanitizer without it.
- Circulation Pump – Some hot tubs feature a dedicated, 24 hour circulation/filtration pump.
- Individual Jets Replacement – Jet internals generally snap in and out of the hot tub or sometimes they thread in and out and are very easy to replace. The cost for jets vary between $15-$100 each depending on the size. Jet housings or jet bodies can be more expensive to replace as they require a service professional and can be labor intensive. Jet housing are what the jets snap or screw into.
- Cover Replacement – It’s pretty safe to assume that most used hot tubs will require a new hot tub cover. You can easily identify the need to replace the cover by its weight. Hot tub covers are made of a vinyl exterior and Styrofoam core and should be very light and easy to open. A hot tub cover that is extremely heavy and hard to open is waterlogged. Waterlogging can happen about 3-5 years into the life of the cover due to the hot steamy nature of the hot tub. The R-value or insulation value of the cover also diminishes greatly 3-5 years in and the cover needs to be replaced.
$300-$1000 – Average foam replacement cover is $400-500
- Filter Cartridges – Hot tubs can have between 1-5 filter cartridges. They typically last between 6-18 months depending on bather load and how well they are cared for. Regular weekly or biweekly cleanings make them last longer.