Chapter 3: Best Places to Shop for Boats

This is the third of a 10-part series on how to buy a boat.   You can see Chapter 2 – Establishing a Budget here.

Now that you have an idea of what type of boat to purchase and approximately how much you want to spend, the next step is to locate candidate boats for sale near you.

However, the process is slightly different depending on whether you are wanting to buy a New or Used boat.

New or Used?

Approximately 3 out of 4 first time boat buyers start with a used boat.  This is because they are more affordable and it is a good way to learn how to “do boating” and figure out if it is something you want to do long-term without investing a lot of money.

For people who have owned multiple boats, the mix is about 50/50 new vs. used.  Some reasons for buying new is that you can get exactly what you want, you can get access to the latest and greatest technology, you don’t have to worry about “buying someone else’s problems”, and you get a full warranty.

Whether to go with a new or used boat is largely a matter of personal preference and depends, in part, on your financial situation.  In my experience in doing studies with boaters for over three decades, I have found that many people first decide what type, size and quality of boat they want and if they can get that new at a price they can afford, then they will consider new.  Otherwise, they will go the used route.

So, given this, a good practice is to start by looking at new boats.  If you can’t afford it, then you can eliminate that option.  If you can afford it, you might still prefer to ultimately buy used but at least you will have a basis for comparison.

Shopping for New Boats

If you are at least considering buying a new boat, it is hard to beat going to a boat show if there is one in your area.  It is a rare opportunity to compare brands side by side.  Plus, dealers often offer their best prices at that time.  Competiton has a way of doing that.

However, if a boat show is not available in your area or will not be around anytime soon, then you need to decide whether to shop by boat brand or by dealer.

  • Shop by Boat Brand

If you are very particular or have some specific needs, then it may be best to start by figuring out which candidate brand(s) most appeal to you.  Recognize, however, that you might have to travel hundreds of miles to see a boat in person since there might not be a dealer that carries that particular brand near you.  If you don’t already have some brands in mind, start by visiting the Manufacturer Directory on BoaterInput.com.  Here you will find a comprehensive list of brands for boats manufactured in the US.  Use the drop-down list at the top of the page to filter the list by the type of boat you are interested in.

In some cases, there will be dozens of brands to choose from which can be a bit overwhelming.  In that situation, I suggest you make a quick pass through all the manufacturer websites initially and look at the models available.  Don’t spend a lot of time at this point going through all the details or trying to configure each boat the way you want it using their “build a boat” tool.  Just make a list of the brands that jump out at you – even if you are uncertain why.  After you have looked at several sites, you will likely start to see patterns in terms of what things appeal or don’t appeal to you.  Once you finished your first pass and made your preliminary list, then you can go back and spend more time with the ones that looked most promising.

  • Shop by Dealer

 Unless you plan to do most of your maintenance and repairs, finding a quality dealer near you is important for having a positive boat ownership experience.  In this case, the list of candidate boat brands available to you will be somewhat limited by what area dealers carry.  To find a list of dealers, do a Google search of “Boat dealers near me” or use this U.S. dealer locator tool from Discover Boating (click here for the Canadian dealer locator).  From there, check out the dealer sites to see which types and brands they carry.  Some dealer sites will even post their current inventory.  However, one word of caution – the list of boats in stock is often outdated – especially during the peak boating season.  This was a huge frustration with boaters I spoke with who were shopping for a boat during the “Covid boom”.  The key lesson is before you make a trip to check out a particular model, be sure to call ahead to make sure that boat is still in inventory.

  • Get a Rough Idea of the Cost

One challenge when shopping for a new boat vs. used is that the actual price is often not disclosed but rather is negotiated.  This can be frustrating because you don’t want to waste your time or the dealer’s chasing a boat that you cannot afford or is more than you care to spend.

To get a feel for the actual price of a new boat, you need to first figure out what type of pricing model the manufacturer or dealer is using.  Depending on the type they are using will dictate how closely the listed price is to what you might realistically have to pay.  The three main pricing models are as follows:

    • Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

This is the most commonly used pricing model and is set artificially high to give dealers flexibility in what they charge based on their market, the time of year, and consumer demand.  To give you a sense of what you might expect to pay based on a MSRP, I’ve created this new boat price estimator tool based on knowledge of the dealer cost vs. the MSRP and their desired margins to make a fair profit.

    • Nationally Advertised Price (NAP)

NAP is used by manufacturers to enable them to promote an attractive price point.  There might still be some room to negotiate but the amount of discount (if any) would be far less than that if working from a MSRP.  Be aware, however, that there still might be additional charges for things like dealer prep and freight.

    • No Haggle Pricing

This is really a variant of NAP and is commonly used by the Bass Pro Shops family of brands.  With this, there really is no negotiating the price – regardless of whether you buy the boat at a Bass Pro Shops retail store or from one of their independent dealers.  However, dealer prep and freight might vary depending on the location.

