The Smart Buyer: Get to know the boat you're going to buy

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Few purchases generate the excitement and anticipation that buying a boat does. You spend hours reading boating magazines and scanning the Web, dreaming of summer fun and cruising adventures. When the time comes to look at a boat, it’s easy to throw objectivity to the wind. This can make assessing a boat’s suitability for your needs very challenging.

If you find a boat you like at a show, make arrangements to spend more time with it after the show closes.

Let’s say you’re looking for a boat aboard which you can sleep, eat and cruise, perhaps for a good period of time. It could be a 28-foot express cruiser, a 38-foot Down Easter, a 48-foot trawler or a 58-foot motoryacht. With any boat, there will be characteristics that don’t come to light until you’ve spent some time aboard. However, you don’t want to discover after buying a cruising boat and logging some time on it that there is something you really don’t care for.

I know a married couple who bought a new boat but weren’t using it much. I asked Ellen why, and she said her husband would no longer sleep aboard. Turns out he couldn’t sleep with the sound of the water slapping under the swim platform. This was an aft-cabin model with a molded-in swim platform, and the slightest ripple of water would get trapped under it and resonate into the cabin. They put the boat up for sale shortly thereafter.

I don’t believe the buying process lends itself to spending enough time on a boat before buying. You become so excited about the opportunity that you’re prone to leaving your judgment on the pier with your shoes when you step aboard. Good salespeople can help guide you through the process, but only you can determine whether a boat fits your needs or has traits you will later find unacceptable.

If you slow the buying process and spend as much time as possible aboard a boat you are considering, much can be revealed that you may not have previously noticed. One manufacturer whose boat we were looking at encouraged this. He opened the boat one morning and said we could stay as long as we liked; he even had lunch delivered. Of course, he was hoping our time aboard would show us all of the wonderful aspects of his boat and result in a sale. It did not. Just as valuably for us, it brought several things to light that helped us realize we had to continue our search — and this was a boat we had fallen in love with at a show. Boat shows are wonderful, but it’s the buyer’s responsibility to get the most out of looking at a boat by being properly prepared and examining the right aspects closely.

Every boat is a compromise, and as much as we love ours, it also has a few features that we don’t like. The goal when shopping is to keep those things to a minimum. Going through the boat and performing routine activities will go a long way in helping you determine whether a boat is right for you. Here are some steps you can take to help you see past the excitement and novelty to the reality.

Bring a couple of dock lines aboard and move around the boat as if you were getting ready to dock. Is it easy to set them? We once had a boat with poorly placed amidships cleats, making it difficult to properly set spring lines. Simulate going through a few maintenance exercises, such as checking or changing the oil, checking the air conditioning filters or cleaning shower sumps. Are key service points easy to access? Spend time in the galley and think through where you will store everything.

Take lots of photographs. If you are looking at several comparable models, this will help you evaluate the differences among them. Try to visit the boat on a rainy, windy day — of course, you will be boating in these conditions at some point. We once had a boat with such a poorly designed enclosure system that the upper helm and cockpit would get soaked in even a light rain. You stand a much better chance of getting things corrected to your liking when the sale depends on it.

Yes, boats are compromises, but taking the time to minimize things that might bother you will translate to years of happy ownership and cruising.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.