Buying Etiquette: How To Make an Offer on a Boat

So you've found your dream boat and you want to make her yours. Before you can make that dream of a weekend on an island a reality, you've got to work out a price with the current owner.

How do you get a fair price for your money? The good news is it's not a complicated process.

How do you make an offer on a boat? In brief, you research the market and determine how the boat you want compares in price. Then, figure out what you want to pay for it by performing a close examination of the boat. You could let a professional do this for you. Lastly, ask the seller if he'll take your price, and negotiate if necessary.

Of course, in the world of larger financial transactions, it's not quite as simple as that. There are contracts and forms and steps to take, but don't worry. We're here to spell out how the process works.

In this article:

  1. Is There a Broker in the Deal?
  2. What is the Boat Really Worth?
  3. What is the Boat Worth to YOU?
  4. Your First Offer
  5. Making the Offer
  6. Counteroffers: Negotiation and Haggling
  7. The Survey and Sea Trial
  8. When to Walk Away
  9. Have Fun With It

Is There a Broker in the Deal?

This is the first question you need to answer before you make an offer. Is the boat you want to buy listed with a broker? If it is, you will have to deal with him or her rather than the seller directly. You may never even meet the seller personally, so all offers and negotiation are through a third party.

The broker works for the seller

If you call a broker from a listing on YachtWorld.com or in a magazine, there is one important thing to remember: that broker does not work for you. The listing broker will probably be personable, friendly, and helpful. However, his fiduciary obligation is to the seller, not you. If you discuss your negotiation strategy or financial position with the listing broker, he is ethically obligated to tell the seller.

A buyer broker works for you

You can get a broker to act as your "buyer broker" for the transaction. I've done this, and it made a world of difference having a professional working for me and watching my interests. With your own broker, you can discuss the financial details and negotiating strategies to get you to the purchase and the value of the boat. Engage your buyer-broker first and have her reach out to the listing broker. Almost all brokers will "co-broker" a deal like this and split the commission with your broker, so it costs you nothing.

No broker

If there is no broker, you will deal with the seller directly. But if you engage a buyer-broker to negotiate a privately listed boat, you may have to pay him out of your own pocket. Most private sales are smaller, older boats with a value too low to attract a broker's interest. These can usually be negotiated between just the buyer and seller.

What is the Boat Really Worth?

It's almost universal that everyone thinks their large items - boats, cars, and homes - are worth more than they really are. There's nothing wrong or unusual about this, it's human nature to put a high value on things we paid a lot for and like. It's a problem if the seller is unrealistic about the value of their boat. An overpriced boat may be difficult to purchase, as the seller may not be interested in accepting the fair market value. Some sellers may be insulted by a lower offer and refuse to negotiate.

So how do you figure out what a boat is worth?

If you are working with a buyer broker, they will search the database of sold boats for comparable vessels for selling prices. That is the most accurate check for used boat value. Just like appraising a house, you can start with several similar boats and do your best to adjust for age, equipment, and condition.

If you're buying a boat on your own in a private sale, you have other resources. You can checklist prices for similar boats. While list price isn't the best guide for value, if the boat you are interested is in the range with other similar boats, at it's a reality check.

Average sailboat price per foot (new & used)

A real good place to start, is our great guide on the average cost of owning & buying a sailboat. For this article, we've compared tens of thousands of listing prices. Based on those prices, we calculated the average value of used & new boats per foot.

The Kelley Blue Book and the NADA guides also give price ranges and approximate values for some boats. Be careful though - these guides work best for smaller, newer boats. They calculate the prices from sales data, and these boats will have the most data points. They can be very far off the market for old boats, large boats, boats with limited production runs, and unique or custom boats.

You can check out the NADA Guides Boat price database here.

Resources for finding boat market prices

More isn't necessarily better

A word of caution on equipment lists and value, too. A lengthy list of boat equipment in a listing doesn't equate to a higher value in the boat. More often than not, sail inventories need replacing, instruments are out of date, and equipment may be worn or used. It's nice to not have to replace a lot of gear when you buy a boat, but while a $5,000 upgrade done three or five or ten years ago that still works makes a boat more desirable, doesn't add much to the overall market value and purchase price.

What is the Boat Worth to YOU?

The best negotiating position to have is the ability to walk away from a deal you don't like.

