A Complete Guide To Buying A Boat

Paul Stockdale Author Avatar
Written by Paul Stockdale | March 15, 2023
Boat buying guide

Buying a boat can be exciting for any first-time or regular boat buyer.

Whether buying directly from a boat manufacturer or a private seller, a buyer will need to find the best vessel for the best price.

Purchasing a vessel can be completed in 7 steps.

To buy a boat:

  1. Choose the right type of boat
  2. Find new & used boats for sale
  3. Calculate your boat buying budget & boat ownership costs
  4. Analyze the boat financing options available
  5. Perform a boat sea trial and marine inspection
  6. Negotiate a price & pay for the vessel
  7. Transfer the boat ownership

Buying a new or used vessel can take between 1 week and 1 month to complete for most recreational boat buyers.

1. Choose The Right Type Of Boat

The first step in buying a boat is to choose the right type of boat for your specific needs.

The type of boats a buyer can choose from include:

  • Sailboats: Sailboats are boats a buyer can purchase if they enjoy sailing on the water
  • Pontoons: Pontoons are boats a buyer can purchase if they want to cruise on the water, party on the water or just relax onboard
  • Speedboats: Speedboats are boats a buyer can purchase if they want to enjoy watersports on the water
  • Trawlers: Trawlers are boats a buyer can purchase if they want to do large-scale fishing. They are used for professional fishing
  • Center Consoles: Center consoles are boats a buyer can purchase if they enjoy recreational fishing out on the water
  • Houseboats: These are boats that are designed to be used as a floating home. They are typically large and include living quarters, kitchens, and bathrooms. Houseboats are commonly used for recreational purposes such as vacationing
  • Catamarans: These are boats that have two parallel hulls instead of one. They are designed to be more stable and faster than traditional boats. Catamarans are commonly used for recreational sailing, racing and commercial transportation
  • Yachts: These are luxurious boats that a buyer can use for recreational purposes like cruising or entertaining guests. They typically come with great features onboard like bedrooms, TVs, showers, toilets, deck areas,
  • Deck boats: These are smaller boats a buyer can use for cruising and lounging in the sun on the water
  • Dinghies: A dinghy is a small boat usually under 16 feet in length. Dinghies can be rowed, sailed or powered by an outboard motor and are typically made of lightweight materials such as aluminum, wood, or inflatable PVC. They can be used for recreational activities such as fishing, water sports or exploring shorelines and coves

The factors to consider when choosing the right type of boat to buy are:

  • Size of the boat: The size of the vessel is an important factor for a buyer to consider as larger boats will require more storage space and a larger vehicle for towing. Buyers will need to understand the size of the boat they can handle before making a purchase. Some boat buyers prefer smaller boat sizes as they are easier to handle relative to large boats
  • Budget: Budget is very important as it will influence the type of boat purchased. The price of boats will range from at little as $1,000 to over $1 million for luxury vessels
  • Location: The location of where the boat will be used is a factor to consider when buying a boat. If the location is a smaller lake or river, then buying a larger boat may not be sensible whereas if the location where the boat is mainly used is the sea or a coastal area, then a larger boat may be a smarter option
  • Towing capabilities: The towing capabilities of a buyer's vehicle is a factor that will influence what type of boat is purchased. Buyers with vehicles that can tow very large loads can buy larger boats
  • Boat buyer's boating ability: A boat buyer's ability is a factor that will influence the type of boat that is purchased. If the buyer is a first-time or newer boater, then a smaller vessel is a better option to buy but if the boater has experience in boating, then a larger vessel can be purchased
  • Boating activity: The main activity the boat is used for will be a factor in deciding the type of boat to buy with some vessels better for fishing activities and others better for watersport activities

Choosing the right type of boat for your specific needs will take 5 minutes to complete.

2. Find New & Used Boats For Sale

The second step in buying a boat is to find new and used boats for sale.

To find new and used boats for sale:

  • Browse the Facebook Marketplace: Buyers can check the Facebook Marketplace for pre-owned boats for sale. The Facebook Marketplace can have some good bargains depending on the time of the year
  • Go to boat auctions: Buyers can find boats for sale at boat auctions. Depending on your location, these boat auctions can occur every month and buyers may find deals at them
  • Attend boat shows: Boat shows offer the chance for buyers to buy brand-new boats that are not launched to the public yet. However, the vessels at these boat shows tend to be more expensive and more luxurious
  • Visit the boat manufacturers location: Buyers can visit the boat manufacturer's location to browse their new and used boats for sale
  • Visit boat dealerships: Buyers can visit local boat dealerships to find a great supply of both new and used boats for sale
  • Check boat classified websites: Buyers can browse for both new and used boats for sale on boat classified websites

When searching for a boat to buy, ensure the vessel is certified. All boats sold in the U.S. must meet U.S. Coast Guard minimum regulations.

