The Process of Buying a Boat

I’ve had several people ask me how a person goes about buying a boat, so I thought I’d write up a brief primer. There are a lot of variables that go into the selection of the right vessel to suit your needs. I’ve used quite a few on the Internet to narrow the search and then identify the likely candidates. I’ll not bore you with a list in this narrative, but be aware that a quick Google search will get you pointed in the right direction to more resources than you could possibly use.

That said, it can be quite the time investment to make your short list. I’ve been looking at boat porn for 25 years now, so I’ve had my short list of ideal requirements made for a very long time. It’s been interesting to see how things have changed in the last couple of decades, and some of my wish list is different now than it would have been had we set out on this adventure in our 20’s.

Once you have your wish list made, it’s really quite easy to identify likely candidates. Gone are the days of going to the local library and reading through classified ads from remote coastal cities around the country, then making expensive long distance phone calls to gather additional details about a particular vessel. If you have an interest in buying a boat and haven’t ever been there, check out Yacht World and be prepared to get distracted for a very long time. Did you know you can buy a 36’ long sailboat that is well appointed, structurally sound, and is ready to take you and three other people anywhere in the world in comfort and safety for $25,000? Just don’t tell everyone you know, or the price of boats is likely to go up considerably and the ocean will become a much more crowded place. You can also look at what a $1,800,000 100’ long sailboat looks like inside and out. I’ll see you when you get back 🙂

Buying a boat is a lot like buying a house. There are licensed boat brokers (like real estate agents), to help guide you through the process. Just as in selling real estate, the fees for the broker’s services are paid by the seller. If you’re buying a boat from an individual instead of through a broker you might consider hiring a broker of your own to help with the paperwork and make sure everything goes smoothly. The boat we’ve purchased was listed through John McNally with Florida Yacht Group in West Palm Beach, FL. I couldn’t possibly say anything but wonderful things about John. He’s knowledgeable, honest, timely, efficient, and has been a huge help. I highly recommend him if you happen to be in the Florida area or are looking at a boat in that vicinity.

There are also a series of inspections that need to be performed so that you know what you’re getting, just like in a real estate transaction. In the boat world this is called a ‘survey’ of the vessel. Surveyors are licensed and accredited and the good ones know boats of all different types inside and out. They’ll check things that you never would have even considered. The good ones also employ modern techniques to see under the surface. In our case, we’re having the survey done by Suenos Azules Marine Survey and Consulting by another John, John Banister. John uses not only his own senses to check out a vessel but also employs thermal imaging analysis to look under the surface for structural flaws, hotspots in wiring, overheating engine components, stressed rigging components, etc etc etc. He also does fluid analysis on the engine and transmission lubricants, and gives every electrical component of the vessel from the running lights to the chart plotter a full inspection. All in all he’s going to look at pretty much every square inch of the boat in places you can and can’t see. It’s not cheap at $1,200, but for the peace of mind that will come with knowing the nitty gritty before you take your family out onto the great blue it’s money well spent. Surveys are generally priced based on the size, type, and complexity of a vessel, so the smaller the vessel the less it costs to survey.

Assuming you’ve found the right broker, the right boat, placed a deposit, found the right surveyor, the right lender (if you’re going to mortgage the boat), and the chosen vessel passes the inspections to your satisfaction, then you move on to closing just as you would in traditional real estate.

So the process looks like this:

  • Find a broker.
  • Find the right boat. (This often leads you to the broker so those might be in reverse order).
  • Make an offer and place a deposit just as you would with earnest money in real estate.
  • Seller accepts your offer, or declines and makes a counter offer.
  • You finally arrive at an agreed-upon price.
  • Sign a contract contingent upon passing an inspection and sea trial.
  • Have the vessel surveyed – this will typically involve having the boat hauled out of the water at a boatyard if the vessel is currently afloat (Cost is usually $5-$10 per foot of the vessel depending on overall size).
  • Decide if you want to proceed with the purchase based on the results of the survey (up to this point you can back out of the transaction at any time and get your deposit back).
  • Complete the purchase through traditional closing (i.e pay for the boat either with cash or bank mortgage).
  • Get insurance. (If you’re curious how boat insurance works, check out this article on Discover Boating to get started. It’s fairly complex and there’s no need for me to try and explain it here when other good resources are available.)
  • Document the sale and register the vessel.
  • Make any improvements or refits that you deem necessary or advisable.
  • Go see the world.

Of course many of these steps can be skipped or avoided if you so desire. It is possible, for instance, to purchase a vessel from an individual (no broker) with cash (no bank) in a single transaction (no deposit, no survey), transfer title as you would for a car, skip insurance altogether (not required by law like it is with a car),and go see the world. I wouldn’t recommend buying a boat this way, but it can be done.

And that’s that. It sounds more complicated than it is in real time, because these steps are spaced out over the course of a month or more just as they are in real estate. Generally speaking, the smaller and less expensive the vessel is, the faster you will be able to set sail. Bon Voyage!



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