If you’ve been in the market for a boat recently, then you know all too well that boats of all shapes and sizes have been flying off the proverbial docks this year. Boat manufacturers across the globe have seen an unprecedented increase in demand coupled with a simultaneous decrease in supply due to multiple constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many dealers sold out of new boats with many boat models on back order. Plus the used boat market has also been flourishing, with new customers flocking to the waters as a welcome, socially distant reprieve from our current way of life that has been thrust upon us indefinitely.
All of these factors combined are great news for boat sellers. Suddenly that old 1984 Whaler collecting dust in the yard that last year we couldn’t pay someone to get rid of is magically desirable again – even with the missing prop and non existent motor tilt! In fact, the used boat market is seeing more bidding wars and sight unseen purchases than ever before. But where does that leave the buyer?
Here are some tips on how to keep your boat shopping smart, savvy and most of all successful in today’s competitive marketplace.
Decide On Your Boat Type
This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s very difficult to be a serious competitive buyer if you are all over the place with regards to what you are looking for in a boat. This type of uncertainty is palpable to the seller and also will cause you to lag in taking the necessary steps towards completing the sale – largely because you are still undecided on whether or not the boat is the right fit for you. Of course, there’s definitely some truth to the old adage “you’ll know it when you see it,” but it will save you some time to at least narrow down the genre/boat type you are dreaming of before actively pursuing a purchase. These days there are so many great resources and walk-throughs online to help you narrow down exactly what type of vessel you are searching for.
Do Your Research
Once you’ve narrowed down the specific type of boat that meets your needs (and dreams), it’s important to perform diligent research on that particular make and model, including the history of the boat’s evolution throughout the years (particularly if you are searching used) in addition to how well it retains its value and the benchmarks surrounding that value. Also take note of what the competitor models are and how those compare in value, as well as what array of features come optional with the boats and average pricing for those features. All of this knowledge will help you in assessing potential boats on the spot with confidence and ease, and will guide your decision making process from a well-informed and insightful place.
Be Realistic About Your Budget
While there’s no arguing that it’s definitely fun to walk through mega yachts in person, it can be a waste of your valuable time (and your broker’s, if you’re using one) and can potentially end up costing you relationships or boat deals in the future. It’s best to have a ballpark idea of what you can afford before you start eyeing those million dollar listings and trying to make something happen that’s not realistic for you. Plus, time freed daydreaming of the impossible will be better spent facilitating a more achievable and tangible goal, even if it is that dusty 1984 Whaler – remember – it’ll be YOUR dusty 1984 Whaler.
Explore Funding Options Beforehand
Boat shopping can be all fun and games until this step. Unless you are a cash buyer, the reality of it is – this step is hard and requires both persistence and perseverance. Boat loans typically entail a bit of a complex and hard to navigate process involving choosing a lender, shopping for the best rate, considering a cosigner (even if you are well qualified) getting surveys and more. With the current pandemic and state of the economy, lenders are being extra cautious these days. Check out our resources for help on finding the right match for you so that you can be prepared to make an offer when that special boat finds its way into your life.
Be Responsive And Flexible
If you’re upset because a boat you were potentially interested in sold before you got the chance to see it in person, perhaps you need to make more of a conscious effort to make those viewings a priority. If the seller can only show Saturday morning and you’d rather sleep in, you’re probably going to miss out on all of the good deals. If you’d rather hit the couch with a beer than drive 40 minutes after work to check out a possible lead, then you’ll probably end up staying on the couch for the rest of the versus being out on the glorious water.
Personality DOES Count
There’s no arguing that with the transactional nature of our society, cordiality is often overlooked in very calculated processes like the purchase of a boat or home, but it does affect the people involved, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. People are genuinely more likely to work with, help, and facilitate a purchase with someone they enjoy speaking and interacting with. Plus, who knows? Your positive vibes may even earn you a discount when all is said and done.
Move Quickly And With Confidence
You’ve done your research. You’ve thought long and hard about which boat is best for you and your family. You’ve secured a lender and you know the market value of the boat you just looked at and fell in love with it. And now you’ve found the one. With everything in your arsenal to make a fair, firm offer and are an ideal buyer. Not only that, you make your offer calmly and politely, with a big smile because the possibilities are finally within your grasp! The other buyers will still be on their couches contemplating boat models, financing and logistics, and you’ll be out on the water enjoying the sunshine.
Do you have a tried-and-true boat manufacturer that you always tend to gravitate towards when you’re searching for your next boat? Want to know what other consumers are looking for? We’ve found the most popular boat manufacturers that our boat buyers are searching for on Boat Trader. Perhaps one of these manufacturers will give you the inspiration you need for your next purchase whether you’re looking for a Pontoon Boat, Fishing Boat or Ski & Wakeboarding Boat.
Top 10 Boat Brands
Sea Ray – Sports boats, deck boats, bowriders & yachts
Boston Whaler – Fishing boats, center consoles, cruisers & tenders.