A certified boat is a boat with an NMMA-certified logo attached to it. An NMMA-certified boat is a boat that complies with industry construction and safety standards.

The best place to browse for new boats for sale is directly at the manufacturer's location and at boat dealerships.

The best place to browse for pre-owned boats for sale is on the Facebook Marketplace and on boat classified websites like boattrader.com and boats.com.

The benefits of buying a new boat are they come with a warranty in most instances, the parts are less likely to break for some time and they are full of new features.

The benefits of buying a used boat are a buyer will get a much cheaper price, typically 20-40% cheaper compared to a brand new retail price and the depreciation on a pre-owned boat is less compared to a new one.

3. Calculate The Boat Buying Budget & Boat Ownership Costs

The third step in buying a boat is to calculate the boat buying budget and boat ownership costs.

To calculate the budget required to buy a boat:

  • Check the price of the boat for sale: Simply check the price of the boat for sale on the advertisement to understand the money needed to buy the vessel
  • Read the J.D. Power boat database: The J.D. Power database will indicate the price of any boat and give buyers a great idea of the costs of any boat brand, both new and used

Boat ownership costs will vary substantially based on the size, location, and year of the boat.

To calculate the boat ownership costs when buying a boat:

  • Check the price of a boat towing trailer (where applicable): Some boats will need a boat trailer for towing to and from the water. This boat trailer can cost between $1,00 and $10,000+ depending on the size and weight of the boat being bought
  • Get the price of boat gear needed for the boat: Boat gear costs like life jackets, anchors, etc. will typically cost $500 for most recreational boats
  • Understand the vessel's cleaning costs: The boat cleaning costs will depend on the size of the vessel. For most recreational boats, the boat cleaning cost is between $15 to $45 per month
  • Understand the vessel's fuel costs: The fuel costs of a boat will vary substantially based on the frequency of use. However, for most recreational boats, boat fuel will cost between $250 to $350 per month
  • Understand the vessel's maintenance costs: A buyer should calculate the maintenance cost of the boat they are interested in buying. The maintenance costs are typically 5% of the boat's value. However, this will fluctuate based on the year and condition of the boat
  • Get a boat insurance quote: Buyers should contact a marine insurance company to understand the cost of insuring the boat they are interested in buying. For most recreational boats, this will cost between $300 to $600 per year. However, this will vary based on the boat's value and size as well as other factors like the buyer's boating experience
  • Check the boat storage fees: A buyer will need to understand the cost of storing the boat whether at a marina or at a boat storage area. The cost of storing a boat will range from $5 to $100+ per foot depending on the location and the time of year

Buyers will need to accurately calculate both the cost of buying the boat and the boat ownership cost before making the purchase.

The benefit of calculating the cost of buying and owning a boat before making the purchase is a buyer will be able to avoid being unable to maintain the boat after buying it and there will be no negative surprises after making the purchase.

Calculating boat buying and ownership costs will take less than 5 minutes to complete.

4. Analyze The Boat Financing Options Available

The fourth step in buying a boat is to analyze the boat financing options available. Some buyers prefer to purchase a boat through a boat loan.

To find boat financing options available for buying a boat:

  • Arrange financing through a boat dealership
  • Get a boat loan from a credit union
  • Get a loan from a traditional bank like J.P. Morgan, etc.
  • Get a loan with a marine loan financing company

Becoming a member of the National Marine Lenders Association will give boat buyers better terms and a higher chance of getting boat financing when buying a boat.

Boat loan interest rates for buying a boat range from 3% to 15%.

The requirements for a buyer to obtain boat financing are:

  • Good credit score: A buyer will easily get a boat loan if their credit score is 600 and above
  • A good debt-to-income ratio: A boat buyer will need a good debt-to-income ratio to obtain boat financing, typically under 40% for the best loan terms
  • Job stability: The longer a buyer has been in a job, the higher likelihood of getting a boat loan. Typically, over 1 year of job stability is a minimum requirement
  • Income: A buyer's income level will influence their ability to obtain boat financing with higher income level buyers being more likely to get a loan
  • Net worth: A buyer's net worth will influence their ability to get a boat loan with a higher net worth buyer finding it easier to obtain a loan

The benefit of getting a boat loan when buying a boat is a buyer will not need the total amount of money upfront.

