How to Buy a Sailboat

There are a number of questions that should be asked before buying a sailboat:

  1. Buy versus Rent/Borrow - Through clubs or private organizations you can charter/crew on a sailboat on almost any given day. However, owning provides the pride of ownership, increased flexibility in sailing times, and increased control over upkeep. Which choice makes the most sense for you?
  2. Is It Affordable - The costs of buying a sailboat include a down payment, principal and interest on a loan, insurance, storage, regular maintenance, taxes, and fuel. How much can you afford?
  3. Your Objective - Are you interested in racing, lake sailing, coast sailing, or offshore sailing? Are you interested in a sailboat for day trips or overnight sailing? The best type and model depends on how you plan to use your boat.
  4. Which Boat - Once you've decided on a model and a price range, how do you find, inspect and buy a sailboat?

1. Buy versus Rent/Borrow
To help clarify the trade-offs, compare both the financial and non-financial criteria. First, add up how much you currently spend on charters, and compare this number to the annual cost for owning a sailboat (see below). Besides the financial aspect, there are other trade-offs to consider. With charters, you can sail different boats and don't have to worry about maintenance. With ownership, you almost always have access to your sailboat on your schedule and you can control maintenance and upkeep.

2. Is It Affordable
  • Financing - If you are borrowing the money from a bank, calculate your down payment amount and the monthly payment based on current interest rates. If you are buying the sailboat 100% with your own money, don't forget to include the opportunity cost. That is, how would you have invested the money if you hadn't bought the boat, and how much interest are you forgoing through this purchase.
  • Insurance - Insurance usually covers damage to the boat and liability. It usually covers sailing within certain geographies. Marine insurance will typically cost approximately 1% of the boat's value per year.
  • Outfitting- Can range from 25 to 50% of a new boat price or a used boat that is poorly equipped or needs major updating.
  • Storage - Call several harbors to compare moorage prices and amenities. Options range from an open access, unprotected salt-water berth to a fresh water moorage protected from wind, waves, and vandalism.
  • Maintenance - Sailboats require a high level of upkeep and maintenance. Plan on spending a minimum of a half day of maintenance for every day of sailing. If you don't plan on doing the work yourself budget at least $30-$60 / hour for boat yard labor and mechanics.

3. Your Objective
Before you start shopping, defining exactly what you need can help narrow down the field. What is your experience level? What are your skills/interest in maintenance? What are the tradeoffs of ownership versus charter/clubs/shared ownership? How much can you afford? How long before you resell the boat? How will you use the boat? Will you race it? Will you sail in lakes, the coast, or offshore? How often will you use the boat and under what conditions? Will you sail day trips or for multiple days? How many people do you want to accompany you? How important is the appearance of the boat?

  • New Boats - Simpler shopping process, dealers and boat shows. You can get the latest technology and design. The boat can be equipped to your specifications. However, new boats cost more than used and will likely depreciate quicker.
  • Used Boats - Prices are lower than for new boats, and any manufacturing problems should have been resolved by the original owners. However, more time is required to buy a used boat than a new one, there are more choice and more sellers.
  • Homebuilt - May be 20-30% less expensive than buying a new boat already assembled. It gives the owner more control over the quality of construction. It also provides the owner with detailed understanding of the boat construction, which may be helpful when maintenance is required. However, building a boat is time intensive (roughly 1,000 hours per ton of boat). Construction requires a large, covered work area. There are also the risks that you may have to assemble areas multiple times to get correct, and that you may have to call in experts to resolve issues beyond your ability.