The most searched boat brands on Boat Trader include those listed above from major manufacturers such as Sea Ray Boats and MasterCraft. When looking at the listings with the most views, brands like Beneteau, Bayliner and Chris-Craft feature in the top 10 replacing brands like Contender.
While the popular brands can help you find a boat, there is advice on buying a boat that helps narrow down the options as you consider who will be using the boat, what the boat will be used for, the size of the hull, deck and cabins. If you know the type of boat you are looking for, but not the manufacturers that build those class of boats. The boat types section on Boat Trader shows popular manufacturers by class and provides a helpful link to the listings available for sale.
Unless you’re buying a classic wooden boat with particular pedigree, most boats don’t appreciate in value the way houses do—they depreciate. They’re more like cars in that respect: Drive it off the lot or away from the dock and its value plummets.
The idea of a brand-new boat is hard to resist, but you might get better value finding a used boat to buy that’s been lightly used at a reduced price and take advantage of all the almost-new-equipment lavished on the boat. It’s true, we love our boats and we lavish gifts upon our loved ones—GPS’s, electronics, charts, fishing equipment, canvas, lines, you name it. Buying a used boat with improvements, equipment, or customizations added to it at below new price levels is a great reason to consider used over new.
If you’re considering the advantages of a used boat, here’s a big one. Once you’ve focused in on a particular make or brand, find out the cost and standard equipment of the boat when it was new. With this as a price and equipment baseline, look for desirable big-ticket item add-ons, like trailers, bow-thrusters, or canvas enclosures that cost thousands of dollars. Scrutinize the equipment list for added equipment. Getting a used boat that has all the practical equipment needed to take the boat out of port is akin to buying a furnished house in move-in-condition. I don’t think you will find too many brand new boats that come with signal flags, flares, life-jackets, emergency medical kits, maybe even dinghy’s and the like—someone else’s new boat outfitting is your used-boat advantage.
Here’s another idea: Ask for maintenance records that show what original or basic equipment has been replaced by newer and possibly better stuff, like new and bigger outboards. If it is a used sailboat you are intent on buying, the better value between identical boats is more than likely reflected in the boat with the better sail inventory. Smaller, non-descript items like cockpit cushions can make your boating more pleasurable and save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
We love our boats and lavish them with gifts. Take advantage of used-boat outfitting; it can save you time, allowing you to enjoy the boat more quickly, and keep a bundle of cash. And, as I wrote in an earlier blog, “End of the Season Cheap Boats” are on sale now.
A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in December 2015 and updated March 2020.
Whether you’re eyeing an old, beaten-up fiberglass skiff for crabbing, a gleaming fishing boat, or you’re dreaming about a rugged trawler that will help satisfy your dreams of cruising to the islands every winter, buying a used boat is an excellent way to stretch your boating dollars. By purchasing a previously owned vessel, you can often get a much nicer, better outfitted vessel than you’d be able to afford compared to buying new. There are a number of advantages for buying a used boat, to boot.
Still, used-boat buying is not without its pitfalls. In many cases you won’t have a new-boat warranty to back you up if something goes wrong, and used boats are, well, used. Much like a home, they can have all sorts of hidden deferred maintenance issues that can make your ownership experience less than pleasant, especially if you’re not particularly handy. Arm yourself with the following bits of knowledge ahead of time, however, and buying a used boat can be a fun and affordable way to get out on the water.
Among the first things you’ll want to do is decide which type of boat you’re after, as well as the general size range you’ll consider. Think about this carefully; choosing a vessel that’s incompatible with your own boating mojo can have sad consequences.
First ponder what you’ll use the boat for. Anglers will often home in on center-console, dual-console, bay, bass, and flats boats, while folks who plan to cruise will seek out express, cabin cruiser, and cuddy cabin designs. Maybe wakeboarding or waterskiing is your thing—consider a capable towboat or runabout. Boaters who plan on day-tripping around the lake or their local riverfront might want a pontoon boat. Don’t worry; there’s a boat type out there for just about everyone.
Once you’ve decided on a platform that suits your needs, spend some time reading print and online reviews to help you narrow the field down to one or two makes and models that you really like. In the online realm we’re partial to the ones you can find here on Boat Trader or at our colleagu sites boats.com and YachtWorld. In print, look for reviews in magazines that cater to your style of boating, whether it’s fishing magazines, watersports rags, or cruising periodicals. Before you know it you’ll have a couple of candidates for your used boat search.
Balancing the Budget
One of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make before setting out on your search is how much money you have to spend, and whether you’ll finance the purchase or pay with your own money. Prospective used-boat buyers who jump into a boat deal not knowing what their financial limits are often have an ownership experience that’s less than pleasant.
