How to Find the Best Boat for You

There might be ice on the lake, but winter is a smart time to buy a boat. With a calendar full of boat shows and sales at the dealerships, this season offers fantastic deals and plenty of time to consider exactly what you want. Three local experts offer their tips to help you score the boat you want and make your boat buying process fun and easy.

Don’t think you have to win the lottery before you start looking:
“Affordability is the number one concern,” said Lee Bakken, manager of Frontier Power Sports in Fergus Falls. “For first time boat owners, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there that it’s expensive to own a boat.” It’s not, he insists.

The statistics back him up. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), the leading trade organization for recreational boating in the U.S., reports that 72% of boat owners reported an annual household income of less than $100,000.

There’s a boat for every budget, from small fishing boats to tricked out pleasure crafts built for speed and everything in between. And getting a loan you can afford might not be as hard as you think. “With boats, there’s a lot of banks that will stretch those payments out,” explained Bakken. “The reason they’ll finance them longer is a boat doesn’t depreciate as rapidly as some other products. So you can make it very affordable.”

Once the papers are signed, maintenance and expenses for upkeep are minimal for most users. “The new engines are very fuel efficient,” said Bakken. “Most people in our part of the country change oil once a year and add gasoline as needed.”

So come in with a budget and idea of what you can realistically afford to pay per month. Remember that you want the best possible boat for your money, but you don’t want to be so stressed out about overspending that you can’t get out and enjoy it.

Involve co-buyers from the start:
“You get it a lot,” explains Brian Cain, marine salesman at Outlet Recreation in Fargo. “Maybe the wife is here, or the husband is scouting first.” Cain and his colleagues will take the time to learn what the customer needs, answer questions and show them some great options. Then the customer will explain that they’d love to buy – they just need to get their partner to come in first. When they do, the entire process starts over. And the buyer who made initial contact has to listen as the second buyer asks the same questions they themselves asked just a few days before.

“In reality,” Cain said, “it would be nice if both decision makers were here.” Cain added that he’s happy to take as much time as both partners need to feel confident in their purchase. But working together on the project from the start is a much more efficient use of both buyers’ time. If you’re already planning a visit together, take a few extra minutes to sketch out a budget and write down any questions in advance. You’ll be on the same page and mentally prepared so you can focus on browsing the showroom instead of figuring out what to ask on
the fly.

Know how you’ll use your boat:
When you walk into the showroom or a boat show, be ready to answer a few key questions. (Don’t worry, you already know the answers.)

“When people come in, we ask them ‘Where are you going to use your boat?’” said Bakken. “What size of a lake? Are you going to fish? Are you going to ski? How many people are going to be in it? Are you going to be towing a skier or kneeboarder?

Salespeople aren’t being nosy – they’re being practical. “If they’re on a super small lake, putting them on a 25-foot boat isn’t really feasible,” Cain explained. “It can’t even get to top speed. And some (lakes) have length restrictions. So usually, it’s going to be size first, and then we go to floor plan.” Motor size is the last piece of the puzzle.

Marine dealers are in the business of matching customers with the perfect boat for their needs, so be honest. If it’s just the two of you now, but you’re expecting twins and want to take them (and a bevy of their cousins) out for a pontoon cruise in a few months time, say so. If you dream of water skiing, but haven’t actually tried it yet, mention that too. A professional will help you make the best choice for both your current and ideal boat ownership scenarios.

Decide which conveniences are wants and which are needs:
If you’re new to boat ownership or haven’t shopped around in a while, the electronic bells and whistles can seem overwhelming. “From trolling motors and depth finders, everything is going Bluetooth,” said Bakken. “The technology is endless.”

The advances in technology help to make boating safer and more convenient for users. And that’s a benefit for everyone.

“All of the new boats are loaded with the latest technology,” added Nate Harms, general manager of U Motors in Fargo. “From GPS to cruise control, the amenities focus on ease of use that both new and seasoned boat owners can appreciate.”

Some new improvements are less flashy, but no less popular. Towing covers are pre-fitted, without the snaps of yesteryear, which saves customers time and energy. And interiors have been re-tooled too.

“Flooring in fishing boats is going away from carpet and into vinyl floors just because of ease of maintenance and cleaning,” explained Bakken.

The towboat market has also followed a similar trend. “The introduction of synthetic flooring options to the marine industry in the past couple of years has been huge,” explained Harms. “It is less maintenance, more durable, and looks great.”

None of these advantages are strictly necessary, of course. But they do make using your boat more convenient, which means more fun on the water.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a lake place:
A lack of waterfront property doesn’t mean a boat is out of reach. “Today’s boats are easier than ever to transport, unload and enjoy,” explained Harms. “With Fargo being only 35 minutes from some excellent boating lakes, anyone can load up the family, hitch up the boat and enjoy a weeknight on the water.”

“Trailers have gotten better so they’re easier for a person that doesn’t a have cabin to get a nice bunk trailer and pull it back and forth,” added Cain. Numerous Minnesota lakes and river-based state water trails offer public access for hours of boating fun. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers downloadable, county by county guides at dnr.state.mn.us/water_access/counties.html.

Consider usage before buying an extended warranty:
“Most manufacturers have a standard three year warranty on outboard engines,” said Bakken. That’s adequate for most people in the Midwest, who will only be

using their boats for a few hours a day on the weekends. But if you live on the water all year, you want to take a sunset cruise every night or if you want to triple the time you spend fishing, it might be worth asking your sales rep about extended warranties.

For boat owners who spend more time on the water than the average user, the extra investment is well worth it. An extended warranty can cover unexpected expenses and provide extra peace of mind. “It’s like health insurance for your boat motor,” said Bakken.

Find a dealership you click with:
“At the end of the day, it’s not only about the boat, it’s also about the dealership,” said Harms. He and all the dealers interviewed for this article indicated that a dealership and a salesperson should be willing (and excited) to go above and beyond the basics to make a customer feel comfortable, both on and off the water.

So don’t be afraid to take the contact information your sales rep offers and don’t be shy about asking questions. Inquire about services that the dealer offers – from winterization to conveniences like a delivery option. If you’re a new boat owner, it can be very reassuring to have an experienced employee actually get out on the water with you and walk you through everything you need to know.

The right dealership for you is the one that will walk you through the process, answer your questions and be available for follow-up and service. A true professional knows that helping you find the right boat for you is important. But helping you make memories on the water for years to come is the real goal. ~L&H

by Alicia Underlee Nelson

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