Types (by Rigging):
  • Cats - have a single mast usually quite forward on the boat and a single large sail (main) behind the mast. The cat design is one of the most efficient for small boats. As the size of the boat increased, however, a poor ability to handle low wind conditions and the difficulties managing a large sail diminished the value of the design.
  • Sloops - have a single mast with two sails, a main behind the mast, and a jib in the front of the mast. The design is less efficient than the cat, but more versatile, handling varied wind conditions and allowing the balancing of sail areas. This is the most popular sail plan on racing and cruising boats.
  • Cutters - have a single mast, a main sail, and two foresails. This sail plan offers even more versatility over the cat and sloop.
  • Yawls and Ketches - have two masts (a main and a smaller stern mast). The stern sail on the Ketches is much larger than that on the yawl.
  • Schooners - have two or more masts. The schooner goes windward more poorly than other boats. However, because of number of sails, it is more versatile than the other previously mentioned boats.

Types (by hull shape):
  • Multihull boats are typically lighter and faster than other boats. They are very stable, and have low draft. On the downside, once flipped, they are very difficult to turn upright, they are wide and difficult to navigate in congested dock areas. Catamarans - two hulls, build in many sizes. Catamarans are built for primarily for day sailing. Trimarans - have three hulls, a larger center hull, with two outside hulls. They are typically built for cruising.
  • Monohulls have a single hull.

4. Which Sailboat

Attributes (Construction Material):
  • Wood is the classic design material, it is easy to work with and readily available, however it is heavier than fiberglass and aluminum, will require more maintenance, and is susceptible to rot and worms.
  • Steel is very strong, however steel boats under 50 feet tend to be very heavy, very noisy, and must be carefully protected against rust.
  • Aluminum is light and strong, however, it must be protected against corrosion and is very difficult to work with in constructing the boat.
  • Fiberglass is not susceptible to corrosion, rot, or worms, it is usually less expensive, however it doesn't stand up well to abrasions and collisions.
  • Composites are made of several different materials bonded together such as epoxy-saturated wood, cored fiberglass, and fiberglass sheathing.
  • Ferrocement is most often used in home-built boats. Boats under 50 feet made out of ferrocement are heavy, typically less expensive to construct. It is very difficult to determine the integrity of a ferrocement boat's hull, this causes the resale value to be very low.

Attributes (General):
  • Appearance - How does the boat look? Would you be comfortable owning the boat?
  • Performance - What is the boat's range? How fast and how far will the engine take the boat?
  • Deck Capacity - How many people will the boat comfortably carry?
  • Deck Configuration - How well laid out is the deck? Is it easy to move quickly from one area to another?
  • Instrument Level - What are the level and condition of the instruments and other electronics?
  • Age - How old is the sailboat? Will you easily be able to find replacement parts?

Attributes (Specifications):
  • Length - measured as length overall (from tip to tip), length on deck, or length at waterline.
  • Draft - the depth of water required to avoid touching bottom
  • Beam - the maximum width of the boat
  • Windage - the wind resistance of the boat without the sails.
  • Displacement - the weight of the water displace by the boat
  • Sail Area - the total square footage of all sails

Where to Find a Sailboat
There are basically three sources of information on where to find sailboats for sale:
  1. Dealers - Visit a local boat dealer for a good selection of new sailboats.
  2. Word of Mouth - Join a sailing club, look at local bulletin boards, and ask around.
  3. Print Classifieds - Look in the classifieds sections of local papers, or look in your local bookstore for classified magazines specializing in sailboats.
  4. Online - Check out the online classified on the "Where" page.

1. Dealer
It is usually wise to approach dealerships with caution. There are a lot of honest dealer, but there are some unscrupulous ones as well. Don't trusty the sales person until they earn your trust. Test their knowledge by asking a few reasonably challenging questions that you know the answer to. Always be skeptical of their motivation. Go to the dealer once to collect information, not to buy. Hang out a little, listen to the sales people talking to other customers.

The Purchase Process
  1. Phone Screen - Ask about the boat before you decide to see it.
  2. Buyer Inspection - Inspect the boat yourself
  3. Test Sail - Sail the boat yourself
  4. Pre-purchase Inspection - Have an experienced mechanic look the sailboat over
  5. Close - Transfer ownership

Phone Screen
Before you make a trip to see a boat, make sure you ask the following questions:
  • How long have they owned the boat? Why are they selling?
  • Under what conditions did they typically sail? How often did they sail?
  • How does they boat respond in different conditions?
  • Has water ever entered the cabin?
  • What is the repair history of the boat? When was the last major overhaul?
  • What is the overall condition of the interior and exterior?
  • What is the price?

