Buying a new (or new-to-you) boat should be exciting and fun. Too often, however, boat buyers can be their own worst enemy. I know; I've done it to myself.

Buying a boat should be fun and exciting... but sometimes it isn't. Photo by Gary Reich

Buying a boat should be fun and exciting... but sometimes it isn't. Photo by Gary Reich

To find out what I could do to make my next boat purchase go more smoothly, I visited my friend Walter George, who also happens to own Annapolis Boat Sales in Chester, MD. George sells new and used boats and has been in the business for well over a decade. He also sells my kind of boats: center console and dual console fishing boats. If he can’t help fix what ails me, then no one can. Okay, away we go.

1. Shop Till You Drop

Everyone wants a good deal and to spend the least amount of money possible, but “overshopping” is a great way to miss out on the perfect boat. “We totally understand that people want to get the best deal," George says, "but we also see people who shop around too much. They look for the perfect boat at the perfect price, and to such an extent where good deals slip right out from under them. They never end up finding a boat and get frustrated.”

Being successful in buying a boat requires realistic expectations about how much a particular boat is going to cost with the options you want. This means knowing as much as you can about the boat you want, including its availability, popularity, and pricing. Popular and fast-selling boats typically command higher prices, so if you go hopping from dealer to dealer looking to save a thousand bucks, you may never end up being able to buy what you’re looking for—others will scoop up the boat before you do.

Additionally, consider the service and maintenance department component when you buy a boat. While lots of folks think their relationship with the dealer ends at the sale, you’ll always want a good service and warranty department in your corner for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Sometimes it’s worth waiting for a good local dealer to have the boat you want, knowing they’ll be invested in keeping you happy after the sale closes.

While you likely won’t be able to get any service departments to confess to this, I can tell you as a former service manager that boats purchased from our dealership always got priority service over ones that were bought elsewhere. The best price isn’t always the lowest price, folks.

2. Forgetting Financing

George says another pitfall that buyers fall into is assuming they can get financing. “Buying a boat is not like buying a car,” he says. “We have folks come in all the time excited and ready to buy a boat not realizing that the loan underwriting for recreational craft is far more stringent that an automobile loan. That said, prospective buyers can prepare by knowing what to expect.”

As a guideline, if your credit score is under 700 you’re going to have some difficulty getting a boat loan, while borrowers who have a score above 730 are going to get the best rates. But… not so fast. George says, “You can have a 790 credit score and still get declined for financing. If you’ve got a high score but your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is more than 80 percent, getting a boat loan can be challenging. Also, more than a few buyers come in who think they can get a boat loan with no money down, when the reality is that most banks want to see a 10 percent cash down payment.”

The best thing you can do before you start your boat search is to go online and pull your credit report (some states require the credit bureaus to provide these for free at certain intervals). Then you can look at your outstanding debts, your overall credit score, and figure how much money you can afford to put down. That way you'll know where you stand before you find your dream boat.

3. Confusing Used For New

When it comes to buying a previously loved boat, check your expectations at the door; they can often mislead you. “A used boat is a great way for folks to buy a boat that fits their needs at a price they can afford,” George says. “But unfortunately I find that a lot of used boat buyers get aggravated when a used boat isn’t as perfect as a new one.”

Indeed, when looking at used boats remember that they’re just that—used. While you shouldn’t expect to buy a used boat that is falling apart or unseaworthy—unless that’s exactly what you’re looking for—you should expect some imperfections. Gelcoat may not shine like it used to; vinyl seating and canvas covers may have faded; hatch gasketing may need replacing; the head may not smell like flowers. Know that these cosmetic items have little to do with how well the boat runs or how safe it is. But don’t expect that new boat smell when the one you’re buying is four years old. And if you're worried about hidden defects, consider hiring a surveyor before buying.

4. Mistaking Wants for Needs

I want an Everglades 435cc. Heck, who doesn’t? But what I need to suit my budget and crabbing and fishing expeditions here where I live on Chesapeake Bay is a 19 footer. George tells me another mistake boat buyers make is not being able to separate their wants from their needs, and that means they miss out on lots of boats that would suit them just fine.

“I’ve had people walk away from a boat because it didn’t have a head. Do you remember center-console boats under 30 feet from five years ago? Heads didn’t exist on them back then. There are features people demand that they may never end up using. A head is a good example.” George adds, “Other folks will pass up a perfectly good boat because it doesn’t have the exact fishfinder they’re looking for, or maybe they feel as if they have to have twin outboards when one will work just fine for their type of boating.”

Before you start your boat shopping—new or used—sit down and figure out what features you’ll actually use, and ones that’d be nice to have. Just like when you go to buy a house, everything is a compromise of one sort or another. For example, you may want a boat with joystick steering, but an old-fashioned wheel would work just fine. And if you can't sort out your must-haves from your wants, a good dealer like George can probably help figure out what’s right for you.

Written by: Gary Reich
Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.