Buying a Boat:  5 Steps From Wish List to Reality

Everything you need to know about buying a boat!

So you’ve decided you’re buying a boat!!  Your partner’s not exactly saying no, and your kids are quite excited about the idea, or maybe you’re approaching retirement and are going to make that dream of sailing around the world come true.  Whatever your reasons for taking the plunge into boat ownership, you’re about to take a big step, owning a sizeable asset, both physically and metaphorically, and there are plenty of ways to get your fingers burned along the way!  

Arm yourself with real, practical knowledge about the boat market, the buying process and your obligations/responsibilities as an owner to get the best bang for your buck when it comes to your next boat purchase.

In these paragraphs, I’ll take you through a five-step process to get the best boat for you and your budget.

Step 1: Know What You Want To Do With Your Boat and Why

Why do you want to do this?

Buying a boat can be compared with other major purchases in your life…like buying a house, a car or a motor home/RV.  At the very least, unless it’s going to be a weekend hobby, pottering about in the workshop, it should be considered an investment, both in time and money.  Understand, though, that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a boat is not an appreciating asset like land or buildings but depreciates from the moment it leaves the factory (see section 3 below on understanding the boat market).

Before you jump in feet first, take the time to ask and answer some basic questions that are designed to help you lose as little as possible of your time and money.  Worksheet 1 will help you organise these preliminary thoughts.

Who is the boat for?

  • Me?
  • Me and my partner?
  • Me and my family?
  • Me and my family and friends?

Whilst it is possible to buy big-ticket items such as boats, cars and houses for others as a surprise gift, it pays dividends to have everyone you hope to be using the boat later be involved early in the purchase decision… There’s no point buying a family cruiser to find out later that it’s just not something your daughter will ever want to do, or in buying a larger boat than you can handle alone to discover later that none of your friends or relatives has the time or enthusiasm to spend boating with you.

Unless you plan on being a single-handed boat owner and operator, of which there are many, and you may end up having to be one, ask some serious questions of your partner, family and close friends to get a precise understanding of what their involvement in the boat ownership will look like.  If possible and practical, test the theory – rent a fishing boat for the day and invite your friends, charter a cruising boat with your family, or walk the docks in your local marina and chat with boat owners there; join your local fishing, boating or sailing club; ask questions of other boat owners.

The more you understand what practical boat ownership means in your chosen sphere, the less likely it will be for your dreams to turn into disappointment later down the line.

What exactly do you want to do with your boat, and where?

  • I/we want to live on it year-round
  • We want to sail around the world as a family
  • I just want something to potter on at weekends
  • We want to spend weekends on the lake with family & friends
  • I just want to go fishing

Spend a few minutes jotting down all of the functions the boat has to perform.  The clearer and more precise you can be at this point, the easier it will be to shortlist the potential makes and models in the stages to follow.

Now think about the area you plan to operate the boat; what are the weather and sea/water conditions at different times of the year? Do you plan to use the boat year-round? What will you do with it in the off-season?

The answers to these questions not only influence the type of boat which will best suit you but also affect your annual budget for storage, docking and maintenance.

What is your budget?

The next step is to set a budget for your purchase and the annual operating & maintenance (O&M) costs.  Set this budget now, without yet knowing the possible cost of your perfect boat.  O&M costs should be around 10% of the purchase price per year; depending on your plans for the vessel and how much work you want to do yourself, they may be higher or slightly lower than this.

“Budgeting for Boat Operating & Maintenance Costs”

Now consider whether you might be better off sharing the costs with close friends or other family members.  This may, of course, fill you with horror, but there are many different ways to buy a boat.  

“Shared Boat Ownership”

And don’t forget that other essential question you should be asking at this point… “Should I buy the boat or rent it when I want to use it?”

“Boats – Should I Buy It or Rent It?”

Step 2: Define Your Ideal Boat and Make a Shortlist of Potential Brands and Models

Make a Wishlist

Every boat that exists was designed to fit the needs of a known user group and the ways they planned to use that particular model, whether a day boat for lake fishing or a round-the-world cruiser.  It is more than likely your perfect boat has already been built and is sitting somewhere waiting for you.  You may already have a few manufacturer names at the back of your mind and some specific models that you think might be a good fit for you, but here’s where a little research comes into play. In the same way as those for classic, performance, or prestige cars, certain boat designers and manufacturers have become well-known for the quality of their products in a specific niche.

