How to Buy a Boat: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Looking To Buy A Boat? This buyer’s guide will walk you through the process.

Buying a boat is something many people dream of doing but few actually do. Being on the water in your own vessel is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world. Whether you’re out on the open seas or casually cruising down a river or lake, there’s something indescribably amazing about floating or speeding through a body of water.

Purchasing a boat allows you to travel to new places and see things most people only dream of seeing. There’s a whole world of adventure that can only be reached by boat, and those who get to experience it should be considered lucky.

Buying a Boat
Buying your own boat can open up many opportunities. World Cat photo.

Owning your own boat can bring new meaning to your life, opening up many opportunities for your own entertainment, as well as for your friends and family. From fishing, diving and water sports, to exploring islands or getting towed on a massive tube going 30 knots through the water – owning a boat brings endless possibilities!

There is no right answer as to what the best boat for you will be. You are unique and depending on what you will use your boat for and what’s important to you, you will come to a conclusion on your best buy. That said, in this guide we will explore the most important things to consider when buying a new or used boat, to help you make the best possible decision.

Why Are You Buying Your Boat?

First decide how you’ll be using your new vessel. One of the most important things to consider when deciding what boat to purchase is your “why”. Why are you buying your boat? Are you purchasing it for leisure? A boat for fishing? For charters to make money? To sail around the world? Or just for a casual booze cruise here and there with your buddies? This is the absolute most important aspect to consider when deciding what boat to purchase.

Once you know the answer to this question, making a decision on which boat to buy should be an easier process.

What Type Of Boat Do I Need?

Deciding the top 5 priorities for your boat is were you begin your boat search process. Once you’ve decided why you’re buying your boat, choosing the right boat can still be a challenge. From hull types to engines to electronics to seating, there are many factors to consider when choosing the perfect boat for YOU. Each type of boat has its own advantages and disadvantages, thus it’s important to nail down your top 5 priorities for your boat before beginning the buying process.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a Florida resident and want to use your boat to casually fish the canals and rivers with your buddies, but you also plan on taking a few trips off the coast, perhaps even down to The Bahamas with friends and family. In this case, you’ll want to have a good-sized trailerable boat (over 25 ft.), that can handle decent waves, with a small enough draft to get into canals and bays. It will need to hold you and all your friends comfortably, with ample amount of cushioned seating.

Given the above example, here are the top 5 needs:

  1. Seaworthy, trailerable 25 ft. minimum hull
  2. Shallow draft to get into canals, rivers, lakes and bays
  3. Shaded cover from the sun (Bimini top, covered console, pilot house or cabin)
  4. Two engines for long distance travel (in case one fails)
  5. Head (marine toilet) for longer rides

What Size Boat Do I Need?

Choosing the right boat length is vital. Is it just going to be you and a few friends going fishing? Will you be entertaining your family and friends, where comfort will be important? Are you doing a charter for paying guests that will need to be impressed? The size of the boat will quickly determine how big your boat party will be, and you’ll find that cramming people on a boat is never a fun option!

If you plan on going offshore, most experienced boat captains would recommend at least a 25-foot length boat, in order to be able to handle bigger waves and offshore swells that you may encounter. If you’re going to be storing the boat in your yard or garage most of the time, and only using it on fresh water lakes and rivers, you may consider keeping the boat below 20 feet in length to make transporting and storage more simple.

Center Console Boat Hull
A twin-stepped, center console hull boat with a gyro-stabilizing system.

Boat Hull Types

Deciding which hull type best suits your needs

In addition to what activities you plan on doing, you will also need to consider how far you will be driving and what kind of water you’ll be dealing with. This can help you decide which of the many boat hull types available will be most appropriate. There are generally three major categories of boat hulls: “planing hulls” designed to rise up and glide at high speeds on top of the water, “displacement hulls” designed to cruise slowly, smoothly and safely through water and “semi-planing hulls” a mix between the first two. Each of these hulls has different variants for different purposes.

If you’re planning on being a fishing machine you better get a deep v hull fishing boat! These semi-planing hulls will allow you to blast through choppy waters and get to your desired location quickly and efficiently, which is ideal for offshore fishing boats. If you’re planning to cruise around the harbor or lake, then a bay boat with a flatter bottom will do you just fine, or if casual entertaining is your thing – take a look at pontoon boats for sale.

