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March 15th 2018. By Alex Smith.

Buying a boat

If you want to enjoy boat ownership to the utmost, you need to get the boat buying process right. We take you through the process step by step.

Whether your budget enables you to operate at the upper end of the boat buying spectrum or confines you to the realms of the ‘entry-level’ runabout, buying a boat is a big deal. The commitment you are required to make in terms of time, effort and money is very serious, so if you’re going to get a sustainable return on your investment, boat ownership needs to be easy, affordable and fun. That sounds entirely obvious, but it can only be achieved if you are able to answer the initial questions properly. So what kind of boat do you want? And what kind of boat are you really likely to use?

Basic boat buying tips

  1. Be honest about the size and type of boat you and your family will enjoy.
  2. Don’t spend more than 80 per cent of your budget on the boat itself.
  3. Boat shows are great for new boats – partly for the discounts and partly because you can compare boats, like for like, right there in one place.
  4. Boat sales websites are a good place to investigate used boats for exactly the same reason.
  5. Get your family involved in the viewing and take plenty of photographs.
  6. Always come back for a second viewing with a clear head and a list of questions.
  7. Get a survey from an established specialist in your boat type.
  8. Get insurance to protect your money during a new boat purchase.
  9. Don’t become blinded by your love for any given boat. It’s likely to be one of many comparable options.
  10. Consider a broker or agency to help represent your interests.

The first step in buying a boat is to work out what boat suits your needs best.

What kind of boat will work for you?

While most boats can be put to most applications with some degree of success, there’s no doubt that knowing your favoured pastimes will enable you to pick a better boat. So what are you going to use your new boat for? Racing? Fishing? Watersports? Dinner parties? Sunbathing? Offshore passages? Inland cruises? Liveaboard duties? Estuary exploration? Do you want to spend nights away? Do you want friends along for the ride? Do you want to go long distance without refuelling? Do you want to be able to cook on board? Do you want to prioritise sport or luxury? And where do you want to use her? Are there draft or air draft restrictions in your favoured cruising grounds?

These are all issues you need to address – but if you really can’t define what element of the experience appeals to you the most, then you need to invest in a used platform that can give you a bit of everything without breaking the bank. A generously sized walkaround sports fisher with a decent bit of power is a good way to go, as is a Nordic 30-foot, four-season wheelhouse cruiser from the likes of Targa or Sargo. A season or two on board one of these boats will help you understand whether you need more space, more speed, more accommodation or more outside lounging space. You will know whether a fishing-friendly deck is a waste of space or a vital asset; whether 50-knot ability is a key part of the charm or whether a soft-riding 25-knot cruise is enough. You’ll also know what your friends and family think – and that will put you in the ideal position to trade up and invest in the boat that truly complements your lifestyle. Read more about choosing a boat here.

How much money can you spend?

Whatever you decide your maximum budget is, avoid spending it all on your ‘perfect’ boat. There is no pleasure in a boat you can’t afford to own, so set aside at least 20 per cent of your maximum purchase price for training, insurance, fuel, maintenance, mooring fees and sundry equipment. While there are some exceptions to the rule, you should also be prepared to witness your asset become less valuable with each season that passes. That tends to be particularly acute with a new boat, but even if we ignore the depreciation and the first year of costs, you should still expect to spend around 10% of the boat’s value each year if you have a trailer boat and 15% if your boat is kept on a mooring. Can you afford all of that without sleepless nights? If not, rein in your boat-buying budget until you know you can.

Buying a used boat

Once you know the size, type and value of boat that will fit your lifestyle, you need to explore the market. If you’re looking to buy used, the sheer volume and variety available means you can often drive a good bargain and get a lot for your money. And if you‘re happy to buy toward the end of the year, when the owner has finished his final season and is looking to sidestep the costs of storage, depreciation and maintenance during a dormant winter, you can push the price even harder.

Buying used can also mean that any early teething troubles have been ironed out under warranty; and it means that, rather than buying a boat and paying for every option and extra, you get an all-in package, often with a great many add-ons at little or no extra charge. Similarly, some boats come with moorings, which can save you all the doubt and hassle of sourcing one afresh – but with a used boat, you need to understand that, while the seller can’t knowingly misrepresent what he is selling, neither is he duty-bound to be openly transparent. Now, as ever, you are buying what you see, so take your time, get proof of ownership, get written assurance that a boat is free of financial encumbrance, commission a survey from a reputable professional and make a judgement with your eyes wide open.