You can learn more about the different pricing models from my article here.

Shopping for Used Boats

Not that long ago, when I asked people where they found their used boat, the most common answer by far was Craigslist. That is no longer the case. Because of security concerns and the growth of dedicated online marketplaces for boats, CL has fallen out of favor. However, here are some places you should check out to help find the boat of your dreams.

  • Popular Online Marketplaces for Boats

 There are over a dozen online classified sites for buying and selling boats. Check out my previous article on the Best Places to Buy a Boat Online for a list of various resources. Here are the ones you should minimally check out as part of your boat search:

    • BoatTrader: Part of the Boats Group, BoatTrader is the largest dedicated online classified site for boats and is a great place to start.
    • Yacht World: As the name implies, this site focuses more on larger boats and is also a part of the Boats Group family.  However, be aware that if you pursue a listing on this site, you will be dealing with a boat broker instead of a private party.
    • Boats.com: An early player in the online boat shopping space, Boats.com joined forces with BoatTrader in 2010 as part of the Boats Group conglomerate.  However, all three of these affiliated sites tend to carry a different mix of boat listings.
    • iBoats: One of the oldest online classified sites for boaters, iBoats offers new and used boats (as do most online classified sites) along with a variety of parts and accessories, and is home to one of the largest boating forums on the internet.
    • POP Yachts: The name POP stands for “Paid on Performance”.  Similar to Yacht World, this is a commission-based site that specializes in larger boats.
    • Facebook Marketplace: Since launching in 2016, this general merchandise marketplace has become a popular place to buy boats in your local area and has taken over the role once served by Craigslist – largely because you can “screen” prospective buyers and sellers by checking out their profile.  To find boat listings, click on the Marketplace symbol at the top of the Facebook page and then select Vehicles > Vehicle Type > Boats.
  • Niche Sites

In addition to the above, there are also a number of sites that specialize in specific types of boats including Bass Boats, PWCs, Pontoons and Inboards.  Though they don’t have the total volume of the ones listed above, they might be worth checking out depending on the type of boat you are interested in.

  • Set Alerts

Prior to the start of the boat season or when boats are in high demand, it is important to check out new boat listings very quickly.  During the height of the covid boom, boats were commonly sold the same day and for the full asking price.  Fortunately, many of the online classified sites – including the smaller ones – let you save your search and will notify you if a new listing pops up that meets your criteria.  Not only will this help you find boats, it is also a great time-savings approach since you do not need to continually revisit sites and enter your search criteria.  For this reason, I suggest you do this on some of the smaller sites, not just the larger ones, because you really only have to do this once.  Again, to see a broader list of places to buy boats online, check out my previous article here.

Do Your “Presearch”

Whether you are contemplating buying New or Used, it is a good idea to do your homework and check out any boat brands, models or dealers if you are not already familiar with them.  This may help you save time and perhaps uncover issues or concerns before traveling across town or half-way across the country to look at a boat.

Below are some resources you might want to check out to help you with your “presearch”:

  • Boat Buyers Guides: Developed based on input from the BoaterInput community, these guides will help you identify the most important factors and what to look for when shopping for various types of boats.
  • BoaterInput Reviews: A unique aspect of BoaterInput is that it is a place where boaters can post unbiased reviews for boats, motors and other marine equipment.  Be sure to check out reviews for the type of boat you are interested in.
  • Talk to other boaters:  If you have family, friends or colleagues who are boat owners, be sure to ask their opinions.  Even if they do not own the brand or model of boat you are interested in, if they own the same general type there is a good chance they will be familiar with the reputation of various makes.  Plus, they could share their experiences and opinions of area dealers to help you decide who to do business with (especially if buying new or to find out where to get service).
  • Forums and FB Groups: Think of these as your virtual friends for boating advice.  Most people who are active on forums are very willing and eager to help out.  Perhaps the best forum out there, especially for saltwater boats, is The Hull Truth.  Of course, there are many others that specialize in different types and brands of boats.   Just search “<boat type> forums” or “<boat brand> forums” to get a list.   Once you find some, simply join and then pose a question about a particular brand or model of interest.  And, if you are a new boater, be sure to reference that in your question.  This will help you to receive a deeper explanation and help ward off “know it all” responses.

Similar to forums are Facebook Groups.  Some specialize in a particular boat type, brand, activity or location.  (Brand) owner groups are particularly helpful because you can read through prior posts to get a sense of owner satisfaction or any recurring issues.  Simply click on the magnifying glass near the top of the Facebook page to find groups of interest and then request to join.

In addition to the above, there are numerous boating and fishing magazines and “test” sites that provide reviews of boats and equipment.  These are often helpful to get a walk-through of the product and to learn about various features.  However, a word of caution – most of these “reviews” are either paid for, or done on the behalf of, marine advertisers and so the information provided is often not completely objective.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

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