The term "runabout" is frequently used to describe a fast and maneuverable powerboat, but many boaters don't realize just how many styles are available, and just how different—or similar—they can be. This short video, All About Runabouts: Bowriders, Tow Boats, Cuddys, and Deck Boats, should help set the record straight.

When looking for the right runabout to meet your needs, many aspects must be taken into consideration. Buying a boat is a big decision, and every detail should be well thought-out so you can choose the perfect model for your needs. Let's look at some important questions boat-buyers need to answer, before they can make the best pick. By no means is this an all-inclusive list, but it should help you get well on your way toward making the best possible decision.

  • What kind of water and conditions will you be boating in? The body of water can help determine what kind of runabout you should purchase. A narrow river versus a large open lake will have an impact on how large a boat you need. It may also affect whether you'll be best served by a boat that has a flatter bottom and better stability, or one designed with a deep-V to withstand rough waters.

  • How important are watersports? Do you want to wakeboard? If so, a wakeboard tower is very handy and just about any manufacturer can supply a tower for your needs. Dedicated wakeboarding, wake surfing, or water skiing enthusiasts will probably choose a dedicated tow boat (for more info on this style of boat check out 10 Best Tow Boats for Water Skiing and Wakeboarding), but many boaters need the runabout's versatility. And if you only plan to pull skis or tow toys, you don't need a tower; a ski tow eye/rail will do the trick. Most runabouts come with this feature, but you still must make sure. In addition, you might want a swim platform for putting on and taking off skis. These platforms extend the length of the boat aft of the transom, and are really handy for re-boarding after playing in the water. Also, look for features such as stowage for water toys, ballast tanks, and wake tabs.

  • Are you going to use your boat simply for day excursions, or do you envision yourself and your family spending weekends aboard? If weekending is in the cards, a cuddy cabin might be the best bet. Some people enjoy camping on an open boat, but even in this case you probably want an enclosed changing area with a marine sanitation device (a toilet) and maybe even a freshwater transom shower. In addition, make sure you have the fuel capacity necessary for the distances you'd like to cover if marinas are not going to be along your route.

  • How many people do you want your runabout to hold? A couple versus a larger family will have a huge impact on the size of the runabout you need. Today's larger runabouts, in the 23 to 24 foot range, are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard to hold as many as 12 people.

  • How important is speed and handling? Remember, runabouts can be like a sportscar on the water—but they can also be more like an econo-box. Many runabouts can be had either way, depending on what sort of powerplant option you choose.

  • Do you plan on fishing at all? If so, it's important to choose a boat with a fiberglass deck, which is far easier to clean up than carpet. This will also have an impact on what sort of options you might choose, like rod holders and livewells, which won't be available on all models. Some runabouts called "Fish-'N-Skis" come outfitted with both watersports and fishing accouterments.

  • Will you bring young children aboard? In this case, a boat with tall gunwales and an enclosed head compartment may be a smart choice.

One final question you should ask: have you visited our Boat Reviews - Runabouts section? We've tested thousands of models of boats, and you can learn a lot about all different makes and models by spending some time here.

Hit the Shows

After you've determined the answers to the above questions, go to some boat shows. Shop around. Check out sizes, styles, colors, options, and more, but make sure to determine your budget prior to becoming serious about a purchase. Many people fail to realize that buying a cheap boat may seem like the right thing to do, but cheaper boats don't perform as well in rougher water or hold their value.

One trick to finding the perfect boat for your family is to consider the worst boating conditions you'll face. If the boat you want will comfortably take you through those conditions, you'll be happy with it for a long while. Also, talk to owners of the brand you are considering. If you're having trouble hearing from satisfied owners, you might want to consider another brand.

See the Big Picture

Overall, which runabout is best for you depends largely on personal preference and the boating conditions in your area. Make sure you weigh every feature and decide accordingly. Understand that a runabout's main purpose is to provide enjoyment, memories and fun on the water for many years—and that spending a little more money on the front end can yield dividends on the back end.

Editor's note: This article was updated in April of 2013, and October of 2015.

Tommy Trabue has been the owner of Ebbtide Boats for over 40 years. Trabue serves on numerous boards including his position with the National Marine Manufacturing Association (NMMA). or more information, visit Ebbtide Boats online.