If you’re financing, we recommend working with a bank ahead of time to get pre-approved for a loan that you know you’ll have no problem paying back each month. That will allow you to search out and find the perfect boat without worrying whether you’ll have the loot to pay for it. If you’re paying with your own money, consider what you can afford without depleting essential household accounts such as savings and retirement. Trust us, you’re going to have a difficult time enjoying your new boat if you’re working all the time to pay for it or worrying about whether you can afford to send your kid to college.
Also know that your new-to- you boat will come with maintenance, storage, fuel, and other expenses that can be potential budget-busters. Let’s say you buy a boat that’s at the upper end of your monthly payment budget. Add in slip fees, engine maintenance, fuel, upkeep, and unexpected repairs, and you can easily obliterate your monthly budget. Instead, factor in all the ancillary expenses and your boat payment to come up with a total monthly spend you know you can handle.
Think about whether you want to buy a boat that’s in good to excellent condition, or save money by getting one that needs some love, with the plan of fixing it up. The danger for used-boat newbies is agreeing to purchase an old, worn-out boat at a rock-bottom price without having an understanding about how much time and money repairs will require. That $5,000 boat purchase can quickly balloon beyond your means if you underestimate repair costs. And there’s not much worse than having an unusable boat sitting in your driveway because you miscalculated the cost of repairs it needs to be seaworthy. For more on this, see What’s it Going to Cost to Fix This Thing?
Finding the Perfect Boat
As you know, the Internet has made everything from booking an airline ticket or ordering a pizza to binge-watching all 50 episodes of Gilligan’s Island easy. It’s also made searching for and finding the perfect boat relatively simple. With geographic limitations removed you’ll find the range of boats to choose from expands exponentially.
Obvious places to begin your search include the thousands of listings you’ll find on Boat Trader, boats.com, or YachtWorld. But other online resources can help you find a boat, too. Honing in on your local scene, check out sites such as Craigslist, or the online classifieds in your local or regional newspapers. Stretching your legs a bit you might try eBay, as well as the classifieds in the back of your favorite boating or fishing magazines. Also give Internet chat forums such as The Hull Truth or similar enthusiast sites a look.
Sticking with the online theme, you should also use social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to your advantage. This can not only help get the word out that you’re on the hunt for a used boat, but also show you prospective boats for sale. You’d be surprised how many of your friends and acquaintances might have a boat they’ve been meaning to sell but just haven’t had the time to list in the conventional places. Social media can help jostle folks into action.
Charitable organizations such as your local Salvation Army and Goodwill are also great places to find a deal, as people donate their boats to these places for a tax write-off. Also check your local yacht clubs and boatyards for boats for sale. The more you think outside the box, the better your chances are of finding a great boat.
Viewing the Boat
Once you’ve found a boat or two to check out you’ll want to prepare for meeting with the sellers to give each prospective boat the once-over. This first look is one of the most important steps in the buying process, and a time when you’ll want to keep your emotions in check. While the process should definitely be enjoyable and exciting, you don’t want to get over-enthused. This can cloud your judgment and impair your ability to look objectively at any given boat.
When you get your first glance at the boat in question take a mental checklist by asking yourself some questions. First and foremost, how does the boat look? Is it clean, or has it been left uncovered and abused? What do the bilges look like? Is the canvas in good shape, or torn and tattered? Open up lockers and stowage areas—are they neat and well-kept or messy and in disarray? How does the bottom look? Are the engines shiny and clean or covered in dirt and grease? These initial visual clues can tell you a lot about how an owner has cared for a boat. Another issue, especially important in used boats, is your access to important parts. A hard-to-reach hose-clamp or wire terminal may be fine for the early years of a boat’s life, and then need replacement or maintenance—right after you buy the boat.
You can also ask the owner some questions that will help you ascertain how the boat was used such as, “How often did you use her last season?” or “When was the last time you had her out?” This can give you an idea if the boat has been sitting unused for an extended period of time, which can lead to problems. Also probe with questions like, “Who maintained the boat?” and “Do you have maintenance records for the engines?” and “Where was the boat stored during the winters?” The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how much or how little TLC the boat has received. And always ask, “Why are you selling the boat?”
All that said, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes used-boat buyers make is passing on a used boat purchase because the vessel is not absolutely perfect. A good example is a buyer who lets an otherwise cherry-condition cabin cruiser go because its cushions need replacing, or because all of its woodwork isn’t in tip-top shape. Used boats are just that—used—and prospective buyers should expect to do some work to make their new acquisition look perfect, inside and out. Remember, you’ll generally enjoy a substantial savings over a new boat by purchasing a used vessel that needs a little care. Maybe you’re considering an old runabout that’s in excellent mechanical and structural shape but will need lots of elbow grease to make the gelcoat gleam. Or perhaps you’ve got your eye on a center-console that’s got dingy brightwork, but has been very well cared for in every other way. Always take into consideration what you’re saving by buying used, and what you’re willing to invest. You’ll often be glad you overlooked a minor cosmetic detail or two for a boat that is in otherwise very good shape.
