Ninety-five percent of the 12 million U.S.-registered boats are less than 26 feet, and most cost less than $50k. With plenty of great options, there's a boat out there for everyone.
Ask any average American boater why they think more than 1 million preowned (formerly known as "used") boats were bought in 2020, versus about 320,000 brand new boats. You'll likely hear the same answer: "New boats are expensive." We can all agree that's a relative term depending on one's disposable income. And that one person's stinkpot may be another's yacht. It's all a matter of perspective.
"You do see a lot of ‘big' boats at the shows, and they certainly have the ‘wow' factor, but nearly 80% of our boats cost less than $50,000, so we have a huge portion of our portfolio aimed squarely at middle-income consumers," says Lee Gordon, president of communications for Brunswick Corp., the largest boatbuilder in America encompassing 17 brands including Bayliner, Boston Whaler, and Sea Ray. "Most of the boats on my lake are $50K and below, for sure."
We know from speaking with industry insiders that plenty of new boats are paid in full upfront — sometimes with cash! — but most of us are looking at what type of monthly payments we can fit into our household budget. And while a new boat might cost more up front, the benefits include a guaranteed warranty and a local dealer connection.
Did You Know:
The boatbuilding industry is over the moon about selling more than 300,000 new boats annually. First-time boat buyers accounted for 34% of new boat sales in 2020.
While you may be perfectly happy with your boat, you'll inevitably come across a potential newbie wanting to pick your boat-savvy brain. Or your grown kid is contemplating making the jump. Or you're both looking to downsize. One of the great joys of small boating is found in their simplicity — there's less stuff on board to break, fewer systems to maintain, and those inevitable surprise repair bills don't hurt nearly as much.
Despite their size, small boats usually mean big fun, and the water under your hull, regardless of size, is exactly the same out there. Here we've collected some of the best-bang-for-the-buck new boats we've come across, a diverse fleet designed for varied passions on the water.
Bayliner Element M17 Deck Boat
There are lots of Bayliners on the water because the iconic brand remains focused on affordable entry-level boats. When the Element was introduced back in 2013 to attract nonboaters, it was a hit because it came out of the box with engine and trailer (with swing tongue) for about half the average cost of a new car. The simple helm layout is designed to not overwhelm the senses — just a few gauges and toggle switches that deliver what you need for safe navigation. The proprietary M-Hull foundation offers better stability and predictable turning, making the M17 easy to drive. At 20-feet, 1-inch long, and standing 6 feet, 8 inches on the trailer, the M17 tucks away in most garages. There are optional packages for watersports, fishing, and additional comfort, but a portable toilet is not included. Price starts at $21,830. Bayliner.com
Sunchaser Vista 20 LR
Vista is the most affordable line among Sunchaser's pontoon boats. The compact 8-foot beam makes for easier docking in tight spaces. The Vista 20 LR features four wraparound lounges and a seating area that converts into a bar area to entertain. Twin pedestal-mount captain's chairs, carpeting, retractable aluminum boarding ladder, and a bimini top come standard. Options include a Jensen Bluetooth stereo, docking lights, mood lighting, extreme tilt steering, and a full complement of gauges. Comes with a Lifetime Plus six-year limited warranty on hull and superstructure and six years on all components, carpet, upholstery, and electronics. Notable options: Humminbird Helix 5 GPS and Humminbird Piranhamax Sonar Unit, trailer. Price starts at $31,007. Sunchaserboats.com
Parker Boats set up shop in 1960s coastal North Carolina, so its modified-V hulls are built to slice through surf and head out for offshore fishing. Parkers are known for their dry ride. The 2200 is a fish-first boat (with leaning post, rod holders, self-bailing cockpit, and 60 gallons of insulated storage), but with some added comforts for family dayboating (bow seating, portable toilet, and swim platforms with mounted boarding ladder). Hydraulic steering, trim tabs, a Yamaha Digital Gauge package, under-gunwale LED lights, and stainless steel pop-up cleats are standard. Options include a Garmin GPS/sounders, Fusion sound system, fiberglass leaning post with 30-gallon livewell and tackle storage, anchor windlass, bow seating bolsters, and adjustable bow table with sunpad cushion. Price starts at $82,458. Parkerboats.com
Alumacraft Competitor FSX 175
