Boat ownership provides opportunities for great experiences and memories for yourself, your family, and your friends. It’s a pathway to wild and open spaces, an opportunity to see and visit places you cannot get to by car. Maybe its your first boat, maybe it’s the next in a lifetime series of boats, maybe it’s your last boat – this article doesn’t try to suggest what boat you should buy, instead, it tries to bring up some of the basic questions you should ask yourself before buying a boat.
These are not price, style, speed, and size questions—there is plenty of advice on that. These are hard personal questions that no one wants to talk about. Owning a boat can be either a great experience or an endless sink of time and money with the enjoyment of ownership degraded by logistical and budgetary problems. As a boat owner of 35 years, I politely suggest you consider some of the questions I discuss below as part of your decision process.
1. Can you afford the worst-case scenario?
Unless you are buying a new boat with a warranty, you have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
You just brought the boat home after getting a great deal on it. Yourself and your family are excited for the first trip and the first season with it, and look forward to a series of planned and budgeted expenses. On your second trip, a disaster happens. The boat won’t start, the engine loses power, you start sinking. No joke. I have heard all these stories from boat owners, self-included.
In 1985 I proudly launched my first boat, a very used 15-foot whaler I had bought from a dealer for a whopping $5,000 dollars. I knew nothing about boat ownership, nothing about outboard engines, nothing about what could go wrong.
Fast forward to a foggy June day on Joppa Flats at the mouth of the Merrimack River. My wife and I were fishing—or I was fishing and she was enjoying a day on the water. The engine was off, I had a great drift along the flats as the tide dropped. I’m pretty sure I caught a couple of stripers. I went to start the engine, nothing. No click, no radio, no power. A dead battery. A good Samaritan jumped me, but now I couldn’t get the engine to catch. Choke in, choke out—it wouldn’t start.
Eventually, the Samaritan towed me back to the ramp in the classic ride of shame, I sadly loaded the boat onto my trailer and drove it to the dealer who had sold me the boat. A mechanic came out, took off the engine cover – showed me a gummed up carburetor and an on-engine fuel filter with a creamy raspberry milkshake inside. He said, “Where’s your fuel filter?” I was clueless back then, and probably answered, “I don’t know.”
The reason I didn’t know was that my bargain boat didn’t have one! Here came big, unexpected bill number 1. Battery, fuel filter installation, carburetor, and engine clean up and rebuild. It was probably the first time I heard the term, “B.O.A.T. stands for Break Out Another Thousand.”
Over and over for the past 30 years, I have heard and witnessed the horror story of someone getting a great deal on a used boat with only a few hundred hours on an engine, and then later that season have the engine completely fail due to long-deferred maintenance. A new engine means “break out another couple of tens of thousands!”
Low engine hours on an older boat is always a red herring to an experienced boat owner. The hours on the engine are only one aspect of the boat’s wear and tear. Marine age – the time an engine and boat systems have sat with saltwater in or around them – is a far more accurate gauge than engine hours. That 25-year-old Florida boat with only 700 hours on the engine has 70,000 days of marine age where saltwater has been corroding away through-hulls, engine raw water hoses and coolers, and working its bad effect on your boat’s wiring.
A 70-foot boat that did 15 miles and 2 hours of boating each year from its storage yard on Cape Cod to its summer home on Martha’s Vineyard came within hours of sinking at the dock last summer. A sharp-eyed dock staff member noticed the boats bilge pump on nonstop. Investigation showed a corroded through-hull fitting inside the boat. There was a circular split inside the threaded part of the fitting and weeping a gallon or two an hour into the boat. The next time that boat was at sea that fitting would have snapped off and let hundreds of gallons per minute of saltwater into the boat. That’s what marine age can do, regardless of how little the boat is run!
2. Are you prepared to spend 10% of the new purchase price on annual maintenance?
Whether it’s a brand-new boat, a 5-year-old boat or a 30-year-old boat, they all need annual maintenance. Long ago, when I was a new boat owner, I complained to someone about the cost of winter maintenance. That grizzled old salt looked at me and said, “Kid, here’s a rule of thumb: take the new value of your old boat and assume you’re going to spend ten percent of that cost in maintenance every year.” Thirty-odd years later, I have to say he was pretty accurate.
As I track my expenses over the past 20 years, most years, I get away with minimal work and spending only a few percent of the boat’s value; other winters, I might spend 20-to-30 percent of the boat’s value with a planned engine replacement, a major paint or fiberglass project, or as the case for this winter, an electronics rip and replace.
Think of owning a boat like owning a floating house. It has many systems—mechanical, electrical, water, possibly heat and air conditioning—each of which needs some sort of annual maintenance just to keep the system running correctly. Then, every 10 years or so, the system starts to become obsolete, and either major maintenance or a full replacement is warranted. I cannot emphasize enough that with our short boating season in the Northeast you are far better off spending your boating budget on preventative maintenance in February than trying to address a major repair in June!
3. Am I buying a boat for today’s needs, next year’s needs, or my needs 3-to-5 years from now?
That sweet little center console is so very tempting. It will go 40 knots and get you where you want to go quickly. It will be great for fishing and your little kids will love tubing behind it. So what if it has a porta-potty, no bow protection from seas, and minimal sun protection. Fast-forward to teenagers four years down the line, and it’s no surprise that getting soaked and peeing in a glorified bucket doesn’t match their expectations.
