9 things to know before buying a boat

Your guide to boat types, how to buy, insurance and more

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

Ross h…

You can picture it: You and your friends out on the lake, soaking in the sun on your very own boat. Owning a boat can be a rewarding experience, especially during the summer season. Boating allows you to bond with your loved ones, explore the open waters and partake in different water sports. However, before investing in a new or used boat, you need to know some essential things about boat buying and ownership.

In this beginner's guide, we have created a list of the top nine things you need to know before buying a boat. By understanding these factors, you'll be able to make an informed purchasing decision and ensure that you're prepared for all that comes with it.

1. Types of boats

Not all boats are created equal. One of the first things every first time boat buyer needs to figure out is what type of boat will be the right boat for them. There are various types of boats, each with its specific characteristics, functionalities and prices. Some common types include pontoon boats, fishing boats, ski boats and sailboats. Factors to consider before deciding on the right boat for you include: where you live, where you plan to use the boat and what type of activities you plan to use it for.

Here are some activities and possible boat types to choose from:

  • Day cruising: If you plan to go out during the day to hang with friends and family on the lake, consider a pontoon boat or deck boat.
  • Watersports: For watersports like waterskiing or wakeboarding, consider a speed boat, motorboat, wakeboard boat or runabout.
  • Fishing: For saltwater fishing consider bay boats, center console boats or flat boats. And for freshwater lake fishing, consider bass boats or aluminum fishing boats for your boat purchase.
  • Sailing: If you’re into sailing, consider a daysailer or catamaran to get out on the water.
  • Overnight cruising: If you want to take your boat out for multiple days at a time (and you have a big boat budget), consider a houseboat or yacht.

2. Classes of boats

In addition to the kind of boat, you also need to consider the size of the boat. Things to consider here will be where you will store it and how you will tow it to the water potentially. The size of the boat also has implications for what type of safety equipment you need to have on board according to state and federal law.

Boats are divided into four length classes:

  • Class A Vessels: Smaller boats less than 16 feet in length.

  • Class I Vessels: Boats ranging in length from 16 feet to 26 feet.

  • Class II Vessels: Boats ranging in length from 26 feet to 40 feet.

  • Class III Vessels: Boats ranging in length from 40 feet to 65 feet.

3. Boat maintenance

Boat ownership requires a lot of upkeep. Whether you are buying a new or used boat, regular maintenance and care will be needed to ensure its longevity. This includes both preventive and corrective measures, such as changing the oil, watching for corrosion or cleaning rust off metal parts. When considering the perfect boat to purchase, make sure that you also factor in the potential cost of ongoing maintenance costs and replacement costs into your budget.

4. Boat insurance

Like automobiles, boats need boat insurance to protect them against theft, damage and other liabilities while on the water. Boats can be expensive pieces of equipment, so it is important to protect them with appropriate insurance coverage in case of an emergency or accident. As a boat owner, you need to speak to a trusted insurance company about what type of policy is right for you and what kind of coverage you will need depending on the type of boat you are buying.

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5. Boating license and registration

Again, boats are not so different from cars and most states regulate their use. Most states require a boating safety certificate to legally operate a boat. Getting certified involves taking a course and passing an exam. You can find information about requirements for your state by searching online for your state and boat license. You will also likely need to register your boat before putting it on the water. This can often be done by mail or online. Again, search your specific state to learn the requirements and process for boat registration.

6. How to buy a boat

When it comes to where to buy a boat, there are a number of options. You can go to the boat dealership as you would a car where you can find new and used boats for sale. Do your research before buying from a boat dealer. Read online reviews, ask for referrals from experienced boaters, and only buy from reputable dealers with a track record of providing quality services and support.

You could also attend a boat show which can showcase a number of brands and options to help you narrow down what you would like to purchase. You can also buy a used boat from an individual.

In any case, do your research to determine if the purchase price is fair and factor in depreciation. Make sure to take the boat for a test drive and consider having it inspected by a marine surveyor if buying a used boat. Be aware of any warranty that applies.

7. Boat financing

Boats are expensive, and unless you're paying cash upfront, you'll need to finance the purchase as part of the buying process. If you are paying for your boat through a boat loan, it’s important to understand the boat’s value, the loan amount, interest rate, repayment period and monthly payments involved. Research the lender and all of your financing options.

While we don’t have a specific boat loan calculator, you can use our auto loan calculator to estimate boat loans in much the same way.

8. Storage options

Boats need a suitable mooring and storage option when not in use. You can choose to store the boat at a marina or a boatyard, or at home using a trailer. Depending on where you live, you may need a different winter storage plan as well. If you don’t have room on your property, you may need to rent additional storage from a facility.

9. Boat safety and accessories

Once you have purchased a boat, there are usually additional extras and accessories that may be desirable for convenience and/or safety purposes including life jackets, marine radios, anchor lines and fire extinguishers. It is important to factor in these additional expenses when deciding whether or not you can afford to buy a particular boat.

Make sure to check with your local Coast Guard office for any required items that may vary from state to state. What you need on board will often depend on what class of boat you own.

And of course, there are the fun accessories too like fishing gear, waterskis, etc. to factor in.

Wrapping up

Buying a boat can be an exciting experience, but it's essential to understand the critical factors involved to make informed decisions. By understanding the nine things mentioned in this article, you'll be on your way to owning a great boat that provides you with an unforgettable boating experience.