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Beginner's Boat Buying Guide

Beginner's Boat Buying Guide

So, you are thinking about buying your first boat, but you don’t know where to start.  You could just walk into a dealership and talk to a salesperson, but for some reason you think it would feel like the equivalency of being fresh meat in a lion’s den.  There are so many options to choose from and things to think about.  Do you want a sail boat or a power boat?  New or used?  Cabin or no cabin?  How much is this going to cost me?  How much am I willing to spend?  Well you have come to the right place.  Let’s take a bit of time to explore the options that are available when purchasing your first boat and some of the things that you should consider.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to look at the following considerations when purchasing your first boat:

-Budget and financing

-Used vs. New



-Getting acclimated

I am going to assume that if you are buying your very first boat, it is not going to be a large yacht (although I have seen it done before).  Because of that, the discussions in this article will revolve around boats that are in the 32 foot and below size range; however, if you are looking for a larger boat most of the things in this article will still apply.

Budget and Financing

The first thing that you need to do before you start looking at boats is decide how much you can spend.  Some people are not comfortable with obtaining a loan to purchase something such as a boat and others are okay with it.  You need to decide what is best for you and what your limits are.  How much you can spend will definitely have an effect on what type of boat and how much boat you can purchase.  Below are some options to consider:
Establish a budget and financing plan before you start looking.

1.       Cash – For many, this is the best way to go and the easiest.  You have been putting cash away for a while and you know how much you have to spend which makes shopping easy as long as you stick to your plan.


You are not bound to a monthly payment and you never will be “upside down” in your boat if you decide to move up to a larger one.


May deplete your cash reserves depending on how much you end up spending.

2.       Boat Loan – This is just like a car loan.  The boat serves as collateral, with the loan and payments set up at a certain amount for a certain number of months.

You don’t have to come up with all the cash up front.  
It typically will have a low interest rate than a personal loan.  
The interest may be tax deductible if the boat meets the qualifications as a second home.  
You might be able to buy more boat than what you could if you used cash only. 

You are locked into monthly payments until the boat is paid off and paying interest means you are ultimately paying more for the boat. 

3.       Personal Loan – With this type of loan, the boat is not used as collateral for the loan.  This is often what is done if you don’t have the cash on hand and you are buying an older vessel, because most marine lenders have a maximum age for a boat that can be used as collateral. 

Allows you to purchase an older boat and spend less money than a typical boat loan. 

Typically will have a higher interest rate than a boat loan and the interest is not tax deductible.  
You are locked into monthly payments until the loan is paid off.

In addition to the purchase of the boat itself, there are a few other things that you may need to consider in your budget: 

Storage – Where will the boat be kept?  Will you need to rent a storage or dock space at a marina?

Tow Vehicle – If you are going to tow your boat, do you currently have a vehicle that can do the job or will you have to buy one?

Insurance – Don’t try to save money here.  On more than one occasion I have heard of incidents where a boat sank or was damaged due to a storm, or other event, and the owner did not have insurance.  Make sure this is in your budget. 

Equipment and Maintenance – You will need more than just the boat.  You will need equipment such as an anchor, dock lines, fenders, life preservers etc.  Some dealers will include these with the boat when you purchase it but if not, you will have to buy it yourself.  There will also be typical maintenance items such as oil changes and cleaning.  Consider reducing costs by doing some of the maintenance tasks yourself. 

Should I Buy a Used Boat or a New Boat?

One of the biggest questions that prospective first time boat owners have is whether they should buy a new boat or a used boat.  This is somewhat like deciding whether to buy a used car versus a new car.  A new boat is just that.  It is new and should be free of problems.  If there are any, they are covered by a warranty.  A used boat will cost you much less money, but the condition will depend on how well the previous owner took care of it. 

I’ll be honest, when I purchased my first boat I bought it brand new.  One of the reasons why I did this was because it was my first boat.  At the time, I didn’t feel like I was ready to take on the potential risks of buying a used boat.  Now, I am comfortable saying that it was the last new boat I will ever buy.  I’m not saying having a new boat was a bad experience, but now I am much more comfortable with boat ownership.  I am now well aware of the financial differences between purchasing new and purchasing pre-owned boats. 

My current boat was 28 years old when I bought it and I have now had it for three years.  Everything on the boat works perfectly. Plus, I paid a fraction of what I would have paid for a new boat of similar size and similar features.  The previous owner took exceptional care of it and it was a no brainer for me.  But, my great experience doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing a used boat is the right decision for you.  Let’s take a look at some of the differences between buying new vs. buying used:

1.       Price – Again, this is obvious.  The older the boat is, the more it drops in value (unless it is something rare and considered a collector’s item).  You can save a significant amount of money by purchasing a boat that is just a few years old if you do your homework.

