Boat Buyer's Guide
The first step in the boat-buying process is also the most important—determining exactly what type of craft will best fit the needs and wants of both yourself and those you plan to bring along for the ride. Those needs and wants are typically determined by what type of activities you want to pursue on the water. Active types may desire to tube, ski, wakesurf and wakeboard, while others may long to indulge their passion for fishing or sailing. Social butterflies may prioritize entertaining friends, while others may prefer to instead escape for the weekend on a boat with overnight accommodations.
Think about the reasons you want to be on the water…and then narrow your choices accordingly. Our Boat Finder Tool can help with this. You may also be interested in learning more upfront about the overall costs of boat ownership.
Before we dive into the details, let's breakdown the process of how to buy a boat step-by-step...
- Choose the right boat type for your needs.
- Decide if you'd like to buy a new or used boat.
- Ensure the boat you're buying is a certified boat.
- Determine how much boat you can afford—our boat loan calculator can help.
- Research information about boat financing and how to get a boat loan.
- Shop for your boat—figure out where and when to buy.
- Learn more about boat values and pricing, including how to negotiate your purchase.
- Conduct a sea trial and a marine survey.
- Close the deal—find out more about boat registration, insurance and taxes.
Before You Buy
Now that you have decided to embrace the boating lifestyle, you'll want to establish a budget so you can start building and prioritizing your wish list. That budget will likely be a key factor in the decision to buy a new or pre-owned boat. Either way, the considerations for size and type of boat will be the same.
When it comes to determining the right size for your boat, there are a number of factors to consider:
- People: How many people will you regularly have on board? Will you host just your immediate family or will you bring extended family and friends?
- Towing: If you are trailering your boat, keep in mind that the size of boat will directly impact the size of the vehicle needed to tow it.
- Location: Think about where you’ll be using the boat. If you’re planning to boat on larger waterways, then a slightly larger boat with a deeper hull might make more sense. Smaller waterways or shallow water might require a smaller vessel.
- Storage: If you are storing your boat at the marina, boat size will likely impact monthly storage costs. If you are storing it at your personal dock, what space constraints already exist? You’ll also want to talk to your dealer or marina manager about the potential need for winter storage.
You’ll want to consider how your boat will be used. If you will be spending your time primarily on a singular activity, such as fishing or wakeboarding, then a fishing- or watersports-specific boat might make the most sense. These boats will be equipped with the features to support the activity, like rod holders and tackle storage or a wake tower and board racks. If you will be cruising or enjoying a variety of recreational activities, then a boat with more versatility and extra storage would suite your needs.
If you're still unsure, use the Boat Finder Tool to find right boat type for you.
Boating is more affordable than you think. With an idea of the type of boat you want to purchase, narrow things further with several practical considerations that can help you set your budget.
Setting Your Budget
Boats are an investment, and come with added costs like fuel, maintenance, storage, and insurance. Be realistic about what you can afford, not just in the showroom on the day of purchase but also over the years you plan to enjoy your craft.
A new boat has both factory freshness and a warranty; a pre-owned craft may need to be checked out more thoroughly, but allow you to stretch your budget. If you consider all of the weekend activities and vacation expenses a small family can incur throughout the year, boat ownership is quite comparable—especially when you realize that a brand-new entry-level boat can easily be had for $250 to $300 per month. To get a little more boat for the budget, you might also consider buying a pre-owned boat.
As you get closer to narrowing down what kind of boat you want to buy, ask yourself several questions:
- Will you be purchasing the craft outright or require financing? If the latter, look into interest rates and consider getting pre-qualified for a loan.
- Will you be purchasing new or pre-owned? A new craft will come with the peace of mind provided by a warranty, but a pre-owned model should ideally be checked out first by a mechanic or marine surveyor.
- What else will you need? Insurance, dockage or storage, a trailer and any must-have accessories should all be part of your final checklist.
Financing Your Boat
Financing the purchase of a boat allows for lower monthly payments that are easier to manage for many first-time buyers. There are many options when financing a boat, but your best bet is to finance with a boat dealer or a marine lender.
