You've had great fun with your boat, but the time has come to find a boat that is (choose one or several): larger, faster, shinier, newer. She's been your best friend every summer but now you've got "boat fever" and, if you're like most boat owners, you'll trade up on a regular basis. All those gleaming new boats at the fall boat shows caught your eye but — before another boat arrives in your family — you have to sell the old one.

Since your present boat is probably going to be used to offset the cost of the next one, your first priority is to set a realistic price on your boat. With that in mind, you can then start making financial plans and seeing what's available in your price range. But the question is: How do you set that price?

It's one thing when you sell your used car. Pick up the classified section of any newspaper and you'll find dozens of similar cars on the market, which can give you a finely tuned sense of the market value for your car. With a boat, however, it's far more difficult. Even the most popular boats aren't built in automotive quantities, so you'll be lucky to find even one boat like yours for sale at any given time.

Perhaps your best starting point, especially if you're thinking about buying a new boat, is with the local dealer for your boat, where you can see what similar models are selling for on their used boat lot. But remember what one dealer noted when discussing used boat prices: "Every seller thinks a boat is worth more than it really is, and every buyer thinks a boat is worth less than asked. That's the nature of the business."

Your dealer may be hesitant to suggest a trade-in value for your old boat unless you're actually negotiating for a new boat, because he may be tempted to "skew" the value one way or the other, depending on the numbers involved. For example, a dealer may be willing to give you a larger than realistic trade-in price in order to sell a boat that has been on his floor for the summer, while he may not offer you nearly as much for a trade-in on a boat that is in demand.

This brings us to the price guide, or what most people in the industry commonly refer to as the "blue book." There are, in fact, three different blue books but only two of them are actually blue; the other is yellow.

Just as in the auto industry, price guides are used by boat dealers to figure trade-in allowances, by insurance agents to set premiums and values, and by marine surveyors for evaluation guidelines. Even the IRS uses these price guides to determine if you're spending more money that you appear to be earning.

There are three generally accepted price guides in the United States: the BUC Used Price Guide, the NADA Marine Appraisal Guide, and the ABOS Marine Blue Book.

There's good news and there's bad news about the price guides. It seems as though they would be fairly straightforward since they compile actual market data from boat dealers, so the prices should provide an accurate report on values. Most people think that the price guides simply average the prices to arrive at a listed value but, in fact, none of the books determine price that way. Each publisher massages the numbers, based on their own experience and a set of formulas developed over the years.

So what does this mean to you when you're pricing your boat? The prices for a fairly common boat can range by a fairly sizable percentage between the various price guides, and this can create problems for you. Let's say that you look at one price guide and it tells you that your boat is worth $15,000. Your buyer borrows another guide from his banker, but it only values your boat at $12,000. Let's just say that your negotiations are going to be tough. If the books were reversed, however, you might sell your boat very quickly but lose $3,000 in the process.

Try to check the price for your boat in at least two of the blue books, which will give you a better range. You can take a look at a price guide at your local bank or financial institution, your marine insurance agent, or boat dealers.

BoatU.S., (800) 283-2883, also has a useful pricing service available to members called the Value Check program, which provides price guidelines for specific boat models by telephone or via the Internet. BoatU.S. uses the price guides already mentioned, but it also relies heavily on a huge marine insurance database that helps them price boats geographically, by the time of year, and by usage. Of particular interest to buyers, the Value Check program also "red flags" any U.S. Coast Guard or boat manufacturer defect recalls, which isn't available in the price guides.

When it comes to looking at the price guides, take your time and plan to read the fine print carefully, because they have some quirks. The BUC guide, for example, separates the U.S. into seven areas so you need to add or deduct from their chart for your location, while the NADA assumes freshwater usage and then deducts for saltwater boats. The BUC and ABOS books don't include the value of either engines or trailers for outboard boats, so you need to go to a separate section of their books and add in those prices. The ABOS and NADA books list only a single model of each boat and then provide a chart that lists additional values for upgraded engines, while the BUC book lists every boat/engine combination.

When it comes to extras on your boats, the price guides also differ. NADA follows the automobile style by listing the optional equipment and then listing a dollar amount to add to the base value. ABOS notes that options costing less than $500 don't change the value of the boat, and includes a value chart for various other accessories. BUC combines condition and equipment into a single scale, which could cause some confusion about how to price a perfectly maintained but poorly equipped boat, or a poorly maintained boat with many options.

So where else can you turn for help in pricing? A good starting point is with a newspaper covering your nearest major metropolitan area. You can find back issues of the Sunday classified section at your local library, and these can provide clues to asking prices for similar boats. Remember, of course, that these are only asking prices and that condition and equipment can make a major difference.

You might want to call on some of the older ads and see if the boat sold. If it has, explain that you are selling a similar boat and ask about the actual selling price of their boat. They may also have done some research on prices, which you can use to further hone your own judgment.

In most boating areas of the country, you can also find the "Boat Trader," a newspaper filled with boats for sale in every state. Buy a copy, and comb it for boats like yours. Using your telephone directory to determine the area code and location of each boat, you can come up with some useful prices. Other similar publications, such as the Recycler classified newspaper, can also add to your knowledge of boat pricing.

When it comes to putting a value on your boat, remember the old salesman's motto: "You can always lower your price, but you can't ever increase it." Start high, see what the market will bear, and be prepared to accept a reasonable offer.

Saying goodbye to an old friend is always tough but that will be offset by getting top dollar that you can put toward your new dream boat. Happy hunting!