I've bought and sold a few boats over the years. It's a hobby I enjoy and I've learned a lot from my experiences and from the people I've met. Mostly I love being on the water, spending time with family, and hanging out with folks who share my passion.
I've been asked on several occations about what to look for when buying a boat and how it is that I often manage to sell boats for a good price. So, I thought I'd sit down and share a few insights. Most of what I'm sharing is admittedly common sense, but following these guidelines can spare you from major head-aches, significant unanticipated expenses, and even considerable safety risk and peril.
#1 - Buy a quality built boat in the best condition you can afford. While it sounds like a super fun project to restore a "good ol' boat" (and yes, I admit it can be rewarding), don't expect to be saving a bunch of money by getting a fixer upper. Not only is it back breaking work, it requires expensive tools and skills. It is almost always cheaper and unquestionably less time consuming to buy a used boat that is already in great shape. There is no shame in someone else doing the work as long as they did it right. If you're like me and don't have loads of time to spare, you need to take what I'm saying to heart. My suggestion is buy the highest quality boat in the best condition you can afford because it will hold its value over time and be much easier to unload when you decide to sell (and chances are very good that you will). For the best price, ideally you want to look for a boat that just needs a little love, meaning any issues to be found are minor and limited to cosmetics. Better and much more enjoyable to spend money on upgrades than on restoration just to get to the baseline.
#2 - Identify a boat that fits the intended use. You don't want 6' of draft for lake sailing. You will never set foot on land again if you buy a technical flats skiff to go offshore on the Atlantic coast. I know this sounds like common sense but my point is you need to seriously consider the water you'll be spending time on. Carefully consider the requirements, write them down, and then look for boat makes/models that fit those criteria as closely as possible. Something else...start small. Bigger isn't necessarily better but it's almost certainly going to be more expensive. Educate yourself on common issues or trouble spots -- even the best built boats can have an Achilles heel. It's important to know the difference between minor cosmetic flaws and major structural/ safety issues. Make sure you are educated on the fair market price for the boat you want and what you should expect to pay based on condition.
#3 - Take it out for a test drive. Inspect the boat out of the water first, then spend time on the water before you buy. You wouldn't buy a used car without test driving it would you? If you're a serious buyer and they're a serious (honest) seller, this shouldn't be an issue. Ask lots of open ended questions and let the seller tell you about the boat. Ask questions like "What issues and flaws should I be aware of?" "What work have you done on the boat since you owned it (and who performed the work)?" "Why are you selling?" Launch the boat and take it out for an hour or so. Inspect to make sure everything works and assume nothing. If the boat has a motor, be sure to check that it has solid compression on all cylinders. Open the motor compartment or cover and look for signs of leaks or cracked hoses from dry rot. Make sure to start the motor cold and check the exhaust for black smoke or oil. Make sure the impeller is spitting a steady stream of water. Check the prop shaft, the lower end, and fuel tank if it is built in. These can be major issues and repowering any boat can be very expensive. Investigate the transome, deck, and bulkheads for rot. Check standing rigging, thru-hull fittings, wiring, hull/deck joints, etc. etc. Don't forget to inspect the trailer, check the brakes, and lights. Did I mention your vehicle needs to be able to tow the boat (safely)?
#4 - Make sure the boat has a clear title and bill of sale. Make sure the hull ID matches the one on the title and that it is in the name of the person selling the boat. This can make for a major headache when it comes to registering the boat in your name. Worst case, you could unintentionally be buying stolen property.
#5 - Negotiate. I can only think of 1 or 2 times I've actually paid the asking price for a boat and that was because I was faced with an irrefutable bargain to begin with. Bring cash if possible -- your chances of taking the boat home for less just went up exponentially. No matter how much you like the boat, don't let the seller know it. If you show emotion and start acting like an excited little school girl, you're not likely to get very far in your negotiations. Worse yet, if you allow yourself to lose focus, you'll make poor decisions and will not negotiate effectively.
#6 - There is a peak time of year to buy and to sell. Be patient. Don't let spring fever get the best of you. Sure, summer is around the corner, but this is probably the worst possible time of year to try to buy. Boats command higher prices in early spring because folks are eager and they have a little extra jingle in their pockets thanks to tax season and bonus money. That said, as you might have guessed, it's the best time to market your boat to sell. The best time to buy a boat is at the end of the season, usually beginning around October through the first week or two of January. Boat owners are looking to avoid the hassle and expense of winterizing and paying or renewing slip fees. Deals are out there all the time, so be on the look-out but this is a good starting point.
#7 - Don't invest more than you can get back. If you want to make upgrades to the boat, spend your money on things that will improve the value of the boat. Don't over personalize. Monogrammed seat covers or a purple flame paint job for example, are NOT good ideas. Fix and refurbish before you replace. Buy used parts when it's possible and sensible. Some things you MUST buy new, so know the difference. Never compromise safety.
#8 - Selling is not rocket science. If you're selling, simple things like a clean boat with refinished bright work and new running rigging make a huge difference and cost very little. Also, you need a good camera to get good pictures. Leverage free advertising like Craigslist and provide as much detail as possible. Prospective buyers want a boat that has been well maintained. Buyers will assume the boat is as well maintained as its surroundings, so if you have the boat in your yard, trying mowing the grass, cleaning up the yard, etc. If at the dock, be sure to keep it tidy. You might also try cleaning up yourself (shave, wear a collared shirt, etc). That might sound trivial but I'm telling you this stuff matters.
While I can't claim to have made any big profits buying and selling boats, I've yet to lose money. Want to buy or sell a boat? Follow these tips, you'll be off to a very solid start.