Lessons Learned In Buying A Boat

By Charles Fort

Our long-time Consumer Protection coordinator navigates buying a boat and learns firsthand about the challenges that she helps members with every day.

Debbie and Carl Schaeffer enjoying their new boatDebbie and Carl Schaefer enjoy their new-to-them 2002 Sea Ray. ­Education and research helped make the purchase a smooth process.

After years of cruising and racing their sailboat, Debbie Schaefer and her husband, Carl, decided it was time to trade it in for the speed, comfort, and entertaining space of a powerboat. Debbie, who for years has provided BoatUS members with sound boat-buying advice and helps with resolution in disputes with the industry, suddenly found herself on the other side of the equation. Even though she has extensive knowledge of the buying process and quick and easy access to the BoatUS technical staff, she still learned a few things that helped her — and can help you when it's time to go boat shopping.

The Schaefers' boat-buying criteria: Their new 26- to 30-foot sterndrive powerboat must be clean, have low engine hours, a camper top, and air conditioning for sticky Washington, D.C., summers, and be priced at less than $30K.

Lesson 1: Make a realistic offer.

After locating a suitable boat, Debbie and Carl made an offer of $24,900 on a super-clean boat that seemed perfect. The boat listed for $29,900, and Debbie assumed a counteroffer would be forthcoming. But there was another offer already on the boat. Even after raising theirs, they lost it by $900.

"Either there weren't any other offers when we submitted our offer, or the agent just didn't tell us," says Debbie. "Up until we put in our first offer, nothing seemed to be flying off the shelves. After we lost that boat, other good, clean boats were being listed as ‘sale pending' with regularity. For quite a while, boat sales had been slow, so I didn't think we would have to worry about much competition. We lost a great boat over a few hundred dollars. So bid realistically, or you may lose the boat you want."

Lesson 2: Search deeper.

"Having exhausted the listings of two or three area yacht brokers, we then checked out several local marina websites. There we found what looked like a great 2002 Sea Ray 26-foot consignment boat in our price range."

Lesson 3: Educate yourself.

Carl is an aerospace engineer and no technical slouch. Even so, Debbie says, "he read every blog, forum, owner's manual, and service manual he could get his hands on, as well as watched every YouTube video about Sea Rays and powerboats in general." They also checked the BoatUS Consumer Protection complaint database to see if the boat, engine, or dealership had any complaints. Fortunately, any reported problems were minor.

Lesson 4: Negotiate.

"This time we asked about current offers on the boat, and when there were none, we made what we considered a reasonable offer based on the fact that the boat had been sitting for three years. The owners countered and offered up to $2,000 worth of work at the yard to get the boat in shape." Having counseled hundreds of boat buyers over the years, Debbie made sure the offer was contingent on a satisfactory survey and sea trial.

Lesson 5: Focus on the big picture.

All used boats (and many new ones) will have some problems, says Debbie, and you can't expect everything to be perfect. "The sea trial and survey didn't reveal anything serious or alarming, just the normal small items found on all surveys. So we decided not to nitpick the sellers. The engine and other major systems on the boat were our primary focus." Debbie says that the engine achieved appropriate rpms, and the boat made its projected speed on the sea trial. But the surveyor noticed a slight miss in the engine; he recommended having the engine's computer read for fault codes and getting the injectors cleaned. While this was seemingly minor, Debbie felt that this type of problem, if not fixed before the sale, could be an indicator of something more serious later, so she had the dealer address it.

Lesson 6: Get it in writing.

If your offer includes repairs, get everything in writing. Debbie's deal included $2,000 worth of service, but without a list of what was performed, there was no way to be sure the money was really spent on the boat.

"Before settlement, we were given an invoice of items the sellers paid for. We were happy about it because, in addition to noting that the injectors were cleaned, it actually included a few things, such as a windshield-wiper repair, that we didn't expect," she said. "A big chunk of the $2,000 went to draining 3-year-old stale gas from the boat, which is expensive to dispose of because it's considered hazardous waste, and refilling the tank."

Debbie also recommends reading the boatyard's repair-warranty policy and making sure it transfers to a new owner. One more nugget: "There's no standard-length warranty for service work, and don't assume a yard is going to extend it if something breaks later. Check the work right away."

Lesson 7: A good dealer or broker will go the extra mile.

During our research, we learned that our dealer had a good reputation. The salesman spent an hour removing the old registration stickers for us, gave us some spare oil, flares, and a horn, and got the techs to power wash the cockpit carpet. I'd expect this more from a dealer who owned the boat, but consignment sales, where the sale is just based on a straight commission, often have less room for such extras."

Lesson 8: Go with a known entity.

An established repair facility can mean the difference between a day on the water and a day stuck at the dock. "We expected a few minor things to crop up on a 14-year-old boat, despite a thorough survey and competent repairs." The day after closing, while cleaning the boat, Carl found that a mount for the bilge blower was broken and that the blower would have to be replaced. "This was not included on our list of work done and would have been almost impossible for the surveyor to find. But the marina had the part in stock and installed it the next day."

Debbie advises that the best thing you can do is to mitigate any surprises up front. "In our case, the survey and sea trial were not guarantees that everything would be found, but without them, we'd have certainly been faced with far more expensive repairs."

Lesson 9: Now educate yourself — some more.

"Having come from sailboats, we didn't know nearly as much about powerboat maintenance or handling," says Debbie. "The dealer invited us to join a class on boat maintenance for express cruisers as well as a class on docking and linehandling." Even if you're just moving up in size on the same kind of boat, maintenance and boathandling may be quite different from what you're used to.

Inside Consumer Protection

There are well over 11,000 entries dating back to 1988 in the searchable BoatUS Consumer Protection database. Consumer Protection coordinator Debbie Schaefer handles an average of three member inquires every day. The months of May, July, and August are the busiest for her, while December is usually the slowest. Last year, Debbie helped members get back more than $52,000 through our dispute-resolution process. If you're a member who has a problem with a boat, contact Debbie at ConsumerProtection@BoatUS.com or call her at (703) 461-2856. 

— Published: April/May 2017

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