Skip to main content

Decision time: Will it be new or used?

Regardless of a boat’s age, you’ll be well-served by taking an educated approach to the purchase

No matter how you look at it, there’s a buyer’s market out there ready for the picking.

Access to systems is one of many factors to consider.

If your personal situation allows, this is not the time to sit on the sidelines. Of course, the secret to success is to be a discerning buyer, and it’s hard to know how to be discriminating unless you have a clear idea what to look for in your next boat.

Let’s make sure to start from first principles. Maybe it’s time to trade down to a smaller boat, one that’s less expensive to buy and own. If you tow your boat, you might be thinking of downsizing to a smaller, more economical SUV, so maybe a smaller, lighter outboard-powered boat with a quiet, fuel-efficient 4-stroke or direct injected 2-stroke is the way to go.

Or maybe for years you’ve had a 40-foot, 30-knot, twin-engine gas express cruiser that has to be fueled up more often than you’d like, and it’s time to think about a 40-foot, 12-knot, single-diesel trawler. Or it could be that your days of climbing the ladder to the flybridge are past, and it’s time to get a similar size express- or sedan-style boat. Maybe it’s just time to get in out of the sun.

You’ll want to evaluate how you and your family actually spend time on the water. If you never overnight on board, then an open boat with a basic head may be the way to go; center consoles, dual consoles and bowriders are just the ticket here. If you head offshore regularly, hull design is more important than if you keep to inshore waters or lakes, so look for a hull with a fine entry, high chines at the bow, and more deadrise in the middle of the hull. If you fish, you’ll want rod holders and racks, a live well, fishbox, and enough range to get you out there and back with a comfortable fuel reserve (25 percent or more). If you pull the kids on skis, wakeboards or inflatables, make sure the engine has plenty of power to accelerate quickly up on plane with a full load of fuel, gear and passengers.

Whether you’re buying new or used, be careful not to choose a boat just because it’s cheap. Better to spend more on a boat that you will want to use on a regular basis than a bargain-basement model whose price is its only real attraction.

New boats

This is a great time to buy a new boat, since both builders and dealers are eager for your business. You can definitely get a deal on a new boat, whether it’s a leftover from last year (or the year before) or one fresh from the factory. It’s hard to overstate how many opportunities there are to find a great deal on a new boat through a dealer.

Buying a new boat clearly has its advantages. A new boat comes with a full warranty, and the clock doesn’t (or shouldn’t) start ticking until you buy and register it. A boat under warranty buys a lot of peace of mind in case something goes wrong. The larger and more complex the boat, the more important this becomes. It’s not all about price, either. A new boat also comes with a dealer, and assuming it’s a good dealer who will take care of you — make your happiness afloat a priority — this can make all the difference.

Used boats

It’s also an excellent time to buy a used boat. If you’re handy mechanically and can fix things yourself, or you have a trusted mechanic whose work you respect, then a real deal on a used boat — and there are a lot of them out there — is certainly worth investigating. A late-model used boat might come with the remainder of its original warranty, so check into it.

A boat being sold at auction for half of its retail value can also be a great deal, even if it needs a lot of work. For me, though, I’ve owned enough boats to stay away from ones that are great deals but will not be reliable out on the water. I’d much rather have a smaller, newer, more dependable boat than a big barge that always has something going wrong with it. Who can relax on a trouble-prone boat?

You can check the classifieds or online sites for a private sale; you’ll probably save money, but you’re also buying a pig in a poke unless you know a lot about boats or you have it surveyed. Even then, you can’t be completely sure what you’re getting, but chances are you’ll make out fine if you do your homework.

You can also buy a used boat from a dealer for a 10 percent (or so) premium, and, in fact, I’d recommend it. Look for a strong dealer that will be around to take care of you in 10 or 20 years. As technical as I am about boat design and construction, I’d take the second- or third-best boat (from my vantage point) from the superior dealer, and I’d pay a little more knowing he’s going to be there when I need him.

Hire a surveyor

When buying a used boat — aside from the usual caveats about warranties and dealers, as well as caveat emptor — what should you be looking for? It’s almost always a good idea to have a boat surveyed, for two reasons: They typically know a lot more about boats than you do, and they’re not emotionally attached to the vessel in question.

Hiring a licensed surveyor is money well spent toward peace of mind.

A good surveyor knows where to look for structural and mechanical problems that will likely elude you. While cosmetic problems — faded or cracked gelcoat, worn upholstery, bleeding stainless-steel bolts — are easy to spot, they are less consequential in the long-term for the owner. Cracked gelcoat can, of course, point to underlying structural problems, but chances are it’ll be a lot harder to spot real structural flaws in the boat’s design and construction.

Potential structural problem areas that a competent marine surveyor should be able to spot include stringer and bulkhead tabbing coming loose from the hull, water-soaked plywood limber holes or transoms, balsa or foam cores in hull sides or decks that have come detached from the surrounding fiberglass skins, leaking fuel tank hatches, hull cracks from hard groundings, leaking hull-to-deck joints, and bottom blistering. The same goes for electrical problems, such as grounds, chaffing or corrosion, or wiring that is undersized for the demand.

