The boat buying process can be both a joyful and stressful experience. It was for us. You want to find the perfect-for-you boat so you can have an amazing family adventure, and even though this is only one of many steps into this lifestyle, it’s the largest and most expensive. You have a budget. There are features you need, things you want, and stuff you’re trying to avoid. 

When we were looking at boats, I had preconceived notions about some boat characteristics, and found, with further research (and now, experience to support it) they were false.

Here is some cruising reality advice I wish someone would have shared with me when searching for our perfect-for-us boat. I hope this helps you on your boat finding journey.

Boat Age

My engineer husband taught me something valuable about maintenance, and one that could potentially save you a lot of money.

Have you ever heard of ‘the bathtub curve’? In non-engineery terms, it explains how we can expect stuff to break over time.

So…stuff is going to break, even on new boats. Sad but true. Then, after an initial ‘infant mortality’ slope, there is this ‘sweet spot’ of time where very little breaks and boat life is glorious; however you pay premium prices for boats in this category. Note – the owner of the boat STILL has to do required maintenance. If they don’t, this shortens the lifespan of the boat’s systems considerably.

The next stage of the ‘bathtub curve’: given enough time, mechanical parts, even those that have been meticulously maintained, are going to come to the end of their lifespan and break. Parts will need to be replaced, and that costs money. Sometimes LOTS of money, especially if you can’t do the labor yourself. This is why getting a survey is so important. Boats in this category might ‘look good’ but a surveyor will assess each system and determine where each is in their lifespan. This will give you a better understanding of possible larger purchases the vessel will need in the near future so you’ll be able to budget accordingly…or if it’s really bad, walk away completely.

And the last phase of the ‘bathtub curve’: the ‘post curve maintenance wave’. Some of the more expensive systems will likely have been replaced and, in time, others will need replacing, but overall, boats in this phase are usually much more affordable. The biggest factor assessing boats in this category…how good of a steward has the current owner been to their vessel. Have they replaced parts and systems that have come to the end of their lifespan? Did they do routine maintenance? These are tricky to gauge via a boat ad. Ask if you can take a peek at their maintenance log. It should list not only routine maintenance, but also major purchases and installs. Is the boat neat and clean? Try looking them up online. Do they have a blog? A Facebook page for the boat? Instagram account? Are they in niche cruising Facebook groups, maybe even one for their vessel’s model (i.e. Leopard, Lagoon, etc.) On these they may have posted information, questions, and troubles they were having with their vessel. And, of course, get the survey.

Unfortunately it isn’t simple to discern which phase of the curve a boat is in, because there are soooo many variables to consider. A general age recommendation isn’t the best advice, neither is staying away from charter boats. You really have to assess each vessel individually. (If you’re struggling compensating for boat age when comparing boats, try using the value matrix we share here. We used a exponential equation to automatically calculate a score for boat age. It assumes ‘worst case scenario’, i.e. the owner did not take care of the vessel, which, God-willing, is not your case.)   

Cruising Equipment

There are many types of cruising, and you probably know which type you’d like to do and, therefore, what kind of equipment you’ll need. (If you don’t, start here.)

There tend to be two camps of thought here. Buy a ‘cruise ready’ boat that’s already tricked out with all the cruising equipment you need or buy a ‘blank slate’ boat with no cruising equipment. 

Cruise ready. You might see ‘cruise ready’ on a boat listing. This typically means that someone has already been cruising on this boat and previously equipped her with the necessary cruising essentials (solar, generator, watermaker, etc.). This can be a huge money-saver! Word of caution – ‘cruise ready’ doesn’t always mean that no work is needed. Double check that all those ‘cruising essentials’ aren’t outdated and are working. A note – just because a few systems might need some attention doesn’t mean it’s a deal breaker. Knowing how much it will take to bring broken or outdated systems back to life will help you better figure out a fair price and a good offer.

Blank slate. Believe it or not, we met some cruisers who’d bought a brand new boat and were disappointed because they thought new boats came with liveaboard cruising essentials. This is not the case. Same thing with boats coming out of charter. They will lack most liveaboard cruising equipment. Some equipment is relatively cheap, some is super expensive. The benefit of buying a boat that doesn’t have cruising equipment…you’ll be able to research different brands for each system and purchase exactly what you want. Unfortunately equipping a boat from scratch like this can be a very expensive task. It’s not a bad thing, just the cost of doing so really adds up quickly, especially if you won’t be doing the job yourself. This should also be taken into consideration when figuring out your offer.

Catamaran Layout

Changing a boat’s layout is a monumental task, and not recommended. Making holes in your boat is not a good idea, but you CAN do something different with the space the layout provides.

There are two camps of thought here too…owner’s version and charter layout.

Owners version. Oh, the coveted owner’s hull with it’s full-sized head and lounging/desk area. These boats usually have minimal wear and tear on it’s hull and systems because, compared to their charter version cousins, they typically have had very fewer people using them. It’s a spacious design and offers the parents a bit more privacy not having to share a hull with their children. It however costs SUBSTANTIALLY more than it’s charter layout cousin. Does trading a full-sized head & lounging/desk area for a 4th cabin with a regular-sized head make sense for your cruising plans? Only you can answer that question.

Charter version. Charter versions were made for the charter industry. These boat have more cabins to accommodate larger cruising groups because more people = more money. Yes, charter versions have been used, so they typically look a bit rougher and their systems have more wear and tear because, again, they’ve been used for ~5 years in charter. They are also MUCH cheaper because of this. One of the good things about having so many cabins, is that you might not necessarily need them all to accommodate your family, which means you’ll have…extra space…on a boat! This is like winning the cruising lottery! You could turn a head into a laundry room. You could turn the spare cabin into a storage room. You could also leave it as is and have a legit guest cabin. Lots of possibilities!

Wrapping up…

Read between the lines when looking at boat listings both for what’s in them and the unwritten things that aren’t. Don’t let unexpected deferred maintenance become a heartache and delay your family adventure. 

It’s also not possible, or wise, to visit every boat you’re interested in. To easily compare boats use the value matrix shared here. This free tool will help you find your perfect-for-you boat because it’s based upon what you value most. You can save money by only visiting the very best boats with the greatest value from your list. 

Closing on your perfect-for-you boat is both exhilarating and frightening. Knowing you’ve purchased the boat with the best value for you and your family sets the stage to have an awesome and successful adventure.

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More  Resources:

  • There is nothing wrong with handholding through the boat buying process. It’s a big deal! Know that a few experienced family cruisers help new cruisers through boat finding, buying, and beyond through a consulting partnership. SailingBritican and SailingTotem for example.