In addition to flat-bottomed and v-shaped hulls, there are two other common types of hulls: multi-hulled and round-bottomed. Multi-hulled can either be planing hulls or displacement hulls, and are generally some of the most stable hulls on the water. These include catamarans and pontoon boats. Round-bottom hulls are usually displacement hulls designed to glide smoothly through the water, such as a canoe.

There are many other types of boat hulls that may fall somewhere between these main categories – some deeper and some flatter. In the end, your decision should depend on what the boat will be used for and where you will be boating.

Boat Engines And Motors

Do you have the need for speed? I mean this answer is obvious – don’t we all! But besides just top speed, boat engines are quite possibly the most important factor to consider when buying a boat. This is because they are usually the most expensive part of your boat, and because they determine how far you can go and how fast you can get there. Researching boat engines will be a critical part of choosing what boat to buy.

If you’re buying to cruise around a river or harbor, a 150 horsepower single engine will do you just fine. But if you plan to be out on the open waters it’s smart to consider getting a boat with two engines. On a boat with two engines, you are not only moving more powerfully through the water but you are also safer at sea. If one engine happens to break down, you have a backup engine onboard. This is always an important factor when considering having others on the boat.

Outboard Motors vs Inboard Motors on boats
Outboard Motors vs Inboard Motors on boats

Inboard Motors Versus Outboard Motors

Which type of motor is best for your boat?

Now let’s take a look at inboard motors versus outboard motors. For most trailerable-boat owners, outboard motors mounted on the transom seem to be a winner all around. Generally speaking outboards have higher top speeds, are easier to maintain and easier to fix overall. They come in either 2-stroke or 4-stroke versions.

However, if you’re looking to do long-distance cruising or water sports, such as wake boarding or racing, you may want to consider boats with an inboard motor. These motors are enclosed within the hull and are often just modified automotive engines.

Buying a used boat can save you considerable money, but can also be a risky deal.

Should I Buy A New Or Used Boat?

The pros and cons of new vs. used boats. If you’re on a tighter budget, buying a used boat is the obvious choice. Since much of the depreciation in value has already occurred, used boats actually hold their value better than new boats. Of course many used boats have not been maintained well and/or may have hidden issues, so it is important to be extra careful when buying a used boat. Working with a professional boat surveyor when buying a used boat can be vitally important. Remember to always check the engine compression of a used motor before purchasing.

When you buy a new boat, you know exactly what you’re getting and you can even build the boat the way you want. You can choose the features and conveniences that fit your needs and leave out those that you may not want. Also, new boats tend to be more reliable and usually come with warranties. (Boat warranties are another important topic to consider and research further.)

Boat Trader is always a good spot for used-boat listings.
Boat Trader is always a good spot for used-boat listings.

Finding Boats For Sale

Where to shop for new and used boats. It goes without saying that there are many places to find both new and used boats for sale. From the junkyard to the showroom boats are everywhere, but where is the best place to find the right boat for you? These days it’s very common for many buyers to buy a boat online, or at least to begin the process of searching online.

Boat Trader is the go-to destination for buyers across America to find both new and used boats for sale by dealers, as well as by private sellers all over the U.S. With over 100,000 listings throughout the country, and advanced search filters to help you narrow down your search, Boat Trader offers the most extensive selection of boats to browse and choose from, including: fishing, ski/wake, pontoon, center console and long-range cruising boats and yachts.

Another great thing about using Boat Trader to find your next vessel is the “search alerts” feature, which helps immensely when buyers are trying to located that perfect boat nearby. This tool allows you to save your criteria and automatically get weekly notifications whenever a seller posts a new listing that matches your needs. In other words, if someone on the other side of your town lists a boat that ticks all the boxes you’ve laid out above, you won’t miss out – not to mention you’ll likely save hours of your time otherwise spent searching!

You can also consider as the place to research boats, read reviews, and search for dealer-represented boats. Many trusted experts in the marine industry review boats for including a library of helpful boat review videos and boats in action on their YouTube channel, which can help you narrow down the models that you’re considering.

