A Boat Buying Guide – One Broker’s Take

When I was on active duty one of my greatest mentors once described the essence of communication as this: “What do I know, who needs to know it, and have I told them?” Such a simple sentence, but so pregnant with meaning. With that timeless advice in mind, I’ll use this blog to get to the “have I told them” part about what brokers do and what value they provide.

As a broker helping people to buy and sell boats, I generally come across people from three camps.

  1. People that know what brokers do and think they are an extremely valuable resource.
  2. People that know what brokers do and think they are a bunch of greedy snake oil salesmen.
  3. People that don’t really know what a broker can do for them or why they should care.

Sharing what follows with Camp No. 1 is ‘preaching to the choir’, as they say. They have used brokers in the past to either buy or sell, had a positive experience, and would likely in every future case use a broker to represent them in buying or selling any vessel of significant value.

People from Camp No. 2 have likely had a negative experience dealing with a broker, and/or have heard and read online others complain about their experiences. This is very unfortunate, but this Camp should understand it doesn’t have to be that way. A broker trying to explain to this potentially hostile audience how valuable a broker can be is a tough sell, but I will try anyway.

People from Camp No. 3 may gain the most from what follows, or at least be open minded about it.

I wrote earlier about the basic premise, which is ‘what can a broker do for me?’ The first in this series is here: Selling or buying a boat? Here’s what a good broker will do for you

The second installment is here: Why Use a Broker Part 2: For Buyers

The third part is here: Why Use a Broker Part 3: for Sellers

To tie all of this together from a buyer’s perspective, what follows is a basic strategy that should serve well.

Congratulations, you’ve decided to buy a pre-owned boat! Now what? Here is a  guide to help you on your way.

First step: seek help from a professional broker to act as your agent. Why? Three primary reasons:

1. First and foremost, think of your broker as a professional who is looking after your fiduciary interests. This is job number one, from beginning to end of a transaction. With a listing broker representing the seller and a selling broker representing the buyer, the lines are clearly drawn. This is a helpful distinction throughout the process, wether it be initial contract negotiations or additional negotiations that almost always occur later after the marine survey and trial run. This will be your brokers’ primary focus all the way through to a successful closing.

2. Secondly, keep in mind that a buyers’ broker isn’t really concerned with selling you any one particular boat. That broker is more concerned with you buying the boat that is right for you, and this is usually an iterative process. You may end up looking at many boats prior to finding “The One”. When you go directly to a listing broker, that broker will be hopeful that you buy one of his or her listings. That doesn’t make him or her a bad person, it’s just human nature.

3. Like any other kind of business, success hinges on relationships. If you go to a different broker every time you want to see another boat, you are constantly ‘re-inventing the wheel’ explaining your needs, your desires, priorities for you and your family, etc. On the other hand, when you work with ‘your’ broker, over time you will naturally build a relationship. That broker will know your requirements, likes and dislikes as an integral part of that relationship.

Finally, while it is common for brokers to operate as dual agent, (representing both parties) for the above reasons you may find it beneficial to have your ‘own’ broker.

Ok, I’m on board, how do I find a good broker?

Start by asking around. Go to your boat owning friends and ask them for recommendations. You can also search online and look at broker profiles and bios. Contact these brokers and ask them for client testimonials and what boats they have sold. This will help find the right fit.


How do I find the right boat? 

Step 1. Don’t start by looking at boats

When thinking of everything that has to fall in line before you cruise off into the sunset, it can be a dizzying affair. Let’s take things in bite size chunks.

First and foremost, the buyers have to be on the same page, meaning husband/wife or significant others/couples. Generally speaking, people buy boats because they want them, not because they really ‘need’ them. Buying a house or a car is a much more objective process. Buying a boat tends to be less so, with the subjective elements being very important. This in turn makes boat buying an emotional process, which is not a bad thing, but it underscores how important it is that all ‘stakeholders’ are aligned.

