By Doug Sease

There's no doubt about it: Whether you're buying or selling, Florida is the epicenter of the boating world. Before you buy yours, heed these insider tips to buying a boat in Florida.

Willy Sutton told authorities he robbed banks because that’s where the money was. If you want to buy a boat, Florida is the place to shop because that’s where the boats are.

Florida is also impressive for the range and variety of boats that are on the market. Want a little flats boat to fish the shallow waters of the Keys or perhaps the Indian River in east central Florida? There are hundreds for sale. If a deck boat to take family and friends out for an afternoon cruise is more your style, there are plenty of those, too. Sport fishing boats of all sizes abound. Cruising sail boats aren’t a top choice among boat buyers, but sailors nevertheless can shop among a big variety of blow boats in the state.

Even if your tastes run toward multimillion dollar mega yachts capable of roaming the globe, Florida’s got ‘em. Fort Lauderdale, home to the world-famous annual boat show, is one of the premier mega yacht centers of the world.

But in years of buying and selling my own boats and watching friends and neighbors buy and sell theirs, I’ve discovered that most boat buyers buy the wrong boat and they buy it for the wrong reasons. Eventually they figure it out and get what they want and need, but not before spending a small fortune owning boats that disappoint them. The trick is to think like Goldilocks: not too big, not too small, just the right size.

Know Why You Want a Boat

To buy the right boat you have to know—know, not imagine—how you will use the boat. Trouble is, that isn’t always something easy to know, especially if you haven’t done much boating in the past.

I offer up my own example. I started out with a small 20-foot sailboat, which was the perfect size to learn sailing, but way too small to really think about anything more than day sails. But my wife Jane and I wanted to do some cruising that included stays of a week or more aboard a boat. We sold the little sailboat and bought a Sabre 28, a nice-looking pocket cruiser. We used it for a few years, then decided that we might eventually want to sail the length of the East Coast, from Miami to Maine and back, and perhaps spend extended time in the Florida Keys. We sold the Sabre 28 and bought a custom 46-foot aluminum ketch, Galaxie, the boat that we’ve had for almost 16 years now. It was exactly what we needed for our plans.

Had we known in advance how much we would enjoy cruising, we could have gone straight for the big boat and saved ourselves thousands of dollars in brokerage commissions and depreciation on the two smaller boats. Live and learn.

Buying a Boat in Florida is Just Part of the Cost

The purchase price is just the beginning of your outlays. Boats are expensive to own, operate and maintain and the expense grows exponentially with the size of a boat.

My friend Bill spends on average about $200 for a day’s worth of fuel to power his twin-engine Pursuit. Another neighbor spends four times that amount to run his much larger Hatteras and they both wind up catching about the same number of fish. My sailboat burns a gallon an hour of diesel fuel when the wind abandons me and I have to power. One of the big twin-engine motor yachts I help move up and down the East Coast burns 32 gallons of diesel per hour at full speed. Per engine! Think about what that means for a 24-hour trip: a fuel bill of over $6,000. Be sure you can afford to operate it before you buy a boat.

The Goldilocks Boat: Not Too Big, Not Too Small

Buying a boat in Florida is one thing; handling it is quite another. Anybody can drive a boat in open water with no obstacles around (and remember some obstacles, like rocks and sand bars, are hidden by the water over them). 

Unlike driving a car down the highway and stopping at a traffic light, even a stopped boat is in nearly constant motion, pushed one way by currents, another way by wind. That isn’t a big deal in a small boat. You can always fend off from some obstacle with your arms or a boat hook. But that 70-footer weighs many tons and isn’t so easy to maneuver despite twin props and a bow thruster. The owner of said boat just spent several thousand dollars repairing a teak toe rail that he accidentally smashed against a piling. The lesson? Don’t buy a boat bigger than you need and take the time to practice maneuvering it in tight spots.

Used or New?

Used or new is a perennial question for prospective boat buyers. There isn’t any question that, like automobiles, it’s usually less expensive to buy a used boat rather than a new one. Another way of looking at it is that you can afford a bigger used boat for the same money that you would pay for a smaller new boat. But a lot depends on how that used boat was used. One that an owner has abused can be a bad deal at any price.

That’s where the surveyor enters the picture. A marine surveyor is an expert at assessing the condition of a boat. The bigger the boat you want to buy, the more you need a surveyor to go over all the vessel’s complex systems and give you an evaluation.

The National Association of Marine Surveyors can give you the names of members both by type of boat you want to buy and the state in which you’re making the purchase. You can also ask the loan department of your Florida bank for the names of surveyors the bank uses when making a boat loan.

While a new boat will almost surely cost more than a similar used boat, there are advantages to going the new route. First, you can have it the way you want it. Boat owners, like everyone else, have individual tastes and you may find that the previous owner of a used boat doesn’t share your taste in many things, from interior décor to electronic instruments. And while you are certainly welcome to set up your new vessel any way you please, it might pay in the long run to keep resale value in mind. A blinding white or a deep blue hull are both gorgeous. An orange hull looks like a rescue craft. If you really want an orange boat, fine. But just know that it’s going to cost you in the long run.

The second advantage of a new boat is that it usually comes with a warranty. On a used boat if something breaks it’s going to cost you to fix it. A similar mishap on a new boat might very well be covered by the warranty and cost you nothing, at least for the first year or two.

Resources for Buying a Boat in Florida

How do you find the boat of your dreams? Much depends on the size and kind of boat you think you want. Smaller boats, whether power or sail, are often advertised in the classified sections of local newspapers. Search the classifieds in the newspapers of the biggest nearby cities, such as Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/St. Petersburg to see the widest inventory of boats for sale.  It’s much easier to go take a look at and possibly take a test ride in a boat located close to where you are than on the other side of the state. But you can also use the Boat Trader website to find the kinds of boats you’re looking for within a specified range of wherever you happen to be in the state.

If you’re looking for a larger boat, talk to some brokers. They will have extensive listings of boats that may include vessels not listed on Boat Trader. The problem I have had with brokers is that they don’t always listen to what you’re looking for. When we were shopping for Galaxie we specifically told each broker we wanted a steel or aluminum boat, not a fiberglass boat. Nevertheless, 80% or so of the listings most of them sent me were fiberglass. Once you find a good broker, you’ll be in great hands, but it may take more than a few interviews to find the one who is right for you.

A final word of advice: If, after all your careful thinking about and searching for a boat, you wind up with one that you realize after a few years isn’t really what you want or need, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger and sell it. Better to get rid of the maintenance, insurance and operating costs quickly and start your new search for the right boat than to keep spending that money on something you aren’t using.

Bon voyage!