Used Boat Decisions Part 1

So we’re getting a boat.  This should be easy, right?


Getting Started

I’m going to just start out with this - you can make this as simple or complicated as you want.  For us, I think we started at a general idea, but it evolved over time.  

How much did we want to spend?  How much ‘should’ or could we, noting that in this case, it was going to wind up being an older boat and not financed.  

Like many things seeming like a good idea, but not-inexpensive, it was research time for me.  I had some good but broad general ideas and considerations in by head, but I had no real solid understanding of actual boat prices, what things made the prices higher or lower for seemingly similar boats (age, type of boat, brands, …) or really even the difference between a ‘cuddy cabin’ and ‘bow rider’ starting out.  I mean, I knew what they looked like and what they were on sight, but I had literally almost no clue on the right name for some of the types of boats beyond canoe, kayak, pontoon, sunfish, cruiser, sailboat and ski boat or speedboat, pretty much.  What the heck is a ‘cuddy cabin’ and how is it different than an ‘express cruiser’?  

It was research time.   Boat TraderYachtworldThe Hull TruthSea Ray and Chapparel Forums, way too many Google searches on boat brands, differences in types of boats, and others.  Playing around with the settings for Boat Trade minimum and maximum year ranges, brands, boat type selection for days and weeks on end eventually let to a fairly good idea of both what we wanted and ‘needed’ versus those we did not…for our first boat.


This one is always a fun one.  For us, we had a fair amount of $ finally saved off, we don’t buy new cars, and certainly were not going to buy a new boat.  For me, I’ve owned well over 100 cars, and only once did I buy new.  I have finances, including once with almost nothing down, but generally prefer to pay at least half down or in full outright.  When I or we wanted something we couldn’t apply this rule to, the general rule was save more, or find something cheaper.  I do understand this isn’t always possible for everyone, and it wasn’t always possible for me, moreso as I enjoy fun cars, but the depreciation hit is crazy on cars and similar purchases.  I paid a premium in comparison to similar era vehicles but the factory turbo’d Mazdaspeed Miata I bought with 50K on the odometer as a 14 year old car and put a bit of time and cash into gives me smiles every time I drive it, at 1/3rd to 1/4 the price of something as much fun from the showroom.  

Considering this was our first boat owned, and even the best intentions and seemingly well thought out plans I thought I had in my head, knowing we could spend some cash on a ‘luxury’ toy of sorts, I wanted to reign in the joyful exuberance of ‘hey, we can actually afford this!’ into some semblance of sanity.  But...

Boat prices are scary!

As I found out, when you consider the fact most boats are a chunk of aluminum or fiberglass, some wood, an engine and some relatively minimal components, boats, especially new ones can easily surpass the price I’ve ever paid for a vehicle, and keep on going up from there.  I certainly understand boats are relatively low volume, but it’s still quite a shock.

How to manage the price insanity

I suppose the good news is - there’s a used boat market, and you decide the type and size and various options which all can heavily influence the price range, and different types of boats can have significantly different price ranges even within the same general length and power.

There are a few tacts once can take besides the (insane to us) - ‘doesn’t matter, we’ll finance it!’ option.  Determine the actual boat type you’re looking for, what options (including engine - single, twin, … ) you really need vs nice to haves (e.g. generator), and consider going up or down in age or even brands to fit your budget if it’s fixed, or wilthin a more specific range.  Your other option is always to set a specific fixed budget and keep adjusting to fix, sometimes even considering a different boat type or smaller boat to fit the numbers.

In our case, I decided I’d work out the best boat type and real must haves(strong wants, anyways) in options, sort the brands I felt comfortable with, and see where we wound up, revisiting in the event we got into insane $ territories.  In our case, I was really looking in the $15-$25K range, with a bit of flexibility if needed.  I’d started the research thinking we’d be in the water for $15K or less, which actually could get a pretty nice boat - depending on the type, so again I was thinking it should be easy to find the boat I wanted...

What type of boat?  Considerations?

Now, no matter what my friend Drew’s wife may have told him, size matters - a lot. Going up to the next step up can easily be thousands of dollars more, while the type of boat or even brand along with age can also have a drastic impact on prices. There are some pretty great ski, waveboard, or bowrider(seats up front, no cabin) used boats out there for < $20K, but it all depends on what you’re looking for.

For us, the plan was semi-‘forced’ R&R we wanted to bake into our routine, as we simply work too much. Heading out at night to have dinner, drinks and relax on the boat, followed by a day out on the lake was the plan my wife had thought up while I was ‘virtual boat shopping.’ I think I liked the idea so much that it may have also led us to a larger boat size as a result. ;)

If you’re going to trailer, or have a lake house with a private slip, or just want to go out for a few hours, there are lots of options. Saltwater, freshwater as well as even lake size and conditions also play a factor - the ‘perfect’ lake boat may be a mess trying to take into the ocean, while you may not really need to hit 60MPH+ on a small lake. Longer trips - you might want to consider if you need at least a porta-potty. Decide the reality of how you really will use the boat and don’t try to find perfect for all maybe cases - it just doesn’t exist, but you may spend a lot of $ to figure it out.

For us, being able to overnight on the boat was a must.

Being able to cook some form of dinner, breakfast and lunch, including coffee, was a must. Watching my wife using the pontoon sorta-potty (or more often, not..) led me to - must have a flushing toilet with storage tank.

We pretty much closed in on a ‘cuddy cabin’ or small cruiser. Depending on which boat site you read, even different for sale sites, the definitions of cuddy cabin, express cruiser, and cruiser can vary. I’ve kind of settled on ‘cuddy cabin’ are the smallest ones - possible to get out of the heat, has some kind of bathroom/head, may or may not have a shower, and may or may not be truly doable depending on your height(s) to overnight in, but probably OK for a nap or just time out of the sun. Less likely to have AC or built-in fridges, etc.