Armed with some preliminary information about what you’re looking for, we can begin to make a list of some definitive requirements for your new boat.  Worksheet 2 may help with setting these out.

Start with the basics, power or sail, and work down the list of specifications according to your wishlist.  Give some careful thought to boat length in relation to the number of crew you expect to be on board… consider different hull materials, the benefits and pitfalls of one or two or even three hulls, and keep in mind that certain hull shapes have been specially designed to meet specific sea conditions and sailing/boating areas.

Desk Research

Now carry out an advanced search on, or; ignore the budget fields for the moment.  These are the largest boat marketplace sites in the world and will give you an idea of the range of boats available that meet your specific needs.  Sort the list by price – those brands and models with a higher price are either more recent models or more prestigious brands… or both.  Those with a lower price tend to be older, smaller or in need of work.

Now add in your own budgetary constraints… Are there some key models that fit your purchase budget? Remember that brokerage boats like those found on, more often than not, sell for between 10-30% less than the advertised asking price (depending on prevailing market conditions), so adjust your budget limits accordingly.

Study those listings that tick most of your boxes and make a shortlist of potential makes and specific models that merit further research.

Step 3: Understand the Boat Market and Your Options

Staying Within Your Budget

At this point, you’re probably running away with yourself looking at all the listings outside your original budget… stop and take a few minutes to understand the boat market.

Boating has increased exponentially in popularity since the 1970s when manufacturing using fibreglass meant that boats could be produced more cheaply and consistently than with other materials.  Fibreglass production using moulds made serial manufacture possible. Every year new boats are designed and manufactured to meet the needs of the latest generations of boaters, and today (2023), some half a million boats leave the factories each year to new owners.

“A Brief History of Modern Boat Building & How it Influences Boat Prices”

Many, if not most, of the new boats produced today, enter the commercial leisure market to the point where the largest producers in the world are now majority owned by the charter companies. Beneteau group, which includes Jeanneau and Lagoon, is majority owned by TUI Holidays Ltd, who own Moorings and Sunsail charter companies, and Groupe Beneteau has recently refinanced Dream Yacht Charters, victims of the CoViD slump in boat charters.

With this level of influence over boat production designs and cost, consider that many modern boat models have been designed and manufactured almost exclusively for the needs of the charter market.  

These needs are:

  • Coastal cruising in calm waters
  • A warm climate and outside living
  • A lifespan of 5 years of hard use in the charter fleet, after which they will be sold or passed to the owner – the guy who has financed the charter boat under one of the attractive packages offered by the charter company

Most charter companies offer low down payment options for people seeking to buy a new boat and an enticing return on investment.  Boat buyers looking at these contracts would do well to do some sums and calculate some real costs before taking the plunge.

“Buying a Boat Through a Charter Company”

For every new boat entering the primary charter fleets each year, another is retired and sold off.  Some go to the secondary charter market; others are sold privately.  Boats leaving a charter fleet are brought to a saleable standard but often show a lot of wear and are sparsely equipped.  They tend to be fairly attractively priced and represent a blank canvas for a new owner to add his own upgrades.

It’s true that not all new boats are sold to the charter market, and private buyers demand slightly different things from boat manufacturers.  Privately purchased vessels tend to be slightly better built (recommended manufacturing techniques are more thorough) and more highly specified than those placed in the charter market.  They are more carefully used and tend to be well maintained and often continually upgraded.  An “owner version” coming to the market will command a higher price and will normally be easier to sell again when the time comes.

Factors Affecting Boat Valuations

With the passing years, changing tastes and boating activities, older boats become dated and less desirable, harder to sell and with a consequent loss in value.  It is worth bearing in mind that, whilst they may look more dated, older boats were much more solidly built than many of today’s new boats. If you can find an older example by a reputable designer/builder, which has been well maintained and perhaps lightly used, such a boat is more likely to hold its value over the years to come than a cheaply built modern vessel hammered by its charter use.

