You’ve decided to buy a boat. Congratulations! No doubt it will be an exciting and memorable experience. Whether this is your first or fifteenth boat purchase, it helps to have guidelines to follow throughout the process, so you don’t end up with the proverbial “hole in the water you throw money into.” Here’s our list of six things to think about when buying a boat.

#1 -- Know What You Want

The first and most important decision is what sort of boat you want. There’s a vessel for just about every activity on the water: cruising, wake sports, fishing, speed, entertaining... and the list goes on. It’s crucial that you take a hard look at how the boat will be used — the reality, not the fantasy — and pick the best fit for your wants and needs.

Ask yourself: Who will use the boat? What will it be used for? Where will it be used? How often will it get used? (If you love boating but conclude you don’t have much time for it, consider renting or joining a boat club.)

Along with the boat, you’ll be choosing the propulsion, which can include outboard, sterndrive, inboard, water-jet or sail. Each has its pros and cons. The same goes for onboard equipment and accessories. Educate yourself on all of the above and be confident in your choice before plunging ahead.

#2 -- Consider All Boating Costs 

You’re not just buying the boat. You’re buying the boat and everything it takes to store, maintain and operate it. How much you have to budget can rely largely on the boat’s size and sophistication, and whether you wish to buy new or used.

Smaller and simpler is usually cheaper. The up-front purchase price is less, the insurance is less, the fuel and upkeep are generally less, and you may be able to trailer the boat rather than keep it at a marina, which is definitely less.

Regarding buying new versus used, it will come as no shock that a new boat costs far more money. However, while purchasing used can save you up front, it also increases the risk. Few used boats come in perfect shape, and you should always have them checked out by a professional to determine the condition and value.

#3 -- Shop Like You Mean It

Don’t just window shop. These days, most boat brands have detailed websites where you can compare models, calculate prices and take virtual tours. Be sure the models you focus on meet your size and usage needs. Avoid those with a lot of items you don’t want and will have to maintain or replace.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to a short list, visit a boat show to see the vessels in person and choose the right dealer. The relationship you have with your dealer could make or break your ownership experience. Ask each dealer similar questions about their programs, services and qualifications, and get references.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) encourages consumers to buy from a Marine Industry Certified Dealer who has met specific good business practices. You can find a list of those in your area at www.discoverboating.com

#4 -- Be A Boat Detective

Once you’re on board a boat you’re considering, take time and inspect it thoroughly. Open hatches to see if they’re finished inside as well as out. Check the access to electronics, engines and other systems. Climb inside the head compartment. Look for imperfections in the fiberglass. See something you don’t like? Ask the dealer about it and gauge his/her reaction. 

If you’re serious about buying a specific boat, ask for a test drive. Some dealers will make this easier than others. Be persistent, even if it takes several weeks. Bring your family along for the test drive, so they can give their opinion. Pay attention to the boat’s sight lines, how it planes, its maneuverability at various speeds, and its overall balance and stability. 

#5 -- Read The Fine Print

Be sure you know precisely what’s included in the boat you want to buy: propulsion, electronics, entertainment systems, safety equipment, etc. It’s not uncommon for vessels seen at boat shows to have special frills that are not standard on the base model.

Also, review the warranty on any boat you’re considering. Look for multi-year coverage on the hull and engine(s) and note if it’s transferrable, as this could be advantageous to you down the road. Learn what components and accessories are protected and ask about the service you’ll receive if something fails.

#6 -- NEVER Buy On Impulse

Unless you’ve done your homework and are certain you’re getting the boat you want at a good price, give yourself time to think about the purchase. Buying a boat can be an emotional decision, and it’s important to be rational during negotiations. The last thing you want to do is rush into a deal that could leave you upside down for years. 

Once you do decide the time is right, don’t shy away from asking for discounted pricing. Like car dealers, most boat dealers have some wiggle room built in, especially if there’s a boat show or other major event such as an end-of-year sale going on. The worst that could happen is you get a few extras thrown in for free, or you pay the asking price.