Buyer's Inspection
Your objective in the buyer's inspection is to assess the boat for safety, quality, comfort, repairability, and performance.

Start with a quick assessment. Look at the hardware, wood, bilge, and fiberglass. Hardware should not be aluminum unless weight is an issue. Brass should never be used on working hardware. Wood should look well maintained. The bilge should be clean and smell fresh. Fiberglass should be smooth.

After a quick look over the boat, inspect the hull and above deck, then below deck.

Above Deck Inspection
  • Hull - check for rust, corrosion, dry rot, and worms. Check the shape of the hull for sagging or bulging.
  • Decks - should not be springy, look for cracks and holes. Check the layout, make sure that the foredeck has enough room to work, that the side decks allow for easy movement, and that the cabin trunk is large enough to comfortably work, and that there is enough visibility.
  • Hatches - should open and close easily with a good seal.
  • Steering - wheel versus tiller. Tillers dominate until the boat length reaches about 20 feet.
  • Standing Rigging - make sure that the mast is secure. If the mast is keep-steeped, make sure that the mast is resting on a reinforced floor in the interior of the boat, and not on the keel. If the mast has spreaders, look for aluminum over wood (may rot and is not as strong). Check all the fittings to which shrouds are fastened to make sure they are bolted correctly and well aligned. Chainplates should be correctly bolted on to a secure portion of the boat's structure.
  • Running Rigging - note the type of halyards (wire or low stretch synthetic). Check all halyard for wear and age. Note whether the boat has winches, how many, how easy are they to use, and in what shape.
  • Sails - Note the material and manufacturer of the sails. Are the types of sails consistent with the type of sailing you intend to do? What type of head sail does the boat have (luff-foiled stays, roller furling, or hanks)? What is the general condition of the sails?
  • Anchoring - Check that the deck cleats are properly mounted and secure. Note the conditions of the chocks and the stowage of the anchor.

Below Deck Inspection
  • Venting - How does the cabin smell? Are there sufficient vents? Are there ports(windows) for additional airflow? Do the ports open easily?
  • Instruments - Examine the age and condition of the compass, depth sounder, radio, and knotmeter if they exist.
  • Electrical System - Is there a complete diagram of the electrical system? All wiring should be color coded, dry and protected from chafing. Test all electrical devices to ensure proper functioning of the electrical system.
  • Water System - Note the type of head if one exists? Is it in clean, working condition? What is the water capacity of the boat? Is the water pressurized or manually pumped? Does the water system work?
  • Heating - Note the type of fuel used by the heating system. Test out the system if possible.
  • Engines - What is the engine size? Is it outboard or inboard? Check outboard engines that they raise and lower easily and that if the fuel tank is properly secured. For inboard engines, make sure the engine is accessible, that the exhaust is properly vented outside the boat, that the fuel line is secure, that there are two fuel shut off valves, and that the fuel tank is securely mounted. Make sure to have a mechanic look at the engine during the survey.
  • Bilge Pumps - for small boats, check for a bucket or portable pump. Larger boats should have bilge pumps. Boats larger than 26 feet should have two pumps. The second pump can be portable.

Review the ships log, compare the price to other boats of the same design

Test Sail
Ideally you would sail all of the boats under consideration in both light and heavy weather. Test out the engine. How fast will the boat go? How loud is the motor? Is the motor exhaust properly vented? How does the boat handle? How easy is it to use the running rigging?

Pre-purchase Inspection (Survey)
Most lenders require a survey. The sale should be contingent on the results of the survey. If the survey finds major problems with the boat feel free to walk away. If problems are minor and fixable, you may want to propose price adjustments.