Boats may be damaged due to user error, neglect or natural disasters.  Every few years, a number of boats are sunk, smashed, or dismasted by hurricanes, and damaged/salvaged vessels are most concentrated in the charter areas within the hurricane belt.  Such vessels may be technical “write-offs” for insurance purposes.  Whilst it’s true that anything fibreglass can be repaired, the cost of such repairs is often more than the repaired value of the vessel, and in these circumstances, the insurance company will pay out to the owner, where the boat is insured, and sell off or scrap the damaged hull.  Other damaged boats which may not be insured are hauled ashore and often abandoned by their owners; many drift into disrepair in the boatyard, the result of a loss of interest, a change in circumstances, or perhaps the death of the owner.  In many boat storage yards lie forgotten vessels; these hidden gems can present a great opportunity for someone willing to seek them out and capable of doing the necessary work.

“Buying a Hurricane Damaged Vessel”

With the increase in the volume of vessels manufactured annually since the 1970s, manufacturing standards have been brought in, most notably by the European Union (the Certificate of European Conformity – CE Mark) and the United States Coastguard. These standards infer that the boats produced under them are fit for the purpose for which they are designed. However, they are subject to self-policing by the manufacturer and by random inspections with a bloke with a clipboard.  It is important that a buyer understands the inferences of the particular “mark” awarded to his vessel and the extent to which it actually applies.

“Understanding the CE Mark”  

“Understanding USCG classification”

With the annual exodus of a large number of relatively new boats from the charter fleets, it’s fairly obvious to see that the second-hand boat sales market will eventually, and possibly quite soon, become saturated. Once supply exceeds demand, prices will fall, and any buyer today should be wise about his purchase.

Or maybe he shouldn’t purchase at all!?

“Boats – Should I Buy it or Rent It?”

Step 4: Shortlist Your Potential Boats & Compare Them

Shorten Your Shortlist

Having set your heart on buying a boat and armed with a better knowledge of the boat market, it’s time to shorten your shortlist.  Research each boat model on your shortlist as thoroughly as possible. This will include:

  • Online research of the boat manufacturer, brand and specific model… how many were made? is manufacturer support still available? were they designed with a specific purpose in mind?
  • Research online forums and owner groups… many brands and even specific models have owner groups on social media and online forums; these can provide valuable insight into common issues and their remedies.
  • Ask a local broker or marine surveyor – a broker can help you understand the general market and the demand, present and likely future, for a particular type of vessel.  A surveyor will give you an insight into the build quality of a brand or boat model and indicate areas of concern.
  • Talk to other owners and take a tour aboard – all the paper research in the world can’t replace a walk around the boat.  Try and see past any small issues, tidiness and cleanliness and imagine how you would use it yourself.
  • If possible, take the boat out on the water and try it in real conditions.  You may be able to charter an example or persuade an owner to take you out for a day.

Once you’ve carried out this exercise with each of the boat models on your shortlist, surely you now have a favourite? Ok, maybe two!  The next stage is to find the best example of this particular model within your budget and to negotiate the best price you can.

Finding the Best Example of Your Favourite Boat Model

Not all boats for sale are listed through brokers on, and other online marketplaces.  Many owners choose to manage their own sales, and listings can be found on relevant social media pages and groups and “for sale by owner” websites.  Other available boats simply aren’t advertised or are advertised locally in newspapers, local and national magazines; not all boat sales need the global reach of the internet. 

Decide how far afield you’re prepared to go for your perfect boat (consider land or sea transport costs and travel to see the boats) and narrow your search to your preferred boat model and geographic area.  You might:

  • Contact boat yards within your area
  • Contact boat brokers within your area
  • Search online
  • Search and post advertisements in local papers, seller groups, boat & yacht clubs and owner groups and forums

Now make a comparison of all of the examples you have found. Worksheet 3 may help you with this.  In order to gauge pricing, do not, for the moment, exclude boats outside your preferred geography.

Order the boats in terms of price and evaluate the differences between the examples that might indicate the differing prices.  You may find examples which seem way overpriced; it’s likely the owners of these boats aren’t really serious about selling, or perhaps there are other factors which could influence the price, such as its condition, age or significant upgrades. Which example(s) best meets your wishlist set out previously?

“Factors Affecting Boat Valuations

It’s time to inspect your prospective purchase(s).  If possible, visit yourself, but also consider taking a marine expert with you; a knowledgeable friend or a marine surveyor will look for any faults with the boat that you might not notice in your excitement and enthusiasm.  If the boat is geographically distant, you may choose to engage a local expert/surveyor to carry out a preliminary inspection on your behalf before you travel long distances.