2.       Styling – There will be a difference in the look and feel of a new boat versus an older one.  Color schemes, the lines of the hull, the layout of the deck and the layout of the cabin are all things that will most likely be different.  You may find that you prefer one over the other.  I suggest making it a point to look at boats of all ages to see if you have a preference. 

3.       Technology – A brand new boat is going to have the newest technology built in.  Whether it is the design of the hull, the electronics or the engines, you will have the opportunity to get the best that current marine technology has to offer.  What does that mean to you?  The benefits can differ from a more modern look, more user friendly controls or more efficient engines. 

4.       Size – This may sound a bit confusing because isn’t a 30 foot boat a 30 foot boat, regardless of the age?  Unfortunately, not exactly.  You can pick a brand new boat of a particular make and model today and compare it with the same make and model boat from 15 or 20 years ago and there is a difference.  The newer boats have shrunk.  Does that mean that a Sea Ray 340 Sundancer built in the early 90’s is bigger than one built within the past couple of years?  Yes, that is exactly what it means.  Not only is overall length less, but so is the beam (width) in many cases.  And no, it is not just a Sea Ray thing.  This has happened with all manufacturers. 

5.       Warranty – As mentioned before, a new boat will come with a manufacturer’s warranty.  If something goes wrong during the warranty period then you have the warranty to fall back on.  Most previously owned boats are old enough to where the manufacturer’s warranty has expired and any issues that arise will have to be paid for out of pocket.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Keep in mind.  You are paying a lot less for a previously owned boat than you would for a new one.  Even if you had a bit of bad luck, you are still probably coming out of your pocket a lot less than with a new purchase.  However, the key to making a used purchase is to do your homework and make sure you purchase a boat that has been well maintained.  

Tips for Buying New

If you have decided that you are going to buy a new boat, here are some tips:

1.       Don’t be in a hurry.  Take your time and do your homework.  Learn what your options are, and what various dealers charge for the boat.  You don’t have to take the offer made by the dealer down the road from you if you are not comfortable with it.  There is another place where you can get the boat that is right for you.

2.       You can special order your boat with the specific options that you want, but it will probably cost a bit more than buying one that the dealer already has in stock.  Keep in mind, there are many options that you can add later. 

3.       Negotiate.  The dealer wants to sell you a boat just as much as you want to buy it and profit margins are higher on boats than they are on cars.  They do have room to negotiate.  What you are hoping you could buy the boat for may not really be that ridiculous.  Don’t be afraid to make an offer that is well below the listed price.  You just might get the deal.

4.       If you just spent tens (or maybe hundreds) of thousands of dollars on a new boat, get the dealer to do something for you.  Get free dock lines, free fenders and maybe a full tank of fuel.  Get something.

5.       Fall and winter are good times to negotiate on a new boat because sales are quiet.  This gives you the upper hand.  Take advantage of it.  Many boat shows are planned for the winter months and they can offer significant discounts.  Even if you don’t buy at the boat show, it is an excellent opportunity to learn about available options.

Tips for Buying Used

If buying used is more your style, consider these tips below:

1.       Again, Don’t be in a hurry.  Take your time. There are a lot of used boats on the market of various types and sizes.  Searching online is a great way to start getting an idea of what is out there and what the prices are like.

2.       If you have identified a particular make and model that you are like, do your research.  What reputation does it have?  Are there any known issues?  What do current owners think about the boat?

3.       If you live near any marinas and you have access to them, walk the docks and look for boats for sale.  Many boats for sale are not listed online.  If you see a boat that has clearly been neglected, maybe the owner is interested in selling it.  Leave your card and maybe you will get a call back and strike a deal.  Be aware that with this type of situation, the boat may need some TLC before it is ready for boating season so keep the repair costs in mind when you negotiate your price. 

4.       Once you have chosen the boat you want to buy, have it surveyed by a qualified marine surveyor before you sign on the dotted line.  This will cost money (the amount usually depends on the size and type of boat), but you will know the exact condition of the boat before buying it.  The results of marine surveys can also be used in the negotiation of the final price. 

5.       Ask if the boat has been used in salt water.  Salt water boats require more care and maintenance because of the corrosive nature of the salt water environment.  If you are buying a boat that came from such an environment, you can expect that some components will need to be repaired or replaced shortly after the purchase.  Keep this in mind when negotiating your price.  If you have the boat surveyed, the corroded components should be on the report. 

