Buying a Boat

Posted on Wednesday 13 October 2010

So, you’ve finally decided you want to buy a boat.   Well, here is some advice on how to go about doing it.

First, you need to decide what you want to do with the boat.

Are you looking for a boat to weekend and daysail on the Chesapeake?  Are you looking to cross oceans?  Are you looking to race around the buoys on the weekly beer can races?  Are you looking to cruise the coast and make the hop over to the Bahamas?  Each of these will have requirements that are specific to those goals. For instance, if you’re looking to do the weekly races and get into racing more seriously, getting a boat that has a large racing fleet presence in your area would make sense.  Something like a J/24 or an Etchells would be ideal as a first boat.

One of the best pieces of advice I got from a friend about boat buying was:  “The primary use of a boat should be primary.” What this means is quite simple—buy a boat that is designed for how you’re going to be using the boat most of the time.  If you’re planning on crossing oceans regularly and voyaging long distances as a couple, you’ll probably want a seakindly bluewater cruising boat that either of you can singlehand easily. If you’re planning on coastal cruising and entertaining at the dock, you might want to look at the coastal cruisers with a larger cockpit and more open interior layout than you’d find in a bluewater cruiser.

Second, you’ll need to decide how big a boat you want.

Just remember that the larger the boat, the more expensive it will be to purchase, own and maintain.  Boat maintenance costs double with every additional 10′ LOA as a rough rule of thumb. The boats grow in size, not linearly, but exponentially.  A 30′ boat is not 50% larger than a 20′ boat, but more like 338% the size of the 20′ boat, as it is both longer, wider and deeper than the 20′ boat.  Boat dockage and other services, like haulouts, shrinkwrapping and painting, are often charged by the length of the boat.

Third, you’ll need to decide what your budget is.

Now, this will have an effect on how large a boat you can get, so you will often need to work out a compromise between the size of boat and the size of your budget that you can afford. This will also decide whether you can consider new boats or just used boats.

Personally, I think that owning a used boat is not a bad idea, especially for your first boat.  The main reason I say this is that most people only have a vague idea of what is really important to them in a boat.  Often, as Don Casey points out in his book, This Old Boat, the first boat a person buys is one they only keep for a short period of time.  They then take the lessons they learn from their first boat and use it to buy their second boat—which is often one they will keep for a very long time.

Now, there are three parts to the budget:

The first is the actual amount of cash you will have to buy the boat.  This can be money you’ve saved up over the years, or gained from the sale of a house, or borrowed from a bank.  It is a finite amount and will give you a rough idea of what price you can pay for the boat you are buying. I generally recommend saving a part of this—usually 15-20%—for the second part of the budget.

The second part of the budget is money that you have set aside for for repairing, modifying and upgrading whatever boat you do buy.  Most people forget this part, but boats are not like cars, and generally need to be modified to fit the way you will sail her.  I generally recommend that this be about  15-20% of your total cash budget for boat buying.

The third part is sweat equity.  This often allows you to buy a larger boat than you would be able to afford otherwise.  How much of your own sweat, blood and tears are you willing to put into your boat.  I’d point out that boats are very labor intensive in terms of maintenance, repair and ownership.  Either you can pay a boatyard to do this work, or you can do it yourself.  For instance, you can pay a boatyard to paint the bottom of your boat—which costs about $80-115/hr. per laborer plus materials.  Or, you can paint the bottom of your boat yourself. Often, you can get friends/family to help.  The more you are willing to invest as sweat equity, often, the less actual cash you’ll have to spend initially.

Don’t forget to factor in the annual costs, like hauling the boat, launching the boat, the slip or mooring fees, the insurance for the boat, fuel, excise taxes, registration fees, etc. On a 30′ boat, you might be spending $1500 for a season’s mooring, $2000 for winter storage and shrink wrap, $300 to haul and launch the boat, and $1000 on insurance.

Let’s assume you have decided to buy a boat, and have the money to do so, and know how/where you want to use the boat.

Fourth—Where to Find a Boat

There are lots of ways to find a boat.

Using a broker is one choice, and probably a good idea if you’re in the market for a larger boat.  However, for smaller boats, I would recommend using other venues.  One problem is that many boat brokers are not interested in servicing the small boat buyer.  The amount of work that is involved in selling a $20,000 is much the same as selling a $500,000 boat, and their commission is far greater on the latter.  Some boat brokers, far and few between, are looking for a long-term relationship with a client instead of the one-shot commission, and if you can find one of these rare individuals, by all means, use them.  They will often work to help you find your first boat, hoping that you will use them to sell it and to buy your next, hopefully larger and more expensive, boat—but they’re not too common.

Another approach, especially in today’s economic climate, is to walk the docks and talk to people at the marinas and boatyards.  Many will have a boat or two that may be for sale.  Some will have boats that have been taken for non-payment of slip or yard fees.

A third approach is to search the classified ads and websites, like,,, Soundings magazine, Good Old Boat, etc. One caveat is that some of the craigslist and eBay ads are fraudulent, so buyer beware.  As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t.

A fourth approach is to ask friends and family if they know anyone selling a boat.  Buying one from a family member or friend can often lead to you getting a boat with a well-known history.  There is no “CarFax” service for boats that is currently worth the money you’d pay for it. Be careful though, as this avenue can also lead to issues if the boat is not as it was represented.

Most people will use more than one of these approaches to find their boat.