“Brokers vs Surveyors”

Make a second visit; this time, take with you the other parties important to your buying decision, your partner, family members or friends.

Is this it? Have you found “the one”?!!

Step 5: Negotiate The Purchase & Complete The Paperwork

The Initial Offer

Having carried out your analysis and made your inspection, you will have a good idea of where your preferred boat sits in the price range for models of the same year and in similar condition.  Review your budget and determine your preferred price and your maximum offer.  It is customary for you to make your first offer “subject to survey”.

Boats advertised through a brokerage typically pay the broker 10% of the sales price  – this is deducted from the amount the seller receives from the agreed purchase price, i.e. it is paid by the seller, not the purchaser – keep this in mind when making your first offer… some brokers will fail to put an offer to the owner if they consider it too low!  Nevertheless, it is usual to make an offer between 10 and 30% less than the asking price, depending on the buoyancy of the market.  If boats are moving quickly and there are few examples available of your preferred model, you will need to offer closer to the advertised price; if there is a dearth of your preferred model on the market, a serious seller will need to move quickly on an offer that is lower than he might otherwise be happy with in order to secure the sale.

No serious seller wants their boat on the market longer than it has to; every month it goes unsold and unused is an additional cost.  It’s better to sell sooner and for a slightly lower price than to wait for the perfect offer that may take a year.

Make your offer in writing (email or using a pro-forma such as that provided here) and support it with comments like “keen purchaser” or “cash ready now”.

The Counter-Offer

Expect that the seller will come back with a counteroffer.  If it is higher than your max budget, consider if the difference is worth losing your dream boat for.  A $1,000 difference on a budget of $80,000 is probably not worth squabbling over, but it is significant on a budget of $8,000.  If you need to go back to reiterate a lower offer, then do so and make it clear that you really can’t move on it but that you are genuinely keen to complete the purchase.

At this point, you will have a verbal agreement in place, or you will have moved on to your second choice!

The Purchase Contract

A Broker will now ask you to sign a purchase contract and to pay a deposit into an escrow account – usually his 10% commission.  You will agree on a transfer of ownership date at a mutually convenient date in the future, at which point you will release the balance of the purchase price, normally directly to the seller, but your next job is to instruct a surveyor to carry out a pre-purchase survey on your prospective new boat.

“Choosing a Marine Surveyor”

The Pre-Purchase Survey

The survey will identify any major structural faults, safety or mechanical issues that could cause you to pull out of a sale, together with remedial work to correct anything unsafe, overly aged, broken or not currently operating correctly.  You should compare the results of your survey with the vessel particulars given in the announcement for sale… anything which you consider has been misrepresented or which materially alters the value of the vessel against that already agreed should be considered points for further negotiation with the seller.

“Pre-Purchase Surveys”

You can choose for the seller to carry out remedial work before you complete the purchase, or you can request for the price to be adjusted so that you have the funds to pay for the work yourself once you take possession.  In most cases, there will be a simple price adjustment.

The Bill of Sale

The broker or seller will amend the bill of sale accordingly, and both you and the seller will sign duplicate copies – one for the buyer and one for the seller – in the presence of a witness. He will hand you your copy of the bill of sale, and the boat is yours!

“Understanding the Bill of Sale”

Flag State Registration

With your bill of sale in hand, you must register your boat with a vessel registration list that will confer your “flag”.  Normally this is your home country, but commercial boats may elect a “flag of convenience” for tax reasons.  Unless you plan to use your vessel for commercial purposes, sticking with your home country registration is normally easiest.  Many maritime registers now offer an online registration service, and for pleasure vessels, this is quick and easy.

“Choosing a Flag for Your Boat”

Many flag state registers ask that proof of cancellation from the previous register be submitted; the timetable for providing this document should be agreed upon with the seller when signing the purchase contract.


Don’t forget to protect your investment; the pre-purchase survey can be used to obtain insurance quotes for your boat.  You don’t want your boat to be left exposed to risk, particularly if the immediate steps are to transport it to where you want to use or keep it.  Often a seller will let the insurance run on for a few days until you’ve secured your own policy.


It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of buying a boat, but by taking a logical and methodical approach like the one outlined above, you can end up with your perfect boat at the best price possible.

Happy sailing!

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