A dealer wants to make your buying process as easy as possible. One way they do this is by offering finance options in-house. Many dealers employ financial specialists, whose job is to help you with everything from completing a loan application to closing and licensing your new boat. Others rely on outside agencies to perform these tasks just as seamlessly, or they might refer you to a qualified marine broker.
- Marine Lenders: the National Marine Lenders Association, a national organization of marine lending specialists that understands the boat business. Since member banks and credit unions have made boat loans a key part of their business, they can provide competitive, low-hassle financing options and connect you with additional resources like surveyors and insurance companies.
- Home Equity: Depending on your mortgage situation, you might consider taking advantage of your home’s value with a home-equity loan or second mortgage to finance a boat purchase.
If you already have a good relationship with a local bank, you might prefer to explore loan options with a banker who is familiar with your financial health. Keep in mind that not all branches have experience with marine lending. They might be more cautious about a used boat’s condition or might not offer as favorable terms as a lender that has made boat financing a central part of its business.
To learn more, be sure to read Boat Financing: Helpful Information for Boat Buyers, and take a look at our guide on How to Get a Boat Loan.
With a boat and budget in mind, it's time to start the shopping process. Start with a general online search of boat types, then hone in on individual models through manufacturers websites, dealerships, online reviews, and forums. Don’t just rely on the keyboard. You may also have friends or acquaintances with similar types of boats or who enjoy similar activities. Ask them their experiences, and use their firsthand knowledge to your advantage.
For many boat buyers, it's important to be able to feel, touch, and see the boat that they are purchasing. Working with a dealer can help make the buying process easy and simple.
While you’re comparing boats, don’t forget to compare boat dealers. The quality and location of the dealership is an important part of your boat-buying and ownership experience. For tips on how to identify dealers who are more likely to provide a positive buying experience, visit our Certified Dealers guide.
Once you narrow down your search and are seriously considering one particular boat, it’s important to have a thorough inspection of other major components such as the engine, propeller, bilge (inside a boat’s hull), steering system, electrical systems and fuel tank.
Take a test drive or sea trial. Think long term—the boat you test with just two people may handle much differently with a full complement of family and friends. Likewise, that horsepower that seems adequate in a simple trial may not fit the bill down the road.
If you aren’t confident in your technical knowledge, you can enlist the help of an independent marine surveyor. Very similar to a home inspector, a surveyor will inspect the boat from top to bottom and inside out so you know exactly what condition the boat is in.
What to Look for in Your Boat Inspection
Earlier in your search, here are some simple items that you can review on a new boat to give you an indication of the overall condition of the boat:
- Turn it all on! Make sure all lights, gauges and electronics are in working order.
- Run the engine at full throttle underway to be sure it gets within the manufacturer’s maximum rpm range (get this online or from brochures). Under- or over-revving could mean the wrong prop was installed, which can lead to excessive engine wear.
- Open all lockers and hatches. Check that all hatches, stowage, and cabinets are securely installed and have a tight fit. Look for loose screws and sloppy gluing or fiberglass work.
- Tap the canvas. All tops and side curtains should be tight enough to bounce a quarter. There should be no gaps where spray or rain can get in. Zippers should have "hoods": overlaps that keep water out.
- Review the galley (kitchen) appliances. Microwaves, refrigerators, freezers and dishwashers can come loose while the boat is underway if not properly secured. Look for bolted and backed mounts.
What to Look for When Buying a Used Boat
When purchasing a used boat, there are additional factors you'll want to be aware of so you can perform a thorough inspection.
- Take a walk around the hull. Look for any bumps, blisters or cracks. Any open cracks will need repair before the boat is back on the water. Blisters in the gelcoat can worsen quickly and be expensive to repair.
- Check the floor and storage compartments for rot and mildew. They can be indications of leaks and water damage.
- Give the upholstery a once-over. If you can see green algae around the seams, that’s a good indication the cushions are full of it.
- Look at the wiring. Bare wires and connections held together with electrical tape are a bad sign. Also, check under the dash and around the engine for any corrosion.
