Where do you even start when thinking about buying a boat? What's the process? How to get from from "Honey, let's buy a boat!" to "She's ours!"

Boat Shopping

I’ve had quite a number of questions and comments about how we went about shopping for a new-to-us boat and how we apparently did it all so quickly. I’ve gotten several emails along the lines of “We’re looking for a boat, but there are just so many choices, and we’re afraid we’ll choose the wrong one and well, we’re overwhelmed. How in the world did you do it?”

Okay, maybe it was quick. Three weeks and a day from when we decided to get a boat to the day we closed on Barefoot Gal.

So how’d we do it? Boat buying can be seen as a a series of tasks — or at least that’s how we saw it:

  • Decide where you want to use the boat. How do you want to use it? Knowing your cruising grounds, even if the answer is as broad as “around the world,” is imperative for choosing a boat.
  • Research your cruising plans. Is draft an issue? Bridge height? Ferocious seas? Light winds? Cold or hot weather? Cruising guides are good for this (many are online, too) but blogs are a fantastic resource.  Find several where people are cruising the area(s) you’d like to and read back a ways to see if there is something they’re always complaining about or always saying they’re so glad they’ve got.  Don’t limit yourself to one or two — you probably need to see a half dozen if it’s an area you’re not familiar with before you know if a particular feature is one person’s idiosyncrasy or a common issue.
  • Think about personal needs: cabins for kids or guests, single handing, physical limitations of the crew.
  • Develop a list of boat makes and models that would meet your needs.
  • Develop your budget, both for the initial purchase and upgrades and for ongoing expenses. Be sure to include a reserve for unexpected expenses — there always are some! Figure out if you’ll need financing and if so, get pre-approved so you know how much you really have to work with.
  • Use your budget to develop a short list of boat models, then research them as completely as possible. There are the obvious places to get info, such as cruising and boating magazines, but also dig out the owners groups, online forums, and even blogs by owners (blogs are a great source of real info, as it happens, with no sugar coating). YouTube is also a great place to get info both of fun times aboard and of many maintenance chores.
  • At this point, you may have narrowed things down to just one model, or a handful. We found it helpful to develop a list of features we were looking for and mark each one as must-have or something that was a factor to compare in individual boats.
  • Now it’s finally time to look at boat listings — YachtWorld, Sailboat Listings, Craigslist and any owners groups are good places to look. Fill in your chart or spreadsheet with as much info on each boat as you can, and call owners and brokers to get the remaining info.
  • For any critical gear that a particular boat is missing, try to come up with an estimate of what it would cost you to put that on the boat or repair what’s there. It’s tough, but you’re trying to figure out how much each boat will cost when outfitted as you’d like it.  But by the same token, don’t add in the cost of something that’s not important to you just because one boat has it (for example, we don’t plan to spend much time at a dock and hence we don’t care about air conditioning, so we wouldn’t add it to a boat that didn’t have it).
  • Some boats are going to start looking better than others. Make plans to visit these.
  • Investigate insurance and get some quotes on one or more of your top candidates, making some assumptions about the value (or just liability).  You’ll learn a lot during this process — sometimes finding insurance that fits with your dream is the hardest piece of the puzzle.
  • Learn at least the broad outlines of how the transaction will take place and any financing or insurance requirements.
  • We listed things to look at on each boat so that we could make notes and compare them afterwards — it’s amazing how they all become a blur. I’ll give you a copy of our list but modify it to list what’s important to you and with knowledge of weak points in the model you’re looking at.


  • Look at boats. I printed copies of our list and took a clipboard and wrote the answers to each item as we looked at the boat. Get as much detail as possible on each item, particularly if it’s a boat that becomes a strong candidate (sometimes you know within 5 minutes you’ll never make an offer on a particular boat and while it’s still good to take a serious look at it to compare to the others, you may not want to spend too much time on it).
  • When you think you’ve found the right boat, make an offer. How this is done will depend on whether you’re working with a broker or the seller, whether there is financing and the boat’s location.
  • Survey and acceptance or rejection, sometimes with renegotiation of the purchase price.
  • Closing — again, how it happens depends on who is involved, whether it’s state titled or CG documented, whether there is financing, whether you’re comfortable handling the closing or want a title agent, etc.