The family-friendly fishboat hybrid is alive and well in the Competitor FSX (Fish/Ski Crossover) line, providing a flexible layout for families who love being out on the water. It's built for all levels of anglers with multiple livewells, a built-in cooler, and lockable rod storage. Two added fold-up jump seats on the rear platform allow owners to quickly adjust for daycruising. The extra seating can be folded out of the way for more access to the newly extended platform (by 6 inches), allowing anglers more space to cast off the rear deck. For skiers, an optional ski pylon can be attached to the built-in base and conveniently stored in the starboard side storage when not in use. The base also doubles as a pedestal seat base for the comfort of your favorite fishing partner. Options include one of eight Mercury outboards, ranging from about $10,000 to $15,000. Price starts at $20,692 (plus outboard). Alumacraft.com
Regal 2000 ES
Known more for high-end cruising boats, Regal also makes small boats like this 20-foot bowrider with yacht-quality stitched upholstery, stainless accents, and a proprietary FasTrac Hull the builder says delivers up to 26% faster speeds and 30% better fuel efficiency. The 2000 ES is a low-maintenance family dayboat that can be parked on a trailer in the garage (6'5" height on trailer). A multi-position Social Seat, oversized bow seating, sunpad, Fusion Marine sound system with six cockpit speakers, ample storage and cooler space, and low-to-the-water swim platform set the scene for socializing on the water. The transom walkthrough makes boarding safe and keeps the upholstery clean. Garmin 743 chartplotter, bimini shade, and power-assisted steering come standard. Options to consider: choice of three towers, transom shower, and SeaDek swim-platform flooring. Price starts at $70,130. Regalboats.com
Stingray Boats has built nothing but small boats since its founding more than 40 years ago. The latest is the 173 CC, the smallest in its center-console line. This is boating stripped to the essentials — a stainless-steel steering wheel, cushioned leaning post with a cooler underneath, livewell, rod holders, and a new 90-hp outboard on back. Stingray's Z-Plane hull design, adopted from offshore racing boats, reduces drag and increases performance, making for a soft ride. Every bit of surface area is used on this boat: Under each casting deck, fore and aft, is padded seating, a livewell, or storage. Notable standard features include hydraulic steering, removable Plexiglas windshield (for tight storage), Fusion RA-60 stereo BT-APP, electric horn, tilt-steering, aft swim ladder, and a cooler/storage box with overboard drain. Options to consider: bimini top, bow seating package, ski tow pylon, and portable toilet. Price starts at $29,306. StingrayBoats.com
Princecraft Sport 182
Canadian builder Princecraft has been turning out straightforward, affordable aluminum boats for 65 years. The new Princecraft Sport 182 is a prime example — an 18-foot aluminum family-friendly fishboat with everything you need for a day of fishing or cruising. It even comes standard with a 115-hp outboard and galvanized trailer with swing tongue. The redesigned hull is 4 inches wider, adding to valuable seating room in the bow and stern. For anglers, there's a livewell at the stern and bow as well as rod holder storage and an insulated cooler. For dayboating, there's cushioned seating for five (plus two padded bow recliners), an optional bimini top, and ski pylon. The Sport 182 is available in three colors — black, anthracite gray, and blue. Price starts at $43,823. Princecraft.com
Lund Renegade 1775
The Lund brand has been about quality aluminum fishing boats for 75 years. The latest from the Minnesota builder is the Renegade 1775, a modified V-hull bass and crappie fishing boat. The Renegade's 11.5-inch draft reaches nicely into coves and backwaters where the big fish live. The side-console-style fishboat features on-the-go rod storage (rods up to 8 feet) at the bow and port side as well as an integrated cooler with a drain. Standard features include a 50-hp Mercury outboard with aluminum prop and a black bunk trailer. Notable options: Lowrance electronics, Minn Kota trolling motor and battery charger, and five color options. Price Starts at $26,761. Lundboats.com
Godfrey Mighty G 1476 F
BoatUS Magazine got a sneak peek at a boat to be introduced this fall at the shows that may be the ultimate entry into pontoon boating. The Mighty G is the latest from Godfrey Marine and, at less than 16 feet, is compact and highly maneuverable. Available in either cruising or fishing configurations, standard features include a Clarion sound system, bench-style seating, steel telescoping EZ Climb ladder, and a fishing station with rod holders and tackle storage (standard on the Fish model; an option on the Cruise model, which comes with a ski pylon). A standard-feature Nightshade boat cover is easy to install/remove, and the boat is capable of being trailered under cover. Options include full 360-degree RGB under-deck lighting, sun shade, and a performance package of lifting strakes and under-deck skin. Designed to be powered by electric or fuel propulsion, the boat comes standard with dedicated locations for battery storage and built-in charging as well as a singular gauge that supports both electric and internal combustion propulsion. Options you'll need: electronics, engine, trailer. Price $14,000 (base). GodfreyPontoonboats.com
As we said upfront, "affordable" means something different to everyone. Depending on one's life situation, here are a few notable boats on the upper end of our affordability scale.