- Ask for copies of the boat’s maintenance and storage history. Regular maintenance is a good indication of the boat’s overall condition, and knowing that it was stored in a dry dock a large portion of its life means it was likely spared from any harsh weather.
When it comes to the purchase process, there is more to know than the list price and features of a boat.
Not unlike car buying, there are often a few additional costs not listed on the sticker price. Dealer fees, insurance, registration, accessories, storage and upkeep should all be discussed with the dealer early in your shopping to determine the full cost of boat ownership and to avoid surprises later. Use our Affordability Guide to help understand the total cost of ownership.
Bells and Whistles
Ask about accessories. Some gear, such as a safety kit, is often included with the purchase of the boat, while other activity-specific accessories might need to be added on to your purchase.
Delivery and Ownership
Find out what to expect after you sign on the dotted line. What is the delivery process? You’ll want a thorough review of the boat’s systems before taking the keys so you have the confidence to operate your boat from day one. You should also ask about the procedure for scheduling maintenance or repairs with the dealer’s shop when the time comes. Get a head start by learning more about the first year of maintenance.
And before you depart on your first outing, find out where you can take a boater-education course. Learning basic seamanship skills and absorbing some local knowledge will give you a greater confidence level once you hit the water. Completion of boater-education courses might also get you a discount on your insurance.
Finally, it's time to enjoy your purchase. Get out on the water and have fun, not just in the immediate future but in the months and years to follow. One key component of that fun is regular maintenance to keep your boat in tiptop running condition, from a regular wash and wax to scheduled maintenance. Another is to expand your boating knowledge, whether through one of many fun programs offered by local dealers or an online resource.
Ignite a lifelong passion for boating…and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Learning the Ropes
In 41 U.S. States and Canada, yes you need a license, or at least some formal education. In many instances, you can be "grandfathered in" if you are of a certain age and can prove you completed a boater-safety course in the past. If not, you must take a boater-safety course. These are offered in a variety of settings, including online, by organizations such as the United States Coast Guard Auxiliaryand the United States Power Squadrons.
In many cases, completion of a boater-safety course can result in discounted boat insurance.
Experience. New boaters need to start off slowly and expand their range of operation as they gain experience. Operating a boat is very little like operating a car.
For example, there are no painted lines on the water, and buoys serve a different purpose than traffic signals. But, by attending a boater-safety course, boaters can gain understanding of navigation aids.
Then there is the water. The height under bridges and overpasses changes constantly with the stage of the tide — sometimes you can fit under and other times you cannot. This type of knowledge is localized, and learned best by boaters who go out slowly at first, increasing their range of boating over time.
The surface of the water is bumpy and can change from hour to hour; this too takes some time on the water to predict. But, with time, boaters come to understand how much wind, and from what direction, affects their waterway adversely.
There are charts published and inexpensive marine electronics that show the depth of water one is operating in and any hazards, such as underwater rocks, stumps, shell banks and sandbars. It’s prudent for boaters to purchase and understand the use of charts and marine electronics.
Current and wind can confound new boaters who are not prepared for them, especially while docking. But those boaters who proactively seek out knowledge of these forces and practice maneuvering can catch on quite readily. Operating a boat requires the gaining of experience — but that experience comes from going boating, so it’s all good!
Truly motivated boaters jump-start their learning. There are good books on the subject of boat handling, and many expert magazine articles, such as the monthly Seamanship column in Boating magazine, that one can refer to.
As you would expect, taking a boater-safety course is a great idea and will up your safety and enjoyment of all aspects of boating. Professional captains can also be hired, if one desires, and there are many schools that teach boat handling on the water. Needless to say, nothing beats the firsthand learning gained by taking the helm!
Many boaters store their boat on their own property. If they own a trailer, the trailer serves as the storage bed. If there is no trailer, a hauling service can be hired to place a boat on blocks and stands on your property in fall, and then retrieve and relaunch the boat in spring.
Some trailer boaters rent yard space from storage facilities, RV parks and service stations. In some locales, vacant lots can serve for a fee. Security and convenience of these options varies.