If a purchase is imminent after the initial examination and sea trial, it’s often a good idea to get a pro involved to assess the condition and value of your potential purchase. The bigger the boat and the more complex its systems, the more important this is.
That’s where a surveyor comes in.
Professional Boat Surveys
A professional surveyor is a person who’s been trained over many years to carefully examine boats and spot hidden problems and defects with a vessel’s structure and systems. They also are qualified to place an estimated market value on the vessel for the purposes of insurance and financing. Prospective buyers can also have the engine(s) surveyed by a qualified engine shop. That said, knowing when to hire a surveyor is often a confusing issue for rookie used-boat buyers.
The cost of a survey will depend on how large the vessel is, as well as how complicated its systems and structures are. For example, a 23-foot open center-console isn’t going to cost you as much to have surveyed as, say, a 34-foot trawler. You can plan on a basic survey costing about $500 to $700, while more a more complex survey can cost as much as $1,000 to $1,500 or more. For that money you’ll get a detailed written report describing the boat’s systems and structures, as well as any defects or problem areas the surveyor finds. The report should also include a reasonable market value.
If you’re borrowing money to buy a used boat or plan to have it fully insured, the decision of whether or not to hire a surveyor will usually be made by your bank or insurance company—or both. The bank wants to make sure its collateral (the boat) isn’t a hunk of junk or overpriced. The insurance company not only needs a value on the boat, but also wants to make sure it isn’t going to sink to the bottom or catch on fire when you take it out for the first time, causing you to file a costly claim.
However, if financing and replacement insurance are not concerns, and you’re confident in your own ability to spot problems and hidden defects or the boat in an “as is, where is” purchase, then you can probably get away without a survey.
Negotiating the Deal
Once you’ve had a survey done, or assessed the condition or value of the boat yourself, you likely know whether or not you’re going to make the purchase. Heck, maybe you knew even before the survey was done. In either case, taking delivery of your previously loved boat is as important as any other step in the process. Before the exchange of money takes place it’s worth giving the boat a final inspection. You’ll want to make sure that any gear that was included in the purchase price is still on board. You’d be surprised how often pieces of essential gear included in the sale go missing at the last minute—think electronics, safety gear, and fishing gear. Next, give the entire boat (and trailer, if included) a close inspection to ensure that no damage has occurred since the vessel was surveyed. Also peek in the bilges, open stowage lockers, and eye the engine(s) to make sure everything is A-OK there, too.
If everything checks out, then it’s time to wrap up any final paperwork and make sure that you’ve secured necessary documents such as title, boat and trailer registration, documentation, maintenance records, warranty papers, etc. No matter the price paid for the boat, always ensure you’ve got a bill of sale; you’ll need it to re-title and register the boat. It’s also handy to have if any sort of dispute arises after the sale.
It’s a Wrap
The only thing left to do is take your new pride and joy home and enjoy it. If you’ve done everything correctly, you’ve got a boat you love and you’ve saved a significant amount of money versus what you’d have spent buying a new boat.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Boat Trader in June 2016, updated in January 2019 and March 2020.
Those who are genuinely interested in boating often struggle to find the right information and resources and can thus be easily misled into thinking that boat ownership is out of their reach. The reality is that far more people can actually afford to buy a boat and enjoy boating than most people think, and that’s just the start of the misinformation. Keep reading to learn the truth behind the biggest boat ownership myths and change the way you think about owning your own vessel.
Scout 530 LXF. Photo by Ryan McVinney.
Myth #1: Only Rich People Own Boats
There are a few issues with this myth, which by the way, is definitely false. While wealthy people certainly do enjoy their toys, they aren’t the only ones who are purchasing, or who can purchase boats. The reality of the matter is that virtually anyone can buy a boat, given the right financial circumstances. There are a number of boats that are affordably priced, with vessels available in all sizes and styles. You certainly can spend a small fortune on a high-end yacht if you want to make sure that you buy the best, but you don’t have to.
The other part of this, which a lot of people don’t realize at first, is that boats can often be financed like vehicles. Thus, even people who can’t afford to purchase a boat outright can still enjoy boat ownership. Since there are models in all price ranges, you will also be able to find payment plans that fit your budget. The fact of the matter is that anyone can afford to own a boat, thanks to the available resources today.
Myth #2: Only People Who Live Near Water Own Boats
A lot of landlocked water and boating enthusiasts get hung up on the fact that they don’t live anywhere close to the waters that they like to enjoy. Therefore, they assume that they can’t (or shouldn’t) buy a boat, since they won’t be using it as frequently and don’t have ready access to the water at all times. Sure, those who live right on the lake (or ocean or river) will probably have more time to spend on their boat without having to travel, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones who should own them.
Boats come with trailers for a reason. Many vessels up to even 50 or 60 feet can be trailered, depending on where you live and if you have the available trailer and vehicle. The other option is to purchase a vessel and pay for it to be docked or stored near the water so that you don’t have to transport it when you want to enjoy the water. Either way, there are plenty of ways to get around the fact that you don’t live right on the water when you are interested in boat ownership and boating as a hobby.