This story is talked about every season: the perfect boat for this year’s needs comes along, and your all set to jump on it. A year later, you realize it’s the wrong boat, and look around to trade up. My advice is that before you embark on a major purchase like a boat that you take the time and ask yourself how you and your friends and family will use that boat two or three years down the road. A boat purchase is a purchase of a depreciating asset, which loses some percentage of its value the minute you bring it home, and greater percentages year over year. Even if you flip the boat for the same price you paid for it, ancillary costs—brokers fees, taxes, repairs, outfitting, and the like—are lost expenses.
Each boat I have purchased has been with the purpose of meeting my needs for at least 5 years with a goal of 10 years of ownership before I move on. In my initial small boat purchases, I thought of my needs, not my family’s needs. The end result was a couple of two-year-and-done boats, with each boat flip an additional unplanned effort and cost.
4. Where will you use it? Is it suitable for that area?
The Northeast has a variety of ocean waters on its extensive coast. The boat you may be attracted to could be entirely unsuitable for your boating waters. For instance, when I was a new and inexperienced boater, I was sold by the “unsinkable Whaler” 1980s advertisements with a Whaler cut in two and a person standing floating on either half! While that classic Whaler was truly unsinkable, its trihedral flat bottom was completely unsuited to Nantucket Sound steep chop. One ride back from the Vineyard in a southwest breeze was all it took for my family to insist on a bigger boat!
You may covet that enclosed pocket sportfish, but if you’re doing your fishing along the rocky shores of Cape Anne, perhaps a center console with 360-degree casting ability is a better choice. If you like back-bay fishing, then maybe a low draft boat with a Minn Kota trolling motor and Spot Lock is a better choice.
5. Where will you slip or trailer it?
So, you bought the boat, now what? Are you going to trailer it? Keep it in a slip? Keep it on a mooring? Do you have a lead at a marina? Are you on the town mooring waiting list?
A typical slip fee might be $150 to $250 per foot with additional power and water fees. Sure, you may have the money, but it might be a 2-year wait to get into the marina near your house. In the meantime, can you live with your boat in a marina an hour drive from your house? That’s not an unusual situation with a new boat. The time to find next year’s slip is midsummer; by fall, every marina is full for the following year.
Moorings are no delight either. As an example, the Falmouth, Massachusetts town moorings in many of the estuaries and bays have a 10- to 15- year wait to get a mooring! I rejoined the Falmouth Marina wait list in 2012, I was originally number 150-something. Now, eight years later, I am up to number 34, and move up two to four spots each year. Perhaps in 10 years, I can get a town slip!
If you’re going to trailer it, are you set up for success? Do you have a place in your yard for 40 feet of boat and trailer? Do you have all the tools, safety gear, and spares needed to make for successful trailering? When I first started boating, I would not so happily start and end my long day with 100-mile drives on busy highways. Frozen brakes, traffic stops for inoperative trailer lights, blown tires were all part of the experience. At some point, I realized that 200 miles a day multiplied by 20-to-25 trips per year added up to a lot of trailering and a lot of things that could and would go wrong.
6. Where will you store it each winter?
Ah – the joys of boats in winter in the Northeast. An opportunity to spend money on a boat wrapped in plastic and covered with snow!
So, you bought a new and bigger boat. Where are you going to store it? In your yard, in a (presumably) secure lot? At a marina, either inside or outside? Regardless of your location, each comes with its own set of challenges. Winters are rough, and wherever you decide to leave your boat, it needs to be protected from the elements, and it needs to be properly winterized.
Once you get past 20 feet and into dual engines, multiple mechanical and water systems, winterizing a boat becomes the better part of a day’s labor. Then add shrink wrap for four hours more fun! Doing it yourself is completely straightforward if you have the tools, the time, and the weather!
It’s not a big deal to spend a cool and clear November weekend winterizing and shrink-wrapping in your yard, but it can also be a nightmare running home from work at 6 p.m. in late November with a 14-degree night called for to fog your engine, replace the lower unit oil, blow out your water lines and so on.
If you’re having a yard do it, it’s the same drill, except you have to remotely manage and worry about who is taking care of your systems. I have 25 years of experience with yards, and mistakes and omissions happen.
If storing it in your yard, is it safe from tree limbs, snowdrifts and the like? If it’s being stored in a marina, is it safe from storm surge or 60-mile an-hour windblown sleet? I have gone to marinas the days after a storm to see shrink-wrap ripped off, flying in the wind and a 3-foot snow and ice pile in the corner of a boat’s cockpit.
7. Who will fix it when it breaks?
Who is going to do basic maintenance on the boat each spring and fall? Who will do major projects like an electronics upgrade or an engine replacement? With the boom in boat sales as a fallout of COVID, yard work and mechanics are at a premium. Before you buy the boat, it’s important to have a plan to both protect and improve your investment.
Hypothetically speaking, it’s July and there is a red-hot bite going on offshore and you have one engine down! Who’s going to fix it and when? If you’re connected and have good to great relationships with yards and mechanics which you have cultivated over the entire year, you have a chance of being up and running in a week. If you have no relationships and start calling around, you will be lucky if your back running in a month!
Buy the boat this winter but absolutely create a relationship with a yard or independent mechanic or both and give them some winter work! It never hurts after buying a boat to have a professional go through the entire boat and identify problems that must be addressed now as well as issues you should address at your own pace. My approach for 25 years has been to spend my maintenance money proactively in January or February, which is both cost-effective to me and also helps create a positive relationship for the future, so my call will be answered!