Simply put...if you "must" have this particular boat, it weakens your position when you make an offer. The ability to say no gives you tremendous leverage. And as much as this particular boat makes your pulse race with excitement, don't forget there are many other boats in the sea that will make you just as happy. Every production boat has sister ships. It may be a matter of looking more to find a better deal than this one right in front of you.

Once you've done your homework about what the boat is likely worth on the market, you need to do a gut check to see what you are willing to spend. If you offer $30,000 on a $40,000 asking price and the seller counters $35,000 are you going to say yes? $38,000? What if he makes no move at all from the asking price? Are you still all-in on this boat?

You can't read the answer to this one online. It's something you have to know about your own finances and needs.

Your First Offer

There's no hard and fast rule of thumb for what an offer should be. If you've done your homework, you'll have some idea how far what the owner's asking price is from what you are willing to pay. But what makes a good deal? Most boat listings have some room for negotiation, but getting the seller to your desired price may not be possible.

Paying the Ask

Paying the asking price for a boat isn't common. At least, making your first offer as the asking price, like you might with a house. If a boat is priced aggressively for sale, you may want to offer the asking price if you want to be sure of the deal to grab that good price. But the only time this makes sense is if you know a boat is good quality and priced lower than the market.

The Lowball

Making a lowball offer on a boat sometimes works. You never know the financial circumstances of the seller, or how badly they need to sell the boat. But it's not without risk. There is a chance you will alienate the seller and make them angry enough to not want to negotiate.

Tip: If you are serious about a low offer, a written offer with a cash deposit will be taken more seriously than a casual verbal offer.

Wouldn't pay the ask for this old fishing boat

Boat selling and buying can be emotional. It shouldn't be, but we're all human beings. So if you are looking to make a lowball offer on a boat, make sure it's a boat you can walk away from without heartbreak. If this is the boat of your dreams and there's none for sale within a thousand miles, a lowball may not be your best chance.

Maximizing Your Chances

If your goal is to buy the boat for a fair price, it's best to construct a less aggressive offer. Pick a price that may be 5% to 10% off the ask, but not so much lower that the seller is offended. You may go lower, but the price point should tell the seller you are serious about buying the boat, not just getting a steal on it, and will negotiate.

Making the Offer

I've had boat negotiations be as simple as asking "so, will you take $1,200 for it?" to complex back-and-forth exchanges of signed purchase and sale agreements and five-figure deposits. Buying a thirty-year-old Laser is a different process than a fifty-foot blue water cruiser or thirty-foot club racer.

But any offer needs to have a few basic pieces to it. More complex provisions on larger deals require a written offer. Any offer more complex than a handshake deal on a used dinghy in a parking lot should include:

Here's what a written offer should include:

  • Your offered price for the boat
  • Details about down payments and escrow
  • An expiration date
  • Any conditions or "subject to" phrasing, such as a satisfactory survey and sea trial, clear title to the boat, and securing suitable financing, if needed.
  • And assumptions or disclosures about expectations, specific equipment which may be included. If a boat comes with a trailer or large, removable items like portable air conditioners or generators, they should be mentioned.
  • Any repairs to be done prior to the sale.

This offer is presented to the seller as a "purchase and sale agreement." If there’s a broker, he will have standard forms for this. For a private transaction with no brokers, find a suitable purchase and sale contract for your locale on line or have a lawyer draw one up.

Most larger deals require a deposit to prove the buyer is serious. This should be refundable if you rejct the boat after survey, and will be held in escrow by the brokers until the deal is closed.

Counteroffers: Negotiation and Haggling

The most likely outcome of any offer that isn't accepted is a counter offer. It's uncommon for a serious seller to just say "No" without coming back with something to keep you at the table. You may find a wide variety of things thrown back at you in a counter offer besides the price, especially if your written offer was thorough.

Among the negotiation points on the table you may find:

  • An alternate higher price
  • Exclusion of certain suggested repairs or equipment, e.g. "I'll take your price, but I won't fix the broken air conditioner in the saloon."
  • Cash adjustments instead of repairs or equipment. "I'll fix the air conditioner, or you can take $1,500 off the price."
  • Offers to complete excluded repairs or include additional equipment. "If you can get up to $145,000, I'll include the tender and outboard."

This step may be done between you and the seller or the brokers orally. If it's a complex deal counters may be in writing, but often the "horse trading" of the final few thousand in price is a back and forth of phone calls or e-mails. When a final understanding is made, the original purchase and sale is amended, or a new one created and presented to the seller with all the terms and final price.