One last consideration when boat buying is where is the boat located.  For a larger boat or rarer boat, it might make sense to look at distant boats, but for most smaller boats, buying locally makes far more sense.  It is far easier to inspect, visit and purchase a boat that is closer to you geographically. You also don’t have to factor in transport costs if you buy locally. Some of the sailing forums have a section listing people willing to “visit” a boat for a distant buyer and report back. This can make buying a boat in a distant local easier.

Fifth—When to Buy

Buying a boat in the fall is often a good time to do so.  In northern climes, the owner is looking at paying winter storage and de-commisioning costs, which gives you a bit of leverage to bargain with. Also, selling the boat in the fall gets the owner off the hook for any taxes due on the boat the following year. This also gives you the winter to work on the boat and fix any faults you find or make any changes you want.  The boat is often still in the water, so you can do the sea trial fairly easily. You’ll generally have to pay for a haul out to do the survey, but if the survey is scheduled after the sea trial and you don’t have a satisfactory sea trial, you can often cancel the haul out and survey and not have to pay those costs. The down side to buying a boat in the fall is you often can’t use the boat immediately and will often have to pay for winter storage costs yourself. However, some boat brokerages will throw in launching and winter storage as part of buying the boat if you ask for it.

Buying in the winter time is probably the worst time to buy.  You no longer have the leverage of winter storage costs, and you can’t sea trial the boat in many places, since the water is frozen.

Spring and summer are not as good a time to buy a boat in my opinion. You don’t have the advantage of looming winter storage costs or upcoming taxes. Spring is worse than summer, since there tends to be an upswing in the number of people looking to buy a boat for the upcoming season—during the summer, this usually drops off a bit.

However, finding a good boat is a time-consuming process generally.  I would tell you to start looking as soon as possible, and to make your offer on a good boat as soon as possible, since the best boats are rarely on the market for long—and many never are listed publicly.

My Boat Buying Philosophy

First, especially if you’re looking at used boats, you really want to keep one thing in mind—you want to focus on the value of the boat, not just the price. A cheap boat that has serious flaws or problems can often have a negative real value—in that you can not restore the boat to sailable shape without investing more into the boat than it could ever be worth. You want to buy a good boat at a good price—not a cheap boat that will be expensive to own in the long run.

Second, I’d highly recommend you read the Boat Inspection Trip Tips post I wrote a while back, as that gives you a pretty good baseline for how to look at a boat and determine what condition it is in.  Be aware that age is not always the most important consideration for determining a boat’s value.  I would rather buy a 30 year-old boat that has been well maintained and loved than a four-year-old boat that has been neglected its whole life.

Third, I would recommend that you have to buy a boat that you love. If you don’t love a boat—you will generally regret buying it.  Like any relationship, owning a boat is a series of compromises, so you really have to pick one that has the compromises that you can live with.

What to look for

I’m not going to suggest particular makes or model boats, since I don’t know what your budget is or what purpose you’re buying the boat for.  What I will do is give you some general advice on how to go about doing it.

Buying a boat from a better builder will often pay huge returns in the long run.  The better the quality of a boat was to start with, generally the better it will hold up over time.  Gross neglect can change this, but generally speaking—the better built boats hold their value for a reason.

Some brands have had periods where their reputation and build quality suffered more than others and that is something to consider. For instance, the Cherubini designed Hunters are generally fairly well regarded, but the designs that came along just after Cherubini’s designs that were built in the 1980s were generally not as well regarded and are in large part responsible for the bad reputation Hunter had for many years.

Other brands have a poor reputation, and that is often the case for a reason.  Bayliner, a power boat manufacturer, dabbled in the sailboat industry for a while.  They built a line of boats called Buccaneers, and these boats are pretty universally reviled.  They were poorly built, were fairly ugly in my opinion and had poor sailing performance.

Some boats have specific issues that are well-known and something to be aware of. For example, some of the older Catalinas used a plywood core in their keel stub support structure. When the plywood rots, it often leads to the keel dropping a bit and forming what is called the “Catalina Smile”.  If you are looking at a Catalina of that vintage, checking to see if the keel stub has been re-built is a good idea.  You can often find out what specific issues for a given boat are by communicating with the owner’s association and current owners of the boat.

Some boats were offered in both factory finished and user-finished models. The Southern Crosses are a good example of this, and the general fit and finish of the factory-built boats was usually much higher than the user-finished ones.  There are exceptions to this rule, like the Southern Cross I saw a few years back that was originally owned by a master cabinet maker, and the interior reflected his skills.

When buying a “project” boat, you have to consider if you have the time and the skills to really tackle the project. Also, you need to remember that the costs for any replacement hardware and gear will be based on the price of a new boat the same size, not whatever you paid for it.  For example, the sheet winches for a 30′ boat are not inexpensive—if buying the boat requires replacing the winches, you may end up investing more than the boat is actually worth.

One thing to consider is whether a boat has factory support or not.  Many boat manufacturers have gone out of business.  Many failed in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of the luxury taxes imposed on “yachts.”  If you are buying an older model, the owner’s associations are often the best resource for a new owner.  Some brands, like Catalina, provide pretty good support to the owners of their older boats, even ones that have been discontinued.  In other cases, support and advice for a boat has come about through a separate company.  D and R Marine is a good example of this.  They provide a lot of support for O’Day sailboat owners, especially the smaller models that were made, and was founded by former employees of O’Day.

In general, getting a boat that is in decent shape will cost less money and time than buying the exact same make and model in poor shape and refurbishing it. My friend Maine Sail only looks for the “two-percenters” when boat shopping.  These are boats that have been meticulously and lovingly maintained.  However, they usually command a slight premium price wise, but it is usually worth it.

I hope this helps.

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