The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Boat
Written by Carolyn Jackson
Table of Contents
The breeze blowing in your hair, the warm sun on your face, the smell of sunscreen, and the sound of the water gently lapping around you. Sounds nice? Yeah, we thought so too. These things are pretty much universally loved by humans, which is why owning a boat is such an exciting goal for many. It can seem out of reach, but we are here to tell you that it is not! There is a lot to know before you walk into a boat dealership or even delve into your online search about how the boat buying process works and what to expect. This article will cover some of the most frequently asked questions and topics relevant to buying a boat. Let’s set sail.
Beginner’s Guide to Boat Lingo
Before we get into the more detailed information about boats and boat buying, let’s take a quick look at some of the most common boat lingo and terms used by boaters.
Hull – the main body of the boat, including the bottom, sides, and deck, but not the masts, engine, and other fittings
Bow – the front end of the boat
Stern – the back end of the boat
Aft – moving from the front to the back of the boat is called going “aft”
Underway – the term used for when a boat is in motion
Ahead – when the boat is moving in a forward direction
Astern – when the boat is moving in a backwards direction
Port – the left side of the boat (when looking from back to front)
Starboard – the right side of the boat (when looking from back to front)
What Types of Boats Are There?
This might seem like a silly question, but it’s actually a bit more cumbersome than you might expect. A boat is a thing that floats and that’s it, right? Well…yes, but also there are literally dozens of different types of boats that are differentiated by their purpose for floating on water. For example, there are boats for fishing, boats for watersports, boats for long-term trips, boats for cruising, boats for going fast, boats for the open ocean, boats for lakes, boats with engines, boats without engines… you get the idea. There are a lot of boats to choose from.
In this section, we are going to briefly cover some of the most popular types of boats on the market to help you narrow down your search and find which type of boat might be a good fit for you.
Unsurprisingly, a Bass Boat is a boat made specifically for catching bass fish. These boats are equipped and designed for catching bass and other panfish, usually in freshwater. Modern bass boats feature swivel chairs, which allow the angler to cast their rod from any position in any direction. The boats have storage bins for bait, rods, and lures in addition to live wells where the fish can be kept alive while you continue to fish. Bass Boats are traditionally outboard boats and some have a trolling motor, which allows you to cruise at a very slow and consistent pace. They are usually aluminum or fiberglass.
Bowriders are famous for their open bow, which is the front part of the classically V-shaped boat. They have a traditional seating area in the back of the boat, and then additional seating in the bow. They are typically a bit smaller than a deck boat ranging from 17’ to 35’ and holding 6-10 passengers and run very smoothly. They can have an inboard or outboard engine and typically have a deck on the back to make easy entry for swimming and water sports.
What is the Difference Between an Inboard Engine and an Outboard Engine?
In the simplest of terms, the difference is how the engine is installed on a boat. An inboard engine is built into the hull of the boat and is concealed within an “engine room”. An outboard engine is the opposite in that it is latched on to the outside of the boat and is clearly and fully visible at all times. The two engine types use different mechanisms for steering and propelling the boat.
Center Consoles get their name because the console, or steering cockpit area in any boat, is located smack dab in the middle of the boat. They are easily recognizable because you can walk completely around the boat, circling the steering wheel. Center Console boats do not have a cabin or foredeck. These boats make great fishing boats, especially sport fishing in offshore waters. They are usually equipped with fish lockers, rod holders and other tech and equipment for fishing.
These boats win the best all-around award in the marine world. They are well-suited for fishing, sailing, cruising, and water sports. They are very family-friendly as they have a closed deck over the boat’s bow (front) to provide shade, a place to eat and drink out of the wind and sun, a place to store dry goods safely and even potentially sleep and cook.
Cruisers, often referred to as Cabin Cruisers, are powerboats that have onboard accommodations for passengers. Cabin Cruisers are usually in the 30 foot to 45-foot range. Cabin cruisers will often have a kitchen, bathroom and a dining area within the living space, which is maximized as you might see in an RV. The benefit of a cruiser is that it provides many of the benefits of a yacht, but in a much smaller package, which means no crew is required. Cruisers are on the bigger end for a boat though, which benefits them because they can handle choppy waters and provide a stable ride.
The trademark feature of a deck boat is, you guessed it, a deck. These watercraft have an open deck area from the front to the back of the boat, which provides an open seating area for small groups of people. These boats are typically in a V shape, as opposed to a Pontoon rectangular shape. Deck boats are typically 20 – 32 feet in length and are popularly used for recreational activities like swimming, water sports, and cruising.
