How To Buy Your First Boat

By Chris Kelly, BoatTEST Publisher

Resources Found In This Story
BoatUS Online Boating Course
National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS)
Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS)
U.S. Power Squadron
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

So you’ve decided to buy your first boat. Congratulations! Because 2/3 of the earth’s surface is covered by water, your new boat will let you visit a lot more of the planet, much more than you can visit by car.

Norwalk Boat ShowUnlike cars, however, recreational boats are not about simple transportation. Some people buy boats because they’ve made the decision to get away with family and friends and go to places where landlubbers can’t go. Lakes, bays, rivers, sounds, harbors, islands, and even oceans are suddenly available for your exploration when you own a boat.

Other people buy for the camaraderie-- they want to join cruising clubs, yacht clubs, or fishing tournaments. Still others like to try their hands at recreational racing and high-performance boating. Whatever your reason for buying a boat, you are making a lifestyle choice, and this guide will help you get the most out of the experience while avoiding some pitfalls in the process.

Step 1 - What’s Your Type?

Your first step is to determine the type of boat that will suit your needs, and that is based on how you plan to use the boat. There are three main boating activities: cruising, fishing, and watersports. While many boats can be used for two or even all three activities, the chart below shows the type of boat and its primary use.





Bass boat

Personal Watercraft

Deck boat

Flats boat


Pontoon boat

Center Console

Ski boat


Cuddy Cabin/Walkaround

Wakeboard boat

Express Cruiser

Open Express (combi)

Jet boat





Jon boat  

Cruising boats are designed for entertaining guests while delivering good performance. Some are day-only boats, such as bowriders, while others offer cabins and overnighting capabilities, such as express cruisers and motoryachts. Decide if you will use your boat for day-boating or overnighting.

Fishing boats are designed with open cockpits in the back of the boat to maximize the deck space needed for fishing. As a result, there is less seating and smaller accommodations on a fishing boat than there are on a cruising boat. Like cruising boats, larger fishing boats also provide cabins for overnighting and extended fishing trips.

Watersports boats are designed for those who want to waterski, wakeboard, and tow toys at speed. Some of these boats are very sophisticated and recommended only for experienced watersports enthusiasts, so for that reason we recommend the bowrider/sportboat, jet boat, or basic waterski boat as your entry point into the watersports area.

Step 2 - Size Matters

The size of the boat is an important consideration. The bigger the boat the more features it usually has, including cabins, galleys (kitchens), heads (toilet areas), and so on. The downside to bigger boats is they have more systems to understand and operate, and they may not be trailerable, and of course, they also cost more, both to buy and to operate. When you’re first getting started in boating you want the experience to be as fun and easy as possible. For that reason, we recommend your first boat be no larger than 22-24 feet, but make sure any boat you buy is certified to carry all the passengers and gear you plan to bring aboard. Even if you're itching to buy that 35-foot cream puff --- start small, if only for 6 months.

Step 3 - New vs. Used

The next step is to decide if you want to buy a new or a used boat. Each has its pros and cons. New boats are unblemished and should provide you with trouble-free operation right from the start. They are sold by dealers who order them direct from the factory, and with the right dealer-prep these boats are in first-class condition.

When buying a new boat, make sure the dealer will support you not just at buying time, but throughout your years of ownership. Ask around at boat shows and at the dealer’s location to make sure you’re buying from a reputable dealer with a strong commitment to customer service.

The downside to new boats is they cost more than a similar used boat, but when you buy new you are entitled to all the warrantee coverage and manufacturer’s support that comes along with a new boat.

Used boats, on the other hand, may or may not still be covered under manufacturer’s warrantees, and they are sold by a) dealers (who’ve taken the used boat in on trade), b) brokers (who don’t own any boats, they just represent them for sale), or c) private individuals. You take a greater risk on the overall quality of a used boat than you do on a new boat since you don’t know the history of the boat, its maintenance, or whether it’s been involved in any type of accident or suffered damage.

For this reason you will need to hire a marine surveyor to go over the boat carefully prior to purchase. The survey will reveal any anomalies with the boat, and let you know whether you’re getting a good boat at a good price or simply buying somebody else’s headache. You will find good surveyors in your area at the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS) and the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) websites.

Your own personality also comes into play. If you are the kind of person who must have everything perfect, then you MUST buy new, or a very little used late-model boat.

If you are good mechanically, have extra time on your hands, and enjoy projects, you'll love having a used boat. If you simply can't afford a new boat, but don't have the time or skill to take on projects from time-to-time, then we recommend you buy a used boat that is simple as possible. The fewer systems a boat has. the fewer things there are to go wrong.

For these reasons, we recommend you buy a new boat or a used boat less than three years old from a reputable dealer.

Step 4 - Choose The Make and Model

Once you’ve decided on the type of boat and whether to buy new or used, the next step is to narrow your search down to a few boats you want to actually see in person and take for a test drive.

