5 Boat Buying Mistakes We Didn’t Avoid (Top Tips for Buying Your First Boat)

Boat buying mistakes we didn't avoid

Buying your first boat is a crazy, terrifying, exciting, frustrating and above all, expensive business.  Buying a used sailing boat is even worse.  There are so many traps to fall into, so many untruths to uncover, so many complicated procedures to follow.  We’ve just about managed to stumble our way through to boat ownership.  It’s the first step in our plan to sail around the world with our kids, and it has been an exhausting process.  Looking back, we’ve made lots of boat buying mistakes, but here are the details of the biggest ones.  Hopefully you can avoid making the same ones by following our top tips. 

These are our five top tips for buying a sailing boat.  They may seem obvious right now, but wait till you’re out there in the thick of it.

1. Patience is a necessity, not a virtue

We first started looking around boats in November last year.  And finally, in July, we’ve managed to get aboard our own boat.  This is short!  It can take a lot longer than eight months.

If you’re working to a budget and are buying from the used market, things take time.  A lot of time.  We’ve had eight months of evenings and weekends spent in boat yards, talking to brokers and clambering aboard boats that just weren’t right.  We’re incredibly lucky living on the south coast of England, as we’ve had access to a nearly infinite supply of used boats to view.  I honestly thought that we would see the deal wrapped up well before Easter so that we could have the whole of this sailing season learning to sail.

You might get lucky and fall in love with the first boat that you see, but you need to prepare yourself for a bit of an epic journey.  It’s going to take a lot longer than you expect.  Even when you find the right boat for you, the process of negotiating a price, having a survey, renegotiating the price, getting work done etc. is going to take a whole lot longer than you think.

Ask lots of questions when buying a sailing boat

This one was pretty much all ready to go. It had almost everything we needed. We didn’t buy this one though….

We were super keen to be sailing by Easter, and this just puts a whole bunch of unnecessary angst and stress into the process.  It leads to you making bad decisions or becoming irrational.  If you want to be on board in six months, plan for it to to take twelve months…. which leads us to…

2. There’s no such thing as the perfect boat

Everything about owning a boat is a compromise.  A lot of what you want is impossible to get.  We were looking for a solid hull that could get us around the world, reasonably new, with three cabins, a centre cockpit and a bright, airy saloon.  It had to feel bigger on the inside that it was on the outside, and it had to be pretty much setup and ready to go because we were working to a tight schedule (see point 1).

Is the deck suitable for cake-eating? Important questions to avoid buying the wrong boat.

Is the deck perfectly suited to cake eating? Important question to ask. You don’t want to buy an inappropriate boat, do you?

After several months of research it seems that within our price range you can either get an old, solid and small blue water cruiser.  Or something new, ex-charter and set up for coastal waters.  There’s an infinite variation, but there’s no way you’re going to find something that ticks all of the boxes. 

We put an offer in for a lovely Hunter Legend.  It was way outside our budget, and missed the blue water cruiser box, and didn’t have enough room for the kids, but it was setup and ready to go, and we were getting a touch desperate.  Luckily for us, that sale fell through.  It wasn’t right for us.  But it did force us to prioritise the boxes and work out which things we absolutely had to have. [the_ad id=”4564″]

For more on buying your own floating compromise, read ‘Buying a Boat –  An idiot’s guide to choosing a family sailboat‘.

Once we found our “close enough to perfect” boat, we walked straight into the next bear trap.

3. It’s business, not sport

No matter how much money you negotiate off the price, it won’t be enough.  There’s a reason the boat is for sale and, at the end of the day, this is a business transaction.  Unless you’re buying from a friend and you know the history of the boat, keep your eyes open and leave the romance of boat ownership for later. 

We met the owners of the boat we bought.  They were a really lovely couple.  But with hindsight, they were clearly selling to us and definitely weren’t altogether honest.   We fell for the sales pitch.  A month into owning the boat, and discovering a new issue every time we go aboard, it’s starting to feel like we’ve fallen for the used car “one careful lady owner, only drove to church on a Sunday” sales pitch.

So, keep your wits about you, listen to your heart but pay attention to your head. 

Which brings us to the next point…

4. Don’t be shy, ask all the questions – especially the dumb ones

Don’t just ask why the boat is for sale, find out how much sailing it has done in the past five years.  Where has the owner taken it?  How much maintenance has she had (the boat, not the owner)?  Trust nothing and nobody.  Ask to see everything for yourself. 

We were completely suckered into believing that the sails weren’t rigged because they’d just been serviced.  Not insisting on seeing the sails working was definitely one of those boat buying mistakes.  Quite a big one, in fact.  

Surely the first thing to check on a sailing boat would be the sails, right?  Hmmm.  We probably should have been suspicious that the owner didn’t seem overly keen to hoist the mainsail.  The headsail and the staysail weren’t even attached.  They had just been laundered, he said.  They were all tied up neatly, ready to go, he said.  He didn’t mention that the staysail had been condemned over a year ago and that the headsail was the same colour as a student’s shower curtain.  The mainsail looks alright though.  And the mainsail cover, possibly the only item on the boat purchased since 2002, is a thing of beauty.  Still feel like a bit of an idiot though.  