When potential buyers come my way, I start by doing what I call ‘drawing the box’. By that I mean having long, detailed conversations where I Iisten more than I talk about everything under the sun to include basic requirements, likes/dislikes, favored brands/models, budget, etc. I am careful to draw this initial box very broadly, because it may come to pass that the ‘perfect’ boat is one that the buyer has not yet thought of. Which brings us to the cardinal rule, that being

Let the requirements drive the process

Figuring out what you really need

How can I say that just a few sentences after saying this is an emotional process? Well, that’s why it’s important to understand what your requirements really are before falling in love with a boat. How do you get in a place where requirements are driving the process? By asking and answering three basic questions. Where do you want to go, what do you want to do, and who will be with you? The answer might be ‘go around the world with my family’. Or it might be ‘do the Loop when my wife and I retire’. These basic questions must be answered first. (Notice the first question is not ‘what boats do you like?’ because that’s not broad enough to get at the basic requirements.)

‘Where do you want to go, what do you want to do and who will be with you’ allows us to determine range and capacity requirements which in turn begins to describe what size and type of boat that will do the job. Not too long after this begins to take shape, we need to talk about budget.

The “All in” budget

Remember this from a former Pentagon desk jockey: a requirement without funding is a hallucination

Keep in mind that your budget must cover the care and feeding costs in addition to the initial purchase. Dockage, maintenance and upkeep, insurance, fuel, and equipment upgrades all have to be considered. As anyone who has been around boats a while will acknowledge, these costs can mount up fast, so it’s critical some clear eyed thinking be applied. Once this math has been considered, depending on the planned purchase timeframe, an important element of the strategy is to get pre approval from a lender if financing is required or desired. This will allow buyers to proceed with confidence and also create a bit of leverage when it come time to enter negotiations.

How big is big enough?

Bigger is not always better

A good general rule of thumb is to purchase the smallest boat that will do the job. This way a buyer is not getting burdened with unused capacity, capability and associated carrying costs.

The search

“Measure twice, cut once”

The next step is to look at boat listings. It doesn’t make sense to physically look at boats until the field of candidates gets narrowed down. How many listings get sent back and forth really depends on the buyers experience level and how mature the thinking is on what boat will do the job. At the beginning of the search, it’s helpful to enter very broad parameters in the various multiple listing sites. This may produce hundreds of candidates, but it may also uncover some examples of boats that neither the broker nor the buyers had previously thought of. Optimally, the broker will send prospective buyers two to three listings at a time and get their feedback. Doing this in bite sized chunks prevents buyers from feeling overwhelmed. It allows the broker and buyer to refine their thinking in an iterative fashion.

This is a two-way street

Help your broker help you

While the broker is sending listings, the buyers should also send their broker listings that they come across and like. This process goes back and forth as many times as it takes to begin reducing that large box to something smaller. Eventually this ‘decanting’ process will tease out a list of candidates to go and physically look at.

What will it really cost?

Well informed is well armed

During this research period, the broker will be able to provide ‘comps’ for each listing reviewed, much in the same way a realtor does when buying and selling homes. It’s one thing to see the asking prices, but knowing actual market value will allow buyers to make better informed decisions.

It’s time to walk the docks

…but not all of them at once

When it comes time to conduct boat showings, it’s again important to take things in manageable chunks. Buyers need plenty of time to walk through each boat, ask questions, and mosey around. It doesn’t make much sense to schedule a dozen showings in one day, even if that is physically possible. It’ll be overwhelming and at the end of the day difficult to remember which boat was which. It’s critical that spouses/significant others view the boats at the same time, so they can assess the boat together.  An attentive broker will learn a good deal by watching and listening as the buyers move through the boat, and take note of those lessons to help refine the search.

Take your time

Getting it right is more important than getting it fast

This process may take a long time, and that’s ok. There is no sense in rushing this process, as doing so can lead to a less than optimal purchase decision. How long it takes will depend on each buyers’ situation. Maybe it’s a month, maybe it’s two years. It’s all situationally dependent.