This is a broad category, but it is dedicated to one thing: Fishing. Fishing boats can range in size, power, price, and style widely, but they are all built with stability, durability, and power in mind. They include features that make fishing easier and more practical for the passengers like rod lockers, a trolling motor system, and live wells. There are smaller, lighter aluminum fishing boats, which are typically used in calm freshwater environments and there are also offshore fishing boats, which are mighty watercraft built to sustain high winds, waves, and swells.
Performance boats are for the speed seekers in your life. These boats vary widely in size, ranging from 20-foot to 50-foot boats. Performance boats can have inboard or outboard engines, as well as a center console or a closed deck. They come in a lot of different variations. These boats are traditionally designed to go as fast as possible, but many newer models are also including many comfort factors like below deck accommodations and additional seating. The primary function for a Performance boat is to go fast.
Pontoons are one of the most popular inland water boats. They are flat, rectangular boats, which feature a wide and spacious area for passengers to move about. They float with two pontoons attached to the bottom of the boat (they look like canoes). The pontoons contain a significant amount of buoyancy, allowing pontoon designers to create massive deck place fitted with tons of additions and luxuries, like bars, lounge chairs, slides, etc. Pontoons range from 15ft-30ft and are often thought of as party boats.
Ski Boats have come a long way since their inception in the 60s. The trademark of a good Ski Boat is being able to pull hard from a dead stop and to create the smallest wake possible, creating optimum conditions for water skiing. Ski Boats don’t need to be extremely fast, as most skiers prefer speeds in the low to mid-30s. Ski Boats traditionally feature an inboard engine and a back deck for easy loading and unloading. They are also known for their V shape, which helps with their goal to create flat wakes and highly responsive handling.
Yachts are as fancy as they sound. These vessels are primarily used for leisure and entertainment. A yacht has a standard length of about 36 feet and comes with 2 or more diesel engines. Yachts make great travel boats for families or groups of people looking to venture from location to location via water.
Above is a brief description of 11 different types of boats available on the market today, but note that there are still more even more types of boats available. Some boats we didn’t include are dinghies, sailboats, trawlers, inflatables, sportfishing yachts, and personal watercraft. If you need information on these more specialized watercraft, check out the Discover Boating site to get additional details.
What Size Boat Do I Need?
Boat size mostly depends on two factors: 1) how many people you want to fit on your boat comfortably and 2) how you will use your boat.
There is a dependency on the first factor. Not all boats can fit 20 people. Some smaller boats like a ski boat or a bass boat typically hold 2-6 people comfortably.
Here are some examples of the typical sizes of a boat based on the activity:
- Offshore Fishing: 30 feet and up
- Inshore fishing: 15-20 feet
- Cruising: 20-30 feet
- Watersports: 15-25 feet
What size boat do you need for ocean crossing?
If you are planning on traversing the oceans and seas where the waves and waters can get fairly rough, you should consider looking at boats 30ft and up. A boat this size will better handle the choppy and unpredictable water and currents, as well as longer trips offshore.
A dealer or factory rep should be able to help you discern the right size boat for your needs and budget.
How Much Does a Boat Cost?
This is a complicated question because there are so many different types of boats available, all with different pricing ranges. To a degree, you can assume that as the length of the boat increases the price will also increase (although this is not always true!). In order to figure out how much a boat costs, you need to first determine which type of boat you are interested in. A Ski Boat and a Pontoon will have completely different pricing expectations.
Most of us are a little more familiar with the automotive industry than the boating industry, so I like to use that as a comparison. Consider a car brand that is considered more affordable, like Ford vs a luxury brand, such as BMW. There is an intrinsic price difference between a sedan from Ford and a sedan from BMW. Likewise, within the Ford family, there is a large difference between a sedan and a truck. The same goes for boats. You can’t really compare the price of a Godfrey Pontoon and a Godfrey Ski Boat because they are in such different tiers.
This being said, looking at the market holistically, the average price of a new boat in 2018 was $42,000. The average price of a used boat in 2018 was $10,000. And the average price of a boat trailer was $2,400. For more information and actual pricing examples on some of the more popular boat types, check out our article on How Much a Boat Costs.
What are Some Boat Manufacturers Currently on the Market?
There are a surprising amount of boat manufacturers currently on the market. Some specialize in one type of boat while others focus on many types of boats. Some are considered affordable while others are considered a luxury.
Bass Boats Manufacturers
- Bass Cat
- Sea Ark
Bowrider Boat Manufacturers
- Sea Ray
- Four Winns
- Boston Whaler
Center Console Boat Manufacturers
- Boston Whaler
Cruiser Boat Manufacturers
- Sea Ray
Cuddy Cabin Boat Manufacturers
Deck Boat Manufacturers
- Sun Tracker
- Nautic Star
Fishing Boat Manufacturers
- Boston Whaler
- Sea Vee
- Grady White
- Carolina Skiff
- Black Fin
Performance Boat Manufacturers
Pontoon Boat Manufacturers
- Smoker Craft
- Cypress Cay
- Forest River
Ski Boat Manufacturers
Yacht Boat Manufacturers
- Black Cove
- Princess Yachts
This is not an exhaustive list of all the boat brands that are currently on the market, but it is a good starting place to do some research. For a full list of all boat brands available, head over to Discover Boating.