Whew! Seventeen items, some requiring detailed research.  Did we really do it all in 22 days?

Not really. Dave and I had talked on and off for several years about getting another boat. For a variety of reasons, though, we didn’t.

During that time, though, we pretty well decided that if we did get another boat, we’d be cruising the Keys and perhaps the Bahamas.  And with that in mind, we began researching necessary and desirable features. First was a large enough holding tank — it’s a no discharge zone and we didn’t want to be tied to pump outs every few days. And while boats with 6′ draft certainly transit the Keys, we learned that the shallower the draft the more out-of-the-way places we’d be able to go — and that’s very important to us. Bridge clearance can also be an issue in Florida. Since we’re not getting any younger (Dave is 76; I’m 54), smaller sails and a lighter boat would be good. I wanted a good work area for writing. Good ventilation was key, too, as was a boat that would sail and motor well.

We also figured out what we could afford for a boat and how we’d pay for it. On trips to Florida, we looked at boats, storage yards, cruising locales, mooring fields and marinas. All just theoretical, of course. We weren’t really planning to buy another boat and go cruising. But we kept notes and talked about how we’d do it. All just hypothetically.

Consequently, when we decided that yes, we really were going to buy a boat, we’d already done the first five steps and mentally narrowed down the list to a handful of small catamaran models.  Dave and I both threw ourselves into reading everything we could find about the different ones that were within our budget and within a few days concluded that the Gemini was our first choice. TIP: If there’s more than one person researching and you’re using different computers/tablets, Google Chrome is wonderful to use on both as you can bookmark something on one and it immediately syncs to the other automatically if you’re logged in under the same account on both.

From there, I start looking at Geminis for sale in Florida.  I checked out YachtWorld, SailboatListings, and Craigslist, in addition to the Gemini Owners Group and general Google searches. We called, got details, and set up a spreadsheet to compare the details. Admittedly, it helped a lot that we had previously cruised; we had a much better idea of what was important to us. We ended up with a list of 5 boats that looked like possibilities, but were able to reach the sellers or brokers on only three of those.

I checked with BoatUS on insurance, getting quotes on two that were the most different. I knew that the details would change, but this gave us a ballpark estimate of the cost and availability of insurance.

Just six days after deciding we were serious about this, we threw some clothing, a computer and dog Paz in the car and headed to Florida for the great boat-buying road trip. The first boat we looked at showed us that we were right to be looking at Geminis, although it wasn’t the boat for us. On to boat number 2, which we liked and made an offer on. That deal disintegrated when the survey showed some structural issues (read more about surveys and deal killers). That was two weeks to the day from deciding to buy a boat.

That evening, I was able to reach one of the sellers I hadn’t talked to before.  His boat had appealed to us the most on paper and as I talked to the owner, it sounded even better. We made plans to see the boat in two days, which gave us time to drive there and also a bit of down time to regroup after the failed purchase.

We spent over four hours on the boat, armed with our list of questions. Then Dave and I went for a late lunch and talked the boat over. We compared it to the other two boats we hadn’t yet looked at and concluded yes, it really was a better boat for what we wanted (the others had some different features, but some of those — air conditioning for example — weren’t things that were important to us). I ran a quick check on the boat’s documentation number to give ourselves a bit of assurance that we were dealing with the owner, then we went ahead and made an offer. There was no broker involved, so it was just a case of discussing it with the seller. After going back and forth a few times, we came to a deal we could all live with.

I next called for the survey; it was Thursday and the surveyor wasn’t available until Tuesday (three weeks from the “decision day”). With what we’d learned during the first survey, we felt confident this boat would pass.  We used the time to arrange for summer storage, buy the supplies we’d need to ready her for storage (but saved those receipts!) and even went for a day of sailing in Charlotte Harbor with friends. Frankly, having a few days of down time to plan was exactly what we needed.

