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How to Buy a Boat: The Ultimate Guide

So you’ve decided to buy a boat! Whether small or large, power or sail, we know how good it can feel buying a boat and untying the dock lines for the first time. Venturing down the path of boat ownership may seem daunting, as there are many questions for you to answer even before you start shopping in earnest: What type of boat is right for you? Where will you use it? How much will it cost? 

This in-depth buyer’s guide will help you all along the way, beginning with the eight steps we recommend that you follow.


Steps to Buying a Boat



In this guide to buying a boat, we’ve broken down the process into these essential steps. While some of the specifics will vary from country to country or state to state, the fundamentals are generally the same as you look at what you need to consider, what you need to do, and what you should be aware of when purchasing a boat. In each section, you’ll also find plenty of links to further information and top tips from our experts. 


boats in a marina


Step 1: Choose the right type of boat

While you may already be staring at a boat that your heart has decided should be yours, we urge you to wait a minute to let your head catch up and consider what the first step should be on any boat-buying journey: Which type of boat is right for your needs? Think about exactly why you’re buying a boat and how you want to use it. Start by answering these questions, which cut to core of our mission here at Rightboat:


  1. What do you want to do with your boat? This will impact the style of the boat you buy the most. Do you want it for fishing or watersports or entertaining? Do you need a versatile boat that allows for different activities and perhaps overnight trips? Are you planning on long-range cruising? Will your boat live in a marina or on a trailer? 

In all the wide world of boats, there are many, many types. For a comprehensive list, check out our Guide to the Different Types of Boats


  1. Where do you want to use your boat? Wherever you go boating, the wind, water, and weather conditions found there should play a major role in directing you towards the right boat. A pontoon boat, for example, is ideal for calm lakes or rivers, but wouldn’t be a top choice for choppy or ocean waters. In regions with more seasonal conditions, you might want to consider a boat with a cabin, and for offshore cruising, you might choose a bluewater sailing yacht. 


  1. How much experience do you have? It’s common to want the biggest boat you can get for your money, but it’s best to buy a boat that is within your experience level to handle and maybe step up later. Nothing takes the fun out of boating more than feeling overwhelmed by a boat that’s too big. Choose a boat that you feel competent to handle and you—and your guests—will feel more relaxed and enjoy the experience more. 


TOP TIP: Be prepared to compromise. Make a list of everything you want in a boat, but know that all boat-buying journeys require some compromises along the way. 

EXTRA: Use our in-depth guide to choosing the right type of boat to help you narrow down your choices.


Step 2: Determine your budget

Buying a boat is often a big financial decision, so it’s important to understand all the costs involved with boat ownership from the beginning and to create a budget you can afford. To help you figure out what kind of boat is within your price range, look beyond the initial price tag at all the costs involved in both buying a boat and maintaining it;


  1. Costs of buying boat
  • Purchase cost: The sale price is the first step in deciding which type of boat you can afford, and it will be affected by whether the boat is new or used, its size, age, location, style, and condition. Use the search tools on boat-sales websites such as Rightboat to see what’s available in your area and get a good idea of how much different types of boats cost. If you choose to use a loan or marine financing, you can spread out the initial cost of the boat over months or years (learn more with our Guide to Boat Loans).
  • Survey and sea trial: Depending on the size of the boat you’re buying and whether its new or used, you are likely to need a boat survey and sea trial, which is paid for by the buyer. 
  • Trailer: If you plan to tow your boat to launch sites, you’ll need a trailer. This can often be negotiated into the sale price, especially for new boats. 
  • Equipment: You’ll need to make sure your boat is fully equipped with safety equipment as required such as life jackets, paddles, horn, personal locator beacons, EPIRB, marine radio, fire extinguishers and signal flares. There may also be other equipment such as fishing gear or watersports equipment you’ll want to buy.
  • Licenses: In Europe and in an increasing number of US states, you need to have completed a boater safety course and get a boating license to operate your boat. Find out more with our Guide to Boating Licenses
  • Boat registration: When it comes to boat registration and titling fees, each country and state has its own requirements. Cost will depend on the size of the boat and its class. 