New Vs. Used Boats
Buying a used boat can save you a lot of money upfront, but you have to be extremely careful to ensure the used boat is in great condition so you don’t end up spending more time at the mechanic than on the water. If you are considering buying used, be sure to educate yourself on what to look for to ensure the boat is in good shape.
A few areas to investigate:
- The engine
- Electrical systems
- Stringer separation
Pro Tip: Unlike cars, boats measure engine life in hours of use not by miles traveled. When looking into any new or used boat, you need to find out the engine hours on the boat, which will help you understand the previous usage and make a more informed decision. A gasoline engine will run somewhere in the 1,500-hour range before it needs to be replaced while a diesel engine can run closer to the 5,000-hour range before it needs to be replaced. The engine hours will also help you determine when it is time for maintenance, just like miles on a car determine when you need an oil change. If you are looking to buy used, check out Pop Yachts, they always display engine hours prominently for buyers to see.
These are just some of the heavy hitters you should evaluate when considering a used boat. Honestly, you should look at every part of the boat, including the internal pumps, the exterior and the hull to ensure you know exactly what you are purchasing. Fortunately, boats do last a lot longer these days since they started being made with fiberglass and aluminum instead of wood. Although you do need to be careful when buying used, that is not to say it is not a great option. Another safety net is to hire a surveyor or get a history report of the boat you are interested in purchasing. Some organizations that perform history reports for boats include Boat History Report and Boat Alert. There are tons of used boats available on the market at a lower starting price, which could help you find the boat of your dreams.
Buying a new boat is a little more straightforward. The best advice for buying a new boat is to set a budget before walking into a dealership and stick to it. Know what you can afford, and then only put ⅔ of that cost towards the actual boat. Remember, there will also be routine maintenance, insurance, a trailer, gas, storage fees, a dealer fee, etc — so don’t blow your entire budget just on the cost of the boat itself.
When buying new, you will have the option to finance through the dealer, which typically is a great option. The dealer makes it easy for you and if your credit is good, they often have very competitive rates. However, you can also shop around for the best interest rate if you are going to finance your boat, which many buyers do. If you make an inquiry on your credit at multiple places, as long as they are all within a 30 day period of each other, it will not hurt your credit. For more detailed information on financing a boat, check out our Definitive Guide to Getting the Best Boat Loan!
Total Cost of Owning a Boat
As we mentioned earlier, there are some additional costs of owning a boat:
- Dealer Fees
- Boating License
- Safety Equipment
Some of the expenses are a one-time occurrence like the dealer fee and registration fees, but others occur monthly or annually like storage, gas, insurance, etc.
How Much Is Boat Insurance?
Boat insurance requirements differ from state to state. Only a few states have legislation in place requiring boating insurance.
Depending on the size, year and type of boat you buy, you can expect insurance cost to range from about $300-$500 monthly.
How Do I Get a Boater’s License?
Boating license requirements differ from state to state. Check out this guide on education requirements by state from NASBLA. Typically, if a state does require a boater’s license, the individual will need to take some online courses, pass a few tests and then register to receive the license in the mail.
Most of the exams needed for a boater’s license are administered by a third party, like NASBLA. These third parties often will charge a fee for taking their course, which is usually charged after you’ve successfully completed the course. There might also be an administrative fee. A great resource is BoatUS, which offers free boating safety courses in 35 states.
Where Can I Buy a Boat?
Most of us will start our boat buying journey by researching online. That is a great place to start, but unfortunately, boat manufacturers do not have online shopping like Amazon… at least not yet. This means you will have to leave your house (sorry) and talk to some humans. A great place to start is at a boat dealership. Most boat dealers carry multiple brands and specialize in a type of boat, like pontoons, wake boats or fishing boats.
A good place to start is the manufacturer website, if you have narrowed it down that much already, and find a dealer that carries that brand near you. If you haven’t narrowed it down, a boat show might be a great place for you to start.
You can also visit GoRollick to look at new and used dealer inventory online. You can see which boats are available in your area and see details about each boat on your wishlist, all in one place online.
What is a boat show?
Boat shows usually take place annually, usually in the winter months (off-season for boaters). They are like conventions. Imagine a huge open area with dozens, if not hundreds of the latest models of boats of every kind. Boat shows range in size, one of the largest taking place in February in Miami (Miami International Boat Show), to smaller boat shows that can be held in malls or parking lots.
