A guide for buying a boat for the first time

Buying a new boat can be broken down into steps. The first is to research the type of boat to buy – understand your needs and budget, and shop for the best loan rate if you're financing the purchase. Then, shop for the boat itself. Consider taking a couple you're most interested in for a test drive (called a "sea trial," even if it's on a lake) and find a boat insurance policy that offers the right protection for you and your watercraft.

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Research the type of boat you want to buy

With so many options, the best way to buy a boat is to narrow your search to manageable choices. Knowing how you'll use the boat, including your activities, how many passengers you'll have, and your storage needs can help determine the type of boat that's best for you.

Consider how you might use a boat to help narrow your options. Leisurely fishing on a lake or pond lends itself to one kind of boat. Wakeboarding lends itself to another type entirely. If you plan to keep the boat for several years, think about how many passengers you will have in your boat and how comfortable your passengers will be.

Storage is an additional consideration. If you plan to keep your boat on a trailer and drive it around to multiple bodies of water, you may lean toward a smaller boat.

What size boat is good for a beginner?

Smaller boats are often easier to handle, ideal for a new boater. However, if you'll be bringing more than a few passengers on your boat, you'll need a bigger boat size. Generally, a twenty-foot watercraft is needed for six passengers. Keep in mind, bigger boats may require more skill to operate and may not be the best fit for an inexperienced boater.

First-time boat buyers may not be familiar with the differences between inboard and outboard engines, pod drive, and sterndrive engines. Buying a beginner boat without complex controls and systems can be a good way to introduce you to boating. Knowing how you'll use the boat will help you narrow down the engine options when you shop and test drive the boats.

Determine your budget and payment options

If you don't have the cash on hand to buy your first boat outright, you have a few different financing options. They'll depend on whether you buy from a dealer or a private party. You'll also want to learn about the cost of boat insurance, so you can keep it in mind when calculating the cost of owning a boat.

  • Dealer loan: A boat dealership will offer new and used boat loans like a car dealership. You may be able to get a better rate elsewhere.
  • Marine lender: There are finance companies that specialize in boat loans. You can compare rates and get preapproved when buying from a dealer.
  • Home equity: You'd be paying with the funds from a refinance with cash out, a second mortgage, a home equity loan, or a home equity line of credit.

What is a good price to pay for a boat?

The right price for a boat always depends on what kind of watercraft you desire and the condition of the vessel. A used, small runabout may be less than a few thousand dollars. Even pontoon and deck boats, once considered inexpensive, can sell new for $50,000 and higher. Sailboats may be priced similarly, but larger ones can exceed $100,000. Yachts, of course, can range in price from $250,000 to hundreds of millions.

Find boats for sale

Once you've narrowed your choices and budget, it's time to check out some boats. You have a few boat buying options from which to choose. Some of these options will give you more peace of mind about the purchase than others because you'll be able to conduct a sea trial (the boating equivalent of a test drive) first.

  • Boat dealership: Visit a boat dealership to see different makes and models.
  • Boat show: Manufacturers and dealers are there to show off new boats and, more importantly, to sell them. If you're serious about buying a boat at a boat show, know that the availability of sea trials may be limited.
  • Online services: You can buy new and used boats through online services from boat dealers and private parties. A sea trial with a specific boat may be hard to come by when you buy online, so proceed cautiously.
  • Boat manufacturer: Most large boat manufacturers sell their new boats through dealerships. Boats from smaller companies may not be as widely available.
  • From a private party: You can find good bargains, but it's essential to be cautious.

What month is best to buy a boat?

Fall and winter months are generally best for boat-buying because, in many states, boating season has concluded and boat dealers are selling inventory at discounted prices. Additionally, private sellers may price their boat more competitively, knowing that potential buyers won't be able to use the boat for months. Learn more about the best time to buy a boat.

Pro tip:

A marine survey is an inspection of the quality of the boat. While a marine survey isn't usually necessary when considering buying a new boat, you may want to consider getting a marine survey when purchasing a more expensive used boat.

Negotiate the price and make your offer to buy a boat

You've found the perfect boat. Now it's time to close the deal and handle the paperwork. You can negotiate the price of a boat if you're buying at a dealership, a boat show, or in person from a private party. Consider your timing and be prepared to walk away. It's difficult to do, especially when you've spent time and feel emotionally invested.

Purchase a boat insurance policy

Only two states mandate boat insurance, but many marinas, both public and private, mandate liability coverage and require proof of insurance to dock your boat or take it out on the water. Also, if you're financing your boat, your lender will typically require boat comprehensive and collision coverage. Learn more about how boat insurance works and boat insurance requirements in your state.

Get your new boat registered

If you're buying a boat from a dealership, they will help you get all the paperwork sorted and fees paid. Whether you're buying from a dealership or a private party, you may need to obtain the title to the boat and register the boat, depending on your state and the size and type of your boat.

Check with your state to learn how to register your boat. It may be through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or a department that focuses on outdoor recreation (e.g., the Department of Fish and Game). When buying a used boat from a private party, you'll want to make sure that it's their boat to sell and that there are no liens (claims to secure debts) against the boat. Details vary by state, but vessels over a certain length may require a boat title. Under the mandated size, a bill of sale may serve as proof of ownership.

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