Make sure the ventilation system works on any gasoline-powered boat. Corrosion of below-deck metal components can be indicative of leaking deck hatches above, inadequate natural or mechanical ventilation, leaking hoses, or excessive bilge water splashing around. Be certain the fuel system is intact, which means all hose ends are properly secured; no worn, chaffed or loose fuel hoses; and no kinks in the lines, including the vent lines. Make sure tanks are dry all around on the outside and that the tank can be inspected or replaced without cutting the deck, which, of course, requires a deck hatch directly above that’s slightly larger than the fuel tank.

Stuck bilge pump float switches, detached bilge pump or scupper drain lines, foamed-in aluminum fuel tanks that will corrode early and fast, pinched polypropylene fuel tanks with insufficient room to expand on first fill-up, cleats or windshield-wiper motors that leak through the deck and into the cabin — the list of what you and your surveyor should look for goes on.

The second reason to pay a surveyor is the emotional detachment factor. These are “just the facts, ma’am” kind of people who can help keep you from making a foolish decision. If you’re at the point of hiring a surveyor, you’ve also already made the commitment emotionally to buying the boat, and the survey itself is, hopefully, a mere formality. Think of the surveyor as substituting for the temporarily malfunctioning/misfiring rational left side of your brain.

Of course, a survey report can also be a negotiating tool to work the price down. If there’s something substantially wrong with the boat, this is another practical application of the document that may actually make it pay for itself all over again. In addition to the survey, check out the Coast Guard boating safety Web site ( to see if there are any recalls or manufacturer defects reported for the boat. BoatU.S. ( is also a great resource for buyers, on a number of fronts.

Sea trial

I always recommend a test ride before buying. Even though it may seem silly to take the time to do this — especially in a small, simply equipped boat — better to find out before you buy it that it rides hard and wet, barely gets up on plane when fully loaded, is loud and smoky, and that the roll period is too stiff or too tender.

If you don’t go for a test ride, you may discover the hard way that it takes your 35-foot inboard 55 seconds to do a 360-degree turn at cruise speed (instead of 20 or 25 seconds), that the bright white topsides blind you in bright sunlight, the cleats are too small or hard to reach from inside the boat, the ski-jump foredeck is too steep to traverse absent being on belay, or you can’t stand comfortably at the wheel or see over the bow. Also, the self-bailing cockpit is an inch above sea level with a light load, the berths are only long enough to lie down in a fetal position, the non-skid isn’t, the canvas leaks, the windshield wipers don’t work, the windshield frame cuts through your standing line of sight, the windlass jams, and so on.

No matter how well a used boat comes through the survey, set aside at least 10 percent of the price for short-term repairs or modifications.

Part of due diligence when buying a used boat is asking for the service records. If there are no records, then either avoid the boat altogether or look a lot harder at it before making an offer. And, of course, all of the things you or your surveyor would look for in a used boat serve as a good checklist when buying a new boat, including the sea trial.

Credit crunch?

Contrary to what you might have read or been told, if you have decent credit you can still get a boat loan. Financial experts say you will likely have to put 20 percent down, instead of 10 percent or even nothing, but plenty of banks will be glad to finance your purchase. It’s smart to reduce the loan term to the minimum possible since, as with any mortgage, the longer the term, the more you pay over time.

One favor the banks are doing us by increasing the down payment is that your loan likely won’t be upside down — that is, when the boat is worth less than the loan balance. Financing terms are often the same with new and used boats as far as your interest rate and down payment go, but terms for older used boats may be more difficult to meet than for newer ones. After the first few years of ownership, used boats depreciate less in value than for newer models, so that’s an argument for buying a 2- to 3-year-old boat. It’s probably had little use, but it’s taken a hit value-wise and will likely represent a good deal if it’s been cared for and the price is right.

How do you know how much to pay for a used boat? You can go to your local public library or surf the Internet and look up ABOS, NADA and BUC price guidelines. You can also go to,, and other sites to see what the asking price (not the actual transaction price) is for similar models. Another superb resource not to be ignored is my book, “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” You’ll find everything you ever cared to know about boats — and a lot more that you don’t.

No matter how well the used boat comes through the survey, set aside at least 10 percent of the price for short-term repairs or modifications. Whether anything actually breaks or wears out, there will inevitably be further purchases to bring it up to speed: new cup holders, upholstery, rod holders, dock lines, a second anchor, life jackets that fit your kids, a new VHF or GPS, fresh bottom paint, side curtains, and so on. Whatever the boat’s price tag, don’t forget to add sales or excise taxes, as well as the yearly cost of maintenance, dockage and storage, insurance and fuel.

The bottom line is there are deals to be had on both new and used boats. Now is a great time to buy. Know what you can reasonably afford, and stay within your budget. Buy a boat built by a financially strong manufacturer and sold by a solid dealer who will be there to take care of you long after the sale. Happy hunting!

Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.