How to Buy a Sailboat

Consider These Factors to Choose the Right Sailboat for You

dtydontstop/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Buying a sailboat is more self-evaluation than simply picking out a boat among sailboats for sale. You should think about not only the type and size of boat but also cost considerations, the buying process, and your future possibilities. Here's a checklist of things to think about.

Looking or a small sailboat or daysailer? Check out these popular classics:

The Right Sailboat for You

Choosing your dream boat involves a long list of considerations and predictions about how you'll use the boat. Following are key questions to consider:

1. What's the best type of boat for you - and family and friends who may come along?

2. What size sailboat is right for you?

  • Consider the costs of gear, sails, berthing, winter storage, etc. (Maintenance and other costs much, much higher on larger boats.)
  • Consider the work of sailing. (Solo sailing vs. needing crew.)
  • If you plan to cruise, how many crew may be aboard?

3. What's better for you: a new or used sailboat?

  • Consider the trade-off between the convenience and higher cost of a new boat vs. shopping around to find a less expensive used boat perfect for your needs.
  • Do you have the time for upgrading and maintaining a used boat?
  • Do you enjoy do-it-yourself projects (that may save you large sums of money)?

Cost Considerations

1. Lots of used sailboats are for sale at bargain prices, particularly in a down economy.

  • Boat owners typically invest far more in improving their boats than they can regain in a sale, so a used boat buyer can get a lot of gear for much less than buying new.
  • Take your time when choosing a used boat. A boat that needs a lot of upgrades or repairs can eventually cost more than a new boat.

2. Can you make improvements in a used boat yourself?

  • Boatyard labor costs for repairs and upgrades rapidly become expensive.
  • Do you have the time and energy to learn needed skills to do it yourself?
  • Are you willing to shop around for used gear if needed?

3. Don't forget the many related costs you'll incur after the boat purchase.

  • Insurance can be a significant expense on a larger boat. Get estimates in advance.
  • Add in the costs for where you will keep the boat. (Unless you launch from a trailer every time you sail or own waterfront property, you'll face costs for docking or mooring, boatyard haulouts, winter storage, etc.) Learn the costs before you buy.
  • Boat loans have significantly higher interest rates than mortgages. (Purchasing with a home equity line is usually better than a boat loan.)

The Buying Process - Sailboats for Sale

1. Take your time.

  • Beware of spontaneity and falling in love with the first boat that meets your needs. You may regret it later.
  • First analyze all costs, decide the best type and size of boat, and vow to stick with your plan.
  • Search websites like to determine a reasonable price range for your desired type of boat.

2. Get a full boat survey of any used boat (except for a small daysailer - if you know how to check the condition of fiberglass and sails).

  • Use an accredited marine surveyor who is a member of SAMS, ACMS, or NAMS and who specializes in sailboats.
  • If necessary, get a separate survey of the engine of a larger sailboat. A missed engine problem could cost you many thousands later on.
  • On an older boat, the hull can only be surveyed out of the water. Don't try to scrimp here - have the boat pulled out even if it costs you.
  • Remember: unless you've had lots of training, you'll likely miss problems, possibly very expensive ones, if you forego a survey.
  • Boat insurers usually require a survey and fixing any serious problems in a survey. If you skip the survey, you may be unable to buy insurance until you do.
  • Problems found in a survey are a basis for negotiation of the purchase price. Typically you save more this way than it costs for the survey.
  • Inspect the boat carefully yourself. In the future you'll likely be doing much of the maintenance yourself, so you might as well start learning. Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual is an excellent guide to inspecting used sailboats and helping you learn how to make repairs and improvements.

3. Go sailing for a sea trial.

  • You can't really know a boat until you've been on it under sail.
  • You may discover the boat doesn't sail as anticipated or doesn't well match your sailing needs. (For example, it may take much more energy than anticipated to raise the sails or control the helm.)
  • Take the survey along if possible. Certain systems can be tested only underway. This is also the best way to check the status of sails, running rigging, etc.
  • Let the owner sail the boat and observe carefully. (Is he or she making excuses for how certain things work - or don't?)

Continued on next page.

4. Make your decision and negotiate a price.

  • Listen to your gut. (If the boat just doesn't feel right, don't talk yourself into it.)
  • Know the asking prices of similar boats. (Do your research in advance. With almost all production boats, it's easy on the web to find other examples of the same boat for sale. Your surveyor should also advise you on the value of the boat.)
  • Negotiate. Virtually all used boats are flexible in price, since there's always something that needs to be replaced, repaired, or upgraded. (The asking price of a used boat represented by a broker may be only 10% to 20% over the price the owner will accept - but an owner selling his or her own boat may have set the price much too high but will likely come down, especially if the boat has been on the market a long time.)
  • Pay attention to time of year. With a larger boat, as the end of the season approaches, the owner will save the cost of winterizing and storage if you buy now - so you should ask for a lower price because you'll be paying these costs yourself. At the beginning of the season, the owner is likely more optimistic about finding a buyer and may be less open to negotiating.
  • Negotiation for a new boat can be more difficult. But the economy affects boat sales, and the dealer may be willing to deal just as a new car salesman will. Don't hesitate to ask.

Recognize It's Not Forever

1. If this is your first sailboat, it's likely not your last. The more one sails, especially racers and overnight cruisers, the more one eventually starts dreaming about a faster, or bigger, boat.

  • New boats rapidly depreciate the first few years, the same as new cars. Don't expect to get back anything even approaching what you paid for the boat.
  • Used boats that are well maintained generally hold their value fairly well, assuming you got a good price to begin with. (A 20-year-old sailboat in good condition may command a price not much below that of the same model that is 15 years old in similar condition.)
  • Do not expect to regain much of the cost of improvements. (You might install a new engine, for example, and assume you'll get most of its cost back when you sell - but in reality the new buyer will onlyl be thinking he's getting a running engine just the same as you did when you bought it.)

    2. Keep up with boat maintenance and repairs.

    • A boat that starts falling apart is unlikely to find a buyer at all. Boatyards around the country hold thousands of old boats no one will ever buy. Eventually the heirs pay the yard to have it towed off and junked.

    3. Keep all your options open when it's time to change boats.

    • Lots of sailors end up downsizing rather than moving up. Maybe you'll want a boat that is simpler and easier to handle. Maybe you'll get tired of boatyard fees and decide to manage by yourself with a trailer.
    • Downsizing is a simple way to change boats without incurring new net costs.

    Need a new outboard motor for your small sailboat? Check out the great new propane-powered outboards from Lehr.