Remember the seller is there to sell the boat.

See that lovely folded sail on the left of the photo? That definitely wasn’t condemned by a sailmaker a year ago. No, really! Honest!

We also found a lot of the language completely baffling and a huge barrier when talking to owners, brokers, surveyors and boat yards.  If you can’t remember the difference between a staysail and yankee, or a halyard and a sheet, don’t make the mistake of not asking.  Who cares if you sound like an amateur?  Ask!

If you’re like us and don’t know enough to make an educated assessment of a boat, find someone who is.  Take them along with you.  

Which takes us neatly to the last lesson…

5. Make friends with everyone, but not the vendor

There are so many horror stories out there about dodgy, dishonest yacht brokers that we went into this process with the same levels of suspicion that you’d treat a used car salesman.  Perhaps we’ve been lucky but every broker we have dealt with has been helpful, full of information and eager to educate us on all things about boats and sailing.  It may help that we clearly had no idea what we were doing at the beginning.  Perhaps a different approach might have had a less positive experience.  Who knows?  But I think that generally in life and relationships, you get out what you put in.  So, go on.  Be nice.  [the_ad id=”4595″]

Yacht brokers are full of knowledge and top tips to help you buy your perfect boat.  Make friends and make the most of their experience.  You might even like them.

Once we found “our boat”, and armed with the positive experience of dealing with several different brokers, we pretty much threw ourselves on the mercy of the salesman and boat yard manager in Ipswich.  And the experience was simply brilliant.  Even though Robert The Broker was working for the vendor, he understood the market.  He was much more realistic about what the boat was worth than the vendor was.  Both Robert The Broker and Ralph The Boatyard Manager gave us tons of advice that has proved invaluable in the negotiations and subsequent early weeks of boat ownership. 

yacht brokers can be invaluable when buying a used boat

One of the brokers in Gosport marina gave us lots of advice about what sort of boat was best suited to the type of adventure we are planning. This boat was lovely, modern, but not quite right.

That helpfulness has extended to everyone that we’ve met so far.  There’s a huge sense of community amongst fellow boat owners.  Everyone has time for a chat and gladly offers their time and help.  Make the most of this.  Take a stroll around the marina.  Chat to people. 

Get an idea of how often the boat you’re thinking of buying actually goes sailing.  How much work gets done?  Boats need constant upkeep.  A boat that isn’t being constantly maintained is a boat that’s slowly degrading.  How much time does the owner spend onboard?  Compare “your boat” to those around it.  Is the marina full of well loved boats, or are you sharing space with flotilla that’s heading for the breakers yard?  

All this information is essential intelligence to get a better picture of what you’re buying.  Not asking silly questions is definitely a mistake.  

Our windlass is broken

This is our windlass, or anchor winch. This doesn’t work either.

Never forget that the owner is ultimately a trying to sell his boat as quickly as possible for as much money as possible.   The owner is probably a very lovely person.  But if you meet him, remember everything he says, and then independently verify it.  We didn’t, and have rewarded ourselves with a £1500 bill for a new staysail.[social_warfare]

We made the boat buying mistakes, so you don’t have to!

And there you have it.  We love our boat, and the more time we spend onboard, the more she’s becoming an essential member of the family.  If we had to do it all again, I think that we’d still buy an Oyster 435.  We’d more than likely end up with Grey Girl again.  We might just get there a bit quicker, and with a better idea of what we were actually buying.   

How about you?  People buy boats all of the time, and I’m sure that there are way more man-traps that newbies need to be aware of.  What would you do differently if you were to be shopping for your first boat all over again? 

These are just some of the many, many boat buying mistakes we made.  Hopefully, you won’t make the same mistakes…. I bet you will though!

18 Comments on “5 Boat Buying Mistakes We Didn’t Avoid (Top Tips for Buying Your First Boat)

  1. Cool story! We did just about the same. Went to Dominican Republic, bought a Bavaria 34 with absolutely zero experience. Well, I guess you could argue about this and that not functioning, and for sure we’ve learnt a lot about boats (which is short for Bring Out Another Thousend). On the other hand, it’s always a learning process and the price was pretty decent anyway.

    My take on boat prices is that att the Bavarias, Beneteau, Jeannaue, is damn good value. Boats of brands like Halberg Rassy and Swan are old and still expensive, all too often overpriced. Now I see that you got yourself an Oyster so you might have a different viewpoint.

    Our boat had one private owner, was never chartered, and was feeling solid – for whatever we could tell when buying her. Next time I’ll probably look for another boat like that, maybe stepping it up a bit and look for a Hanse.

    But first of will be our next adventure – sailing with our newborn during the winter. That can turn out to be gold! Or maybe just poo. We need to find out.