Don’t just think about the ‘what’, also think about the ‘how’

Details matter

Part of the overall strategy must include paying attention to the vessel ownership details. These factors need to be considered in advance so that there are no surprises down the road. Questions such as: will the vessel be jointly owned, will it be owned by a corporation or other entity, will it be USCG documented, and in what state will the vessel be registered and/or titled? There are various financial and tax implications for each of these items. The broker will help get all this established in the best interests of the buyers before getting a boat on contract.


Deep Breaths…

When the moment comes that the right boat is found, and the buyers decide they want to make an offer, the broker(s) will guide the process through the initial negotiations in order to arrive at a signed, or ‘fully executed’ purchase and sale agreement. There are a number of factors in play here. The offer will usually be accompanied by a set of contingencies which in all cases should include a marine survey and trial run. Other contingencies will be included depending on the circumstances of the deal.

Once the boat is under agreement, and a deposit is placed in escrow, here’s a key piece of the overall strategy: it’s important for buyers to take a few deep breaths. Meaning, they shouldn’t fall in love with the boat before the survey and trial run are conducted. As difficult as it may be, buyers need to think as objectively as possible at a time when emotions are building around the prospect of owning the boat. A conscientious and professional broker will remind buyers that getting a purchase and sale agreement in place is an important step, but only one of many that have to successfully occur before the transaction can be closed.

Prepping for survey and trial run

This is your pre-purchase ‘insurance’

After successfully getting on contract, the buyer will then employ the services of a marine surveyor to inspect the boat. There may be more than one surveyor involved depending on size/scale of the vessel, and there also may be dedicated engine surveyors to concentrate on the health and welfare of the boat’s powerplant(s). Surveyors are employed to conduct these inspections at the buyers’ sole discretion. It’s important to keep in mind the surveyor is working for the buyer and the buyer alone. The broker may refer the buyer to the various accredited sources for marine surveyors but should in no case recommend that a particular surveyor be used.

Survey/Trial Run

Time for a Boat Ride!

The buyer should attend the survey and trial run if at all possible. It will be an opportunity to learn more about the boat and of course witness its performance underway. The buyers’ broker should in every possible case also attend the survey. This will give that broker first hand knowledge of what transpires, putting him or her in a very good position to represent the buyers’ interests moving towards closing. In almost every case, subsequent to the survey, and after the surveyors’ report(s) have been reviewed by the buyer, there will be additional terms laid out that must be negotiated in order for the buyer to accept the vessel and move to closing.

Getting to closing

Almost there…

The time between the survey/trial run and closing can be a stressful time. As mentioned, surveys usually give rise to additional terms to be negotiated. Communication here is key. The buyers’ broker will stay in close touch throughout this timeframe to help facilitate the deal getting across the goal line to a successful close.

After the closing

…the fun part!

Once the new owners take possession of the vessel, there is more to be done. The vessel may need the services of a delivery captain to get her to the new home port. The new owners may require hands on training to operate the boat confidently, and may desire the services of a vessel management service which will help them maintain their new boat in top condition. The buyer’s broker should be more than willing and able to assist with all of this. In my experience, this is one of the best parts of this profession. Staying in touch with clients and hearing about their adventures aboard the vessel I helped them find and purchase is very rewarding!

For more information contact

LtCol Matt Howard, USMC (Ret)

United Yacht Sales





Broker with United Yacht Sales, retired Marine aviator, passionate boater, student of naval architecture, runner, triathlete and coffee geek


  • Matt was amazing! – don’t even think of trying to sell your boat by yourself! – there is so much more involved than I ever knew! From the marketing, photos, websites, showings, sea trials and inspections Matt was outstanding and did a great job with the contract too! I highly recommend using him, he is a true professional and gets the job done!

    Matt McCormick

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