Boat Buyer’s Guide: Bowriders and Deckboats

Helpful and unbiased advice from current boat owners.

Runabouts and deck boats are good general purpose pleasure boats in that they are great for cruising but also can handle many watersports duties such as skiing, tubing and wakeboarding. However, given the large number of brands to choose from, picking the right boat can be a difficult task. To help you with your search, we surveyed 172 runabout and deck boat owners to find out what was important to them when shopping for a boat. But, before we get into the findings, let’s distinguish runabouts (also called “bowriders”) from deck boats since the differences can be fairly subtle.

Bowrider Buyer's Guide

The most apparent difference is that the bow of a deck boat will be much more “squarish” than a runabout. This is because the hull is a bit flatter and the beam is carried forward. The primary advantage of this is greater interior space (especially in the bow). And a flatter hull will be able to navigate shallow areas better but may also slap or bounce more in rough water vs. runabouts which have more of a deep V configuration. Though the appearance of the two is similar, many think that runabouts have a sleeker, more streamlined look.

Traditionally, deck boats have largely been outboard powered whereas runabouts typically come with a sterndrive engine (also known as an I/O). However, an increasing number of outboard-powered runabouts have been introduced in recent years for cost and ease of maintenance reasons. For additional details on runabouts vs. deck boats, check out this article from Discover Boating.

Ok, back to the main program. If you are thinking that a runabout or deck boat is right for you, there are three main things boat owners recommend you look for: quality of construction, a convenient layout and good ride/handling characteristics. We will explore each of these factors and others below.

1). Quality of Construction

Not surprisingly, the quality of construction is the most important thing boaters look for when shopping for a boat. But how do you judge the quality of a boat? In our survey, we not only asked what was most important but also why. And, according to our panel of runabout and deck boat owners, the first thing to look for in terms of quality is the fit and finish – compartments that fit tightly, gelcoat that is free of blemishes, interior edges that are smooth and wiring that is organized and well supported. Next, look for little to no wood used in the boat’s construction since exposed wood will likely rot over time. Finally, look at the grade of materials used. The upholstery should be fairly thick and well stitched, the carpet should fit properly, and the hardware used for things like cleats or hinges should look durable and able to withstand the elements and vibration/pounding that often occurs out on the water. Representative comments…

Quality Checklist:

  • Fit ‘N finish – hatches, gelcoat, wiring
  • Little to no wood
  • High grade of materials – upholstery, carpets, hardware

  • “Fit and finish. How well compartments close. Wiggle doors to check for rattles. Quality of seat material.” (Greg F., Okoboji, Iowa)
  • “Fit and Finish. Is everything put together nicely. Do you see chords, cables, fiberglass sticking out. Are all of the moldings in place. Does it have minor defects? Does it have the necessary features you need?” (David S., Valley City, ND)
  • “Specifically in the outside appearance – all lines must be clean, any parts that connect must fit well together. Underneath things like how the wires are kept in place and how the carpet is cut and is used to cover areas that should not be seen. Trim and fit of the seats.” (Charles H., Broken Arrow, OK)
  • “Stainless steel hardware, thickness of fiberglass/gelcoat. Fit of doors, hatches.” (Stephen R., Madison, WI)
  • “Seams are tight, no gaps in any areas, seating is clean and tight, carpet is well fitted, etc.” (Dan D., Livonia, MI)
  • “No wood in construction. Stainless metal vs. Plastic parts. Circuit breakers, not fuses, brand name component parts.” (Bruce N., West Des Moines, IA)
  • “Specifically the areas that open and close, I check to see how flimsy the fiberglass is.” (Michael Z., Roseville, MI)
  • “Looking under deck and in storage for fit and finish, also a sense of exposed wood. Also look at engine compartment. Is there room to work? Are cables well bundled? Under dash, is working tidy and labeled?” (anonymous)
  • “Want to make certain that the hull is strong, is V shaped with appropriate chines for lift — based on size. Important to have retractable deck hooks and easy access to anchor. Important to have high quality seats with strong construction of the base of seats to the deck of boat. ” (Marty S., Roswell, GA)
  • “Ripples in the hull; cleat joinery; quality of seats and cushions; wiring (i.e. how supported); through hull fixtures;” (Greg H., Palm Coast, FL)
  • “Is the hull hand laid vs. chopper gun strands? Hull sides, stern and top cap thickness. Quality of hand rails, cleats, upholstery, carpet, gelcoat, gauges, switches, wiring is huge with me. How is the inside of the storage and hull finished?” (Don H., New Port Richey, FL)

It is important to remember that quality is often correlated with price and so you may need to make some tradeoffs. After all, not everyone can afford a Cobalt. The key, however, is to compare the quality of the boats in your price range to assess which one appears to be the best value and likely to hold up over time.

