It’s Boating Season: How to Buy a Boat and Not Sink Your Budget

Do you find yourself itching to get out on the water? Consider these seven questions before you join the rising tide of boat owners.

Are you eyeballing a vessel to get you out on the water this summer? If so, you’re in good company. Since the end of the Great Recession, recreational boat ownership has been surging. In 2016, boat sales grew about 5 percent over the previous year (based on partial data from states) continuing a five-year trend, according to , a publication for the marine industry.

As it turns out, you don’t have to be rich to own a boat. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) says 72 percent of American boat owners have household incomes of less than $100,000 each.

But you do want to chart a sensible course for your money — by choosing a boat that you can afford to buy and afford to maintain.

(And, then, if it looks like boating may punch too many holes in your budget, don’t worry. There are some great ways you can tap into the experience without actually owning the boat. Check out: “Buy the Fun, Not the Yacht.”)

The array of possible vessels is mind-boggling, including things as different as ski/wakeboard boats, pontoon boats, aluminum fishing boats, fiberglass runabouts and sailboats designed for ocean cruising. But how do you know what’s right for you? Take into account your activities first, then look at preferences such as passengers, propulsion and transportability.

Before you start shopping, ask yourself these seven questions:

1. What will you use your boat for?

That should be your first question, experts say.

Fishing is the No. 1 answer, followed by tubing and water skiing, the NMMA says. Other top reasons include cruising and sailing. Buy the simplest, cheapest boat for your use, financial expert and Florida boat owner Stacy Johnson advises. offers a handy interactive guide that starts with your expected activities.

2. Do you really have time to enjoy your boat?

Stacy’s 30-foot cabin cruiser sits on the water just 20 feet behind his office, but he has said 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. If it was in a marina, I’d probably be too busy to ever use it.”

And this is a common story.

“If you take a ride down the Intracoastal Waterway here in Fort Lauderdale, within 5 miles you’ll pass more than a $100 million in largely unused boats,” he writes.

If you love boating, but really don’t have much time for it, consider renting.

3. Think you need a bigger boat?

Ninety-five percent of U.S. boats on the water are 26 feet or less, NMMA says. Consider how many passengers you want to carry. Do you need room for cocktail hour with friends, a kitchen, sleeping quarters? Or just a place to sit alone as you drop a fishing line into a lake? The bigger the boat, generally, the more expensive it is to operate.

Your annual expenses can easily top $10,000. Start with registration and insurance that can run about $700 annually for that average-priced boat. Fuel is running around $2.00 to $3.00 a gallon for gasoline, typically a bit less for diesel, according to that reports on prices at marinas across the country. Your 150-horsepower engine would burn about 15 gallons per hour at full throttle, less for cruising — so the cost of the proverbial three-hour cruise could still top $100 (that’s $2,600 a year if you take it out the average 26 times).

Don’t forget about moorage, which typically varies from $1.50 to $15 per foot per day depending where you stay; dry docking in the offseason, launch and lift-out fees, hull cleaning and treatment, engine maintenance, sail and line replacements for sailboats, equipment that ranges from fire extinguishers to life jackets, and stocking your boat with goodies, water skis, dinghies and more.

4. Where will you keep it?

Some people want to tote their boats on trailers and explore a variety of waterways; others dock at home port marinas. Typical trailerable maximums run up to 30 feet long (most are less) and 8.5 feet wide. The bigger the boat, the larger and stronger the trailer and car or truck you’ll need to pull it. As size increases, you may need permits or professionals to move your boat. Also consider the cost of storage options when you’re not using your boat for long periods.

5. What should propel your boat?

Looking for a powerboat? That includes outboard, sterndrive, inboard and jet boats.

Maybe you prefer paddles so you can quietly explore along a coast or race down a river. And then are sailboats — propelled with skillful use of wind power — although most sailboats come with small engines for getting in and out of harbor and for when the wind dies.

6. New or used?

Americans bought an estimated 955,300 pre-owned boats (power, personal watercraft and sail) in 2013, NMMA says. They are far less expensive than new boats because they have already depreciated. New boat depreciation is at its highest during the first season of use. Depreciation on a used boat kept in good condition should level out with proper maintenance and equipment improvements. Before buying used, Stacy says, have the boat checked out by a professional, who may be found through the , to determine its condition and value.

7. Where do I get started?

Online. Most brands have owners clubs where you can chat with people who have been there, done that. They might also offer tips on boats for sale. Among online forums are , and , or for specific brands such as or . Also, visit a boat show where you can examine each model in person and discuss your wants and needs with dealers and experts. Although many are held over the winter, this still has plenty to choose from in coming months. Happy shopping!

Are you a boating enthusiast, interested in plunging into this market or poking around at the marina wondering if there is a cautious way in? Let us know in the comments below or on our .


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