YachtWorld is yet another great site for finding larger motor yachts and sailing vessels over 35 feet as well as private brokered boats (boats that are represented by experienced yacht brokers). Keep in mind that YachtWorld does also sell boats below 35 feet in length as well, and many great deals can be found on the site across all classes and makes of vessels. Not to mention there’s a ton of videos on the YachtWorld YouTube showcasing live-action footage of yachts in action on the water, which can help you learn more about the type of boating and yachting you want to do.

There are many free classified sites that list boats for sale, but these sites may pose added risks, since sellers are not vetted as well. Sites with paid classifieds usually have more serious sellers thus provide more confidence for buyers. It may also be wise to find a boat dealer to help you with your purchase, especially if you’re a first-time boat buyer. There are numerous boat shows across the country where you can see a lot of models in one place and boat dealers can also help you find the right boat at the best price.

Marine Speakers Waterproof Boat Sound System
Marine Speakers on a waterproof boat sound system. Photo by MasterCraft.

Boat Accessories And Equipment

What kind of equipment will you need onboard? Once you’ve determined your “why”, established your top priorities, ideal size, hull type and engines, you can start playing around with accessories for your boat.

Do you want to have a bangin’ boat sound system, so everyone knows it’s you when you speed past? What kind of GPS will you be getting, if any? Having a good GPS is highly recommended if you plan on being out in the open water. There are so many great GPS apps these days, and I think they are a great backup, but I am a strong believer in getting a solid GPS specifically for your boat.

Does your chosen boat have coverage from the sun? If not, you will definitely want to consider getting one installed. It’s all fun and games until it’s 90 degrees and the sun is blasting on your face with nowhere to hide in the shade!

Do you need a cabin with lots of storage? Do you have a bathroom? As noted earlier, bathrooms are important on longer rides – especially for your guests onboard. Not everyone will want to use the ocean as their toilet!

High credit scores and liquid funds are the keys to securing boat loans these days.
High credit scores and liquid funds are the keys to securing boat loans these days.

Boat Loans And Financing

Do you need help financing your boat purchase? Let’s say you’ve fallen in love with a particular boat, and it meets all your above requirements, but you need some help with financing. There are a number of companies that help qualified buyers get boat loans who may be able to help you with your purchase. How much you have to pay will depend on a variety of factors, such as your credit score, condition/year of the vessel, location and the amount of your down payment.

Working with a marine boat surveyor is always a wise choice.
Working with a marine boat surveyor is always a wise choice.

Boat Surveying And Inspection

Ensuring the vessel is seaworthy and safe

When going to register and insure your boat, you may have to get it inspected and surveyed by a professional boat surveyor. This is why it helps to work with a boat surveyor early on in the process, before deciding to purchase a vessel. That way, you don’t face any surprises later.

Each registration will differ depending on where you live, however, some common general items required are life vests, first aid kits, fire extinguishers, radio and flares. You will need to have good dock lines and bumpers onboard, and you’ll most likely need an anchor, or two! Make sure you have all the necessary items to be safe while out on the water.

Boat insurance is a wise choice to protect your investment.
Boat insurance is a wise choice to protect your investment.

Boat Insurance Companies

Getting an accurate quote. Before you’ve even made your purchase, it may be wise to get a boat insurance quote from a company that specializes in that particular service. Make sure this quote is correct for the size, model, and age of your boat, as well as for the location in which you will be using and storing your boat.

The Hidden Costs Of Boat Ownership

Planning for the added expenses of owning your boat. Next, don’t forget about all the little things you need to purchase to keep your boat safe, legal, clean and in its best operating condition! At the end of the day, your boat will be expensive. You will pay to service and maintain it, at least twice a year, depending on how much you use it. Things will break – this is inevitable. Gas is expensive, and you’ll have to fill up often, as your engines will probably burn fuel quickly.

After purchasing your boat, you’ll have a number of new issues to address. Let’s take a look at the most common issues first time boat buyers will face.

Rack boat storage can be efficient and cost-effective.
Rack boat storage can be efficient and cost-effective.

Boat Storage Facilities

Where will you keep your boat? There are tons of options for boat storage – each with advantages and disadvantages. Will you keep it at a marina? This is perhaps the most convenient as you can just hop in and go, however, monthly fees should be considered. Will you have a dry slip or wet slip? Dry slips are better for your boat, as they keep it out of the water, however, they are more costly than a wet slip.