One disadvantage of getting a bot loan when buying a boat is a buyer will be in debt and owe more than the value of the boat.

The length of time it takes to obtain a boat loan to buy a boat will vary from 2 weeks to 3 months.

5. Perform A Boat Sea Trial & Marine Inspection

The fifth step in buying a boat is to perform a sea trail and marine inspection. A sea trial is essentially testing out the boat on the water to ensure there are no issues with the vessel.

To perform a sea trial before buying a boat:

  • Start up the boat in the water: Start up the vessel and let it sit idle at around 600 rpm for 1 minute. Check for any engine warning lights in the cockpit or unusual sounds from the motor as it sits idle. Ensure there is no smoke as the engine sits idle too
  • Slowly accelerate to cruising speed: Slowly accelerate the boat to its cruising speed and monitor how the engine sounds and operates as it reaches cruising speed. The engine should run smoothly without excessive smoke or noises at this speed
  • Steer the boat: Slowly steer the boat port and starboard to see how the steering system is working. The steering should be nimble and not stiff or heavy. A stiff or heavy steering system could indicate an issue with the steering or rudder
  • Turn on & off the boat's electronics: Turn on and off the boat's electronics like dock lights, horn, GPS, etc. to ensure it is in full working order without any issues

Performing a sea trial will take approximately 30 minutes to complete. It is important to complete a sea trail before buying a boat to ensure there are no underlying issues with the vessel.

Buyers should do a full inspection of the boat out of the water too to ensure there are no issues that may be missed from the sea trial.

Buyers can read our used boat buying checklist for a full list of every item to check on a boat before buying it. As part of inspecting a boat before buying it, check the boat title/ownership documentation to ensure there are no liens or legal issues with the boat.

The benefits of doing a sea trial and inspecting the boat before buying it are it will enable buyers to see how the boat operates on the water, it will showcase any issues with the vessel before purchasing it and it will let potential buyers learn the pros and cons of the vessel faster.

6. Negotiate A Price & Pay For The Vessel

The sixth step in buying a boat is to negotiate a price and pay for the vessel.

A buyer can negotiate a price to try and get a discount. This is more effective with pre-owned boats compared to new vessels.

Negotiating a price can lead to a 5% to 10% discount on the price paid for the boat so it is worthwhile for a buyer to negotiate with the seller.

After negotiating the price of the boat with the seller, it is time to organize payment.

To pay for the boat, the two main options to choose from are:

  1. Organize a bank draft payment: A bank draft will offer the buyer with some protection if an issue arises. The bank draft payment for the boat should be in the seller's bank account between 1 and 4 business days depending on the bank
  2. Organize a wire transfer payment: A wire transfer will offer the boat buyer some payment protection if issues arise. The wire transfer payment for the boat should be in the seller's account between 1 and 3 business days depending on the bank

Do not pay with cash as there are fewer payment protections for the buyer when paying for a boat with cash compared to paying by bank draft or wire transfer.

7. Transfer The Boat Ownership

The seventh step in buying a boat is to ensure the boat ownership documentation is transferred to you as the new owner.

To transfer boat ownership:

  • Get the boat title transferred: A buyer should have the boat title transferred to them. This can be done by accessing the buyer's local state government website. It is labeled "boat/vessel registration" on a government website
  • Get a bill of sale: A bill of sale is a document used to record the change of ownership of a watercraft. it will have seller, buyer and boat information and it is legally binding once it is signed

Boat title transfers will take approximately 1 week to complete. The boat's title and bill of sale are very important to provide proof that the boat has been transferred to you as the new owner.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most commonly asked questions about buying a boat.

What Are The Best Places To Buy A Boat?

The best places to buy a boat are on the Facebook Marketplace, directly from the manufacturer, boat dealerships and boat classified websites like boattrader.com and boats.com.

What Is The Worst Place To Buy A Boat?

The worst place to buy a boat is on Craigslist as there are many boats for sale scams on this website that first-time boat buyers may not be aware of.

What Is The Best Time Of Year To Buy A Boat?

The best time of year to purchase a boat is in the winter months when demand for boats are low and the prices are lower.

What Is The Worst Time Of Year To Buy A Boat?

The worst time of year to purchase a boat is between spring and summer when demand for boats is high and the prices are higher.

What Are The Best Payment Methods When Buying A Boat?

The best payment methods when purchasing a boat are paying by wire transfer or by bank draft where there is a receipt of payment in case of any issues that may arise.

What Is The Worst Payment Method When Buying A Boat?