Myth #3: Boat Maintenance and Upkeep is Expensive
Again, this is something that is often perpetuated without a frame of reference. While there are some costs involved in boat ownership, it doesn’t have to be exorbitant. In fact, since you have complete control over the choice of where and how you store your boat, how well it is cared for, and how you use it, you can make sure that you create a low-maintenance situation for yourself if you really want to reduce the expenses related to owning a boat.
A boat is an investment, and you have to think of it that way if you are ever going to justify owning one. There are expenses involved. However, if you take the time to learn about boat ownership and set yourself up well, you can minimize how much you have to spend on your hobby. There are even valuable tips and resources out there to help you use and store your boat in a way that requires less maintenance and upkeep over time, so you really can make it hassle-free and affordable to own a boat.
Myth #4: Old Boats are Money Pits
For those trying to afford a boat, older models might be the ideal solution. Like anything you buy used, you will want to do your research and make sure that you’re buying something that is still in decent condition. There are some older vessels that can become money pits very quickly, but it isn’t a guarantee based on age alone. A lot goes into this, including how well the boat was cared for by its previous owner and what type of condition the vessel is in when you purchase it.
Ultimately, as long as you’re smart about your purchase, you’re not going to buy a “money pit” just by choosing to invest in an older boat.
Myth #5: If I Can Drive a Car, I Can Drive a Boat
While having some driving experience definitely helps, driving a boat is absolutely nothing like driving a car. Aside from the similar steering wheel, cars and boats have very little in common when it comes to operation. Boats, for starters, have no brakes. There are also different rules on the water, including a lack of stop signs and designated driving spaces, so it’s important to take a class on boating before you go out on the water with your vessel.
Driving a boat isn’t difficult, of course. It does take some training and time to get a feel for how the vessel maneuvers in the water. However, as long as you are willing to practice and take advantage of driving courses and other resources to assist you, it will be quite easy to learn to drive a boat safely.
There you have it — five of the biggest boat ownership myths busted. Now that you have the right information, you might change your mind about buying a boat after all. There is a lot more to love about boating for a much wider audience than most people think. Take advantage of that for yourself and see how much fun you can have out on the water.
If you can’t afford a marine surveyor, you need to rely on yourself to perform the sea trial. By the time you get to this stage of the buying process, you should have a pretty good idea what kind of boat it is you’re considering. You just need to confirm your choice—or decide not to buy. But what does a marine surveyor look for? There’s a lot to look for, and it begins before the boat even goes in the water.
To get you started, follow these steps outlined in our basic sea trial checklist.
Sea Trial Checklist
Perform a thorough inspection while the boat is on the trailer.
Check the hardware and trim. Is everything tight?
Are the stowage compartments dry or do they smell moldy and damp?
Look under the engine. Inspect nooks and crannies you can’t normally see.
Use all your senses. Look. Sniff. Touch. Listen.
Do a cold start. Listen for knock on startup and continued valve clatter. A little ticking initially on cold startup is not uncommon, but continued ticking is.
Take it to top speed and see if it does anything odd or unsafe.
Find the cruising speed. Is it fast enough for your needs?
Test its handling by driving the boat through an imaginary slalom test. It should transition from turn to turn as smoothly as your inputs. No snapping or hooking.
Open the hatch and have another look around.
Now, let’s dive back into the details of each step
When the boat is on the trailer, walk around it thumping the sides of the boat with the bottom of your fist. The hull should ring with a solid whump and it should feel firm under your fist. This is particularly important in the transom area, where water intrusion typically appears first.
Look at the condition of the underwater gear. Is the skeg still nicely painted? Is the leading edge still straight and true or is it pocked and jagged from hitting rocks or sandbars? If it is damaged, keep its condition in mind when you shift the boat in and out of gear during the sea trial.
Look at the condition of the bottom of the boat, particularly the keel and the chines. A boat that’s been run around often will have scratches near the keel. A boat that’s been Forrest-Gumped onto its trailer often will show chips around the keel, chines, hullsides and maybe the prow near where the bow is.
While you’re still on dry land, get on board and see and touch everything. Wiggle the grab rails to see if they’re loose. Sit in the pedestal seats to see if they’re still mounted firmly to the sole. Open up all the stowage compartments to be sure all the hinges are still solid. Also, use all your senses.
For example, give those stowage compartments a sniff to check for mold or mildew. Also smell under the engine hatch. You likely will smell gasoline to a certain degree, but anything overpowering could indicate a fuel leak. Get down on your hands and knees and look in places where you wouldn’t normally look. You may discover missing hardware or frayed carpeting or upholstery.