Perhaps you’ll get a trailer and keep it on your property – this saves you some cash, but doesn’t save you with time. Hauling your boat in and out of the water and driving it all around town could end up being a big time suck and inconvenience. On the other hand, a good trailer with tilt and power winch can make this process much easier.

As boat owners we sacrifice money that gets sucked into our boats, however, we gain so much joy from owning it. You can’t put a price on happiness, so all this is just something you do in order to have the joy of being a boat owner, which is truly irreplaceable.

Boat cleaning is an important part of boat maintenance. Photo by Gary Reich.
Boat cleaning is an important part of boat maintenance. Photo by Gary Reich.

Boat Cleaning Supplies And Methods

Keeping your boat in tip-top shape

Cleaning supplies are a must, as you will want to clean it down after each use, so that you maintain the highest possible resale value of the boat. If you’re planning on being on the ocean, the salt can be extremely tough on your boat, so it’s imperative that when you come home from a day out on the water you wash down everything thoroughly. It’s easiest to keep a broom, bucket, sponges, brushes and specialty marine cleaning supplies on your boat ready to go!

Boat Handling And Safety

Learning the basics of boating. Now that you’ve got your own boat and you’re ready to roll, you may realize that you have no idea what you’re doing! That’s okay, because practice makes perfect. There is no better way to become an expert boat driver than to just get out on the water and do it!

If you have the option, find an experienced captain to take you out a few times and show you the ropes. This is the best way to go. You will find some of the most complicated and difficult things about boating is docking, knowing the waters, and remaining cool, calm and collected during your adventures. Being confident and not panicking is extremely important when driving a boat. Just like with anything, this will come to you naturally with practice.

Advice For First-Time Boat Owners

Take it slow!

During the first few months of owning your own boat, go out as much as you can, familiarize yourself with the waters and your boat. Dock it over and over and over again until you can basically do it with your eyes closed! A helpful hint with driving is to always remember “slow like a pro”. If you are ever in a situation where you are unsure or not completely confident, just remember “slow like a pro”. You can’t actually do much damage to anything if you are going slow in your boat. With that in mind, you can be at ease and get yourself comfortable during this learning process.

Boat Training Classes And Online Courses

Learning and obeying boat laws

It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the local laws in your area. It is recommended to take a quick captains course online. With knowledge being so accessible these days, take advantage of your online tools and take a quick free online course on general boating and navigation.

You will learn about boating terms such as port and starboard, so you can sound like a pro when captaining your vessel, and actually know what you’re talking about! You will learn about lights and what they mean as well as buoys, signs and much more.

As mentioned earlier, there is no better way than to just get out there and captain your boat – but
knowing your boat laws, and general boating etiquette is a critical part of being a great boat owner. There is no such thing as too much knowledge, so absorb everything you can!

Center Console Fishing Boat
This mid-sized center console has the beef to take on serious seas, and the fishability center console lovers desire.

Finally – enjoy your new boat responsibly!

Owning a boat is a big responsibility – you are responsible to keep those in your boat safe, as well as others on the water. You are responsible for making sure your boat is properly maintained and that it is always serviced properly and operating properly. You will pump money into it, and unless you’re doing charters, you won’t be getting any in return.

However, owning a boat is truly an amazing experience. You’ll be able to explore so much that most people only dream about. The ocean is a magical place and there are many underwater treasures to explore, along with many fun activities and sports you can do on the water.

You can catch your dinner then go grill it on a private island with just you and your friends. These are the types of memories and days that you will always treasure because you are a boat owner. No amount of research will beat your experience out on the water. So buy your boat, go explore and experience all that boat life has to offer.

Written by: Tatjana Chahine

Tatjana Chahine is USCG-licensed boat captain and writer who regularly contributes to, YachtWorld and Boat Trader. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she now resides in Nassau, Bahamas where she operates a Bahamas boat charter and excursion company that helps tourists visit the 700 islands & cays and experience the local culture. Bahamian-owned, the company partners with Bahamians for custom-tailored, guided tours and supports local businesses and community building efforts.