People who don’t own boats tend to think you have to be rich to afford one, but anyone who’s seen articles like Most Affordable Runabouts, Five Affordable Trawlers Under 40 Feet, or Classic Plastic: 10 Affordable Used Sailboats for Cruising knows that this is balderdash. Many of us boaters have experienced affordable boating while living in middle-class America with our mortgage, our car payments—and yes, boats of our own. In fact, do a little research (using our boats.com BoatsBank, and read our article on Boat Loan Basics) and you’ll find that the monthly payment for an average-cost boat isn't much different from taking the family golfing a dozen times a year, or going to 10 or 12 pro football and/or baseball games annually. In fact, for the same payment you’d make on a very inexpensive car you can buy a pretty dang sweet boat. And you can make boating even more affordable than this. Here are five options that will lower that cost barrier and get you out on the water.
1. Buy a Used Boat
This is the most obvious—and common—way to keep boating costs in check. Just as with cars, the moment a new boat leaves the showroom it takes a serious devaluation hit. Why not let someone else suffer that loss? You can buy a boat that’s just a year or two old, including dealership demos, and save some serious bucks on the up-front cost.
Of course, you also face the same downsides as you do when buying a used car. Buyer beware; you might be buying someone else’s problems. Many experienced boaters who like more LOA than their budget can support buy older boats, then do some restoration work in their spare time. Others look for a boat in otherwise good shape that has non-functional engines, then pay to have it repowered. If this sounds like an interesting option, be sure to check out Repower Without Regrets.
Also be sure to peruse through our Boat Buyer’s Guide. It’s chock-full of articles that will help you figure out the ins and outs of buying a used boat, ranging from How to Get a Boat Loan to how to handle boat insurance.
When you feel you’re ready to pull the trigger and begin searching for a used boat in earnest, don’t forget that we have tens of thousands of used boat listings on boats.com.
2. Defray Expenses With Peer-to-Peer Boating
Peer-to-peer “sharing platforms” have proven successful in the world of automobiles and vacation homes, and now people are doing the same thing with their boats. You can rent out your boat hourly, daily, or for an extended period of time, and however often or rarely you like.
Yes, it may sound a bit scary to allow someone else to take over the helm. But people are willing to take the leap. Boatsetter, for example, has thousands of boats being offered for P2P rent in over 600 locations. Renters are insured as part of the deal, and you’re free to accept or decline renting to particular people as you like. Utilizing this sort of service, you can defray your own boating costs with a few rentals a month—and make owning your boat downright cheap. Learn more about B2B boating by reading Peer to Peer Boat Rentals: A Brave New World.
3. Join a Boat Club
Boating clubs, which have rapidly grown in popularity over the last decade or so, are an excellent option for many people. True, you won’t own your own boat. But you also won’t have to deal with all the work and much of the expense associated with boating. Clubs allow you to make advance reservations for a boat online—or get one that hasn't been previously reserved on the spur of the moment—in multiple locations. The Carefree Boat Club for example, has over 60 locations along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts; on the Great Lakes; and at a number of inland lakes across America; and even in Canada and the British Virgin Islands. The beauty of joining the club is that you can get a boat at any of the locations, at any time. Another advantage is the ability to “own” a fishing boat one day and “own” a water skiing boat the next. Boats range from 18 to 27 feet, and the Club maintains all necessary insurance.
Prices will vary depending on which club you sign up with, your primary location, the length of time you sign up for, and the type of membership you get, and most require an initial membership fee plus monthly or yearly dues. Get some insight into how boat clubbing works, by reading Boat Clubs: How One Club Works in Minnesota.
There are some other advantages to consider, too. Members get classroom and on-the-water training, covering navigation, docking, and safety. You never have to worry about maintenance, and the club provides tow coverage in case of breakdowns. These perks not only make a boating club an affordable way to get on the water, they also can help turn a novice into a captain.
4. Downsize Your Boat
Boaters are famous for three-foot-itis. However large a boat may be, some owners are always yearning for one just a little bigger. If you look at boat ownership over the long term, however, you’ll find that many people start to downsize after owning larger and larger boats. Smaller boats are not only less expensive, they’re also easier to handle, easier to tow, launch, and retrieve, less costly to run, and in some cases, more fun to be on.
Yes, it’s true that some of your capabilities may become a bit more limited. A runabout, for example, won’t be appropriate for long-distance cruising you may have enjoyed previously on your last big cruiser. But in many cases the benefits more than make up for the deficits. Author Carol Cronin makes a great case for going small in her article 3 Reasons to Buy Small Boats.
5. Share Boat Ownership
Teaming up with a friend or some relatives is one way many people get into boats they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Partnerships, often called fractional ownership, can have pitfalls, but as long as you and your partner are on good terms and you outline everyone’s expectations from the start, it can be a great cost-saving measure. For a more detailed explanation of how to make it work, read Fractional Ownership.]
BONUS TIP: Some people not only figure out ways to save money on boat ownership, they even turn Mom’s Mink into a cash cow. Read Five Ways to Make Money With Your Boat, to discover how they make it happen.
So: are you still wondering if you can really afford to own a boat? The answer is almost certainly yes—even if you have a very tight budget. On a monthly basis there are lots of small boats that will set you back less than your cell phone bill. And if you've been thinking about getting a beach house or vacation cabin, it’s a sure bet that boating would be a more affordable move.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2014 and updated in July 2018.