Now for the sea trial, the most important part. The boat should be stone cold when you fire it up for the first time. If the engine’s rotating assembly is going to make any funny noises or exhibit any loose clearances, it will be when it’s cold. Open the hatch so you can hear everything better. Does the starter engage smoothly and quietly? Does the engine rattle or knock when you start it? It should run with little more than a thrum of vibration and the hiss from the flame arrestor atop the engine.
The same goes for outboard-powered boats. Pull the cover off the engine before cold-starting it. Outboard covers have sound insulation on them to keep the interior of the boat quiet, which is great, but they can mask noises you need to hear during a sea trial.
As you back out, notice how the shifter works. Does it engage forward and reverse when the shifter is moved to the detents? Is there any binding or sticking in the shift cables? Not all signs of trouble will be deal-breakers, but paying attention to these details also can help you develop your punch list if you decide to buy it.
When you advance the throttle, notice how difficult or easy it is for the boat to get on plane. Some boats plane out better than others, so now is the time to see if it’s something you can live with every boating day. Once you’re up and cruising, take it top speed. The boat should do that and hold that speed with no trouble. If you’re satisfied with the result, bring it back down to cruising speed—usually 3,500 rpm is a good rule of thumb.
At that speed—in an area where it’s safe to do so—take the boat into right and left turns. Do slalom maneuvers then full circle turns. The boat should hold its line without hooking, washing out or blowing out the prop. If the boat has a stepped bottom, don’t trim it down to do these tests. While you’re doing this listen for cautionary squeaks and rattles.
If you’re satisfied, cruise it back the dock the way you normally would. Once you get back to an idle zone, open the engine hatch and do another full sensory check. Many times an engine that has been warmed to operating temperature will act different from one that is still cold.
Will this procedure keep you from buying a lemon? There is a chance any used boat you buy will need some work not long after you buy it. Using the techniques listed above, you learn a lot about any boat this way. The method not only can expose mechanical foibles and idiosyncrasies, yes, but it also can highlight—perhaps most importantly—whether you like it enough to buy it.
We’ve talked elsewhere about the pros and cons of various boat types —walkarounds, center-consoles, pontoons, and so on — and have said more than once that all boats are compromises. That caveat applies probably most pointedly to tow boats: ski boats and wakeboard boats, and we can now add wake-surf boats to the equation, too.
Tow boats are so purpose-built that it’s practically impossible to use them for anything else. You can fish from a pontoon boat, but not a tow boat. The interiors have become so plush, you wouldn’t want a fish anywhere near them, so it’s automatically a nonstarter. The kicker is that tow boats have become so segmented that they’re often good for only one thing — but they do that thing very well.
Ski boats evolved with three-event ski competitions: slalom, trick, and jump. One boat was good enough for all three because they all depended on the boat’s ability to pull hard from a dead stop and create as small a wake as possible at slalom speeds, usually around 36 mph. Trick skiers preferred a slower speed, but because wakeboarding hadn’t been invented yet, one boat, the direct-drive inboard, could serve all three disciplines.
The direct-drive inboard is still used for slalom skiing and jump, but for anything that involves aerial tricks, the direct drive has been eclipsed by the V-drive. The direct drive still has the most balanced weight distribution of all tow boats, which translates to the flattest wakes and the crispest handling. The drawback today is the same as it has ever been: The engine is in the middle of the boat, which takes up a lot of valuable cockpit space and leaves little room for usable seating. For example, when you’re pulling a skier no one can sit on the rear bench lest they be decapitated by the tow rope. These days, the only people who buy direct drives are the hardest of hardcore skiers who want the flattest wakes possible. Many buyers are willing to give up a little on wake height to get the usable passenger room of a V-drive. For more on all of this, read Tow Boat Powertrains: Direct-Drive vs. V-Drive.
V-drive inboards really boomed with the ascent of wakeboarding as the predominant water sport. Because the weight distribution is rear-biased, they throw a larger wake by default. In the beginning of the wakeboarding craze, that was enough, but things escalated, of course, and companies began selling ballast bags, which held hundreds of gallons of water to add weight to the back of the boat. The OEMs caught on, and now all wakeboard boats have built-in ballast systems from the factory standard, with options for obscene amounts of extra weight.
So the market has evolved quite a bit since its early days, but you’re still looking at the kind of boat that does pretty much only one thing. If you are a hardcore slalom jock, get a direct-drive inboard, but don’t look to bring any more than two people with you on those morning ski runs. If you want a wakeboard boat, you can use it for skiing, but the wakes won’t be as small as a direct drive. If you want to go wake surfing, you can use a wakeboard boat, but boats designed for wake surfing are better. And if it all sounds sort of interesting but you’re not sure which way to go, read Fun Behind the Boat: Which Watersport Works for You?
Perhaps no other segment of the market is as targeted as tow boats. Each does what it does and that’s about it. Buyers need to know that up front and be ready for the high prices these boats command, even in the secondary market.
A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in December 2013.
