Once you have decided that it's a sailing yacht you're after, then it's time to figure out which one is right for you.

Buying your first yacht has the potential to be daunting, especially given the wide choice of sizes, ages and styles of craft available. However, a cool-headed and analytical approach will enable you to narrow the choices down to a sensible short list, and you should be able to choose your first yacht in no time at all.

Key questions to help you choose your first boat

  1. Where will you be sailing?

  2. Who will you be sailing with?

  3. What kind of sailing do you plan to do?

  4. Where will you keep your boat?

  5. What is your budget?

three sailing boats on the water

A wide range of boats are suitable as a first buy, depending on your needs and experience.

What kind of sailing will you be doing?

The first step is to develop a clear idea of the kind of sailing you intend to use the boat for. Do you, for instance, picture stress-free pottering on relaxing weekends, or getting your teeth into the challenge of long passages, or adrenaline-fueled round the cans racing?

Who do you expect to be sailing with most often? This is also an important factor – if you have a group of friends who are already competent sailors that may point in a different direction to those who plan to sail with inexperienced members of their own family. Once you have answers to these questions you can make an informed assessment of the key attributes you actually need from a boat and the areas in which you would be happy to compromise.

It’s important to recognise the extent to which choosing a boat is all about compromises. One with lots of interior space is likely to be very appealing, but it’s also liable to be more stressful to manoeuvre in a tight space, may have undesirable handling characteristics and is likely to be less fun to sail than one that does not pack as much accommodation into a given length of hull.

Your choice of first boat will also depend on your existing sailing experience – some first-time buyers have only spent a handful of weekends afloat, while others have tens of thousands of miles of experience. In any case, try to get experience sailing as many different boats as possible before going down the route of buying a boat – this will be valuable experience that will help give a clear idea of what will suit you best and minimises the risk of you buying an unsuitable vessel.

What size of boat?

The subject of what size of yacht makes a good first time buy is the topic of much bar-room chat, with many people espousing different views. Old timers, who learnt to sail when boats were much more expensive and sail-handling systems relatively primitive, will frequently insist that a small boat is by far the best option – after all, it worked for them. However, in reality, a wide range of boats are suitable as first yachts and many first-time buyers are currently opting for boats in the 35-45ft bracket.

Another consideration here will be where you are planning to keep the boat - is it a tidal location or a marina berth? Remember a bigger boat will cost more in marina fees.

five sailing boats at sunset

Despite the advantages of a smaller boat, many first time owners are currently buying in the 35-45ft range. Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

Budgeting to buy your first yacht

Unlike buying other expensive items, such as a replacement car, the purchase price of any boat needs to be somewhat lower than the total amount of money you want to spend up front. Additional initial costs include a survey, insurance, renewing ageing equipment, plus the first year's mooring fees. It’s also important to figure out a realistic annual budget.

When drawing up a budget it's important to include a generous allowance for unexpected contingencies – most new boat owners significantly underestimate total costs. The replacement price of accessories such as electronics, safety equipment, deck gear and sails can greatly exceed the value of the hull and rig, especially for older yachts. It’s also worth making an allowance for infrequent big ticket items, for example if you have to replace the engine during your ownership of the boat. As a result, an apparently expensive older boat that's well equipped, with plenty of recent gear, can often be a bargain.

One barrier that has diminished since the economic downturn is finding a place to keep a yacht – even in the more popular parts of the UK there are now both moorings and marina berths available. However, before committing to buy a boat it’s still worth enquiring about availability – you may well not be able to get your first choice location – and about prices, which can vary considerably.

boat leaving the harbour

Before committing to buy a boat find out where there are moorings available and what they will cost. You can’t draw up a budget without this information. Photo: Eric Ward

Marine mortgages and loans

Although many lower-value boats are funded by cash or personal loans, it's worth investigating marine mortgages, which are are secured on the vessel, for boats of a higher value. In addition, marine finance companies will help to smooth the legal process – they have just as much interest as you have in confirming a clean and unencumbered title, valuation and VAT status. Other options for funding your purchase include partnerships and syndicates, and boat membership schemes (somewhat akin to 'time share' schemes for holiday homes).

Once you’ve figured out the size and style of boat you would like, and nailed down a realistic budget with sensible contingencies, you can start scanning yachts advertised for sale online and can then draw up a short list of boats to view. It’s worth remembering that there are many overpriced and poorly cared for boats that stick on the market, while nicely looked after craft that are realistically priced can sell relatively quickly. So don’t be despondent if the first few boats you view are disappointing.

Once you’ve found a suitable boat, the next stage is to make an offer, subject to a satisfactory survey, evidence of title, finance approval (if appropriate) and evidence of VAT paid status.

A written contract is vital at this stage, and is usually accompanied by a 10 per cent deposit. If the boat is sold through a broker that’s a member of the Yacht Brokers Designers and Surveyors Association, then the YBDSA contract should be used. Alternatively, the RYA has a standard contract that members can download via the association's website. New boats in the UK will normally be sold under the British Marine Federation’s standard contract.

The purpose if this contractual process is to protect against potential pitfalls, including whether the vendor is actually the legal owner and whether there are any charges such as unpaid mooring fees, repair bills, loans or marine mortgages that third parties may have levied against the vessel.

It’s also important to recognise that, unlike offering to buy a house in the UK, your offer becomes legally binding at this early stage, usually with a requirement to complete the purchase within 14 days. Given the legal obligation to complete the purchase, insurance should be in place when the contract is signed.

If the survey finds material defects that would in aggregate cost more than around 10 per cent of the purchase price to repair you have a number of choices. These include renegotiating the price (often the estimated repair costs are shared between buyer and seller), asking the seller to make good the damage to the surveyor’s satisfaction, or withdrawing from the purchase.

Read more about buying your first boat in our feature Buying a boat: first-time buyers’ guide.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.