  1. Annual costs of owning a boat
  • Marina fees: If you can’t trailer your boat, then marina fees are likely to be one of your largest annual expenses. Prices vary significantly depending on location, amenities available, and the size of your boat. 
  • Insurance: You’ll need at least a basic level of insurance on your boat, and the costs again will vary depending on size, style, age, location, where your boat is stored, where it’s used, your level of boat-handling experience, your boat-driving record and the deductible you choose. 
  • Fuel: Motorboats—and sailboats with motors—will typically use gas or diesel fuel, and you can do a calculation of how much that will cost depending on how much you plan to use it. The size of the engine, your cruising speed, the hull type, and the type of fuel will all be factors in the overall cost. 
  • Maintenance and repairs: Create a maintenance schedule from the start and not only will there be fewer unpleasant financial surprises along the way, but your boat will stay in better condition, too. Maintenance and repairs on older boats will be higher than newer boats, which will have a warranty. Whether you do the work yourself or pay professionals will also make a big difference to the overall cost. 
  • Depreciation: New boats depreciate the most and the quickest, with most depreciating by 40 to 50 percent of their initial price over the first 8 to 10 years (with half that amount lost in the first two to three years). Used boats generally depreciate around 5 percent each year. 


TOP TIP: There are some clever ways you can lower overall expenses, such as where you keep your boat and even by putting your boat to work (see lower the cost of boat ownership). 

EXTRA: Use our Guide to the Costs of Boat Ownership to help you create your budget. 


boats floating in the sea


Step 3: Decide if you want to buy a new or used boat

Deciding whether to buy a new or used boat is often one of the biggest decisions to make, and there are benefits to both. 


  1. Benefits of buying a new boat:
  • You can get exactly the style and model of boat that you want, from the engine size down to the color of the upholstery. Most new-boat builders allow you to “build your own boat” to a certain extent and offer a package of extra features. 
  • There will be no question marks over its condition.
  • Your boat will come with a warranty.
  • Maintenance costs will be lower.
  • The installed technology will be up to date. 
  • You will have more financing options through the dealer, manufacturer, or broker. 


  1. Benefits of buying a used boat:
  • Used boats cost less than new boats.
  • You can often get a better model for the same or less money.
  • Your boat won’t suffer from as much depreciation as a new boat.
  • You won’t be subject to the long waiting times required for some new boats (particularly semi-custom builds), so you’ll take delivery of a used boat more quickly.
  • You’ll receive a detailed marine survey and the independent surveyor can answer any questions you have, allowing you to understand your boat better. 
  • It might include premium equipment and other extras. 


TOP TIP: When it comes to buying a used boat, beware a boat with a price tag that seems too good to be true. While it’s certainly possible to get a bargain, use our guide to Buying a Cheap Boat; Is it a Good Idea? to help you decide if it’s the right decision. 

EXTRA: For more on making the choice to buy a new or used boat, check out our article on Buying a New or Used Boat; Which is Best? 


Once you know what types of boats will suit your family’s needs, it’s time to start your search. These days, there are many options when it comes to searching boat listings; you’re certainly not limited to word of mouth or local classifieds. Online classifieds have been used to buy and sell boats for years now with huge success. They are generally used for boats in the lower price brackets and sold on an as-seen basis. Today, however, boat buyers have more tools than ever to use in their search for the perfect boat, including;


  • Boat-sales websites: Websites such as Rightboat.com offer you the chance to do a detailed and specific search by entering in the type and style of boat you’re looking for—and even the make and model—plus the length, location and desired price level. You’ll instantly be able to look through detailed photographs and videos, see full specifications, and make contact with the private seller, dealer or broker. Websites such as Rightboat are one of the most popular ways to search for both new and used boats, and they offer an efficient, safe, and effective way to cast the widest possible net to find your next boat. 


