If you’ve spent time on a family or friend's boat, or enjoyed a few weekends with a boat rental, you may have decided that you want a boat of your own. But what type of boat should you buy? What would you use it for? What’s a best fit for you and your family? Where would you store it when you’re not using it? And of course, what may be the toughest question: how much boat can you afford?
Getting organized and proactively answering these kinds questions before you buy is the best way to limit uncertainty and successfully move forward in the boat buying process.
To get started, be sure to visit our Boat Finder Tool and read Choosing the Right Boat: Buying Guide for Recreational Boating. In the meantime, you'll want to learn more about the upfront costs, as well as the annual maintenance, storage and usage costs. Before you know it, your dream of owning your very own boat will become a reality.
Upfront Costs & Annual Maintenance
Before you buy, you'll want to consider the upfront purchase costs. The first step is figuring out how you want to spend your time on the water and what type of boat you want to buy. You might want a fishing boat, or a bowrider for family fun. Perhaps a cabin cruiser that could house your family overnight for extended trips, or a specialty craft like a pontoon boat for family parties or a ski/wake boat for watersports.
Our Boat Finder Tool can help you identify the boat style that’s right for you by selecting your preferred activities, number of passengers and more criteria for your ideal boat. Then, be sure to learn more about the initial purchase costs in our comprehensive guide on Boat Values and Prices: Negotiating Your Purchase.
How Much Boat Can You Afford?
Once you’ve identified your favorite activities, calculating how much you want to spend is the next step. How much boat can you afford? Using that number, you can decide how to formulate your boating purchase. If you’re financing the purchase, remember that your credit rating will factor into your purchase; since this is a discretionary purchase, don’t tie up needed cost-of-living funds in your boat.
You can learn more by visiting our Boat Loan Calculator.
Here are some costs to consider when buying, besides the cost of the boat:
If you need a trailer to transport and store, this could add to the purchase price; sometimes it can be included as part of the package deal (it pays to bargain!). This is common practice at dealerships, boat shows and especially seasonal dealer sales events; when the trailer may mean making the sale for the dealer, it’s often included.
In terms of maintenance, a trailer will need basic upkeep as well; tires, brakes, and general maintenance, plus monthly storage fees if you can’t keep it on your property when your boat’s in the water.
You’ll need at least liability coverage, and likely damage coverage - especially if it’s a newer vessel. Often lenders will require comprehensive coverage on a financed purchase. It’s smart money in the long run, in case of accident or theft - your boat is covered!
Storage Options & Costs
You may want a cover, a top, or maybe even consider renting inside storage if you can’t keep the boat at your home or on your property. Summer and winter storage are two very different necessities in parts of the country where the climate is colder. Winter storage in colder climes typically involves winterization prep for engine and boat, as well as durable coverage where snow, rain and winter winds have potential for damage.
Regarding cost, for outside storage, boats are typically shrink wrapped at a cost of roughly $10-15 per foot, so a 21-foot boat might cost $200-300 to cover and make ready for winter. Inside rack storage costs more, as the boat is inside and better protected from the elements. Figure on roughly $50 per foot for inside storage, so that same 21-footer would cost about $1,000 for the winter season.
Costs for in-season storage range by region and waterway, but as a general guideline, in-water dock space can range from $1,000 to more than $5,000 per season. Indoor rack dry storage costs more, typically 1-1/2 times as much as in-water dock space, but many say it’s well worth it to have the boat stored safely inside a building, ready at the dock when it’s needed, then washed and stored again when finished.
If you keep the boat at a marina, you will incur monthly costs for those months of storage; fees will vary depending on inside or outside storage, how often you use the boat, and whether or not the marina includes cleaning and maintenance charges.
Like a car, a boat purchase also carries yearly maintenance costs, and these can vary based on the type of boat, how often it's used, whether it’s used in fresh or saltwater, and whether it begins its life with you as new or used.
A new boat will cost less to maintain than a used one, at least for the first few years. With cars, you have cleaning, oil changes, tire and brake service, cleaning, perhaps a battery replacement, and maybe an alignment.
With a boat, you have all the same engine maintenance costs, and cleaning, but add hull maintenance, storage, winterizing (when you don’t use the boat year-round), haul-out (if not keeping in the water year-round), and spring make-ready and launch.
Costs for these services can vary widely; some of the determining factors will be the boat and engine size, the local area, fresh or salt water, and the type of storage (inside a building or outside, covered, rack storage, etc.).
Likewise, costs increase with boat and engine size. For example, cost to service and winterize a four-stroke outboard engine of 150 horsepower might be $250, plus cleaning and winterizing the boat may be another $250.
Also keep in mind that using the boat in freshwater will keep maintenance and cleaning costs down considerably. Saltwater, on the other hand, is definitely harsher on a boat and engine than freshwater.
Equipment & Accessories
Safety gear (such as life jackets, paddles, horn, signal flares, etc.) should always be considered during any boat purchase. For additional accessories, no need to buy everything you can think of all at once; a good plan is to "treat your boat" every spring and fall to a new accessory or upgrade with accessories like stereos, lighting, watersports towing equipment and more.
Spend wisely and you’ll enjoy your boat and all the summer fun it brings.
Education & Boating Licenses
Most states require some type of boaters’ safety course and operator’s license. Learn more in How to Get a Boating License, and feel free to explore our Education and Training Guide.