6.       How much has the boat been used?  When buying a car, we look at how many miles are on the car.  When buying a boat, we look at how many hours are on the engines (and generator, if equipped).  Marine gasoline engines can easily last 2,000 hours or maybe more if well maintained.  Diesel engines will last much longer.  Don’t just look at the hours though.  Compare the hours to the age of the boat.  At first glance, one may think that a boat with only 50 hours on the engines is great.  But if the boat is 10 years old, I would be concerned that it might have been neglected because clearly it did not get much use.  One of the worst things you can do to a boat is not to use it.

7.       Hold out for a fantastic deal.  For me, a boat is essential to my mental health and is therefore a necessity.  For others, it is a luxury item or maybe a status symbol.  When life gets busy or financial situations change, sometimes the first thing to go is the boat.  A busy lifestyle can mean that all of a sudden a boat is left sitting at the dock or on the trailer for long periods between uses.  The unfortunate loss of a job or another negative change in finances could mean that expenses need to be cut and the boat needs to be sold quickly.  In either case, this could be a benefit to anyone who is interested in buying one.  Just on my dock alone, I can say that there are easily 5 boats that either have not been used at all or have been used very little in the past year.  Boats like this can end up being a perfect match for a buyer who is looking for a good deal and is not afraid to spend a little time sprucing it up.

Types of Boats

Another big question that new boat shoppers may have is what type of boat they should get.  There are several different styles and layouts with each one having their own advantages and disadvantages.  If you have not spent much time boating, it can get confusing in a hurry.  I personally know a couple that purchased three boats in less than two years, each of them being a different type; because, after owning each one for a while they decided that they wanted a different type of boat.  If you have boating friends or family members, see if you can spend some time on the water with them to help you get an idea of what the lifestyle is like and get to know some of the different models and features.  Ultimately, how you want to spend your time on the water should determine what type of boat is the best for you.  Going to a boat show is also a fantastic way to see a variety of boats that are offered on the market today. 

Meanwhile, here are some examples of different types of boats for you to consider:

Sailboat – Most of the new boats sold today are power boats, but sailboats still make a big percentage of the boats on the water and there are several types of sailboats available.  Operating a sailboat is different than operating a powerboat.  It is more work and requires more skill.  I have found that most sail boat owners would not trade it for a powerboat and even though I am primarily a power boater, I have learned to appreciate the serenity and artistry that goes along with sailing.  There is a concept that says, “When you get on a power boat, you are headed to some destination.  When you get on a sailboat, you are at your destination.”  Sail boaters tend to enjoy the process of sailing more as opposed to a destination that they are headed towards.
Sailboats require more skill and effort but make for an enjoyable time on the water

Fuel costs are almost non-existent.  
Good option for those who enjoy developing their sailing skills and just being on the water.

Not all bodies of water are good for sailing.
A sailboat is not as easy to trailer as a similar sized powerboat because of the mast.

Center Console – While a center console can be used for various things, they are designed primarily for fishing.  They come in different sizes and their design allows anglers to easily walk around the perimeter of the vessel with ease which makes reeling in that “trophy fish” more manageable.
Center console boats are specifically laid out for fishing.

Perfect if fishing is your reason for being on the water. 
Either they will come equipped with the fishing features you need or will have a design that makes the features easy to install.

Its primary design doesn’t lean towards carrying passengers so its capacity may not be as high as other boats of a similar size.

Ski/Wakeboard Boat – These boats are for exactly what their name implies.  They are designed to be well balanced to create the perfect surface conditions for water skiing.  Many also have the ability to modify the wake for wakeboarding as well.  

These boats are perfect for watersports but have limited space.

The perfect boat for water sports.

Can be pricey depending on the make and model and they do not perform well in rough water.

Bow Rider – This is one of the most versatile styles of boats and they come in many sizes.  It is a basic design that can be used for anything from fishing to watersports or just riding on the water.  It is a very popular style of boat for families.  

Bow riders are very versatile and can be used for all types of activities on the water.

Its versatility allows use for multiple activities.
Most of them are easily towed by a pickup truck or family SUV.

Some features that might be needed for a full day on the water, e.g. a head (that’s a bathroom for you land lubbers), are only available on high end models.

Pontoon Boat – Pontoon boats have become very popular in recent years, mostly because their design allows for increased roominess.  Manufacturers have also started making them more attractive with styling and engine options.  They come in various sizes and are perfect boats for taking a group of people out on the water.  

Pontoon boats have lots of seating space for their size.

Can seat more people than other similar sized boats.
They are easy to drive.

Does not perform well in rough water and has limited versatility. 
Some features that might be needed for a full day on the water (such as a head or refrigerator) are only available on high end models.   

Cabin Cruiser – Cabin Cruisers are popular because they can provide many of the comforts of home while you are on the water.  Your typical cruiser will have a head, a galley and a berth for sleeping.  Depending on the size, it may also have features such as temperature control, a television, a shower, or even an oven.  Some larger and more expensive models offer a washer and dryer.  

