How to Buy a Wakeboard/Ski Boat on a Budget

Find a Great Boat Without Breaking the Bank

Buy a boat for cheap
Photo © Neil Gould

There's no denying it -- tow boats are expensive. Every year boat manufacturers make you drool with tons of amazing new features: reversible props, quick-fill ballast tanks, personal heaters, seat warmers, hybrid engines -- the list could fill this entire page. However, those fantastic features come with a premium price tag, and for many, it's tough to pony up the dough for a top-notch boat.

So what is to be done?

Are watersports reserved only for the upper crust of society? Absolutely not. When people buy new tow boats, old ones go up for sale, just like cars. And that means you can pick up a previously loved ski boat for a reasonable price.

What Kind of Boat to Get

When you first start looking for boats, it's easy to become confused with all of the technical terms and boat types -- v-drive, direct drive, ​inboard/outboard, wake tabs, fat sacks, the list goes on and on. Yes, initially the boat search seems daunting and futile. But if you are serious about watersports there is one huge piece of advice you should follow -- get an inboard tow boat.

Inboard tow boats are made for wakeboarding and waterskiing, and there are dozens of advantages to owning one. However, when budget limitations are part of the equation, the greatest reason to buy one is reliability. Inboard boat engines are essentially car engines made for the water.

They are easy to work on, parts are readily available, and yearly maintenance is a cinch. And when budget is a factor, it is important to consider the long-term effects of your investment. An inboard boat with minimal maintenance requirements and rock-solid reliability means saving money in the long run.

Setting a Budget

There are boats out there for just about any wallet, so establishing a budget is totally between you and your bookkeeper. Still, no matter what price limit you set, don't forget to factor in all of those hidden costs like insurance, taxes, licensing and registration. And if you are considering an older boat, you might want to have a buffer for minor fix-ups and part replacements.

Don't Be Afraid of Older Models

If your budget is low, an older model inboard is a great option. It can be a little jarring to see a late '80s model inboard going for the same price as a late '90s I/O runabout. However, these boats hold their value for a reason -- they are a solid investment. Boat manufacturers like Mastercraft, Ski Nautique and Supra have been building their reputations for decades, and they are coveted because they are made well and mechanically sound. So when you are searching for the perfect boat, don't rule out the tried-and-true old schooners.

Know Where to Look

A quick Google search using the phrase "boats for sale" yields dozens of boat-buying avenues. And websites like Boat Trader, Ebay Motors, Craigslist and Boats.com are a great place to start. While online searching is a good way to find a nice used boat, you can also get results shopping around in person.

The idea is to get as many people searching for a boat as you can, so check in from time to time with boat dealers in your area and have them keep an eye out for you.

You can also leave your contact info at area marinas and have them alert you if anyone decides to put their boat up for sale. Sometimes you can get a boat for a steal by getting the inside track before it officially goes on the market. You never know when the right boat will come your way, but leave no stone unturned and you are certain to find exactly what you're looking for at the right price.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

Effective negotiation is an art form -- a skilled dance between buyer and seller that can potentially cut hundreds if not thousands of dollars from the final sale price. Therefore, when you've found a boat that you want to buy, it's important to look for bargaining chips.

From a buyer's perspective, all of the minor things that will need to be repaired can be used to negotiate a lower price. So before signing the papers, inspect the boat thoroughly. As you check the boat with a fine-tooth comb, check for tears or cracks in the seats, worn-out carpet, small chips in the fiberglass or broken instruments. Those little cosmetic problems are much easier to deal with when they help you save money.

Don't be shy about asking questions because it's important to learn the history of the boat. Just like shopping for a car, you will want to know how many owners it had, maintenance history, parts that have been replaced, and whether it was used in saltwater or freshwater. Prolonged saltwater use can potentially reduce the life of a tow boat.

No matter what -- always go with your gut. Trust your intuition, and if you smell a lemon, walk away. It's better to wait it out and get a dependable boat rather than sink extra time and money into a sinking ship.