On the way to Florida, I had researched how to make sure title was good and how to transfer title for a documented vessel and the associated Florida regulations. But I double-checked everything again during this time — and cursed myself for not having a printer with me! I found a UPS Store with internet, printers, copiers, a notary and a fax that could serve as the office for closing and contacted our bank to make sure I had the needed forms for a wire transfer of the purchase price.

On Tuesday, we had the survey and at least one of us was present the whole time.  The sea trial was done on the way to the haul out, and we planned to leave the boat at that yard if all went well, so I had to drive the car so that everyone had a way to get back to their cars at the seller’s home. Consequently, I missed the sea trial but Dave knows more about the diesel and other mechanical systems than I do, so he was the logical one to be on the boat. We didn’t get the full written survey that day but the surveyor did discuss the boat in detail with us throughout the day and summarized his findings at the end. The survey only found minor, repairable issues and we accepted the boat.

We set the closing for the next morning and I went back to the motel to prepare the documents for closing (the seller had the Certificate of Documentation and a Bill of Sale, too). We met and went to the UPS Store, where we signed, notarized and copied documents and faxed off the wire transfer request. Then I faxed off the Coast Guard “exchange of documention” forms (what most of us would call the transfer of ownership). Next stop was the county courthouse, where we did the Florida registration at the nicest DMV office I’ve ever been in — not only did they allow Paz in the office, they gave her treats! Lastly, I called BoatUS and purchased the insurance.


Or just beginning?

  • Charity Gavaza
    Posted at 26 April 2014 Reply

    As always this is so useful. I am no where near going any further that dealing with my little fixer boat for now, but like you said… While you’re dreaming about “what if” you are already analyzing your choices. I was a bit taken aback about how some people are very private about their costs and lifestyles – I certainly don’t want to ask offensive questions – and very thankful how much others share. Many people like me considering this lifestyle have no idea if it is doable really. Thanks for all your helpful posts.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 26 April 2014 Reply

      You can do it on almost any budget, it’s just a matter of making choices that fit within the budget and being willing to do the work and make the tough decisions to be able to stay within the budget. And there are ways to earn money while cruising, even if it’s just $100 here or there, which can be a little treat here and there.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 26 April 2014 Reply

      If you’re on a tight buget, I think one of the keys is to stay as simple as possible with the boat and systems, so you don’t spend too much on keeping her up (repairs, parts, etc.). And smaller boats take less expensive parts and less work on your part if you’re going to DIY.

  • Connie Downs
    Posted at 29 April 2014 Reply

    HI Carolyn! I’ve been following you for about 3 or 4 months now, and am so glad I found you! It started when my husband & I began talking about becoming coastal cruisers. I found your cookbook and bought it from Amazon on my Kindle. Then I started checking out your site and finally became a subscriber. Such great information for a newbie like me! While we have owned power boats before, this will be our first ever sail boat. We signed a purchase agreement on April 10th, had all the surveys done, and just got the call that the owner has accepted our revised offer (due to a few survey findings) today! I’m so excited! It is a 1995 Hunter 430. She needs a bit of TLC as the gentleman we are purchasing her from has had health issues and has not maintained her properly for the last few years. But she is a beautiful boat and when we get her all fixed up, we believe she will serve us well for many years to come! Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 29 April 2014 Reply

      I’m thrilled for you! Our first charter (and a subsequent one, too) was on a Hunter 430. Great boats, nice layout! So happy to have you as part of The Boat Galley!

  • Brandon Ford
    Posted at 02 May 2014 Reply

    Excellent list. Well thought out. The only thing I would add is that you have to love the boat. She has to be beautiful. When you walk away from her at the dock, if you don’t look back three or four times, she’s not the boat for you. With sailboats, form really does follow function: Beautiful boats really do sail better than ugly boats.