Boat Trader’s editors were recently asked by InsideHook.com to answer some questions that a first-time boat buyer might ask. The Q/A, with minor adjustments, is reprinted here by permission of InsideHook.
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 lifestyleyou 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 boats.comas the place to research boats, read reviews, and search for dealer-represented boats, YachtWorld for brokered boats, and Boat Trader for used boats for sale by dealers, as well as by private sellers across the U.S. Other places to shop include Soundings Onlineand Craigslist. 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-trialbefore 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. For a step-by-step process that covers both boats and engines, read Boat Prices with NADA Guides on boats.com. Also study the asking prices for boats on yachtworld.com and boattrader.com, 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 ownershipand 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 budgetto 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 planto make your research more methodical and meaningful — and keep you from being dazzled by those acres of shiny gelcoat.
There’s a joke in real estate ads about certain watch words that don’t necessarily mean what the writer wants you to think they mean, but something else altogether. For example, when you see the word “cozy” in an ad for a home for sale, it really means cramped or small. When you read “close to shopping,” it means you can hear traffic noise from the backyard. When you see terms like, “lots of potential,” it means bring a contractor. Or a wrecking ball.
So that got me thinking: there had to be some kind of parallel in ad copy for used boats, right? Now, granted, there’s a tongue-in-cheek slant to this story, but the point is to help clue you in to what might be waiting for you the next time you look at yet another used boat. On the other hand, if you’re in selling mode, maybe this will help you avoid buzz phrases that will make potential buyers wince.
Must see to appreciate! This is probably the least insidious lie someone will tell you in their used-boat ad. It could mean a few things. First, it could mean that the guy didn’t have a decent camera. It also could mean he didn’t bother to detail it before he shot it, but it’ll be cleaned up when you arrive. Or, in the case of a dealer, it could be just a line to lure you onto the lot. These are usually worth considering.
Won’t last long! This is at best a manipulative sales tool, and of course it’s usually wrong. How does the seller know how quickly a boat will sell? He doesn’t, so he makes it up. In scholarly terms, the tactic is based on the scarcity principle: Get yours before they’re gone. Hurry, or you’ll miss out. It’s bogus. Look, if someone is interested in a used boat, it’s because he’s interested in that kind of boat or that brand of boat, not because someone with a fifth-grader’s sales savvy writes “won’t last long” in his ad. Save that line for the mattress sales.
Nicely equipped! This almost always applies to a middle-of-the-road boat. Either that or it comes from someone who didn’t feel like listing all the features it has. The boat it describes is not bare bones. It’s not high end. It’s just, well, meh. But sometimes meh is where the deals are.
Priced to sell! More often than not, this means the owner isn’t going to budge much on the price, if at all. It also could be baloney. Check prices on the same models for sale by other people in other areas if you have to. Just because this guy’s telling you the price is good doesn’t mean it is.
Great on gas! Wrong. It’s a boat, which means fuel consumption is measured in gallons per hour, not miles per gallon. Why? Because measuring a boat’s fuel consumption in miles per gallon is depressing. There’s only one marine engine that’s “great on gas” and it flows from areas of high atmospheric pressure to areas of low pressure. It’s called wind, and sailors have been taking advantage of it for centuries. If you’re looking for fuel economy, buy a Prius. Don’t look for fuel economy in a powerboat, because the term “fuel-efficient boat” is an oxymoron.
Call for price! In most cases it means overpriced. Or expensive. Or if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. It means if I list the price, you’ll skip over this ad faster than a Beetle Bailey cartoon strip. If you have the means, there’s nothing to be afraid of, but don’t go sniffing for deals here.
Custom paint! Be wary of this in boat ads, because there’s no middle ground here. It either means someone paid a capable artist to custom-paint his boat, or it means, “My neighbor Cletus owns a paint gun and a compressor.” Look, there are so few people out there with the equipment and skills to apply a decent paint job that this terminology in a used-boat ad is cause for alarm. The one giveaway that signals it might be a decent application is when they list how much they paid for the paint job, because good painters are also artists and they aren’t cheap. Nor should they be.
Rebuilt engine! This often means “My neighbor Cletus also rebuilds engines.” Unless the ad mentions who rebuilt the engine, this phrase should raise flags in your mind. If it just says “rebuilt engine,” lord only knows who did the work. If it says, Crusader-rebuilt engine, you might have stumbled onto something viable and worth looking at.
Never registered! This invariably means that this boat was so disastrously unappealing that even three years after it was manufactured, not one person who set foot on that dealer’s lot in that time frame thought enough of it to buy it. It also means you might be able to get it for a great price, which can make even the homeliest of boats seem desirable. All the girls are prettier at closing time.
Low hours! This either means the rings are stuck from disuse or that someone thought they would use the boat more often than they did. Now, low hours is usually a relative term. Figure 50 hours per season. More if you live in Florida. Low hours on an old boat is still going to be a lot of hours on the powertrain, and a low price might not save you enough to get your neighbor Cletus to rebuild it for you. Low hours on a boat that’s only a few years old is probably worth a look. And they usually don’t last long.