2). Spacious Interior with Plenty of Storage

The layout was the second most important thing boaters look for when shopping for a runabout or deck boat. One very important aspect is the spaciousness of the interior. No one wants to feel cramped and there should be room to move about the boat.

Related to this is storage – there needs to be space to put away all the things that you and your passenger will bring aboard for a day on the water. Ideally, the storage areas should be different sized for different types of things. For example, you want large compartments for life jackets or towels but smaller compartments for personal items such as wallets, purses or cell phones.

Also, the boat needs to have a sufficient number of seats for the maximum number of people you would want to invite regularly. But a word of caution on this – the boats capacity is not the same as the number of people the boat can comfortably accommodate. The former is a function of floatation; the latter is dependent on the number of seats and the location of those seats (for example, seats in the bow might not comfortable accommodate larger or older passengers).

Finally, the arrangement of the seats is important too but this is somewhat a matter of taste. If you do a lot of watersports, you will want a rear facing seat or lounger to observe participants and perhaps a pass-thru area for easy access to the swim platform. On the other hand, if you like to entertain a lot, look for a good conversatiion area with a quality and accessible table or serving area.

Layout Considerations:

  • Is the interior spacious enough to move about the boat without feeling cramped?
  • Is there ample storage of various sizes to accommodate all of your gear?
  • Are there enough seats to fit the maximum number of passengers you anticipate bringing periodically?
  • Does the seating type/arrangement fit your needs?

  • “Ability to move around easily, store coolers and equipment, and ease of cleaning.” (Joe R., Royal Oak, MI)
  • “Plenty of people room, ease of movement in boat, plenty of seating, do not need sink arrangement (prefer extra seating).” (Steve M., Harlan, IA)
  • “It needs to be able to accommodate my desire to fish as well as have comfortable seating for my wife, who has no interest in fishing. It also needs to be spacious enough to have guests on board and enjoy a meal on the water. Ample storage is important. ” (Jim C., Lenexa, KS)
  • “Plenty of seating with easy observation of skiers/wakeboarders.” (Jason H., Mount Dora, FL)
  • “My family prefers a walk-thru transom. Do not like to ‘flip’ seat/sunpad cushions up to access the walk-thru. As we are heavy into watersports, this is a critical issue.” (Ted B., Peachtree City, GA)
  • “The most seating available.” (Michael Z., Roseville, MI)
  • “Lots of seating and ability to get out of the sun when needed” (Chuck D., Galloway, OH)
  • “Entry to the boat is now a priority. From the dock in particular; easy to enter from shore also. We and friends are getting older, access to the boat has a higher need than it did 5 years ago. A conversation area for all to be involved is important. An easy to operate (raise/lower) bimini top.” (Doug K., Rome, WI)
  • “Open layout and ease of boarding.” (Robert B., Storm Lake, IA)
  • “Lots of seating and leg room for the price and length of the boat. Easy to access and plentiful storage for various sizes items (i.e. from purse and wallet to wakeboard).” (Tom L., Columbus, OH)
  • “I look to see if I can grab need supplies quickly and with the least amount of hassle for my guests. I want to be able to move throughout the boat quickly without a seat or console getting in my way. I need to be able to get to regular supplies without disturbing my guests so the location of storage is important.” (Brian B., Douglas, GA)
  • “Easy entry & lots of easily accessible storage.” (Lawrence G., Battle Creek, MI)
  • “Room for at least 4 people to be comfortable and a place to store gear (coolers, bags, anchor, life vest, etc.). Would like to have rear facing seats/loungers in the stern. Large swim platform.” (Scott S., St. Joseph, MI)

3). Quick Planing and Handles Rough Water

What runabout and deck boat owners look for in terms of ride quality is pretty straightforward – a boat that handles well in rough water and also delivers good acceleration or “hole shot”. A key point of difference between these boats and inboard ski or wakeboard boats is how well they perform on these two requirements. While an inboard ski/wakeboard boat will have superior acceleration, they don’t handle as well in rough water because they have a fixed prop shaft that cannot be trimmed. As a result, the boat has a greater tendency to plow into waves vs. ride on top of them.