  • Boat brokers and dealers: Most brokers and dealers sell both new and used boats, and they may either sell a wide range of brands and models, or specialize with one or two brands. Working with a broker can offer reassurance, as they are experts in their field and often know the boats they’re selling inside out. Even when they don’t, they know how to provide the needed research to help you move forward. When buying a new boat, they can also help you to customize it, include extras in your package, such as trailers, and offer boat finance options.  


  • Visit a local boat show: There are hundreds of boat shows annually all across the world, from local and regional shows to famous international events such as the Miami International Boat Show and the Monaco Yacht Show. Visiting a show can be a great way to search for your next boat as it allows you to see the latest models up close, compare similar boats, and sometimes even go for a sea trial. There are experts on hand, accessories and water toys to discover, and a fun celebration of the boating lifestyle. For more information, read our article Should I Buy a Boat at a Boat Show?


TOP TIP:  While considering where to buy a boat, also consider when to buy a boat. While there is no bad time to buy a boat if it’s right for you, the seasons do play a role in the boating industry. Find out more with our article on When is the Best Time to Buy a Boat

EXTRA: Start your search on Rightboat.com where you can enter specific search criteria to help you find the perfect boat. 


boat show


Step 5: Narrow your search and start viewing boats  

By this point you should have a better picture of the kind of boat you want and can afford, and it’s time to start narrowing down your options. Once you have a short-list, start contacting the vendors (whether dealer, broker or private seller) and arranging to inspect the boats. Here are some tips for buying a used boat. 


What to look for when buying a used boat 

Before you inspect a boat, make a list of what you want to look at or ask the vendor about. Then be sure to take plenty of notes and photos along the way. Try to remain objective and practical, and don’t let your heart rule your head! Here’s a list of things to look for when viewing a used boat: 


  • Any visible damage or repairs, exterior or interior
  • Check bilge area for any signs of oil leaking from the engine.
  • Look inside fuel tank for any signs of corrosion.
  • Ensure the stringers are well-connected to the hull. 
  • On a sailing yacht, check that rigging and sails are in good condition. 
  • Look for any signs of rust around the engine.
  • Any cracks in the propeller.
  • Check the oil.
  • Listen to the engine for any vibrations or rough sounds. 
  • Inspect the electronics
  • Look and smell for damp or mildew in the interior or lockers.
  • Open and close all doors and hatches.


Questions to ask when buying a used boat

Whether you’re working through a dealer or buying a boat from a private seller, it’s good to know what to ask when buying a used boat. Here’s a starter list of questions:


  1. How many hours does the engine have logged?
  2. How often has the boat been serviced?
  3. Where has the boat been stored?
  4. Is there any warranty left and is it transferable?
  5. What does the warranty cover?
  6. Has the boat had any problems or major repairs?
  7. Why are they selling the boat?
  8. How long have they owned the boat and how many owners has it had?
  9. What condition are the sails in?
  10. Does the boat have a service record?


TOP TIP: Don’t hesitate to approach other boat owners with questions, especially one who owns a similar boat in your area. Most people who love the boating lifestyle are happy to share their hard-earned experience and if they don’t know an answer, they usually know someone else who does.

EXTRA: Use our Viewing a Used Boat Checklist to help you, and be sure to read through our guide on Buying a Used Boat for what to look for on specific types of boats. 


Step 6: Agree on the Price

You’ve found the one! Now it’s time to make an offer and agree on the price. Negotiating can be an unfamiliar skill for many people, but if you want to get the best price, you need to be prepared for a bit of back-and-forth negotiation. The No. 1 rule to remember when negotiating is that this is a business deal and not personal. 