    Boats are too expensive and too much trouble to own to own an ugly one. When you love the boat lavishing money on her is a joy.


  • Estelle Cockcroft
    Posted at 04 May 2014 Reply

    Carolyn and Dave, congratulations! We are so happy for you guys and wish you the very best with your catamaran. We love that you’ve joined the catamaran community and we know that all our readers will get some wonderful tips from your experiences on the Gemini. We hope to see you guys sailing out there on the big blue ocean or in some fabulous anchorage, sipping cocktails.
    Estelle Cockcroft

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 04 May 2014 Reply

      Estelle — You had a big impact on our decision, probably without you even knowing it! Tons of great info on your web site, and talking with you at the boat shows played a part, too! -Carolyn

  • Dave Tew
    Posted at 26 April 2015 Reply

    Even though you’ve bought more than I have!

  • Kristi Black
    Posted at 26 April 2015 Reply

    Very helpful article thank you!

  • Donna Chiappini
    Posted at 27 April 2015 Reply

    Just bought a new one this week. And sold our other. Quite the journey but well worth it.

  • Dave Wahrer
    Posted at 06 August 2016 Reply

    For catamarans; The Catamaran Company

  • Jackie
    Posted at 15 November 2016 Reply

    I have been reading various blogs. Watching you tube. Admittedly I will be buying an older boat. It does seem though, regardless of age, unless brand new, there is aways something to be fixed/replaced. Is there a reason for this?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 15 November 2016 Reply

      I think it’s sort of like buying a house. Everyone wants different things and has different priorities. Things that don’t bother one person will really bug someone else. One person may be just fine without a certain piece of gear — either it’s not on the boat, or it’s broken — whereas someone else may really want it.

      Also, like a house, the elements are constantly trying to break things on a boat — even if it’s just sitting there. It takes constant attention to fixing little things before they become big things. And, again like some houses, some haven’t been maintained well over the years either due to the health of the owner, neglect, lack of financial resources, or whatever.

      The good news is that yes, you can find boats out there in absolutely fantastic condition. Our first cruising boat was one of those, despite being 20 years old. We really could just move aboard and start using her. Now, over time, we had to do our own ongoing maintenance and we found some things we wanted to change. So if you look hard, you may be able to find a little gem.

  • Jackie
    Posted at 15 November 2016 Reply

    Sorry, I forgot to ask. I do not want to to have to deal with an engine. I am planning to go through Europe to get to England. I’m thinking an outboard motor to get in and out of harbors. Would it be any use for the trip itself? Would love to go electric, but more than I can afford☺

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 15 November 2016 Reply

      I have not cruised in Europe so I can’t speak to specifics, but I know several people who have outboards as their motor. How much use they are on open water depends on the horsepower and other specs.

      Two things to think about with an outboard, however: you’ll be having more gasoline aboard instead of diesel fuel — and gas carries more of an explosion risk. Second, realize that there is still quite a bit of maintenance and repair knowledge needed with an outboard.

  • Meredith Wright
    Posted at 08 October 2017 Reply

    Stuart, we’re on the right path! Great article.

    • Stuart Dutton
      Posted at 08 October 2017 Reply

      I’m sure we are! I’ll be glad when we’re in a position to look more seriously.

  • Susan Osterlund
    Posted at 22 February 2018 Reply

    In your comments above you state “We spent over four hours on the boat, armed with our list of questions.” Were you able to take the boat out and run all the systems?
    We are in the boat hunt and was recently told from a broker that we would have to make an offer on the boat before we could expect a “test drive” is that normally the case with purchasing a boat?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 22 February 2018 Reply

      Yes, you normally have to have an accepted offer before you have a sea trial. HOWEVER, you can reject the boat for ANY reason after the sea trial. We spent four hours just on the boat at the dock, where we were able to run most systems (engine, electronics, refrig was cold, etc.). Otherwise, people feat they’d be giving free boat rides to people who had no intention of actually buying a boat but just wanted an afternoon on the water.

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