Express cruisers and cruisers - well, in theory an express cruiser is the smaller one, like under 35’ or so, then cruisers being larger, before they eventually turn into a yacht. If you wind up searching for ‘something with a cabin you can comfortably-ish sleep in,’ you may wind up searching through listings for all of the above minus ‘yachts,’ which is quite frustrating but gets easier if you can sort brands or filter by min and max lengths.

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Cabin Cruiser - Photo by Gautam Krishnan on Unsplash
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Yacht - Photo by Viktor Ritsvall on Unsplash

Being in the Southeast US, humidity can take a toll...

Not just on boat canvas and materials, but on people - when it’s hitting above 85% humidity, even 85* F can feel quite miserable.  Here, the few months of high humidity means it’s the least likely times to put the top down on the car, ride the motorcycle even with mesh riding gear, etc. Thankfully it’s not daily and constant in most cases, but there are times it’s just, well - nasty and sticky from the second you step outside.  Considering we plan to overnight on the boat, we had a few decisions to make - namely HVAC and generators.  

HVAC starts to become an option on boats at the cuddy cabin or smaller cruiser lengths, around 24’ on up, but is not always standard equipment.  Those in CA, for example, or shorter boating seasons in different climates, may not care about it at all.  The biggest issue besides if boats you’re looking at come with HVAC or not is that while they run happily off of shore power, there aren’t easy ways to run them when away from the dock or slip unless you have a generator (note this is not an absolute statement, as it is possible to run off DC and and inverter and a few DC units exist but are quite expensive, or will have you adding a significant number of additional batteries and a higher end inverter - it’s a project to do so, and not an inexpensive one).  

I’m of mixed opinions on generators on a boat (in the 22-30’ range).   An HVAC unit could in theory, be added to a non-OEM-equipped boat, as those with options for it usually at least have slots open in the AC breaker panel, and while it’s not ‘fun,’ as wiring may or may not be in place, or ductwork, it’s borderline feasible although still a project and time, and isn’t hugely more expensive than replacing an HVAC system as it breaks down.  

Boat (non-outboard) engines, moreso for effectively being Chevy or Ford automotive engines for the most part, re-branded as Mercruiser and others, are already fairly expensive, as are HVAC systems, but boat generators take it to a new level.  I’ve seen prices of $10K or more to add a generator to a 26-28’ cruiser, and I believe that was just for the generator itself  - not covering the install.  For that reason alone, at least for us, it came down to buying a used boat with that as an option or not, as it’s just not likely to be getting done if not originally equipped.  

From what I’ve seen online, when boat generators break down, they can at times be quite expensive to repair, and in some cases also require removing the boat’s engine.  I’ve also been surprised to see discussions on repairs with what amounts to relatively low hours on a generator.  All of this makes this one a tough decision for me - it would be great to have AC all the time, overnighting on the slip or on the water.  Our plan is to generally overnight at the slip where we’ll have shore power and thus working AC, so it came down to a conscious choice of I might consider a boat with a generator, but I wouldn’t be limiting the search to requiring having one.  However - absolutely must have HVAC/air conditioning.

A final note on generators.  Some run a Honda generator on their swim platforms, while many others will state that doing so is tempting fate, and there have been more than a few cases where Carbon Monoxide poisoning as a result has claimed lives as a result.  For us, this is not an option, moreso as we’d also expect to be using a camper enclosure for overnights.

Lack of a generator or shore power would also limit the use of a microwave, coffee maker or electric stove, although it might be conceivable to add additional batteries and an inverter to run some of those one at a time, for short periods.  Meanwhile, refrigerators, lighting, stero and others will run happily off of the 12V supplied by the running engine and/or installed batteries.

To trailer or slip?

While many people trailer successfully to launch and retrieve their boats, this isn’t a guaranteed no-brainer.  Different length and types of boats can have drastically different trailer requirements, while technically boats with a beam wider than 8’6” may require a permit and/or wide load markings for trailering.  It also doesn’t take long going up in size to where you may need a new or bigger truck, even if already owning one.

Different boat types, as well as individual outings may have more or less preparation work in just getting on the way to launch the boat - whether it’s food, sunblock, fishing gear, wakeboards, or whatever.  Some people seem to be masters at getting this done and in the water quickly, and arguably it can be much simpler with smaller boats, or smaller numbers of people, but I’ve watched my buddy before getting a slip just how often he’d get it launched ‘on time’ (hint - I’m not sure it ever happened.  Certainly kids and family were a part of that, but there’s also more prep time involved, then the time potentially waiting at the ramp, and then repeating it all at the end of the day’s outing.  

For us, I also saw ‘the mental trap’ of seeing it take us hours just to get ready to get ready to then take off with the boat and trailer, to then deal with the launch, and it all adding up in time.  Considering we’d locked ourselves into a cabin cruiser, which already meant a dual or triple axle trailer, our decision was almost made for us.  Also, while we have a reasonably amount of property, large for this area at a bit under 3 acres, we also have a crazy driveway with switchbacks - I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t even be possible to get a mid-sized cruiser up and down our driveway at all, so the decision was made for us.  Slips aren’t cheap, but little about boating or other hobbies is, and some things you just have to suck it up on.  If we were going with a 20’ bowrider or ski boat, and an agreeable driveway, I might look at it differently, but having the boat at the slip removes the ‘mental trap’ of prep-time, to the point of letting us just grab dinner to go eat on the boat even if we don’t take it out.