Pursuit DC 246
For anglers, center-consoles rule. But the dual-console design can handle nastier conditions due to a semi-enclosed helm station offering better weather protection. This new generation of dual-consoles replaces a cuddy cabin with open-bow seating, making for another family-friendly fishboat. Rod holders and foldaway transom seating make room for two anglers in the cockpit with a 31-gallon transom fish box. A folding windshield makes for easy walking fore and aft through the center walkway and onto the aft swim platform. Comfortably seats up to nine, with folding armrests and hinged cushions that allow for versatility.
The standard molded console with Edson steering wheel comes without electronics. An everything-you-need Garmin electronics package is an option ($10,390). Among many options: fiberglass hardtop, removable ski tow bar, and windlass anchor system with remote. Comes with Pursuit Protection Plan. Price starts at $143,04. PursuitBoats.com
Did You Know:
61% of recreational boat owners have an annual household income of $100,000 or less. Source: NMMA
Sea Ray SLX 260 Outboard
The SLX 260 is another 26-foot bowrider, but it's a Sea Ray, which means a well-appointed boat with eye-catching design aesthetics. Also available with sterndrive propulsion, the SLX 260 is luxury dayboating, and the new look of the Sea Ray line going forward. Customer feedback played a key role in designing the layout, which translates to comforts including include L-shaped bench cockpit seating, lounge-style bow seating with foldable armrests, and a teak table that converts the bow into a large sunpad with filler cushions. Storage is 24 cubic feet more than previous models, including an integrated cooler under the transom sunpad and a transom locker for stowing gear and flotation toys. Standard features are a cut above, with twin 9-inch Simrad touchscreen displays, Mercury Marine's VesselView engine performance monitor, Active Trim automatic engine trim system, and CZone digital switching. Price starts at $169,900. SeaRay.com
Cutwater C-288 Coupe
This fast, fuel-efficient cruiser is also suitable for fishing, entertaining, and watersports — and has a similar cost to some vacation cottages. Cutwaters are known for smart layouts that maximize storage and accommodations, and the boats come packed with standard features: two climate-controlled (AC and heat) cabins, one with en suite head and shower; a full galley; Fusion stereo; and LCD-TV. The helm comes wired with chartplotter, autopilot, sonar, xHD radar, a DSC-capable VHF radio, color engine displays, and twin-lever electronic throttle controls. A standard bow thruster with wireless remote makes docking easy, safe, and calm for boaters of all experience levels. A patent-pending transom seat can face forward, aft, or be completely folded away for fishing. Another clever feature called a "clear path" swim platform conceals all engine hoses and controls. This leaves more usable space for sitting with the transom seat opened aft, fishing (there are rod holders and a livewell), grilling (electric BBQ), or when boarding. A 10-foot beam adds stability and volume, but the boat is still trailerable. Price starts at $314,937. CutwaterBoats.com
The Bottom Line On Pricing
In preparing this article, we've noticed a pricing trend from some manufacturers. What was once considered standard equipment in the base list price is no longer included — and this can include the engine!
Options have always been the slippery slope with any new vessel purchase. But there are options you'd like (bimini top) and options you need (anchor). Some boats no longer come with a VHF radio or navigation electronics, even though you'll need them out there. Don't forget to add these "extras" into your budget, including installation costs.
We recently heard from a boater who knew ahead of time that his new ski boat didn't come with an anchor or VHF. He was left trying to "figure out" how to install those himself before he could use the boat. If you're not confident in your DIY abilities, get the dealer to install these kinds of necessities.
What items should be on board? See "Basic Boat Equipment" to find out exactly what should be on your new (or new-to-you) boat before safely leaving the dock.