10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Buying a Boat

Boat ownership has brought me much joy over the last twenty-plus years, and it's something I've never regretted. We bought our first boat before we bought a house in the area we were moving to because we wanted to "be in the habit of owning a boat," and we never looked back.

That doesn't mean it was an experience without pain.

But maybe we can save you a little with this list of 10 things I wish I'd known before buying a boat. These aren’t the only things, but they cover a lot of areas from pre-purchase choices to ownership hassles and disasters. There’s a lot to think about with insurance, winter storage, slips and moorings, and ongoing projects and maintenance. Don't be discouraged - I've made some of these mistakes for you already, and I’m willing to share what I’ve learned.

In this article:

  1. It Costs the Same by the Foot
  2. You'll Need More Skills
  3. Maybe, Don't Start with a Project Boat
  4. There's no Authoritative "Boat Owner's Guide"
  5. Get Liability Insurance
  6. You need to plan
  7. The Sails are Never as Good as You Think
  8. Find Your Own Surveyor
  9. Beware of the Marina Experts
  10. You Can Walk Away

It Costs the Same by the Foot

Everyone warns you about it, and you don’t want to believe it because your boat was old or inexpensive. But nobody cares how old your boat is or how little you paid for it. As soon as you need services, they’ll charge you by the foot for a lot of them, including:

  • Slip and mooring fees. Longer boats require a heavier mooring and more swing room in the mooring field.
  • Haulout fees for cranes, travel lifts, trucks and other methods.
  • Off season storage. Some yards even calculate the "shadow" in square footage by length and beam for this!
  • Hull work such as painting, polishing and finishing. Some will work hourly, but most quotes for work like this are by the foot.
  • Winter coverings - it takes the same materials and work.

So you might get a great deal on an old boat, but if you’re not careful you may spend more in the first year or two just to store it or apply bottom paint than you paid for it. At the least, you will need to plan your spending on these items so you don't get caught up short.

You'll Need More Skills

A functioning boat is a happy boat. Nothing ruins a vacation or weekend away like a broken stove or faulty electrical system. These rarely happen next to the dock on a weekday where you can call a technician to fix it before you head out. That would be convenient. Things break when you're out using the boat. The head clogs, the lights stop working, or the engine won't start.

Some failures are catastrophic and you can’t fix them on the spot. But a basic familiarity with a few systems will make your boating experience more successful and fun.

The other reason to ramp up your skill levels is budgetary. Marine service technicians can be expensive. Many boat problems aren't as hard as they look. Armed with a few tools and a copy of Nigel Calder’s Boatowner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual, you can tackle some of these basic problems. Your boat bucks will go a lot further if you don't have to pay someone ninety dollars an hour to come fix a blown fuse or a clogged intake.

Some useful skills you might want to brush up on:

  • 12V DC electricity. At least the basics of troubleshooting a simple circuit so you can track down blown fuses and tripped breakers.
  • Boat plumbing. Using hose clamps and hoses, and how a marine head works.
  • Troubleshooting engine starting problems, replacing impellers and other basic tasks.
  • Mechanical fixes. How to jury-rig with lines, bolts, clamps and spares to get you through the trip.

Maybe, Don't Start with a Project Boat

We got "the deal" on our first boat - a 1966 Tartan 27 named Fanfare, which I bought from the original owner for $3,000. Well, the original owner's widow. They sailed as a couple and he did most of the upkeep, but he hadn't been able to keep up with all the maintenance. Though she gave it her best try, it was too much.

As a first time boat owner, it was too much for me, too. Now, I laugh when I think about what I naïf I was, and how flummoxed I got over problems I could solve now before my first cup of coffee. But back then, I spent too much time overwhelmed with no idea where to start working.

Fanfare was solid and seaworthy and ready to sail, but she had years of deferred maintenance issues. From peeling interior paint, to a deck in need of refinishing and resurfacing, there was an overwhelming amount of work. We sailed her and learned a lot, but I never got in front of the work and she didn't look any better when we donated her than when I bought her.

With hindsight, I know I should have spent more for a boat that needed a lot less work before we could spend the night on her. I don't regret the boat, but I wish I knew then a fraction of what I know now.

There's no Authoritative "Boat Owner's Guide"

There are dozens of outstanding books on boat ownership, and hundreds of people in boat yards everywhere that will offer you all the "expert help" you could want. Some books will contradict each other, and boat yard experts deserve their own topic in this article.

I’ve never found a one hundred percent fallible source of information to tell you how to own a boat and avoid all the mistakes and do everything right. Nothing will pop up and tell you "OK, now it's time to call the shrinkwrap guy about a fall cover" if you haven't put the task on a schedule somewhere.

Maybe there's an App idea out in this, but you need to assemble your own boat ownership plans. There are resources for this - some great checklists of seasonal preparation tasks, maintenance items, and how-to guides in books or the web. Talk to fellow boat owners and friends and trust those who seem responsible and careful.

It's a learning process, and the odds are your first go will not be perfect. But you can make it good.

Get Liability Insurance

For a small boat you pay cash for, you don't need insurance in many places. There are two types of boat insurance - hull insurance, and liability. Hull insurance protects your boat from things you do to it and things that happen to it. Liability insurance protects other boaters from you and your boat.

When I bought that thirty-year-old Tartan 27, it never occurred to me to get insurance for such an inexpensive boat.

Then Hurricane Edouard closed in on New England.

An experienced friend painted a crystal clear image of why I needed liability insurance. If my boat sunk at the mooring, it would be sad and an expensive mess. I'd have to pay to remove it. But if my boat broke off the mooring, then dragged through the mooring field while hitting, catching and dragging other boats with her, all of that liability would be on my head for those boats that ended up on shore. That was a lot more risk than just my own boat.

