Boat Buying Tips: How to Address Common Challenges

Boat buying tips

Buying a boat has become increasingly challenging in recent years.  The surge in demand due to the pandemic coupled with supply-chain issues put a major strain on new and used boat inventories.  As a result, prices have increased and finding the boat of your dreams has become a difficult and time-consuming task. In this article, I discuss some of the key challenges associated with the shopping process and provide some boat buying tips based on the learning from our recent industry study.

The Situation

Following a brief lull at the start of the pandemic, boat sales soon sky-rocked as people looked for safe and enjoyable ways to “social distance” with their family.  New boat sales in 2020 hit a 13-year high and remained strong throughout the following year.  Industry leaders worried that this huge influx of new boaters and the heighted strain on existing dealers/support services could result in customer dissatisfaction and potentially defection.

To better understand this issue, three industry associations (the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, Discover Boating and the Marine Retailers Association of America) hired me to survey boaters to identify the steps and pain points associated with the boat shopping and ownership experience.  Below are some of the key insights from the initial phase of the study where we spoke with nearly 50 recent boat buyers over a one hour interview with each.

The Shopping Process

In our study, we learned that individuals tend to go through some combination of the following steps or tasks when shopping for a boat:

  • Identify needs and requirements
  • Identify boats for sale in my area
  • Gather additional details for boats of interest
  • Research prices to assess a fair value
  • Assess the quality/suitability of a particular boat
  • Purchase the boat
  • Take possession/deliver

Some of these steps were negatively impacted by the pandemic while others were largely unaffected.  Next, we will discuss some of the recent challenges associated with these steps and offer some boat buying tips to help you navigate each.

1. Identify Needs and Requirements

For many, the first step is to identify your needs and wants to help narrow your focus.  This might include determining the type and size of boat you want, what features are important, and how much you want to spend.  It was easier to figure this out in the pre-covid era because you could walk a boat show and compare choices and see prices.  However, since boat shows are not as frequent as they once were, you may need to rely on internet searches and input from other boaters to accomplish this task.

Tips:

  • If you are a new to boating and don’t have experienced boater friends to turn to, do not go it alone.  Sign up for one or more boater forums for helpful guidance. Boaters, in general, are friendly and want to be helpful.  Be sure to let them know that you are a beginner boater and are looking for some boat buying tips or suggestions.  The Hull Truth is an excellent forum for boats in general and especially those who boat in saltwater.  Band of Boaters and iboats are also popular.  If you are into fishing, there are several that specialize in various types/species and locations.
  • Regarding the right size of boat, recognize that the rated capacity is often less than the available seating.  Make sure that the boat(s) you are considering have enough seats to comfortably accommodate your desired number of guests.
  • To help with budgeting, Discover Boating offers a simple to use Boat Loan Calculator.  However, if you want to estimate the overall cost, you can download this cost of ownership estimator.  Just recognize that you may need to adjust some of the parameters.  For example, the default for annual maintenance expenses is 10% of the purchase price which is much higher than I have experienced – especially for newer boats.

2. Identify Boats Available in My Area

Once you have a feel for what you are looking for, the next step is to find boats in your area that match your criteria.  However, this was a major source of frustration for many of the boaters that we spoke with.  Since boats have been selling fast, many listings from private sellers were for boats no longer available.  And, dealer websites were often out of date.

Tips:

  • Popular online sources to find boats for sale include BoatTrader (new and used), Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and dealer websites.  Recognize that you might need to extend your search geography to find a boat of interest in the present environment.
  • Dealer inventories published online are often not current.  Therefore, you should call or visit dealers in your area to confirm what is, or will be, available.
  • Once you find a boat of interest, you will likely need to move quickly since boats are selling fast.  Shopping during the off-season might be helpful too.

3. Gather additional details for boat(s) of interest

After you have identified a boat or two of interest, the next step is to contact the dealer or seller to make sure the boat is still available and learn more about it.  This is especially important since the boat might be located a long distance away.  Doing your due-diligence over the phone might help you avoid a long and unnecessary trip.

Tips:

  • If buying from a private party, be sure to ask how many hours are on the engine, why they are selling it, what issues have they experienced, what defects or problems are present, and whether they have the repair/maintenance records.  Here is an excellent checklist of questions to ask when shopping for a used boat.
  • Also ask for recent photos and additional photos since many post only a limited number of images and/or the images are outdated.

4. Research prices to assess a fair value

Before you inspect the boat, you will want to do your homework to assess what you think the boat is worth.  You need to do this ahead of time because if you like what you see, you will need to move quickly to secure the deal.  Below are a couple of boat buying tips to assess a fair price for new and used boats.

