5 things to consider when sailboat shopping

Adventure 4 min read

It all starts with a dream. Romantic sailing scenes fill your head. You can see yourself at the helm with the wind billowing through your shirt and the misty salt air settling on your cheeks … What an incredible feeling of freedom!

If you’ve decided it’s time to turn the dream into a reality, there are no romantic visions of sifting through boat listings, haul outs and surveys.

My husband and I recently purchased a 43 ft. catamaran and were mentally exhausted by the end of the process. It’s a long journey filled with peaks and valleys ranging from searching for the right boat to negotiating, documenting, getting insured and closing.

We’re not sailboat buying experts, but we did luck out with a solid team of professionals. They helped prepare and navigate us through the journey and we learned a ton. Here are our five biggest takeaways to consider when sailboat shopping.

1. Choose the right boat for your needs

Figuring out which sailboat is right for you requires some serious self-evaluation. The boats we looked at in the beginning vs. the boats that were serious contenders in the end were very different. Mostly because, in the beginning, we weren’t asking ourselves the right questions to lead us to the right boats.

Think about how you plan to use this boat now and in the immediate future (not in the distant future, i.e., retirement). To narrow down the type of boat and size that will be best for you, ask yourself questions such as:

  • What’s the best type of boat for my needs: sloop, ketch, catamaran?
  • How many people will be on board?
  • Where will I be sailing: lake, river, coastal cruising, crossing oceans?
  • How long will I be sailing: weekends, extended trips, live aboard?
  • How important is sailing speed and performance? (Comfort sometimes comes at the cost of speed.)
  • What’s your budget? (Don’t forget to save plenty for maintenance and outfitting the boat.)

2. Beware of the fixer upper

We must have been warned about buying a fixer upper from every sailor we know and I have to agree. Unless you are looking for a project, buying a fixer upper won’t necessarily save you a lot of money in the end, and it could delay you from actually sailing.

“There will be plenty of work to be done, don’t add to the list,” they would say. It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the cost of parts and repairs and overestimate your ability to do the work yourself.

This is one of those moments where you’ll have to assess your wants, needs, time available and skill set. If you have the time, skills and desire, there are A LOT of fantastic boats floating around disguised as lonely derelicts. We wanted to hit the water quick, so we only considered well-maintained boats.

3. Consider a buyer’s broker

We decided to go with a broker because we wanted someone with experience on our side. Plus, as buyers, the broker didn’t cost us a penny because it’s the seller who pays the broker fees. We had an incredibly dedicated broker who was just as determined to see us in the right boat as we were. He helped steer us away from potentially bad boats and taught us a lot about what to look for. Not to mention the days and hours he saved us by sifting through the overwhelming listings and calling to pre-qualify the boats before viewing.

4. Importance of a survey

Do not skip this step! Much like the home buying process, it’s important to have a professional inspection to make sure there are no crazy electrical issues, major foundation problems, etc. Boats go through a similar quality check process called the survey and sea trial.

You will want to search out an accredited marine surveyor who is a member of SAMS or ACMS and specializes in sailboats. A good surveyor will go over the boat with a fine-tooth comb from top to bottom and inside out. Unless you’ve had training, and a lot of experience, you may not see the signs of problems that a surveyor should find.

A good survey could save you thousands and the sea trial could save you from buying a boat that doesn’t perform as expected. The survey is also a fantastic negotiating tool. Problems found in a survey can be used as bargaining chips to reduce the purchase price. Typically, you can save more than the cost of the survey (we certainly did).

5. Be present for the survey

 I can’t begin to tell you how much we learned about our boat during our survey. It was an eight-hour training session filled with details and tips on how to spot problems, complete repairs and how soon those repairs should be made. It’s a prime time for asking questions, taking notes and getting to know your potential boat. The more you understand about the problems and repairs, the more negotiating power you’ll have and the more prepared for ownership you’ll be.

There’s certainly more to consider when buying a sailboat, but fortunately it all comes in phases. Take it one step at a time and take time to do your research. If you’re not sure where to begin, start your research at one of the many boat shows. You’ll meet fellow sailors, see different boat styles, layouts and have the opportunity to chat with the boat builders.

Happy shopping and I hope I see you out on the water!

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