What's not to like about cheap boats? But while a low purchase price might feel good in the short term, what is more important is that you don't regret your purchase, as in some cases cheap boats can actually give you poor value for money. So how can you ensure you get the best deal when you buy a new or secondhand boat?
Buying a boat isn’t easy (see Buying a boat: first-time buyers’ guide). You have to think about the size, the sleeping capacity, the galley configuration, the performance, the range and the style. You have to narrow down a shortlist of builders and models. And once you’ve done all that, you have to pick from a range of options that can include everything from the deck arrangement to the beds, the fabrics, the woods, the upholstery and even the engine and/or sails (see Choosing a boat: which boat is right for me?). With so much to consider, it’s easy to imagine how the buyer is often left with little appetite for a haggle.
However, before you get anywhere near the boat, you need to kickstart the process toward value for money with some research. After all, you cannot expect to recognise a cheap boat, or a good boat at a good price, unless you have a basic understanding of its market context. Take advantage of the magazines and websites at your disposal to equip yourself with the price points, performance, specifications and features of the average boat in a given market segment (see our guides, such as How to choose the right motor sailer, Choosing the right family cruising boat, Five of the best family powerboats, How to choose your first yacht and Centre console boats: buying the right model as well as our boat reviews on any specific models that are on your shortlist). Fail to get the groundwork done here and you make yourself a salesman’s dream.
The double-take approach
Once you know as much about your chosen boat as possible, it’s time to take a closer look – and whether buying new or used, it’s always a good idea to visit at least twice before committing. On the first visit, take a camera with you and record the key elements of the boat (both good and bad). Not only does this enable you to revisit your photos, gather your thoughts and reconsider the true value of a craft in the zero-pressure environment of your armchair, but it also means that if you decide you’re interested, you can organise a surveyor and an on-water test for your return visit.
Taking a friend or family member to see the boat is also a good idea. This will help clarify your thoughts, balance your perspective and temper any unjustified enthusiasm. However, don’t forget to pay attention to the small things. Plenty of boats (new and used) can be hamstrung by imperfect fixtures or fittings, but even on an affordable boat, there is a difference between minimising costs (for instance, with plastic handles instead of stainless steel) and cutting corners with inadequate materials or shoddy workmanship. Take a look behind the glossy externals, inside every storage space and behind every bulkhead. Find the point at which quality is abandoned in favour of the quick fix, because the care lavished on the small details is often a good indication not just of the builder’s quality but also of the boat’s ability to retain its value.
New or used?
Buying a boat is not like buying a new car. While some builders are able to incorporate a degree of automation into the build process, the construction of all recreational boats continues to require substantial human involvement. So why not appoint a surveyor to oversee the build or to check out a stock boat? The outlay relative to the overall cost of the boat is very small and the presence of a surveyor to represent your interests can be a useful way of eradicating any "Friday night" complacency at the boatyard.
As for price itself, the autumn and winter boat shows certainly throw up plenty of excellent deals on new boats and there is always leeway in the profit margins for a serious customer. There are also some excellent deals to be had on "new" boats that have been used by the dealer as demonstrators. In fact, on particularly new boats from small-scale builders, additional discounts can sometimes be negotiated in return for a commitment to allow that boat to be used as a demonstrator or a show vessel from time to time.
However, the greatest bargains are always to be found on the used market – partly because of price and partly because any manufacturing flaws or run-in quirks have already been fixed. However, whether you’re buying privately or from a broker, you need to adopt a detached and critical eye. Don’t believe the standard story about a queue of purchasers waiting in the wings. On the contrary, it can be useful (and fun) to test the seller’s resolve by telling him to give you a ring if the boat is still for sale once any other interested parties have made their extraordinary bids (see How to inspect a second-hand boat before buying).
And if you wait until the season’s end, the power balance is even more in your favour. For the seller, autumn and winter herald nothing but maintenance, storage and depreciation. He wants to cut his losses and you know it. But for the buyer, the chance to spend the winter cleaning, repairing and upgrading in preparation for the big Spring launch can be a peculiarly attractive thing. You need to exploit this truth and push autumn and winter prices as hard as you possibly can.
The on-water boat test
Plainly, a concerted on-water test of a cheap non-runner is not feasible. But if you’re spending decent money on a "ready-to-drive" powerboat or sailing craft, then make sure you try it out. That doesn’t mean this is your opportunity for a high-octane outing at the dealer’s expense. On the contrary, if you’re taking the process seriously, you will already know how the boat ought to perform. This is simply your chance to ensure that the boat behaves soundly and that you and your family feel good about it.
But don’t hog the helm. Take a step back. Sit in every seat, grab every handle, actively involve yourself in every part of the boat and work out if it makes sense for you. Again, take photographs, make notes and ask questions. Then head back to the comfort of your armchair to make a final, educated assessment of what it’s worth, how it needs adapting and (if you want it) how much you’re willing to pay. The surveyor’s report can make a particularly big difference in helping define the right price.
The best boat deal
A good deal is not simply about a discounted price. It’s about a quality product that suits your needs from a builder or a dealer who cares. A cheap boat that doesn't fulfill your needs will end up being bad value for money as you're not going to use it fully, and you're likely to end up with all the expense and hassle of selling it on much earlier than you would if you'd bought the right craft in the first place.
If you get your research done before the day of a viewing, you can approach a boat with a set of questions, doubts and expectations that can be directly addressed. Be educated, be rigorous, make notes, take photographs and do not commit to a decision until every last doubt or query has been properly resolved. Reaching a state of clarity tends to take a great deal of thought and reflection, but if it results in the right boat at the right price, it’s time well invested.
See our features on cheap powerboats and cheap sailing boats.
This article was first published on August 26, 2015 and subsequently updated.