    • Ha ha! There will definitely be poo, Magnus! Sailing with a newborn will be an adventure, and what a way to start a life. Good luck to you! :o)

  2. Oh no! Thank you for sharing, we are researching and looking at boats right now; hoping to buy in the spring. I will definitely keep your advice in mind as we go forward.
    Can’t wait to see more of your boat AND your adventures.

    • Hi Jillian! Good luck with the boat hunt! We’ll be following your adventures on your website. Keep up the good work!

  3. Great story! Sounds no different then what we are trying to do. Have never owned a boat, know enough to get myself in likely deep trouble.. and I am drooling towards a 41 footer. We’ve been studying and contemplating for 2 years. The more I learn, the more I realize I have much to learn. But I guess that’s half the fun! Good news is we’ll be retired and have plenty of time to get that learning curve to go straight up….

    • Hi Sven, Good luck on your boat buying adventure! We are constantly finding new problems with our boat but that’s half the adventure (although it doesn’t feel like it at the time). Don’t wait though – – Get that boat and start learning! x

      • Thanks! While I have your ear, know anyone that has LIPO batteries on their vessel? I know their costly, but there are some real advantages you read on paper. Interested in conversing with a user of them.

  4. I often curse the previous owner of my boat. But I sort of assume every boat owner does too. I didn’t meet him just the broker, The worst point was that he had got the life raft serviced on the cheap and it would not have worked! Best to assume everything needs servicing I think. However I have never cursed Oyster for the high quality hull, Holman and Pye for the design and the boat builders who finished the hull. In fact I I praise them regularly. This I think is probably normal for the owners of older but well found boats.

    • Hi Bill. Thanks for your comment. I agree – we’re checking everything and servicing everything! the life raft that came with the boat was the original raft and hasn’t been serviced for 5 years. Looking forward to the kids using it as a tent. I’m so pleased we bought an Oyster though. Floss

  5. Hi Floss
    Good luck with your great adventure. My family bought an Oyster 435 eight years ago and it was the best descision we ever made. It is a solid, safe and very Sea worthy vessel and kept us secure in some very “exciting” conditions. One of the biggest bonuses of Oyster ownership is joining your extended Oyster family. You will not find a more inclusive, friendly and helpful group of people. The level of support you will get from Oyster Marine themselves is astonishing and I think unique. How many other manufacturers will offer advice and free technical support to a 27 year old yacht?
    We upsized three years ago to a 56 and arrived in New Zealand four weeks ago at the end of the first leg of the Oyster World Rally! Now how did that happen!
    If I can offer any advice on the 435 or cruising in an Oyster please feel very free to ask. Cheers David – SY Sea Flute

    • Thank you, David! You sound like a man I need to keep in touch with! I’ll certainly ask if I have any 435 questions, and I’m sure I will. Very exciting to be on the Oyster World Rally. Happy sailing and enjoy New Zealand! Floss

    • Hi, l lovedthe story and your advice, I’m in the process of buying a 435 and am getting the survey and sea trial done next week. Whilst we have looked at everything we can think of, it will be our first purchase so any specific advice would be greatly appreciated, like where are all the sea cocks?

      • Hi Bobbie. Only just noticed this. How is it all going? Hope the survey went well. All 435s are different so I’m afraid you’ll have to have a happy few hours hunting out all those sea cocks!

  6. This is a very useful story. One thing, to restrike a balance, is that the vendor is not there to make everything perfect/ new/ or in some cases even working! Stuff should be age and use appropriate and the boat price, along with demand for that model, should reflect these things. What you want to see is honesty and transparency, so you know what will need doing, and not have to ‘discover’ it…usually at a bad time. One problem for buyers at their financial limit is the fact that, for certain boat models, there are just too many people with lots of cash to spend and who will just shell out the money. This will always out-compete you (again for certain types and rare models), so you do often end up with very much a compromise in terms of your original aspirations.

    • Thanks for the comment, Fred. I completely agree. We were definitely at our financial limit, and I wish the owner had been more honest and transparent. But I guess, if we’d known that we needed to spend another thousand on a new stay sail, we might not have gone ahead with the purchase as we were already at our limit. So it was in his interest to hide that fact. I do think it’s a good idea to be wary of a seller though, especially if the boat has been on the market for a long time.

  7. Wife and I just purchased a 2016 Jeanneau SO DS50. It took about a year to acquire the boat. The search took us from Virginia to Florida and then to Maryland. We spent 10k in travel, haul outs, and surveys. In the end, with patience we ended up with with an extremely clean and well cared for boat. We learned a about Jeanneaus boats and the survey process. My advice is to buy the boat that you can afford, in the best possible condition that you can find it in. Buy the boat that is intended for the purpose that you plan on using it for. Finally, in the 2021 market, where inventory is low, don’t be afraid to offer full price.

  8. its all very exciting as we set of on the buying adventure BUT prices have shot up so our money is only going 1/2 way .. frustrating to think of a lesser boat when were paying good money !

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