Tips:

  • For used boats, go to the NADA guides to get an estimate of the depreciated value.  Also search BoatTrader.com to get prices from other sellers of the same or similar boat.
  • New boat prices are more difficult to come by.  If the manufacturer doesn’t have a set retail price (e.g., Tracker) or a Nationally Advertised Price (or NAP), you can get a feel for a fair price by taking 80% to 90% of the MSRP.  This is based on the assumption that the dealer cost is approximately 70% of the MSRP and dealers generally strive to earn a 10% to 20% margin.  Note that you might need to pay more in a tight market.

5. Assess the quality/suitability of a particular boat

This step is about physically inspecting a boat to assess whether it meets your needs and is worth the price.   For first time boat buyers, it can be a bit intimidating to know what to look for – especially if you are considering buying a used vessel.  Best to bring an experienced boater or someone with good mechanical skills with you.  Also be sure to ask for the maintenance records.

If you are considering buying an expensive boat, then it will likely be worth hiring a marine surveyor to do a comprehensive inspection.  The cost averages around $20 – $25 per foot.  Similar to inspecting a home before purchase, a marine surveyor could help point out mechanical or structural flaws to help you negotiate a better price or prevent you from making a bad investment.  Check out the National Association of Marine Surveyors or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors for a list of qualified professionals in your area.

Tips:

  • If you are looking at a used boat and it doesn’t match the seller’s description, you need to be extra cautious since you don’t know where else they might have misled you.
  • Check out this video for an overview of some of the key things to look for when purchasing a used fiberglass boat.
  • Here is a comprehensive checklist that you can print out and refer to when inspecting a used boat.
  • Ask to do a sea trial to ensure that the engine starts and runs well (used boats) and to get a feel for the ride quality and comfort of the boat. However, if you are buying in the heart of winter or from an inland dealer, this might not be possible or practical.  In which case, you should at least have them hook it up to a garden hose/ear muffs to run the engine.
  • If you are considering a new boat and the dealer doesn’t have your particular model in inventory, ask permission to contact prior customers who purchased the same or similar model to find out what they like and dislike about their boat.

6. Purchase the boat

Once you found the boat of your dreams and agreed to the price, the next step is to actually purchase it.  If buying from a dealer, this is fairly straightforward as they have people who will coordinate the paperwork and facilitate getting you the title.  They will likely offer financing too but you should still shop around to make sure you are getting the best rate.

If buying from a private seller, be sure to get the title signed over to you (if your state requires one) before you make the final payment.  You will also need a Bill of Sale (i.e., Purchase Agreement).

Tips:

  • Here is a generic Purchase Agreement from BoatUS that you can print out and complete when buying from a private seller.
  • If buying from a dealer, be sure to find out what forms of payment they accept ahead of time.  Credit cards are usually accepted for small dollar amounts/down payments only and many dealers do not take personal checks. In our study, a few individuals were very frustrated because they learned at the last minute that they had to arrange a wire transfer before they could take possession of their boat.

7. Take Possession/Delivery

Before you drive away with your boat, you will want to closely examine it to make sure that it is equipped as ordered and does not have any obvious defects (if buying new).  Also make sure all electrical equipment (e.g., fish finders, trolling motor, livewells) and major components (e.g., livewells, trailer lights, switches/gauges, bimini, etc.) are functioning properly/as expected.  It is not uncommon for even new boats to be delivered with some sort of defect.

Also, one of the biggest frustrations of boaters in our study was not getting adequate training on how to operate the features and functions of their boat.  Many dealers or sellers do not provide an adequate overview or the amount of information provided is overwhelming.  However, the boat buying tips listed below will help you better prepare for this step.

Tips:

  • Do not rely on the dealer/seller alone to proactively tell you everything you need to know about how to operate your boat.  Do your homework and develop a list of questions to ask before taking possession.
  • Here are some basic questions that you might want to add to your list:
    • How to launch and load the boat onto the trailer
    • Engine starting and engine break-in procedures (if buying new)
    • How to properly deploy and take down the bimini (if applicable)
    • Routine maintenance requirements (what to do and when)
    • How to operate electrical and plumbing systems (lights, gauges, bilge, battery switch, battery charger, livewells, ballasts, etc.)
    • Basic operation of installed equipment (e.g., stereo, fish finders, trolling motor). Note: some of these items are a bit complicated and so you will still need to refer to manufacturer information or YouTube videos for more detailed instruction.
  • Remember that after you obtain the title of your boat, you will likely need to register it before you can legally use it.  Check out this information from TakeMeFishing.org to identify the registration requirements for your particular state.

Conclusions

Buying a boat, especially in a tight market, is a bit more complicated than purchasing a TV or even an automobile.  However, if you do your homework and utilize some of the resources listed in this article, you will increase the chances of a positive boat purchase experience.  And, at the end of the day, you will likely find that it was worth the effort.  Nearly everyone we spoke with in our study, including several first-time boaters, stated that despite some of the challenges, they love boating and intend to remain a boat owner for years to come.

What boat buying tips or suggestions do you have based on your experience?  Please let us know in the comments section below.

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