The worst payment method for buying a boat is paying by cash as there may be no protection for a buyer if there is a problem after buying the vessel.

What Are The Benefits Of Buying A Boat?

The benefits of buying a boat are:

  • Recreation & Leisure: Owning a boat provides you with a fun and exciting way to enjoy the water. Whether you are fishing, waterskiing, or just cruising, a boat allows you to enjoy the outdoors and the water in a unique way
  • Quality Time With Family & Friends: Boating is a great way to spend quality time with family and friends. Whether you are exploring a new area or just relaxing on the water, boating provides a great opportunity to connect with the people you care about
  • Health Benefits: Boating is a great way to stay active and healthy. Whether you are swimming, paddleboarding or kayaking, being on the water provides a low-impact way to exercise and stay in shape
  • Stress Relief: Boating can be a great way to relieve stress and unwind. Being out on the water can help you disconnect from the stresses of everyday life and focus on the present moment
  • Freedom & Adventure: Boating allows you to explore new areas and go on adventures that you may not be able to experience otherwise. Whether you are exploring a remote island or cruising along a scenic coastline, boating provides a sense of freedom and adventure that is hard to match

What Are The Risks Of Buying A Boat?

The risks of buying a boat are:

  • Cost: Boats can be expensive to purchase and maintain. In addition to the initial purchase price, you'll need to factor in ongoing costs for fuel, insurance, docking fees, maintenance, repairs, and upgrades which can overwhelm a person's finances
  • Getting scammed: If a buyer is inexperienced, there is a risk of getting scammed by not doing a marine inspection and knowing what to look for when buying a boat
  • Depreciation: Like most vehicles, boats tend to depreciate in value over time. This means that you may not be able to recoup your investment if you decide to sell your boat later on
  • Weather & Environmental Hazards: Boating can be dangerous, particularly during storms or other adverse weather conditions. In addition, there are environmental hazards to consider such as high waves, strong currents, and rocky shorelines
  • Liability: Boating accidents can result in serious injuries or even death and as a boat owner, you may be held liable for any damages or injuries that occur on your vessel. It's important to have adequate insurance coverage to protect yourself in case of an accident
  • Theft & Vandalism: Boats can be a target for theft and vandalism, particularly if they are left unattended for long periods of time. It's important to take steps to secure your boat and prevent theft and damage
  • Maintenance & Repairs: Boats require regular maintenance and repairs to stay in good condition which can be costly and time-consuming. You'll need to be prepared to invest time and money in keeping your boat in top shape

What Should Be Avoided When Buying A Boat?

When buying a boat, avoid:

  • Buying a boat without viewing it in person: When shopping for a vessel, avoid purchasing it without viewing it as the advertisement of the boat may not highlight potential problems
  • Purchasing a boat with cash: A buyer should avoid paying for a boat with cash as they may not have any buyer protection when purchasing with cash
  • Buying a boat without a full marine inspection: A buyer should avoid purchasing a boat without getting a full marine inspection to ensure there are no problems that aren't visible
  • Buying a boat without understanding the ownership costs: A buyer should avoid purchasing a boat without first understanding the true cost of owning it from insurance, fuel, storage and maintenance costs
  • Buying a boat without the boat title documentation: A buyer should never buy a boat if the seller does not have the boat title to transfer. The boat title is a legal document that ensures the current seller legally owns the boat. Without the boat title, a buyer could potentially be buying a stolen boat

What Is The Most Expensive Way Of Buying A Boat?

The most expensive way of buying a boat is purchasing a vessel at a boat dealership with the prices of pre-owned boats 10% to 20% higher than on the Facebook Marketplace.

What Is The Cheapest Way Of Buying A Boat?

The cheapest way of buying a boat is by finding bargains at boat auctions and on the Facebook Marketplace.

How Do You Buy A Boat Without Getting Scammed?

To buy a boat without getting scammed, ensure a marine inspection is carried out on the boat with a professional marine surveyor, pay for the boat via wire transfer or a bank draft so there is proof of a sale and make sure there is a valid bill of sale for a legal transfer of boat ownership from the seller to the buyer. Visit the local state government transport website and ensure there are no liens on the boat and get a full boat history report.

How Do You Buy A Boat Fast?

To buy a boat fast, browse the Facebook Marketplace and message sellers directly to arrange a marine inspection and sea trial. A buyer could buy a boat within 1 week using this method.

What Is The Slowest Way Of Buying A Boat?

The slowest way of buying a boat is by purchasing a vessel through an auction. This will take between 2 weeks to 1 month to complete.