Buying a new boat

Buying a new boat is not always straightforward, particularly for the first-time buyer. You need to be very explicit about what you want – and that means putting your requirements down in writing. If you need a 200-nautical mile range with a 20 per cent reserve, say so. If you need 35-knot capability or sleeping for six, be plain about that. And it’s also important that you understand who you’re dealing with, not least so you know who is responsible for honouring your warranty. This matters because if you get excited at a boat show and buy a boat from a dealer based 300 miles away from your home waters, the ownership experience may become horribly inconvenient. A lot of dealers have a broad geographical spread of offices and agents to help cater for that, but it pays to be clear from the start.

As regards the transaction itself, while it’s often possible to buy a small boat as an existing stock model, larger, more bespoke craft usually require a deposit followed by a sequence of stage payments. That’s perfectly normal but again, it does need putting down in writing so both parties understand what’s expected – and while you’re talking about stage payments, it’s also worth stipulating a schedule that works for you. If you have a completion date in mind to which the builder is happy to commit, then it is reasonable to talk about financial compensation if the build falls behind schedule. And it’s also reasonable to insist that the final balance of the purchase price remains unpaid until a satisfactory sea trial proves the boat’s compliance with the parameters you laid down at the outset.

Only once you are in possession of a formal contract that satisfies these issues should you part with the deposit and get the ball rolling – and if that sounds a bit intimidating, you can always appoint a professional management company to represent your interests, oversee the build and conduct the purchase on your behalf.

Sliding soft top – Benetti Veloce 140

Your dream boat can provide years of pleasure.

Get your family involved

Whether buying new or used, it pays to take someone along who doesn’t care whether you buy the boat or not. The crushing pragmatism of an indifferent friend can be very useful in making your assessment of a boat more realistic. And similarly, if you expect your partner or kids to spend long weekends alongside you on your boat, make sure you let them have their say. The most common areas of contention involve the toilet and shower facilities, the privacy (or otherwise) of the cabins and the sheer size of the boat itself. If it’s too cumbersome to be used with ease when your crew consists of your untutored partner and kids, then you either need to get everyone properly trained up or have a rethink.

The scale and position of the galley is also a big thing for a lot of people and boat builders often cater for that by dialling in various options for the layout. Do you want it down below, out of the way, minimising cabin space but freeing up the main deck? Or do you want it in pride of place at the back end of the saloon, with easy guest interaction and inspiring views of the horizon? If you’re buying new, taking a family approach to these key questions enables you to sit down together at home and get excited about picking your layouts, speccing your options and making your boat feel more special. Taking regular visits to the factory to see the boat in build will then not only keep things on track and maintain levels of quality, but keep everyone excited about taking delivery of the boat they helped design.

Get a survey

You tend to miss plenty of things on a first viewing so, whether you’re buying new or used, take photos of everything. When you sit down at home and run through your images alongside a graphic of the boat’s layout, you will then be in a much better position to judge what you’ve seen and to put together a list of priority questions to broach with the owner or dealer when you go for a second look.

If, after the second viewing, you decide you want to move forward with the purchase of a used boat, you need to make an offer ‘subject to survey’. Your survey results may give you grounds for reviewing your offer, factoring in remedial works or even withdrawing from the deal – and contrary to protocol, you might even want to consider a survey on a new boat. After all, the boat industry is not the car industry. Production volumes are relatively small and human involvement relatively pronounced. Very few new boats are perfect – and while the warranty ought to see any issues rectified, it will do the quality of your boat no harm at all if the boat builder is made aware that you intend to have a professional third-party inspection carried out prior to taking delivery.

Get protected

If a dealer becomes insolvent while your boat is under construction, you need to know you’re protected. After all, while your deposit might account for 20 per cent of the boat’s purchase price, there is nothing of tangible value against which you can claim until the boat’s construction is actually underway. Some contracts will also stipulate that you have no ownership over the boat until the final balance has been fully paid – so if you’re operating by means of stage payments, you need to get yourself protected, either by insisting on having your interests listed in the builder’s policy or by taking out your own policy specifically designed to cover you for any risks during the period of the build.

You might be interested to read our features on buying a boat in the Mediterranean, or buying an ex charter boat.

Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.