7 Tips for Buying a Boat Without Sinking Your Finances

Do you find yourself itching to get out on the water? Here’s what you need to factor in if you want to join the rising tide of boat owners.


Whether paddling across a pond in a 6-foot canoe or putting out to sea in a 60-foot yacht, boating is back — big time.

With the onset of warm weather, you may be tempted to plunge into boating, too.

As it turns out, you don’t have to be rich to own a boat. The National Marine Manufacturers Association says 72 percent of American boat owners have household incomes of less than $100,000 each.

But you do want to chart a sensible course for your money.

Americans spent $36.8 billion on recreational boating in 2013, the latest full-year figures available, NMMA says. That money went not only for new and pre-owned boats but also for engines, trailers, accessories and services, including fuel, repair, storage, insurance and taxes.

Still, if you want to dive in, you won’t be alone. Sales were expected to show a 5 to 7 percent increase when 2014 final figures are tallied and rise another 5 percent in 2015, NMMA says.

In the first nine months of 2014 alone, new boat sales were up 9.4 percent year-over-year to 210,200 units, according to Info-Link, the third year in a row of sales gains after they had tumbled with the recession in 2008.

America’s got 12 million registered boats – that’s more boats than people who live in Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, Nebraska and Maine combined. The owners may say “come on in, the water’s fine,” but the costs can poke holes in your finances, so study your options carefully. That may even include sailing off in someone else’s boat.

Chart shows boating sales are rising, says the National Marine Manufacturers AssociationBoating sales are rising, says the National Marine Manufacturers Association

Focus your search

In 2014, the strongest sales came from new ski/wakeboard boats, pontoon boats, aluminum fishing boats, fiberglass runabouts and personal watercraft, NMMA says. Sales of larger cruising boats also started to see an uptick. But how do you know what’s right for you? Take into account your activities first, then look at preferences such as passengers, propulsion and transportability.

Start with these questions:

What will you use your boat for?

That should be your first question, experts say.

Fishing is the No. 1 answer, followed by tubing and water skiing, the NMMA says. Other top reasons include cruising and sailing. Buy the simplest, cheapest boat for your use, Money Talks News financial expert Stacy Johnson says. Discoverboating.com‘s interactive online guide starts with your expected activities.

Do you really have time to enjoy your boat?

Stacy’s 30-foot cabin cruiser sits on the water just 20 feet behind his office, but he has said he only gets out on it about once a month. “I try to use it once a week, but it usually doesn’t work out that way. If it was in a marina, I’d probably be too busy to ever use it.”

As Stacy wrote in 8 Things Rich People Buy That Make Them Look Dumb, “If you take a ride down the Intracoastal Waterway here in Fort Lauderdale, within 5 miles you’ll pass more than a $100 million in largely unused boats.”

However, Americans are taking to the water in record numbers, NMMA says. Of the 242 million U.S. adults, 89 million, or more than one in three, participated in recreational boating at least once during 2013 — up 1 percent from 2012. The average use: 26 days. Consider renting. Even at $700 a day, that’s far less than the average of $34,838 NMMA says was spent for a new outboard boat.

Think you need a bigger boat?

Ninety-five percent of U.S. boats on the water are 26 feet or less, NMMA says. Consider how many passengers you want to carry, none to 20-plus. Do you need room for parties, a kitchen, sleeping quarters? Or just a place to sit alone as you drop a fishing line into a lake? The bigger the boat, generally, the more expensive it is to operate.

Your annual expenses can easily top $10,000. Start with registration and insurance that can run about $700 annually for that average-priced boat. Fuel is running around $3.50 to $4 a gallon for gasoline, higher for diesel this year according to some reports. Your 150-horsepower engine would burn about 15 gallons per hour at full throttle, less for cruising — so the proverbial three-hour cruise could still top $100 (that’s $2,600 a year if you took it out the average 26 times).

Don’t forget about moorage typically varying from $1.50 to $15 per foot per day depending where you stay; plus dry docking in the offseason, launch and lift-out fees, hull cleaning and treatment, engine maintenance, sail and line replacements for sailboats, equipment from fire extinguishers to life jackets, and stocking your boat with goodies, water skis, dinghies and more.

Where will you keep it?

Some people want to tote their boats on trailers and explore a variety of waterways; others dock at homeport marinas. Typical trailerable maximums run up to 30 feet long (most are less) and 8.5 feet wide. The bigger the boat, the larger and stronger the trailer and car or truck you’ll need to pull it. As size increases, you may need permits or professionals to move your boat. Also consider the cost of storage options when you’re not using your boat for long periods.

What should propel your boat?

Sales of powerboats were up 2.4 percent in 2013. That includes outboard, sterndrive, inboard and jet boats. Maybe you prefer paddles or wind power (although most sailboats come with small engines to keep you going when the wind dies).

New or used?

Americans bought an estimated 955,300 pre-owned boats (power, personal watercraft and sail) in 2013, NMMA says. They are far less expensive than new boats because they have already depreciated. New boat depreciation is at its highest during the first season of use. Depreciation on a used boat kept in good condition should level out with proper maintenance and equipment improvements. Before buying used, Stacy says, have the boat checked out by a professional, who may be found through the National Association of Marine Surveyors to determine its condition and value.

Where do I get started?

Online. Most brands have owners clubs where you can chat with people who have been there, done that. They might also offer tips on boats for sale. Among online forums are iboats, BoaterEd and The Hull Truth, or for specific brands such as Sea Ray or Bayliner. Also, visit a boat show where you can examine each model in person and discuss your wants and needs with dealers and experts. Although many are held over the winter, some are still ahead from Sarasota to San Diego.

While the best time to buy is the offseason, you can still save money on your boat purchase during the spring and summer surge by following these tips.

Are you a boat enthusiast, interested in plunging into this market, or poking around on the beach, wondering if there is a cautious way in? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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