Cruisers can be like a home away from home.

Much more comfortable than other types of boats. 
Provides a means to spend multiple days on the water at a time.  

If purchased with a loan, the interest may be deductible since it may qualify as a second home.

Typically uses more fuel than other types of boats. 
Larger models cannot be towed by standard vehicles.

Boat Features

Even when comparing boats of a similar type, you often will have to make a decision on which one is the right one for you based on the features that each one offers.  Here are some common features that you may find on some boats:

Chart Plotter – A combination GPS and electronic chart that can be used for navigation on the water.  Even if a boat does not come with a chart plotter, one can be added later.  Today, many boaters are electing to install an android tablet or iPad with the Navionics app instead of a chart plotter.
A chart plotter allows you to navigate even in limited visibility

Depth Finder – A sensor installed in the hull that connects to a display on the dash and indicates the depth of the water.  This is very important, because running in water that is too shallow can result in running aground and damaging the boat.  Depth finders can be installed on a boat if the boat is not equipped with one.

Radar – Some larger cabin cruisers may come equipped with radar which allows you to determine boat traffic and other hazards on the water if your vision is limited by darkness or inclement weather conditions.

Radar Arch – An arch installed high across the beam of a boat originally designed for the installation of a radar array, but it can also be used to mount other features such as antennas and navigation lights.

Windlass – An electric winch that is typically placed on larger boats for deploying and retrieving the anchor.  While it is easier to have a windlass pre-installed on a boat, it can be installed at a later date.  If you don’t have a windlass, you will just have to retrieve the anchor manually.

A windlass makes setting and retrieving an anchor much easier.

Live Well – This is a feature found on many fishing boats.  It is a water tank onboard the boat that allows you to keep bait alive and fresh until it is time for use.

Trim Tabs – Tabs that extend from the stern of the boat and can be controlled from the helm to adjust the ride of the vessel in rough water or whenever the boat has an uneven load.  They are best when installed by the manufacturer, but you have the option of adding them at a later time.  Trim tabs are practically a must on cabin cruisers.

Trim tabs allow the operator to more easily control how the boat rides.

Generator/Inverter – On boats that have AC powered features such as microwaves, air conditioning or televisions, a generator or an inverter is an alternative way of providing you AC power whenever you are not plugged into the shore power at the dock.  While it is possible to have an inverter or generator added at a later date (provided there is space), it is much easier and less expensive to have the manufacturer do it for you.

Marine VHF Radio – This is equivalent to a CB radio for boaters.  It allows you to communicate with other boaters and emergency personnel on the water without the need for there to be any cell towers or other communication infrastructure in the area.  These come in handheld and dash mounted versions and can be added to a boat at any time.

Camper Top/Canvas – Many boats come with a bimini top or hard top to provide some type of shade while out on the water.  If you plan to boat in the cooler months, you may want to also have a camper top.  A camper top is a full enclosure for the deck of the boat which will protect you from the cold, wind and/or rain when the weather is not necessarily perfect.  It is typically best to purchase this with the boat, as getting one made for the boat later can cost several thousand dollars depending on the size and configuration of the boat.

A camper top is an effective way to protect your guests from the weather when on deck.

Getting to Know Your Boat

Once you have made a purchase, it is now time to start enjoying it.  Since this is your first boat, there are some things that you will need to learn.  The most important thing here is to take your time and enjoy the process.  If you purchased your boat from a dealer, check to see if they offer a delivery orientation service to help you get to know your boat.  If you purchased the boat from a private individual, they may be able to spend a bit of time with you as well. 

Remember, boats do not handle the same way that cars do and you will have to get used to it.  They steer from the rear and not the front.  They have no brakes, and backing into a slip is a lot more challenging than backing a car into a parking space.  In addition, things such as wind and current will affect the way your boat moves in the water.  This is not to make it seem like a daunting task, but it can be a bit of a challenge.  It may be a good idea to have an experienced person come and spend time with you so you can learn how to drive and maintain your new boat.  America’s Boating Club has squadrons across the country with many of them providing courses on boat handling and practically all of them offering boating safety courses.  To find the nearest one to you, visit their website at

Finally, do not be afraid to ask questions.  One of the things that I have learned is that boaters are some of the friendliest people.  We are more than willing to assist someone, especially a new boater.  If you are not sure of something, most likely there will be someone that will be more than willing to answer your question.

Boating is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling activities that you can undertake.  If you have just purchased or are about to purchase your first boat, you are about to embark on one of the most fantastic journeys of your life.  Enjoy it, and don’t forget to share the good times with others.

Happy Boating

Captain Frank

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