Top tips for negotiating the best price

  • Do your research, learn the market, and have a good idea of what the boat is worth.
  • Don’t be swayed by a long list of equipment that’s not of particular value to you; it may not cost as much to buy what you need later.
  • Calculate the cost of any repairs that are likely needed and deduct that from the asking price.
  • As hard as it might be, stay calm and try not to be emotional. While you may have your heart set on a particular boat, you don’t want to overpay because of a fear of losing it. Being willing to walk away is a powerful negotiating tool and mindset. 
  • Buying a boat isn’t always a quick process so be patient. Impatience can cause you to make rash decisions just to get to the finish line quicker.
  • Be clear about what you want and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
  • Look at the situation from all angles to help you find the middle ground you and the other party can agree on.


TOP TIP: Make sure you know what’s included in the price you’re agreeing to. Be sure to get an itemized list of everything from electronics to safety equipment and even decorative cushions so there is no disagreement later. 

EXTRA: Learn to negotiate the best deal on your next boat.  


Luxury motorboat on the dock


Step 7: Conduct a sea trial and marine survey

Once you and the seller have agreed on the price, it’s time for a marine survey (on a used boat) and sea trial. On smaller boats this may not be necessary, but in most cases we recommend a sea trial at least to put the engine, steering, and any electronics to the test. Both a sea trial and survey are paid for by the buyer, and it will be your responsibility to find a marine surveyor. When negotiating the price, it’s common to agree on a price subject to survey. 


What is a marine survey and do I need one?

Also known as a pre-purchase survey, it involves a professional marine surveyor giving your prospective purchase a thorough inspection and producing a report detailing areas where there may be faults or damage. Depending on the vessel and the surveyor, they will spend from a few hours to a day or more undertaking a thorough check of the boat from the bottom up including safety equipment, engine, fuel and electrical systems, waste system, navigation lights, the structure of the boat, and its general condition. 


There are several types of marine survey:

  1. Insurance survey: This is the most basic of surveys and offers a general overview of the condition of the boat; it is often required by an insurance company before they will offer insurance coverage.
  2. Finance survey: Marine mortgage lenders or finance institutions will usually ask for a survey to be completed before signing off on finance to ensure that the asset they’re financing is a good one. 
  3. Full condition survey: This is the most comprehensive type of survey and will delve deeper into the condition of the boat, checking everything from its structural integrity and operating systems to the electronics, safety systems, interior cosmetics, and more.


EXTRA: Find out more about the different types of marine surveys, how to choose a marine surveyor, and more with our in-depth Guide to Pre-Purchase Surveys


What is a sea trial?

A sea trial is a test drive of a boat. It gives a prospective buyer the chance to see the boat in action, to try out all the equipment and instruments, and to get a feel for the boats’ maneuverability. A sea trial usually lasts for about an hour and is often conducted on the same day as a marine survey. The surveyor will go along on the sea trial with you and include it in their report. However, you aren’t required to take along a marine surveyor—there is a lot you can inspect yourself. Either way, some things you’ll want to check on the sea trial include:


  • Try playing the role of both driver and passenger to get a true feel for the boat.
  • Give the engine full throttle and see what it can do, especially if you’ll be using it for watersports.
  • Test how the boat carves through the water at higher speeds.
  • See how the boat handles in rougher water or when crossing a wake.
  • Listen for any rattles or vibrations.
  • Switch on all of the electronics, navigational equipment, light switches, accessories, windlass, stabilizer system, batteries, generator and bilge pump to ensure they all work correctly. 
  • On a sailboat, hoist the sails; if possible, do it on a breezy day. 


TOP TIP: Find your own surveyor rather than using one recommended by the seller. While surveyors are professionals and will offer an impartial report, it’s always best not to have any split loyalties. 