This is where can save you countless hours as you do your research. If you are interested in bowriders, for example, simply choose "Bowriders" from our "Quick Search" engine located in the UPPER LEFT CORNER OF OUR HOME PAGE. You will get a search results page with all the bowriders we’ve tested, each with test results, specifications, and a video test! Once you’ve looked the boats over and narrowed the choices, use our COMPARE THIS BOAT feature for a side-by-side comparison of your boats in terms of performance and specifications.

Here are some of the things you should compare --

a. Beam - 8' 6'' and under can be trailered without a special permit.

b. Weight - A heavier boat may ride better, and be stronger, but it will need a larger engine to go the same speed as a lighter boat.

c. Draft - With the outboard or sterndrive unit "down" what is the draft? Is this draft going to work in the water you'll be using?

d. Ideal Cruising Speed - This is where you will operate your boat most of the time. Check fuel consumption and range.

e. Noise Levels - This is important and not all boats with the same engines are the same. Many factors contribute to noise on a boat such as vibration, harmonics, and structural thickness among others.

f. ABYC Report - checks 21 important building criteria recommended by the American Boat and Yacht Council. The results speak for themselves.

g. Brand CSI Ratings -'s Customer Satisfaction Index Ratings are based on a 25 or more questionnaire filled out by owners of this brand of boat -- NOT these particular models. The CSI Ratings will give you a relative idea of how owners judge these brands. If no CSI Rating is published, it means that BTC has not obtained enough questionnaires to be statistically meaningful.

h. Equipment - By comparing standard and optional equipment you can compare extra value built into the boat.

Next, you’ll want to climb aboard each of your finalists at a boat show or dealer’s showroom. Get in the boat and sit at the helm. Check out the legroom, the reach to the controls, the visibility from the seated and standing position. Open up the engine hatch (if applicable) and look around. Ask the dealer which items you’ll have to check on a regular basis (like oil dipsticks, power steering fluid levels, coolant levels, etc) and see how easy it is to reach these items. If the boat has features like seat cushions that drop down to form a sunpad, try it out yourself. Check out storage compartments and their size, since you can never have enough storage on a boat.

If you’re happy with what you’ve seen so far, then its time to schedule an on-water test ride to see how the boat performs underway. Look for easy-shifting engine controls, good low-speed maneuverability, enough power to get the boat up on plane quickly, and a boat that tracks straight and true at speed. Take notice if small waves cause the boat to pound, and listen for any strange sounds. Boats should not make any creaking, cracking, or rattling sounds, and notice if the engine is quiet enough for you to have a conversation with your guests while underway.

At this point you may be getting excited and mentally moving yourself and your family into your new boat. But wait! There’s one more thing to check before you buy--overall quality and fit & finish. You will find that there are some entry-level boats that sell new for $15,000 and others same size and type that sell for $30,000 or more. Why is that? The answer is quality construction, materials and factory support -- and in boats you definitely get what you pay for.

Look for high-quality stainless steel fittings and hardware, rugged handrails, strong windshields, struts to keep hatch lids open, quality door locks and hinges, good joinery on woodwork, and good nonskid surfaces on deck. The bottom line here is the cheapest boat may not be the best boat for you, since cheap components may fail quickly and have to be replaced a headache you don’t need when you’re trying to relax out on the water. Our advice? Buy the highest-quality boat you can afford.

Step 5 - Buy It Right, Insure It Right

When it comes to making the actual purchase, you can either write a check for the whole thing or finance it. Depending on the type of boat and its accommodations, your boat may qualify as a “second home” so you can take a tax deduction. Check with your tax advisor. If you’re buying a used boat, be sure the asking price is in line with market prices.

For financing, your best bet is to go through a knowledgeable marine lender who specializes in boat loans.

You will also need to insure your new boat, especially if you are financing it. Finally, you’ll need to register the boat with your State, or document the boat as a U.S. Flag vessel (generally reserved for boats 30-feet and up). Your dealer or finance company can usually assist you with both procedures at little or no cost.

Step 6 - Back To School

Operating a powerboat is NOT like driving a car. Knowing how to handle wind, waves, tides, currents, weather, and other boat traffic are all factors that come into play for a safe day out on the water. Knowing the Rules of The Road is also critical, so before you head out for your first boat ride, take a course from the U.S. Power Squadron or the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Most states now require you to have at minimum of a safe boating certificate which shows you have passed an approved boating course. There is also an online course available at the BoatUS Online Boating Course. The more you know, the safer you’ll be.

In sum, while buying a boat is less complicated than buying a home, it is still the 2nd largest investment most people make so you should consider your options carefully. Talk to dealers. Visit boat shows. Do your research on, and take the finalists for a test drive. If you do, you are much more likely to buy the right boat at the right price and enjoy your new lifestyle for years to come.