The sticker price of a boat is just the beginning. Learn about the total cost of ownership or you'll quickly sink your savings.
Buying a boat is not for the frugal-minded. Take it from Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson, who’s been a boat owner for years…
Boats – especially bigger ones, and ones kept in or near salt water – are tremendously expensive to keep in top shape and require nearly constant maintenance. I used to think my Harley was expensive to maintain, but my boat makes my bike seem practically free.
In addition to maintenance, there’s fuel. If you think gas prices for your car are bad, don’t buy a boat. “Filling the 140-gallon gas tank on my twin-engine 30-foot Bertram now costs more than $700. Take it out for the day, and you’ll literally burn $100 or more,” Stacy says. “Of course, not all boats use that much gas, but it underlines the need to consider the cost of running a boat before you buy one.”
In the video below, you can take a closer look at Stacy’s boat and hear more tips to buoy your buying experience. Then read more details aft…
Now let’s recap Stacy’s advice and add a little more detail…
1. Consider renting
You heard the captain: “The best boat is someone else’s.”
As with a car, buying a boat is only the beginning. Also necessary are fuel, maintenance, storage, and insurance. In most places suitable for boating, you can rent one for less than it costs to maintain one.
“I could rent a cabin cruiser similar to mine for $700 a day. Sounds like a lot, and it is. But for the amount I’ve been able to use my boats over the years, I’d probably have come out ahead,” admits Stacy, who figures he spends at least $5,000 a year just in maintenance on his 1985 boat – and he does a lot of the work himself.
In some parts of the country, there are also ownership clubs that allow you to purchase a number of hours on a variety of boats. They’re not inexpensive, but they may ultimately be less costly than ownership, and also allow the opportunity to experience different boats. Carefree Boat Club is one example, and Freedom Boat Club is another. You can do an Internet search for “Boat Rental Clubs” and see what’s available in your area.
2. Size matters
Unlike cars, boats come in a nearly infinite variety of sizes with a similar number of configurations and options. But unless you’re made of money, bigger isn’t better when it comes to boats. The bigger the boat, the more everything costs, from docking to fuel. So if you’re buying, aim for the smallest, simplest boat that meets your needs. Start by thinking about what you’ll use it for: family outings? Cocktail parties? Fishing? Water sports? There are online calculators that can help with the selection process, like DiscoverBoating.com’s boat selector.
Knowing how and where you’ll use a boat will narrow the list of options. From there, research specific brands and models – and seek out people who already own them for advice and information about the total cost of ownership. They might also offer tips on boats for sale. Online forums abound, from iboats to BoaterEd to our favorite name, The Hull Truth. You can also do a search for specific brand: For example, here’s one for Sea Ray owners, and here’s one for Bayliner owners. Forums like these can be a great place to get the straight scoop on the maintenance cost and potential problems of various brands.
3. Make your new boat an old boat
As Stacy mentioned, boat values sink fast – PowerBoat Buyer’s Guide says yachts from brand-name manufacturers “typically retain roughly 50 percent of their original purchase price after five years of ownership.”
So when it comes to depreciation, boats are a lot like cars. But there’s a big difference: We use our cars daily. Consider a $100,000 boat that you use once a month. If it loses $20,000 in value the first year, you paid $1,666 ($20,000 divided by 12) per outing.
On the plus side, a well-maintained used boat can be purchased inexpensively and can keep its value indefinitely. Stacy’s 1985 Bertram, for example, is worth more than he paid for it: tough to do with a car. Of course, that’s after he put a lot of time and some money into it.
So consider buying used. You can research prices free with the NADA Boat Guide. But boat values vary widely depending on condition, season, equipment, location, and many other factors, so guides should be considered just that: guides. To learn prices in your area, look at sale prices on eBay or Craigslist.
Unlike cars, boats have myriad manufacturers. Sticking to locally popular brands will help when it’s time to sell. How do you know what brands are popular in your area? Check the classifieds.
Don’t even think of buying a used boat, however, without a detailed professional inspection. Look up a professional surveyor through the National Association of Marine Surveyors.
Regardless of whether you buy new or used, the best time to get a bargain is in the offseason – at the end and start of the year, when people can’t enjoy them and are only thinking about the storage and maintenance costs. Major boat shows also take place early in the year. That’s when new models are shown off and boat lovers from around the world dock and talk. It’s a great time to get opinions from experts, learn about different models, and see how they’re priced.
4. Make sure you have time
Even though Stacy’s boat sits on the water just 20 feet behind his office, 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,” he says. “And my boat’s already in the water. If it was in a marina, I’d probably be too busy to ever use it.”
Before buying, take a good look at your calendar. Think about how much free time you’re going to have and how hard it’s going to be to actually get out and enjoy your purchase. Be realistic. 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 hundred million dollars in largely unused boats.”