Buying a Boat

By Tom Neale, 6/6/2013


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

I've been buying boats for over 50 years, ranging from derelicts to nice large motorsailers.  Only a few have been new. Hopefully you'll be doing the same sooner or later. Here are some things I've learned that may help you save money and get a good boat.

Take your time and become informed. Spend a lot of time walking the docks, going to boat yards, talking with people who have boats in which you may be interested and looking at owner's chat rooms on owner and other web sites. Try to get boat rides from friends who have boats and from chartering. Nothing can tell you whether it's right for you and your waters better than experience.

Go over the entire boat thoroughly, on your hands and knees and slithering like a snake, if needed. Do this before you fork out the money for a surveyor. You'll probably see things that you don't understand or that you think are red flags. Ask the broker, dealer and/or seller. They should be able to tell you. If they can't they should find out. You'll better know whether you can afford the boat and be better informed as to what you're getting and how to deal with it.

Which one turns you on
Last one maybe first one.

Think of yourself when you look at a boat. For example, if you're older it's going to be even more important to have wide unencumbered decks for moving about while docking and performing other tasks. And sailboat stays that require you to duck when you walk forward are going to be a drag. Bow thrusters will be even more important. A center console with no sun protection may be the worst thing you can do for your skin and eyes which you've abused with too much sun over too many years.

Be ready to walk away and change your parameters. Boaters are dreamers. But often those dreams aren't realistic. There's nothing wrong with changing your dreams. There are many different types of good boats and good boating experiences.

Try to get it right the first time. "Moving up" is a normal human goal, but it can be very expensive with boats. You probably will move up at some point, but don't force yourself into it prematurely by a poor buying decision now.

Think about how well the boat will suit for how you want to use it. Think about features such as spaces, getting out of the hole with a load, running in waves and/or all other features that may be relevant to the type of boating you expect to do.

Find a surveyor with a good reputation, preferably who doesn't do a lot of work for the broker. The broker is going to want the sale to go down. A potential conflict of interest, even though the parties are good honest people, can inadvertently skew opinions. Go with the surveyor and ask him to explain to you what he's seeing. Ask him any questions you have. If this is a boat for which a survey isn't appropriate at least find a knowledgeable friend to go over it with you in an informal survey.

Insist on a meaningful sea trial in relevant conditions.  This will vary with the boat and its intended use, but, for example, sea trialing a 30' express cruiser with no loading, nearly empty fuel and water tanks, on flat water may not tell the whole story.

Don't think of a boat as a good financial investment. You may make money on reselling a house, but it's very unlikely with a boat. Think of it as a good investment in your pleasure, your family and your lifestyle. And that's worth a lot.

Don't fall for the "project boat" theory unless you're up to the job. I've seen people spend years trying to "fix up" a dog boat to finally give up long before the job is done, or to lose interest after it's done because of all the difficulties and the advanced arthritis and aging caused by the process. Boat work is much harder than house work or car work. On a boat there are few straight lines and right angles, access to machinery is often very limited and there are very different issues. It's also more expensive than working on a house. For a house, you're going to find a huge competitive market of products and tools. Stores such as Home Depot and Lowes have a large customer base for home improvements, most of whom are savvy to saving money and are doing much of the same things you're doing. But boat improvements present very different issues.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Finding Brokers

1. Brokers can provide an invaluable service, but aren't always necessary, depending on the boat, you, the seller and other circumstances.

2. Some states have a qualification process of one sort or another for brokers and a requirement that they be bonded. This is excellent, but there are plenty of good brokers who aren't in these areas.

3. Look for established knowledgeable brokers. Avoid the person "playing at it" unless you know that it's OK.

4. Ask a broker hard questions. If he doesn't know ask him to find out. He should.

5. Check web site and magazines to try to get an idea of the broker's experience, reputation and boats he is representing and has in the past.

6. Some brokers, like other professionals, specialize in types of boats, clientele and other areas. Keep that in mind as you look and talk to them.

Click Here for More Tips

If you have the right skills and are strong, energetic, knowledgeable, have plenty of time and don't expect arthritis anytime soon a project boat may be feasible. The feasibility depends largely on the type of boat and its condition. A complex larger boat is less likely to work for this. Systems deteriorate and even the boat itself may be more likely to deteriorate structurally.  For example, an express cruiser may need replacement of components such as air conditioning, refrigeration, thrusters, engines, generator….it never stops.  It may not need these when you buy it, but the more you use these items the closer they're coming to demise. You'll need to replace or repair all this fancy stuff before you can sell the boat for serious money, and the cost of replacing and repairing may be huge.

If you go for a project boat, look for boats which are good candidates for some appreciation on resale. They are usually relatively small, they were well built, they are simple without a lot of systems and they've developed a good reputation over the years as being tough and as to handling seas well. They are usually fairly old and may be considered to be quasi-classics or even classics. The fact that older fiberglass boats often had much more glass in them and much thicker hulls is important. I've seen quite a few new fiberglass boats that, in my opinion, were nowhere near as tough and well built as older boats. Often you find these older boats in a semi-abandoned state in somebody's back yard or in a boat yard. They may look awful. But you know it's a well designed and built hull which has proven itself over the years and which has a following. And being simple, there aren't a lot of systems to repair and maintain.  Work such as cleaning, painting, gel coat repair, stripping and varnishing can be done by most people, can be done leisurely (perhaps in your garage) and can be very rewarding…not only personally but financially if you decide to resell. Two examples of this type of boat are Vintage Boston Whalers and certain older Makos. There are other brands, types and vintages of boats out there which would fall into this category. You have to know what you're looking for.

These tips just scratch the surface as to things you can do and know to get the boat for you. Take your time and enjoy the process. It's fun!



Boating and water sports involve risk. Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk. You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others. Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.