If you cannot utilize your own property for storage, then you can seek out a marina or boatyard. Options here range from "wet storage," which means in a slip and ready to go at an instant to "rack stored," also called “ high and dry,” wherein the boat is stored in a building and moved to the water by forklift on request.
For winter storage (or any long-term, nonuse storage), yards and marinas offer storage inside and outside at varying rates.
There are the obvious activities such as wakeboarding, fishing, tubing and cruising (which in this context means spending one or more nights aboard your boat with family or friends.)
But there are loads of ways to enjoy your boat that might not be obvious to a beginner. For instance, boaters often pack some food and drink to spend an afternoon slowly touring the coastline of some lake, cove or bay, enjoying the scenery and checking out the houses, and spending time with family and friends. Other times, a boat is a great way to go out and view fireworks. Still other boaters enjoy going to big-city waterfronts, visiting sporting events by boat, going out to eat by boat, or enjoyingconcerts by boat.
If you stick around boating, you’ll hear the term “rafting-up.” This refers to an activity in which a bunch of boaters gather and anchor or tie up beside one another, often at a scenic cove (aka “party cove”) or sandbar to simply socialize. Raft-ups include visiting other boats, swimming, kayaking, enjoying music and more.
High-performance boaters enjoy racing. Of course, there are also “poker runs,” the watery equivalent of auto rallies. In a poker run, like-minded boaters gather and cruise to some location together — perhaps for lunch — and then return. The goal is camaraderie and adventure.Everybody is a winner at poker runs.
As a platform for paddle sports, boats make a great conveyance for transporting a stand-up paddleboard or kayak to more-remote locales. Boats are, of course, great for those who’d like to dive or snorkel. If you’ve never seen the stars from miles out in the ocean, where sea and sky appear to be one, well, you just haven’t seen them!
What you can do aboard a boat is limitless. All you need is imagination and a desire to be outdoors. Got a boat? Just add water!
The type of vehicle you need to tow your boat will vary by the size of the boat. A small skiff or PWC may be towed by a compact car. A big diesel pickup is required to haul around a 40-foot race boat. For most boaters, an SUV or pickup truck with a V-6 or V-8 engine serves well. Boating magazine, for one, offers a “Guide to Towing,” which many find useful.
Of course you probably already know that a small vehicle can tow a small boat, and a big truck can tow a big boat. Many new boaters wonder about the advantages of towing. There are many.
For one, you get to cruise your boat to many more locations, whether just across town or across the country. With a trailer, a boater can cover many miles quickly on the highway and then put in at new and exciting boating locations.
Another benefit of trailering is that storage costs can be kept lower. With a trailer, boaters can bring their boats home and store them on their own property. Some trailers even boast folding tongues that allow them to more easily fit in a garage.
Of course, keeping the boat on a trailer makes corrosion much less of a worry compared with storing a boat in the water.
What you will do if your boat breaks down can vary. If you are on a small lake or bay near a populated area, you may simply paddle the boat into shallow water, anchor it, and then wade ashore and walk to assistance. On the other hand, you might be far from land — or far from a city center — and need to call for assistance and a tow back home. But who would you call?
If you keep the boat at a marina, that might be your first call. Many marina’s provide towing — either as a courtesy or for a fee — if you will have them do the repair work. There are also nationally franchised towing services such as BoatUS and Sea Tow, both of which will come and get you, offer minor mechanical assistance (or fuel, if you ran out of gas) and towing. There are variable fees for these services, but generally, purchasing an annual plan with either service can prove most economical.
Another option is to call a friend with a boat. They might be able to come and get you. In fact most boaters understand that you cannot walk home, and will offer to help. So flag down passing boats or hail boats using the VHF radio. Chances are a good Samaritan might tow you in.
Finally, there are rescue beacons, such as EPIRBs and PLBs that can be purchased. These are to be used only in life-threatening emergencies, such as you broke down and the boat is sinking, or there is some medical urgency. (Do not use them because you are out of fuel or because you will be late for dinner.) Push the button, and the satellite-based signal will call in the authorities.