Tips for First-Time Boat-Buyers

First-time boat buyers shoudl do some homework before making that big purchase. Photo/New England Boating, Tom Richardson.
First-time boat buyers should do some homework before making that big purchase. Photo New England Boating, Tom Richardson.

If you’ve never purchased a boat before, there are a lot of things to consider. To help you make this very important first step into the wonderful world of boating, we’ve come up with a short list of Frequently Asked Questions and some answers.

Question: Do you need a license to boat?

Answer: It depends on the state, although most states now require some type of boating-education certificate to operate a powerboat or PWC. For example, if you’re a Rhode Island resident born after 1986, you need to take an approved boating-education safety course and pass a proctored exam to operate a powerboat over 10 hp (you can get info on where to take a state-approved course on the RI DEM website). If you plan to operate a PWC in Rhode Island, you’ll need a certificate regardless of your age.

Some states will honor the requirements for boaters from other states, while others require proof of having taken an approved boating ed. course. For example, if you are a Massachusetts resident, you do not need a boating-ed. certificate to operate a powerboat in Rhode Island. However, you do need such a certificate to operate a powerboat in New Hampshire waters, or at least proof of having passed an equivalent course in another state.

Regardless of your state’s requirements or your age, you should learn how to operate a boat safely. That means knowing some basic navigation and boat-handling skills, the rules of the road, how to read a chart and identify landmarks and buoys, how to handle a boat in various sea conditions, how to use your electronics and how to summon help in an emergency. Intensive boating courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Power Squadrons and private companies are also helpful, but there is no substitute for time on the water.

Question: What are some other things to consider before buying?

Answer: Think about where you’re going to keep the boat, both during the season and during storage. Will you need a marina slip or mooring, or will you be able to trailer the boat to a local ramp? If you decide to trailer, you’ll need to learn how to launch and retrieve a boat. Will you be able to store the vessel on your property (some communities are fussy about this) or will you need to pay for storage during the winter? Will you need to pay someone to haul and launch your boat each season or can you do it yourself?

Now, ask yourself—honestly—how often you plan to use the boat. Here in New England, the season is very short, and weather is a big factor, so you really need to use your boat frequently. If you only use it once a month, consider renting or joining a boat club. Or you may want to share the cost of ownership with a friend—although that usually opens up another can of worms!

Also, consider the added expenses of owning a boat. You’ll need to pay for insurance, registration, towing-service membership, excise taxes, fuel and maintenance. Plus you’ll need to outfit your boat with electronics, safety equipment, watersports toys and possibly a dinghy. If you trailer your boat, you can save money on fuel by buying it roadside, but on the other hand you’ll have the expenses of maintaining a trailer, as well as a larger vehicle with which to tow the boat.

Last but very important, find out if anyone in your family gets seasick—before you buy a boat!

Question: With so many different types of boats on the market, how does one narrow down the choices?

Answer: A good dealer can help you with this, of course, but it all starts with asking yourself what you want to use the boat for and where do you want to take it. Do you want to use it for fishing, long-distance cruising, overnighting, entertaining, watersports, beach trips or a combination of activities. Of course, your budget will determine what type and size of boat you can afford, but it’s important to realize that every boat is a compromise, and that there is no one boat that will meet all of the above needs. Also, a bigger boat may not always be the best boat.

Another item to consider is the engine. What type of power do you want? Inboard, outboard, sterndrive or jetdrive? Diesel or gas? Single or dual engines? Two-stroke or four-stroke. Also, do you want a bow thruster for easier dockside maneuvering or joystick docking controls?

How fast do you want to go? Are you okay with a fuel-efficient cruising speed in the upper teens, or do you want to get around at 50 mph? Is engine noise or fuel cost an issue?

How big a boat to you need? This will depend on how many people you want to host, how much stuff you want onboard and the waters you plan to navigate. You’ll obviously need a larger boat to run safely and comfortably through rougher ocean waters, but this will increase your expenses on all fronts. Also, a bigger boat will be harder to maneuver in close quarters, and may require assistance from a second crewmember when docking or mooring.

How little draft do you need? If you plan to boat in shallow water, you’ll need to consider the depth at low tide versus the draft of your boat. A shallow-draft skiff with an outboard or I/O that can be raised in skinny water is also handy if you plan to take your boat to the beach or fish in shallow, rocky areas.

Do you want an open boat, such as a center console or dual console, or do you want a cabin or pilothouse that offers shelter from the sun, rain or spray?

What kinds of bells and whistles do you want—and need? Many people think it’s great to have a stove, a DVD player, a shower and a cuddy cabin, only to find that they never use these things.

And what about a toilet? For most families, this is a very important concern!

Do you want to trailer your boat to different places or will it live in a marina? If you need a trailer, do you want one with rollers (better for steep ramps) or carpeted bunks?

What about ease of maintenance? Do you want a no-frills boat that you can simply hose down at the end of the day, or do you want a boat with lots of teak trim and upholstery that you’ll have to clean and maintain?

Consider resale value in case you want to sell the boat. Ask around to get other boaters’ advice on particular makes and models. Search the online forums. There’s a wealth of resources available.

Also, think about dealer proximity, for the boat and the engine. Say you fall in love with a particular boat, but the nearest service facility for your type of engine is 100 miles away. How are you going to get your boat back and forth to this place if it needs work?

Question: What kind of maintenance does a boat typically need?

Answer: Modern fiberglass boats require a lot less maintenance than wooden boats. Of course, there’s bottom painting, waxing, taking care of any teak trim and general cleaning and inspection, but the most of the maintenance will focus on the engine. If you’re handy, you can do some of the routine maintenance chores yourself; however, modern engines require specialized equipment to perform some of the more complicated tasks. Plus, you may void the engine warranty if you do not take it to a certified dealer.

Typical annual or 2-year maintenance chores include filter and spark-plug changes, oil changes (lower unit and crankcase), winterizing, zinc anode replacement, water pump replacement and lubrication, as well as tests to make sure  the engine is running smoothly and efficiently.