Boat shows usually charge an entrance fee. You can expect to meet experts on different types, styles, sizes and brands of boats. So if you just want to browse and see some of the most popular and up and coming boats in person, a boat show is a fantastic place to start. Check out this comprehensive boat show calendar to see if there is a boat show near you.
Where Can I Dock My Boat?
If you need to dock your boat while you are not using it overnight or while you are away, you will need to purchase a slip, which is a guaranteed “parking spot” at a marina. If you do not already have a personal dock or place to tie your boat, you will need to budget for a slip rental. To get more specific about slips near your body of water and how much it will cost you, take a look at Snag A Slip for more information.
If you are out and about and want to dock your boat, most establishments will have a public marina for you to use while you are a patron of the business. Simply pull up (no wake) and find an open space. You need to be sure to have buoys on the side of your boat (to prevent hitting the sides, and mooring lines (ropes, essentially) to tie your boat to the dock (the dock should have metal cleats or pilings to tie up to) while you are gone.
What to Think About While You’re at the Boat Dealership
When you are at a dealership and think you have found the boat for you, it is your responsibility to ask for a sea trial, if appropriate and to conduct a marine survey.
What is a sea trial?
A sea trial is a marine equivalent to a test drive, with a few key differences. Most boat dealers have to schedule a sea trial days in advance so they can be sure to prep the boat for usage and have all the proper safety guidelines fulfilled. For this reason, it is frowned upon to take more boats than necessary on a sea trial. Most people take the boat they are seriously considering purchasing out for a sea trial.
When you are on a sea trial, this is the time to look for any red flags. Do the things you plan to do with the boat yourself while out on the trial run. Bring the boat up to at least 30 mph, make some sharp turns, test the boat in waves, practice tying off the boat at a slip, sit in different positions, make a note of anything you find out or out of place. Test the sound system, the steering, the get-up, and really anything else you can think of that would be important to you as a boat owner.
What is a marine survey?
A marine survey is a more common practice for a used boat. Typically as a prospective owner, you will pay a certified surveyor to come and inspect the boat. These professionals will look at the condition of the boat in detail and help appraise the boat as is. Typically if you want to finance a used boat, a marine survey is a requirement. Your dealer or insurance company might have a list of trusted surveyors that you can contact. You can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a marine survey.
What Factors Determine a Boat’s Required Equipment
The size of your boat determines the required equipment for your vessel. The incremental categories usually go like so:
16 feet and below + canoes and kayaks
- Personal Flotation Devices (PFD), one per person
- Must be coast guard approved, fitted to each person, and readily accessible
- Fire Extinguisher
- For boats with enclosed engine compartments (not outboards)
- Visual Distress Signals for when operating at night
- Sound Producing Devices, like a horn or whistle
16 feet to 26 feet
- Same requirements as 16’ and below category +
- Visual Distress Signals
- Minimum of 3-day and 3-night use
- Marine Sanitation Devices
- If an operable toilet is onboard
26 feet to 40 feet
- Same as 16’-26’ category +
- Pollution Regulation Placards
- 5”x8” oil discharge placard and 4”x9” waste discharge placard
- Backfire Flame Arrestor
- One device on each carburetor of all gasoline-powered engines built after August 1980, except outboard engines
40 feet to 65 feet
- Same as 26’ to 40’ category +
- Coast Guard standard system required on gasoline-powered vessels with enclosed engine compartments built after August 1980
- A copy of the Inland Navigation Rules must be kept on board
65 feet to 165 feet
- Same as 40’ to 65’ category
There is a lot of information out there on boats, and it is even more complicated because of how many types of boats there are. The easiest way to narrow down your search and get the exact answers you are looking for is to first decide on what type of boat you want. By that, we mean, do you want a pontoon, a bass boat, etc. Narrowing your search down by type will help you get more specific answers to your questions, like how much does a boat cost, and what required safety equipment do I need to have onboard, and what brands are the best?
This article serves as a good starting place. Hopefully, you were able to grasp what the whole boating thing is about and feel less overwhelmed. Read our articles on How to Finance a Boat and How Much Does a Boat Cost to continue learning about the boat buying process and get one step closer to being on the water.
If you already know which type of boat you are looking for, check out our GoRollick Buying Platform to see available inventory and to compare boats.
GoRollick Buying Experience
When you’re ready to find your perfect boat be sure to check us out at gorollick.com. You can:
- See nationwide inventory, specs, and incentive information
- Get an upfront, transparent price on your desired boat
- Receive special offers on both the boat, as well as additional accessories
- Shop at one of our Certified Dealers who are committed to providing an exceptional buying experience.