If you have a house on the water, you need a boat, right? Yes, and if you have a boat docked behind your waterfront home, you need a boat lift.  Also, true. Buying a boat lift is a decidedly less sexy purchase than buying the boat, but it’s probably every bit as important and will require the same amount of research.

A good lift is necessary if you want to keep your boat in good condition throughout the years you own it. A good boat lift lets you lift your boat out of the water for storage, service and maintenance and also to prevent having to paint the bottom. Now, antifouling bottom paint is effective, but some of it isn’t good for the environment we’re out there the enjoy in the first place, and it requires reapplication every few years.

The other way to keep aquatic life from attaching itself to your hull is to keep your boat on a lift. A hull that isn’t painted looks better and is hydrodynamically more efficient. Where you live and what kind of boat you have are what primarily determine the kind of boat lift you need. Other key factors are the type of dock you have, piling types and whether you have a boat house.

Essentially, there are four kinds of boats lifts available:

  • Free standing

  • Piling mount

  • Shore mounted

  • Floating

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll need to do some research to see what suits your needs.

pontoon boat lifts

Free Standing Boat Lift. Photo Courtesy of Sea Legs.

Free Standing Boat Lifts

A free-standing lift is exactly that, a lift that stands on its own in the water. It’s not attached to a dock and stands on the bottom beneath the water. You have the option for manual, hydraulic or electric operation, with some lift companies offering solar panels to recharge the lift batteries.

Some will lift a boat vertically and some use a cantilevered design, which means the boat will come up and either forward or back a little, depending on orientation. If the lake you live on freezes each winter, you’ll need a lift that can be removed from the water just like your dock. Just like the bottom of your boat, aquatic life will begin to grow on your lift, so some periodic scrubbing will be in order.

A free-standing lift works with either permanent or floating docks. They range in price from as little as a thousand dollars for something that can handle a PWC to as much as $10,000 for hydraulic applications for larger boats.

boat lifts

Piling Mount. Photo Courtesy of Hi-Tide Boat Lifts.

Piling Mount

A piling- or dock-mounted lift is a permanent installation. You won’t see these used in locations where lakes freeze. If you do, it will generally be confined to concrete structures or wood pilings that are built to withstand the punishment of shifting ice.

Piling-mounted lifts tend to be the most expensive. Cruise around the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida and you’ll see lots of piling-mounted lifts.

Lighter boats and PWC can be lifted on two or one piling, but if you’re picking up something more substantial, you’re going to need four pilings and you’re going to need them to be placed specifically, which means a custom installation and the price that comes with it.

A piling-mount lift can be used with a floating dock, but it does need its own pilings. Prices run from as little as $1,000 for PWC models to more than $13,000 for models capable of lifting 10,000 pounds.

Shore Mounted Boat Lift. Photo Courtesy of Roll-N-Go.

Shore Mounted Lifts

Shore-mounted options work best for sandy or grassy shorelines where the angle isn’t very steep. Shore-mounted lifts are simple. You drive the boat up onto the shore, raise the motor or stern drive unit and that’s that. There’s really no “lifting” to it all. Shore-mounted lifts are more like ramps than lifts.

Shore-mounted lifts have no articulating parts—just series of bunks or rollers and a bow winch—so they’re the least likely to malfunction. Just keep things lubricated and you’re good to go. Prices range from about $1,400 to $5,000, and they tend to top out at about 4,000 pounds of capacity.

Floating Boat Lift. Photo Courtesy of HydroHoist.

Floating Boat Lifts

Floating lifts come in two different styles. One is submerged when you’re out enjoying your boat. When you want to store the boat, an electric pump pushes air into the chambers, pushing the water out, to lift your boat all the way out of the water.

The other kind is similar to a floating dock. In essence, it’s either a single hollow piece of plastic that has a V-shape entry for the forward keel of your boat. You drive up and onto it the same way you would a boat trailer.

For larger applications, floating lifts tend to be made of many pieces in a system that fit together to form platforms big enough to hold larger boats. Floating lifts range in price from about $1,400 for one-piece PWC lifts to $9,500 for systems that hold up to 7,500 pounds. These systems are breathtakingly simple, but because they stay in contact with the water at all times, they can attract algae growth on the undersides.

Choosing the Right Boat Lift

For personal watercraft, probably the easiest way to store them out of the water is to use is a simple, drive-on floating platform. It’s often just a hollow plastic platform that attaches to your dock. PWC owners also can get free-standing lifts with manual or electric actuation, shore mounted ramps and piling-mounted lifts. There are even piling-mounted lifts that swivel your PWC inward once it’s raised. Learn more by reading PWC Lifts and Docking Systems.

If you’re looking for a pontoon boat lift, the bulk of the lifts on the market is free-standing, but you also can get shore-mounted and floating options that work like those described for PWC. Drive on, drive off.

There is one other lift system unique to pontoons, too. A company called Sea-Legs makes a lifting mechanism that attaches to the underside of the floor of a twin- or even a triple-tube pontoon. The mechanism extends vertically to lift the boat out of shallow water and retracts to let you get back underway. It’s a clever setup and it eliminates the need to remove a lift from the water each winter.

For regular V-hull boats, you can choose from any of the above-mentioned lift styles.

For more on boat lifts, be sure to read:

Written by: Brett Becker
Brett Becker is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered the marine industry for 15 years. In addition to covering the ski boat and runabout markets for Boats.com, he regularly writes and shoots for BoatTrader.com. Based in Ventura, Calif., Becker holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.