A Guide to Buying Your First Boat on a Budget: PART I

How to buy a boat on a budget

I am broke and proud of it. Being broke gives a person an edge that makes a person hungry and will take risks when they're after something. But you have to be careful. You don’t want to make foolish decisions that will put you out in the street either and lose everything. Let’s not go there.  

This is the first part in a series on buying your first boat and what to look out for when doing so. I want to keep this as simple as possible. This is for the novice boater that has never boated, wants a boat, but can’t afford to buy a new one.

Bigger is Not Better

When buying your first boat, bigger is not always better. We're going to keep the size down to a 17-foot boat. The reason is that a small boat is easier to control, not only with towing and backing up but also in navigating the waterways.

This type of craft is not going to be used for going out on the ocean for miles. This is not safe. It's best suited for lakes and reservoirs or out in a bay very close to shore in calm waters.

For safety's sake, let's stay out of the ocean with this size of a boat until you get some sea legs and a bigger boat. There are limitations for this size of boat so let’s stay safe and not put anybody at risk.

buying your first boat speed boat smaller

Recommended Boat

Everybody is different and nobody will agree on one particular boat or engine combination. But what I am recommending is either a mid to late 90s or early 2000s Bayliner open-bow 17-foot with a Mercruiser 3.0 would be ideal.

These are very simple crafts and easy to work on and service. If you have kids, I recommend a deep hull. The more of a hull you have sticking out of the water, the safer your kids are. They will get excited and run around in the boat. The more freeboard you have out of the water will protect them from going overboard. If you get stuck out in a storm, the high gunnels will protect you from rough waves.

Bayliner Boat as a First Boat

I'm not being compensated by Bayliner. This is just my preference for an entry-level boat. You can get whatever manufacturer you like, but I just like Bayliners for an entry-level boat. Just get the boat in the configuration I have recommended.

The 3.0 inline 4-cylinder Mercruiser would be my first choice. They're good on fuel and you can throw a tube in the back and take the kids tubing. These engines are also good for trolling.

Mercruiser 3.0 Mercury Inboard Engine on Boat

They're very durable and will take a beating. They don't call them the Iron Duke for good reason. They are hell for stout! This GM inline four-cylinder has been around for years.

Paying For a New Boat

Instead of going out and financing a boat, let's save up the money and pay cash for a boat and trailer. It's a buyer's market out there, and I have seen a lot of nice boats for giveaway prices. This will save you thousands in interest alone and you'll own it free and clear.

Take the money you would put out on a loan instead and rathole it. Once you start saving, leave it alone and don’t spend it on anything else. My mom always said if you can’t steal it, don’t buy it. She was a wise woman who always paid cash for almost everything she bought.

Nothing is a better feeling than owning something outright with pinks in hand. Really gives you a good feeling. Set aside a budget and stick to it. You can do it!

So, you've saved and saved for a year and now have $2,500.00 cash to spend on a boat? Now comes the fun part. Let’s start looking for a boat. You can go on Craig's list first and find a 1998 Bayliner Capri 17.5 foot with the Mercruiser 3.0 stern drive. And he’s asking $2,995.00 or an offer.

Oh boy, perfect! I can beat him down on the price. I got cash in hand! Cash is king and not very many people nowadays have cash in hand, but you do.

Talking to the Seller

You call the seller and the first thing out of your mouth should be about where the boat was kept. Has the boat been covered or has it been in a garage or under an enclosed awning? If the seller says "No, it has been left out in the elements for the past 10 years," do not walk, run away!

Being uncovered causes a multitude of problems. Rotten wood floors, rotted-out seats and wood frames, bad gauges and wiring, frozen control box and cables. And a seized engine on top of that. That smoking deal you just found is only worth $250.00 for a parts boat.

Old Boat laying Outdoors Ruined

In all the years I've been doing marine repair, it just amazes me how many people buy a brand new $40,000 boat and use it for one season then tow it back home and leave it uncovered. They don’t even bother to winterize it or flush it with a salt removal wash.

Next year, they take it out on the lake and guess what? The motor is not only locked up but the block and heads are cracked. Complete engine corrosion. Whoops! Still have four more years of boat payments to make on a junk boat because they didn’t take care of it. Trust me, this has happened a lot in my years of working on boats. It never ceases to amaze me.

So, let’s get back to the seller of the Bayliner. You ask him if it has been covered and he says yes. You then ask him if it’s been winterized, and he replies yes.

If there are no pictures of the inside of the boat ask him to take some pictures and send them to you. If the seller says he will and never sends them, it's time to move on. If he lies to you once, he will lie to you again. If he sends the pictures and the inside looks good with no major tears or rips, that's a good sign.

Next Chapter, More Questions

The next installment Part II, will be about more important questions to ask before deciding to even show up to look at it. Read Part II here.

Roger Hockemier

Performance Tech