Smooth Sailing: What To Know When Buying A Boat For The First Time

If it’s your first time buying a boat, it’s no wonder you feel like you’re sailing uncharted waters. Here’s how to make sure your first boat is what you expect.

A boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into.” This is a saying by people who weren’t really prepared to buy a boat.

Yes, buying a boat costs money, but there’s a way to do it without feeling like you’re paying out the nose. Don’t let those naysayers get to you.

Instead, read this guide so you’re prepared before you so much as dip a toe in the water. Start learning below.

Think Size

The size of the boat is measured in feet. Most start at around 14 feet and go up to around 33 feet.

There’s an argument between experts, but lengths somewhere between 33 to 39 qualify as a yacht.

Yet, knowing what exact length you need is tricky. What sets apart a 14 and a 16-foot boat? It’s easier to think about it in terms of people. How many people do you need your boat to hold?

Boats under 20 feet can hold two or three people, but three will be tight quarters. Some boats come with a capacity level, while others don’t.

If the boat you have in mind doesn’t, use this quick calculation, which takes into account the length of the boat times the transom width divided by 15.

So a boat that is 12 feet by 5, equals 60. Sixty divided by 15 equals four people on the boat at one time. Those are average-sized people.

If you’re taking someone out that weighs more, you have to think about that. Kids weigh less than the calculations assumptions, so you can bring three small kids instead of two.

As safe as boats are nowadays, they’re still floating on an ocean of water. You have to respect that.

Think Type

Once you know the approximate length of the boat you need, then you can think about type. There are three kinds of boats that most people shop for.

They are flats boats, pontoons, and speed boats. Each has a specific use and depend on what you need a boat for.

Flats Boats

These are an affordable option. They’re on the smaller size and are made for fishermen who need to go in shallow water.

Hence, the bottom of the boat is flat, instead of it plunging into a V-shape that would get caught on shallow bottoms. These boats are usually smaller and used for fishing purposes.


These are what you likely think of when you dream of a day out on the lake. Pontoons are flatboats, with an open floor plan and sometimes a canopy.

They float on two hulls under the boat. The hulls are large, almost banana-shaped floatation devices under the deck. They give the boat a wide surface area and are hard to tip.

The ease of walking around and the stability makes pontoons a family-friendly pick. However, what they have in stability, they lack in speed.

You can go tubing or water skiing on a pontoon boat, but it won’t be nearly as fast as the next boat type.

Speed Boats

Finally, speed boats are what people think about when they go out water skiing or boarding on a lake. They’re designed for (wait for it) speed and are more aerodynamic than a pontoon.

They have one, central V-shaped hull, that allows them to go through the water in one fast line. You can use these as family and fishing boats, along with some water sports fun.

Make sure the speedboat you have your eye on has enough horsepower to go fast. Let the boat dealer know you’re using it for watersports.

You can always make a boat go slower if you need to, but you can’t make it go faster than the max HP.

Think Price

Now the not-so-fun part: budgeting. There are a lot of costs involved with buying a boat.

Hopefully you already know that. A boat can be just as expensive as a car, but you don’t have to pay to park a car (most of the time). We’ll get into more detail about storage later.

First, you have to consider the price of the boat. Is that the base price or does it come with accessory packages? Packages can range from one to 10 thousand dollars, depending on the finishing touches you choose.

Then, you’ll have to cover the title and taxes. On a big purchase like this, you’ll usually spend around $500 on the paperwork alone.

Third, you’ll need to buy a trailer, if you don’t have one. Some dealerships will throw in the trailer with the boat, others won’t. The bigger the boat, the bigger the trailer you’ll need – and price correlates with size.

Finally, you’ll have to think about storage cost. If you’re storing your boat covered, on a trailer in your driveway, great. Then you’re scot-free on this one.

But if you want to store it in or near the water, you have to rent that space. Then you have gas and dock fees, depending on the dock.

If that seems all too expensive, remember that dealers want to work with you. You may have to go a size down from what you thought you could afford, but that’s not the end of the world.

Go to a Show

Now that you’re prepared, find a boat show near you. Bring your budget, the type of boat you want, and the ideal size.

Write these things down on a piece of paper. Do two laps around the boat show, before you talk to anyone about a specific boat. That way you can compare prices and models between dealers.

And, yes, it’s actually a good idea to buy at a boat show. Dealers had to load up every boat, create graphics, decide on special pricing, and more – so they really don’t want to take those boats back home.

They’ll be willing to work with you and most can finance on site, through a series of phone calls with their home dealership. Some will even help you get the boat back home if you buy it on-site.

Make sure they’re a trusted dealer, like Westshore Marine and Leisure, before you buy. You can check Google reviews to learn more about them.

Deciphering Google Reviews

There will almost always be one or two negative reviews for a business. Like you, they can’t please everyone. When you read them, try to read between the lines.

Why is the person upset? Does it seem like a confusion issue? Do they feel jilted? The best way to tell what caliber of business they are is to read how the business responds.

If they apologize for the bad experience and offer to make it better, or at least try, that’s admirable. If you do end up buying from them, leave your own review.

Reviews are the lifeblood of a business in these online-obsessed times. Put your nice words to work! It’s good karma if nothing else.

Buy Life Jackets

It’s normal for boat dealerships to carry safety equipment, but they may be overpriced. Check the in-store brand’s price on Amazon before you buy it in-person.

If they’re the same price, great, throw it in with your boat purchase. Remember, everyone needs a life jacket, even if you’re a great swimmer. Even great swimmers have accidents and get tired of swimming after a while.

If you have kids, that’s non-negotiable. They’ll need child size life-jackets for sure, even if they’re good swimmers.

Read this guide on what drowning actually looks like so you can be prepared in the case of an emergency.

Name Your Boat

After all is said and done financially, you’ll need to participate in the age-old tradition of naming your boat. Traditionally, they’re female names. Think the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

But, people are getting more creative than that. Walk around your local dock to get some ideas and inspiration. Your boat’s name should encompass its personality, along with yours.

For example, you’re not going to name a pontoon “Speed Racer.” You can always Google boat names if your dock walk didn’t leave you feeling inspired.

Just make sure you don’t copy another name exactly. Your boat deserves some distinction.

Buying a Boat

The most important thing about buying a boat is that you don’t overspend. If you can’t make your boat payments, then there’s no point in falling in love with the wind in your hair.

Stick to your budget and only start shopping once you know what you want. Make sure you’re buying a boat from someone who cares about what you want – not just making a sale.

With these tips, we’re ready to let you set sail, literally. Have fun out there and be smart! We want to see you living your best Californian life!

About the author

Susan Paige

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