The Survey and Sea Trial

A survey and sea trial isn’t done until a signed purchase and sale is in place and a deal is agreed to. This may be first and only time you will see the boat in operation before you buy it.

When to do a survey

Consider a survey for any boat big enough to sleep on or which has an inboard engine or mechanical systems.

The survey and all related survey expenses (like launches or haulouts, hauling, pressure washing the bottom, and so on) are paid by you, the buyer. You will be expected to restore the boat to how it was before the survey. For example, if it’s in the water and you haul it you need to pay to launch it again unless you negotiate something different with the seller.

A good surveyor will review the boat from stem to stern and provide a detailed report on the boat's condition. This report will include:

  • A detailed listing of included equipment
  • Reports on any flaws or faults in the boat
  • A general recommendation on the condition and quality of the boat
  • An approximate market value.

NOTE: if you are financing the boat, your bank will use this market value to approve your loan. If it turns out to be less than you are paying, you may not be able to secure financing for the purchase price. This isn't always as bad as it sounds, as it can kill a bad deal on a boat you don't want.

What to Do with the Survey

Your survey has several critical takeaways for the boat buying process.

  1. It tells you if the boat you are buying is in the condition represented by the seller and worth what you are paying for it.
  2. The survey may find hidden flaws or problems in the boat. (more on that later)
  3. Your insurance company will want a survey before they cover your boat.
  4. You get your first, very thorough to-do list for boat maintenance.

Whether a boat "passes" or "fails" a survey is subjective. It will be a relative score. No used boat is perfect, and few boat owners pay attention to the level of detail that a certified surveyor will when inspecting your boat. Problems are inevitable. In my experience, any survey which shows zero problems with a used boat (or even a new one) would be suspect.

Whether the boat passes or fails has to do with how many undisclosed problems you find, and how well you can work with the seller to resolve them.

The Final Negotiation Step

The post-survey discussions are the final bit of negations you may have to deal with. Expect minor items of wear and tear, and don’t expect to get concessions for them. Major items like structural weaknesses, dry rot, mechanical failures, or safety issues that keep the boat from being usable should bring you back to the table.

You can handle problems in a survey several ways, including adjusting the sale price of the boat, escrowing money for repairs, requiring the seller to fix the repairs, or rejecting the boat and killing the deal.

When to Walk Away

I've walked away from one dreamboat in my life. It was a large, expensive cruising boat I was hoping to buy for world cruising with my family. We realized I may end up facing a six-figure repair bill for everything we found, and the surveyor could not appraise the boat for close to what I'd agreed to pay for it.

In our case, there wasn’t any malfeasance involved. But the seller and I disagreed on the condition of the boat, and he wasn't willing to drop the price enough to meet my needs. So we walked. It was a tough, emotionally wrenching decision, but it was the best (not) boat-buying decision I've ever made.

When to Consider Walking - Before the Survey

If you have offered in good faith and you can not get the seller to commit to a written transaction, reconsider the deal. "If it's not in writing, it doesn't exist" are words to live by for large purchases. A seller who conceals information, won't answer questions, won't provide written information, or in other ways seems cagey about reaching a straight deal may be hiding something about the boat.

If there are any concerns about the title of the boat, the ownership, yard or mechanics liens, or other problems getting clear title, those also are reasons to opt out of a deal.

When to Consider Walking - After the Survey

When you get your survey back, you'll know if it's good news or a gut punch. If you have an unexpected list of things to fix and the seller won't budge on price or fix them, that's a good tipoff it's time to walk. Ask yourself if the added repair costs still amount to a fair price to get the boat you want.

The other time to walk is if the survey shows that the seller concealed flaws in the boat. Someone who does this is not negotiating in good faith. Even if the seller offers concessions, I'd worry there may be other flaws that aren't being disclosed, and you may do well to walk away.

Have Fun With It

Buying a boat should be fun, overall, so you can't sweat every detail. The worst thing that can happen is the seller says no.

You're tracking down a dream, grabbing it with boat hands, and bringing it into your life. Most boat owners you'll meet love the water as much as you do, and will share your enthusiasm. They also like to see their baby go to a good new home.

So do your homework and know what you want. Know what you want to pay and don't get too emotionally invested in your offer.

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