EXTRA: Read more with our comprehensive Guide to Sea Trials


Step 8: Close the Deal and Take Delivery of Your New Boat

The deal is done and it’s now time to make things final! Arranging the paperwork and payment for your new boat may seem daunting but for the most part it’s actually a very simple transaction;


  • Check the paperwork: There are a few bits of paperwork to ensure you have before sailing away in your boat including;
    • A boat title document and/or a registration document. These are issued in the US by each state, with the boat title proving ownership, with the registration being represented by a number to be displayed on both sides of the bow and renewed every year or two. In the UK all boat registration is managed by the UK Ship Register, and how you register depends on what the boat will be used for and how big it is. Check out our guide to Paperwork and Taxes When Buying a Boat for more guidance. 
    • Warranty cards. You will be issued with warranty cards when buying a new boat but it’s also important to have warranty cards for any used boat that may still be within its warranty period. 
    • Builder’s Certificate: This is relevant mainly if you’re buying a new boat, but it’s also helpful to ask for it if you’re buying a used boat. A Builder’s Certificate from the vessel’s manufacturer will detail information about the boat, provide contact information for the builder, and confirm your ownership. 
    • Maintenance records: Maintenance records are only relevant for used boats and will detail the condition of the boat, what works have been done to it, when, and by who. 


  • Arrange payment: There are two ways to pay for your boat; either in full or by using a marine-financing option. Boat loans are available from banks, specialist lenders, via dealers or through online lenders. Plus, repayment terms will vary. Read our guide to Financing Your Boat before making your decision. 


  • Sign the contract: The Bill of Sale—also known as the Boat Purchase Agreement—is the contract between the buyer and the seller and needs to include a description of the boat along with the hull identification number (HIN), the purchase date, the sale price, the signature of both the seller and buyer, the name, address and contact information of both buyer and seller, the state registration number (in the US), and the trailer Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) if it’s being sold with the boat.


For Sale sign on a boat in a marina


Post-Purchase Checklist for New Boat Owners

Congratulations, you did it! You’re now a boat owner. But if this is a new role for you, before you get out on the water, here are a few important tasks to complete:


  • Get a boat license: In many parts of the world, getting a license is a legal necessity before you can operate your vessel, and different countries and US states will have different requirements. Obtaining a boating license is usually straightforward and involves taking a boater safety course before you can apply for the license. Find out more about How to Get a Boating License


  • Take a boater education course: Whether it’s required for a boating license or not, taking a course is always a good idea as it will prepare you better to drive your boat safely and without unnecessary drama when you’re on the water. Courses vary from simple online courses covering safe operation and navigation, safety equipment, boating law, and emergencies, to more in-depth courses with on-water training. 


  • Register your boat: In nearly all locations unless your boat is very small, you will need to register ownership of your boat, which can usually be done online. You will need to complete a registration form, provide proof of ownership, and pay the registration fee (which will vary depending on the size of the boat). 


  • Insure your boat: While boat insurance isn’t a legal requirement in many countries and some states in the US, it is often a requirement of marinas and marine finance lenders. It’s also good sense! As with all insurance policies, there are many variables and levels of cover you can choose from to suit your needs and budget. Learn more about marine insurance here


  • Store your boat: Deciding where to store your boat is a big decision. It might be small enough to be trailered and kept in your driveway or yard, or you may want to find a marina berth for it. There is covered and uncovered rack storage—also known as dry stacks—as well as swinging moorings and dockage in marinas. For more help see our Guide to Choosing the Right Marina


  • Create a maintenance schedule: Create an annual maintenance schedule to help you keep track of what needs doing and when. It’s cheaper to maintain and repair equipment on your new boat than it is to deal with breakdowns and replacements!



John Burnham is a marine ​editor and writer with ​decades of journalism experience as ​Chief Editor of​ boats.com,​ Sailing World, Cruising World, and ​other boating websites. As a competitive sailor, he has led teams to world and national titles in the International One-Design, Shields, and other classes. Based in Newport, Rhode Island, John is a​ PCC leadership coach, a member of the ​America’s Cup Hall of Fame Selection Committee​, and a ​past board member of Sail America and US Sailing. For more, see johnsburnham.com.


Samantha Wilson has spent her entire life on and around boats, from tiny sailing dinghies all the way up to superyachts. She writes for many boating and yachting publications, top charter agencies, and some of the largest travel businesses in the industry, combining her knowledge and passion of boating, travel and writing to create topical, useful and engaging content.

More from: John Burnham / Samantha Wilson

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