Any boat can do thousands of dollars in damage to other boats if it drags anchors, catches on fire, or is in some other way responsible for it. Even a small fiberglass crunching accident can cause an expensive repair. I couldn't get coverage with a hurricane bearing down on my mooring field, but after the storm passed it only cost a couple of hundred dollars to add to my homeowner's policy.

I still worried about my boat when Tropical Storm Josephine made her way north a month later, but I slept a little better.

You need to plan

My first year or two as a boat owner was me figuring out what I was supposed to have done and scrambling to do it much too late. Like the late liability insurance. Or scrambling in November for someone to winterize the boat, get a cover on it, and make arrangements for haul out and storage. It seemed I was always behind the curve.

Resources for boaters are finite. Professional tradesmen have customers and schedules, yards can only haul and store so many boats a day and fit so many in their lots. It's wise to sit down with a calendar and plan out the major "boat events" for the next year and when you need to deal with them. It pays to book in advance.

At the start of the season, have an idea where you will haul for the winter. When you're sailing towards the end of the summer, get a haul and store date and plan for winterizing. Don't wait until a week before your insurance lapses to get a renewal quote. And when you haul for the winter, make sure you've got a place to keep the boat in the spring.

The Sails are Never as Good as You Think

Of the four keelboats I've owned, the Tartan 27 is the only one I never bought a sail for. Brokerage listings love to describe an extensive inventory of sails. And that's good, it's nice to have them and you want a boat with enough sails on board to take her where you want to go.

But don’t assume they will be your forever sails. Don't expect or plan for more than a season from any of them, and you won't be disappointed. Sails wear, they stretch, and get UV damage. A sail fine for delivering the boat to its new home may not last as long as you expect.

When I was sailing our current boat to our home in New England from Florida, the main sail failed. We ran into some breeze, and the clew ripped right out of the sail a couple of hundred miles off shore. When I got home, I brought it to a sailmaker and he fixed it. But the shape was terrible, and it was hard to furl and harder to trim. The clew ripped again in our first summer with her, and that was it for the sail. It didn’t make it to August.

That being said, I also recommend that you NOT run to a sailmaker right after the closing on a new-to-you boat for new sails. Take the sails that came with it out and fly them for a season, see how they trim and how you like them. The genoa on my second boat looked good to me the first time I flew it. By the end of the season we had chunks of Mylar delaminating off as the sail fell apart. On the other hand, fourteen years after we bought my present boat, I still fly two sails from the original inventory. But I am on my second new main sail.

Make sure you like the boat and need a new sail before you spend a lot of money.

Find Your Own Surveyor

If you buy a boat more complicated than a dinghy - a boat with an engine or any systems more complex than running lights - a survey is a good idea. A survey is like a home inspection, except more detailed and thorough.

It's a common mistake to ask the listing broker for a reference for a surveyor. Most of the time, if a broker sends you to a certified surveyor, you will be fine. But you might not be, if there is any fuzziness over who the surveyor works for (you, the buyer) or what his goal is (protect your interests, not the seller’s). A referral from a seller’s broker may blur that line; it's human nature to want to give back to people who help us.

Since the listing broker works for the seller, not you, you don't want that relationship connected to your surveyor. If you use a buyer-broker, she will work on your behalf and will recommend a good surveyor.

Finding your own surveyor independent of the selling broker makes this relationship clear. The marine industry is small, and the odds are any local surveyors and brokers know each other. That's not a problem and is unavoidable, as long as the surveyor is talking to you, not the selling broker.

Beware of the Marina Experts

Marinas and boat yards are full of experts with years of experience owning, fixing, and maintaining boats. If you show up to work in the yard, many folks will drop by to chat about your boat and your project and offer helpful tips.

The actual experts may not be the ones dropping by to talk to you.

If you ask three boat owners how to solve a particular problem - whether it's prepping the bottom for repainting or fixing a wonky running light - you're likely to get at least two different answers. As a neophyte boat owner, you will get lots of free advice.

Some advice will be valuable. Some will waste a lot of time and cost you money, or may even damage the boat.

So be polite, ask questions, and learn. But check anything you hear, either on the internet, in a book like Nigel Calder's, or with a competent professional.

You Can Walk Away

This is perhaps the most important pre-purchase concept you need to take to heart. You are never compelled to buy a particular boat or complete a particular deal if you are not comfortable with it. There are two places this applies - both in the negotiations and after the survey.

Negotiations

With a beautiful boat in front of you you've walked on, touched, and day dreamed about, you get emotional investment in the boat. This can affect your negotiating if you are unwilling to pass on this particular boat because the seller will not meet your terms or compromise. Unless you are purchasing a custom boat that is one of a kind, there will be a sister ship out there. It may not be close to you, and it may not be for sale right now. At some point it, or another similar to it, will become available.

You can say "no" and not buy a boat you like if you can not reach terms with the seller. Remember this is an emotional investment you have, and there is always another deal and another boat out there.

Survey Problems

A boat purchase and sale agreement has several clauses that give the buyer chances to back off a deal. These are tied to the survey, successful financing, and a “satisfactory” result for both. This is vague, because what is “satisfactory” to one buyer may not be acceptable to another.

It's not a license to walk on a deal - if a survey does not turn up any serious problems you have a contractual obligation to complete the deal. However, if there are serious problems and you do not feel comfortable they can be resolved, you can walk away from the boat. I've done this, and it was the best boat buying decision I've ever made.

It's a difficult and wrenching, and not a decision easily reached. You can try negotiations, but if they don't work, you should not go forward with a purchase that will not make you happy. Don’t forget you are buying a boat for pleasure.

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