A Guide for Buying Your First Boat

1. I’ve never owned anything bigger than a dinghy. What am I looking for in a first boat?

There’s a lot to consider before taking the plunge, including your budget, where you’ll be boating, where you’ll be keeping the boat and, perhaps most importantly, what kind of lifestyle you envision for you and your family on the water. Wakeboarding or coastal cruising? Sail or power? Big or small? Inboard or outboard? Trailer or no trailer?  It’s easy to fall in love with a boat that may turn out to be impractical, too small, too big, or too expensive to maintain, so stay focused and follow the time-honored process for making the right boat-buying decision.

2. Where’s the best place to see what’s available?

The Internet has definitely made it easier to locate the right boat: You can do the bulk of your initial browsing and research on your computer or smartphone, using websites dedicated to boat and yacht sales. Three of the biggest sites exist under the same Boats Group umbrella. There are overlaps in what kinds of boats and sales arrangements they represent, but you can think of boatmatrix.com as the place to research boats, read reviews, and search for dealer-represented boats. Also utilize Criaglist and other online sources to compare. And of course there are plenty of boat shows all over the country — most of them in the fall and winter—where you can look at lots of models in one place.  (See No. 9, below.)

3. How do I choose between going with a new or used boat?

A new boat can make sense if you have the budget, you trust the dealer, you get a good deal and warranty, and there’s a service department to back you up. It can also make sense if you’re sure you’ve found the right boat for the long term. Just remember that most new boats depreciate quickly — which is one reason there are so many good deals among used boats. A shiny new boat exerts a powerful pull, but if a new one isn’t in the cards for you, there are reasons to let others buy the new boats that you can pick up as a used boat a few years later.

4. You’ve suggested a walk-around, a sea trial and a survey. What’s the difference between them?

So you’ve located a boat worth visiting in person. Good! Depending on its age, size, and the complexity of its systems, you’ll have to decide whether to make the evaluation yourself, or bring along an experienced boating friend, or hire a marine surveyor. In fact if you’re financing the boat, the lender might require a professional survey. In any case you will want to walk around the boat with the owner or broker to discuss what will or will not be included, and what will be fixed or not fixed before purchase. You should also insist on a full sea-trial before making any agreement. This means running the boat in open water long enough for you and/or your surveyor to assess the engine and all other major systems, and spot any potential trouble ahead of time. If you’re new to complex boats it will pay to understand the kinds of problem a surveyor might watch for.

5. Is there a way to tell if I’m getting a good deal?

To a certain extent, as with a house or a car, a good boat deal is in the eye of the beholder. If it’s the boat you want and you can afford it, then you’d have to consider it a good deal. But could it be better? There are ways to check. For example, both buyers and sellers use NADA Guides to help establish prices that will be competitive in the marketplace. Also study the asking prices for boats on from online sources, paying attention to details like engine hours and lists of extra equipment. Although asking prices are obviously not selling prices, you can get an idea of price extremes and medians, especially for popular boats with lots of examples for sale.

6. How much should I be allocating to spend?

No matter how much it might feel like a necessity, a boat — whether new or used —  is a luxury item, and should take a back seat to all your vital budget considerations. Beyond that, there’s no accurate rule of thumb for deciding a percentage of liquid funds to earmark for a boat. Do your best to make an annual budget for ownership and consider discussing it with your financial advisor. Remember that aside from the purchase price and any financing involved, you will have to consider registration fees, insurance, dockage, winter storage, and maintenance. That last item can be very expensive if you’re unprepared to be a hands-on boatowner.

7. What’s the best way to close a deal?

If you’re buying a new boat, your dealer should be able to walk you through all the details. The same goes for any boat you buy through a professional broker. However, if you’re buying a used boat from its owner, you and that owner will have to handle your own paperwork, which will include a bill of sale, boat title, and more. No matter where you live, there are checklists that can help, but different states handle sales procedures and registrations in different ways, through different agencies — motor vehicle department, parks department, natural resources, etc.  Check your state government’s website for more specifics.

8. Assuming I’m not going to start shrimping, can a boat be viewed as being a good investment?

In general, no. Unless you plan to earn your livelihood aboard the boat, it will be a luxury item that depreciates. However, there are exceptions to the rule. If you buy a poorly maintained example of a popular or cult model for a very low price, and have the skills, time, and repair budget to bring it back to a state of near perfection, chances are you’ll be able to make a profit if you decide to sell. Similarly, some immaculately maintained classic wooden boats hold and even increase their value.

9. Anything else you think people should know?

Be patient! Boat shopping is fun, and you’ll see a lot of things that will get your impulses fired up. But there are plenty of boats to choose from, and it pays to take your time, do your research, line up your financing, and make sure you and your family are sure where you’re headed. One of the best things you can do before jumping in, especially if you’re new to the game, is to visit boat shows, using a game plan to make your research more methodical and meaningful — and keep you from being dazzled by those acres of shiny gelcoat.

Good hunting, and we’ll see you on the water!

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