“I look for a boat that handles well in all types of conditions. Rough water ride comfort is important. Do not like how a traditional ‘Inboard Ski-Boat’ can beat you on anything other than glass.”

Ted B., Peachtree City, GA
  • “Good, deep hull is vital. Don’t like any seating just below the gunnels.” (Jason H., Mount Dora, FL)
  • “Ability to handle rough water at speed.” (Bruce N., West Des Moines, IA)
  • “I look for a boat that handles well in all types of conditions. Rough water ride comfort is important. Do not like how a traditional ‘Inboard Ski-Boat’ can beat you on anything other than glass.” (Ted B., Peachtree City, GA)
  • “How soon to plane. Sides/depth of gunwales with respect to children safety. Reputation of handling on specific bodies of water (rivers, great lakes, etc.)” (Joe R., Royal Oak, MI)
  • “Quick out of the hole, easy to maneuver, low speeds.” (Brian W., Fenton, MI)
  • “Deep V for sure, for smooth ride in choppy waters.” (Peggy R., Coldspring, TX)
  • “Smooth ride on plane. Doesn’t bounce like a jack hammer through wake or light chop. Gets on plane and stays on plane even through hard turns.” (Brian B., Douglas, GA)
  • “Pulls out of the hole well, turns well and tight, smooth ride in rough water, safe feeling for passengers at high speed.” (Jim D., Oconomowoc, WI)
  • “Time to plane; minimum planing speed; ability to handle wakes of other boats; visibility while going to planing speed.” (Greg H., Palm Coast, FL)
  • “Can it handle rough water okay? Does it bounce in the air when hitting a wake? Can it cut and feel in control?” (David S., Valley City, ND)

Though what makes for a quality ride is fairly intuitive, the challenge is being able to assess the ride characteristics before you purchase. If you are considering purchasing a new boat, be aware that many dealers are not located on the water and so a demo ride is not easy to come by. However, some may still offer to meet you at a lake sometime. Alternatively, ask to speak with some of their previous customers of that same boat model or post on forums such as the one on BoaterInput.com or other sites to get feedback from current boat owners.

4). Price

In the middle of the pack in terms of importance is the price. Of course, no one wants to pay more than they need to but how do you determine a fair price on a new boat? Unlike with automobiles, there are not good sources to determine the dealer cost and fair market price. However, I happen to know from my industry experience that the dealer’s cost is generally around 70% of the MSRP. But, dealers rightfully need to make a markup which is generally in the 15% to 20% range. After some fairly tricky algebra, it turns out that a price of around 82% to 90% of the MSRP is a fair price that should still enable the dealer to keep the lights on.
Of course, an 8 pt spread still leaves a lot of wiggle room. The price that you ultimately pay will depend on many factors, including the time of year (the offseason or end of the model year are particularly good times), the popularity of the model you are interested in, competitive pressures and the dealers size or cost structure.

5). Reliable Engine

When it comes to power, boaters want a reliable engine that is easy to maintain. Several specifically recommended a MerCruiser – likely because of their reputation as a dependable motor and because you can get them serviced most anywhere. Jet engines, such as those on Yamaha boats, Scarabs, Vortex and some Glastrons, are popular among those who boat in shallow areas or are concerned about safety.

  • “Reliable engine, available parts, ease of maintenance.” (Brian C., Novi, MI)
  • “Reputation of brand and ease of maintenance/resources available for maintenance (manuals, etc.).” (Joe R., Royal Oak, MI)
  • “I would recommend a Mercruiser I/O.” (Denis C., Palatine, IL)
  • “Who is the manufacture of the motor and drive? Is the size engine appropriate for the length and weight of the boat? Can the engine be repaired locally?” (William G., New Bern, NC)
  • “Big prop, strong engine with torque to pull a wakeboarder out of the water and pushes a good wake.” (Jake M., Belton, TX)
  • “I boat on a shallow lake so I am only interested in jet propulsion.” (Michael Z., Roseville, MI)
  • “Like jets for safety and cost. Can surf with them and go into very shallow water.” (Daniel S., West Bloomfield, MI)

While there are over 30 runabout and deck boat brands available nationally, these suggestions from other boaters may help you to narrow the field and find the boat that is right for your needs and budget. Of course, everyone’s needs are a little different and so what is right for you might not be the same as others. Let us know what you specifically look for in a runabout or deck boat by leaving a comment below.

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