Questions to Consider when Shopping for a Boat

By Brian Gordon, Last updated: 7/24/2020

At the time of this writing (July, 2020) the World continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. Business restrictions, stay-at-home orders and school closures have led to a massive collective case of cabin fever—and a pent-up demand for outdoor recreation. It’s no wonder that new boat sales are surging, since getting out on the water provides boaters with the perfect way to socially distance while enjoying their favorite ocean, river or lake. If you are in the market for on-the-water fun, this article will give you some points to consider when shopping for a boat.

Should you purchase a new or a used boat?

In the water boat show

Sailboats on display at an in-the-water boat show.

New boats offer the advantage of starting with a clean slate—with a boat that you can rig and customize the way you want. Purchasing a new boat also eliminates questions regarding sketchy maintenance such as improper winterization or faulty repairs. Buying a new boat also provides peace of mind in the form of a manufacturer’s warranty that protects you should problems arise.

While buying a new boat might seem like an open-and-shut case, savvy boat shoppers know that previously-owned boats can provide tremendous bang for the buck. First, used boats have already taken a hit to their value post purchase—like what happens when you buy a new car. Second, used boats often include expensive hardware upgrades and electronics that would cost a pretty penny when purchased off the shelf. Third and most important, questions regarding past maintenance and the “health” of the boat can be answered by hiring a marine surveyor who will inspect the boat and provide you with a detailed report before you sign on the dotted line.

Powerboats versus Sailboats

If the main reason you want a boat is to enjoy tubing, water skiing, wakeboarding, freshwater or offshore fishing or if you just have a need for speed, then a powerboat is obviously for you. When shopping for a powerboat think ahead about how heavy you will load the boat and make sure the engine has enough horsepower to meet your needs. Bear in mind that increased horsepower results in increased fuel costs which can be significant.

Compared to powerboats, sailboats are far less expensive to operate because the wind is free! To be sure, most sailboats larger than a dinghy do have either an outboard motor or an inboard engine. But in either case, they are less expensive to operate when under power, because their engines are smaller and meant for use when the wind is not blowing or when motoring within the confines of a port or harbor.

Indoor boat show

Trailered boats on display at an indoor boat show.

Sailboats and powerboats require far different skill sets for operation. While basic maneuvers must be mastered for both, powerboats are essentially a “start the engine and go” proposition. On the other hand, sailboats require far more user interaction. Becoming familiar with sheets (ropes that control the sails), halyards (ropes that raise or lower sails), winches and other hardware takes time. But once you become adept at sailing a boat, a whole new world awaits. Depending on the size of your sailboat and how it is equipped, you might find yourself quietly crossing a serene lake or cruising to exotic locations around the world.

Go to a Boat Show

If you are new to boating, attending a boat show is a great way to become familiar with the latest boats of the type that interests you. Boat shows, especially regional boat shows, can be really big—so prioritize ahead of time what you want to see and make a beeline for those boats first. If you are ready to buy, before "talking turkey" with a dealer, if the boat will be financed, know ahead of time how much you can put down and the monthly payment you can afford. You should also know other costs in advance, such as insurance, maintenance, fuel costs and marina or storage fees. Remember that the dealers are there to sell boats and often will be willing to make deals that may not be available outside the show. But be careful not to get sucked in by the "sizzle". Rather than making a deal when you are tired at the end of day, come back the next day or ask the dealer if you can discuss the sale outside the show in a quieter setting.

Outboard Motors, Sterndrives and Inboard Engines

Depending on the type of boat you select, it could be powered by a sterndrive (also called an Inboard/outboard or I/O), an outboard or an inboard engine. There are pros and cons to each.

Outboard Motors versus Sterndrives

Man painting bottom of boat

For boats kept in the water, the cost of periodic haul-outs must be considered.

When it comes to space utilization, the architecture of sterndrives permits installation of a swim platform that spans the full width of the transom. While this is a great feature for swimmers and divers, it comes at the expense of deck space and access to the transom which is blocked by the engine compartment. This is why many anglers prefer outboards which allow unrestricted access to the back of the boat.

For boats that are berthed in the water, especially those in saltwater marinas, outboards experience fewer problems with galvanic corrosion. This is because unlike sterndrives, most outboards can be raised completely out of the water when not in use. Routine maintenance is also easier for outboards which offer unrestricted access, unlike most sterndrive engines which are located in the frequently-cramped space of an engine compartment.

Inboard-Powered Boats

If the boat you are considering has an inboard engine, it will most likely have a direct-drive or a V-drive design.

Direct-drive inboard engines have a straight prop shaft that passes through the hull toward the back of the boat. Examples of boats with direct-drive inboard engines include wet-stored sailboats and large powerboats. Because the direct-drive design produces very little wake, it is also popular for use on ski boats.

Boats with an inboard engine V-drive (also called a reverse drive) locate the engine at the back of the boat. This puts more weight toward the stern. V-drives are often installed in boats designed for wakeboarding. These boats have a specially designed hull which when used with added ballast produces the ideal wake for wakeboarding or tubing. “Crossover” V-drive boat models exist that have a modified hull that improves performance for waterskiing when ballast is removed.

Where will you keep it? Larger boats versus trailered boats.

Boat dry stack facility

Dry Stack Facility. (Photo courtesy Garrett’s Marina, Bowlers Wharf, VA.)

Space permitting, if you purchase a trailered boat, you can keep it on your property which is the least expensive. An alternative might be on a friend’s property—or you can keep it in a storage yard or covered facility. Be sure to determine the cost of the latter before you buy.

In temperate climates such as Florida and southern California, boats that are too large to trailer are frequently stored “wet” in a marina all year long. The larger size of wet-stored boats coupled with the constant exposure to the marine environment and the cost of periodically hauling the boat out for bottom painting makes wet-stored boats more expensive to maintain. In the Midwest and other areas subject to a hard freeze, many owners store their boats “wet” in a marina during the boating season and then remove them from the water before winter for storage in a boatyard or in a dry-stack facility. Dry stack facilities are warehouses where boats are “stacked” vertically in cradles. Some of these facilities are climate controlled and able to store boats up to over 70 feet long. Before you buy, make sure you know the cost of storage in advance.

Boat Survey and Sea Trial

If the boat “feels right” to you, consider asking the owner for a sea trial. This is where the two of you will take the boat out on the water so you can get a feel for what soon might be yours. You will be able see how the boat steers, how the engine sounds and speak with the owner, who in addition to regaling you with “sea stories” may reveal important information about the boat.

Boat commissioning package

Typical items needed when commissioning a boat.

Prior to purchasing your boat, ask the seller for a copy of the boat’s most recent marine survey. If the seller cannot do this, contract with a marine surveyor to produce one for you. Marine surveys are detailed reports that cover virtually every aspect of the vessel. Surveys can be performed with the boat in the water or hauled out. Boats that are kept in the water should be hauled out so that the surveyor can spot any problem with osmotic blistering or other problems with the hull or running gear. Along with answering questions you may have regarding the seaworthiness of the boat, a marine survey might be required to obtain financing and before the boat can be insured. Bear in mind that the cost of the survey and the expense of hauling the boat out is often borne by the buyer. That’s right, you might have to pay to play! However, if the survey reveals repairs that need to be made, you can use that information to negotiate a lower price or walk away. 

Boat Commissioning Packages

If you are purchasing a previously-owned boat not equipped with life jackets, a fire extinguisher and other important items, West Marine offers boat commissioning essentials arranged by boat type and length. To make sure that your boat is equipped with all the gear it needs to meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements, see U.S. Coast Guard Required Equipment for Recreational Vessels.