Must sell! Hurry up, the repo man’s coming. There can be genuine bargains to be found behind such claims. There also can be headaches and psychos that make Craigslist look like a MENSA convention. If you’re interested in the boat, these ads are always worth checking out. Sometimes, even if it isn’t a boat you’re into, these ads might lead to good candidates for flip sales.
Super clean! Fastidious boat owners are good to find, especially when you’re buying their used boat. They’re not so great to sell to. Picky, picky, picky. But to buy from, they are aces. They are not, however, highly flexible on price. They know their boat’s clean. You know their boat’s clean. That’s worth a bit extra. You both know that, too.
I know there are more, but I’ve got a lead on a super clean used walkaround the next town over. The price isn’t listed, but I’m sure it won’t last long.
This article originally appeared on Boat Trader in September 2012.
I hate to break this to you, but every used boat has problems that its owner wishes weren’t there, maybe something innocuous like a stain on the snap-in carpeting, or a tear in the bimini, or a gouge on the bottom. It also could be something major, like engine damage from a hurricane, or a rotten deck core.
Whatever the issues, your goal as a used-boat shopper is to do your research online and, if all goes well, on the boat itself, to get the best deal you can. You may need to hire a surveyor to help you, or at least become familiar with what problems a surveyor would look for. Remember that in most cases sellers and buyers don’t cross paths again, so be friendly but firm. Make it clear what you want and expect, and be prepared to walk away if the seller can’t or won’t meet you where you want. The bottom line is price, because a boat that needs a few repairs — or major repairs — is still a good deal if you know what’s wrong and you paid the right price for it.
Here are some online resources that will help you when it comes to determining price ranges for boats you’re looking at. Get a feel for how these resources work, practice using them a bit, and they’ll be powerful allies when it comes time to make your offer.
Price Checker on BoatTrader.com BoatTrader.com has a function called Price Checker. It allows you to plug in the model year range and the size of the boat you’re looking for, then see listings for all the boats within those parameters listed.
Be specific, because the Price Checker function allows you to check all listings within a specific distance from the zip code in which you live. I like to seek out listings from “any distance” away. That gives you a broader cross-section of prices, including the lower prices you’re going to use to negotiate a better price on the one that’s close to your home.
NADA Guides The National Automobile Dealers Association maintains a database of used boat values. I didn’t expect much because that organization’s focus isn’t the marine industry, but the way it works is pretty impressive. You search by manufacturer. The site has two lists, one with the most prominent boat builders and one with the “full list,” which includes boat companies that are no longer in business.
Click the manufacturer and it brings up a list of models. Click the model and it takes you to another page with all the options, starting with the engine. After that, you get the option to get a price summary or add in the trailer model year, number of axles, and length. It even has a subset of trailer options, too. Once you enter all that information, you get three prices — list, low and average retail. The site isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it does go a long way toward arming you with more information about the used boat you seek.
Also read Used Boat Prices With NADA Guides, an article on boats.com that gives you a step-by-step method for assessing prices using the guides. It’s especially helpful if you’re looking at an outboard-powered boat, because the engine(s) on it have to be priced separately and then added to the totals in the range. It even has advice about the accuracy of the guides themselves, and how boats may be priced differently according to region.
American Boating Association Online The American Boating Association has an online value calculator. Alert readers will note that the ABA has partnered with NADA, so the system works essentially the same as NADA’s system, but it’s presented in a slightly different way.
It’s no easier or more difficult to use than the NADA site, but it is somehow comforting to be working with a boating organization instead of car dealers. It was interesting that the ABA website did not accept trailer information as part of the calculations to establish value. I entered the same boat in NADA and ABA and they turned up the same information. When I added a trailer on the NADA site, it didn’t bump the boat’s value. It just added the value of the trailer to value of the boat and added them together for you, which is nice.
BoatUS Value Check If you’re a BoatUS member, the organization offers Boat Value Check on its website. I’d love to tell you how it works, but my membership lapsed a few years ago and I haven’t gotten around to re-upping. Anyway, the estimates are based primarily on the purchase histories of similar vessels that are recording in the association’s Marine Insurance Department database. BoatUS also takes input from its staff and other industry sources.
The neat thing is that they are not automated. An actual person fulfills your request. Normal response time is one day, but it can take as many as three or four days.
Boatfax.comLike Carfax.com, Boatfax.com lets you check the history of a given boat. Carfax still doesn’t catch every little incident, and I suspect boatfax.com isn’t infallible, but it’s a pretty cool service, and it’s free.
Boatfax actually lets you enter a boat’s HIN to establish a value. You also can enter year, make, and model and get a quote. Boatfax.com prices were within $500 dollars of all the values given by other sites, so they’re either all colluding or there is a genuine consistency that will help you make better decisions.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Boat Trader in June 2014.