It just may be true that there's never been a better time to own a boat. While that statement may seem to fly in the face of some trying economic times these days, the very opportunity to experience the sense of freedom that a boat gives you and your family and the chance to focus your excitement on pursuing and catching fish may prove an invaluable remedy for the woes of our workaday world right now.
In this expanded Better Boating column, we've teamed up to offer some timely ideas and suggestions to readers who have an interest in sealing the deal on a new boat/power - maybe one of the nearly 2,000 listed in this issue's Boat Buyers Source Book! - Eds.
Seal the Deal
Simple Steps to Improve the Boat-Buying Experience
By Chris Woodward
Most industry experts agree that the best time of year for consumers to buy boats is "whenever they're ready." But those who learn a little more about the boat-buying process can reap financial rewards and better enjoy the experience.
"The first thing you need to do, if you haven't decided, is to determine if you want a new or used boat," says Keith Ammons, Discover Boating's expert on all things nautical, nicknamed "The Boating Guy." "Typically, what I say is that if you're new to boating, buy new. If you're an old salt, you can look into the used category."
New boats, like new cars, depreciate quickly on the front end. The average boater usually upgrades every six years. By the time new boaters have owned their prized possessions that long, they know more specifically what they like, and they'll have endured the initial depreciation drop.
If you want to buy new, the second question becomes "When should I buy?" Ammons says. If you are ready now - in January - you've chosen a good time. September through February comprises the boat-show season, and Ammons confirmed that deals can be had at shows.
Here's his reasoning:
All the current-model-year vessels are phasing out, and manufacturers may be offering incentives to dealers that they can pass on to consumers.
Manufacturers want to find out how many new models they'll need to build; they gauge that at fall and winter boat shows.
Manufacturers want to know which options buyers prefer on new-model-year boats, and they want to get a few of those early hulls in consumers' hands (ditto on the incentive possibilities here).
Many dealers may be represented at one given show, allowing buyers to shop deals.
If you do plan to buy at a show, go in prepared to close the deal, Ammons says. Some buyers opt to attend multiple shows for initial research, but many now spend time online at sites such as discoverboating.com and growboating.org - for boat-buying basics - and www.newboats.com and www.usedboats.com to compare brands and models.
Narrow your choices to three or four boats, and know how much you want to spend. Account for storage, insurance and operating costs, and shop financing options. Finally, sea-trial your top two choices either at the show or through a dealer before you go.
If boat shows don't fit your buying schedule, you may choose to shop dealers in your region. Be aware, however, that this process will not resemble your last car-buying experience. Buying a vessel and buying a car can differ vastly. Ammons and Terry Leitz, director of the Marine Industry Dealership Certification Program for Grow Boating, point out several key distinctions:
Profit margins are smaller on boat purchases, so buyers shouldn't expect big discounts.
Even the largest manufacturers make perhaps 1,000 boats a year.
Boat dealers don't set up shop next to each other in any kind of "dealership row" like car salesmen.
Some boat manufacturers allow any dealer to provide warranty coverage to any buyer (as most car manufacturers do); however, some boatbuilders require buyers to return to the selling dealer for warranty service.
"One thing I'd want to know as a consumer is how long the dealer has been in business," Leitz says. "That's not to say there aren't very good new dealers, but I'd want to know."
How long a dealer has sold a particular boat line may also be a valuable piece of the puzzle. "Obviously, the longer the dealer has been involved with that brand, the more knowledgeable he'll be and the better relationship he'll have (with the manufacturer)," he says.
As you talk with a dealer, find out how he will support you and your boat. If you live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and want to buy from a dealer in Miami, will you be able to go to a Lauderdale dealer for warranty work? If you dock at a local marina, does your dealer have access to that marina to provide service?
"This is like any other decision," Leitz says. "You have to decide if you're comfortable with the level of support that's offered."
Consumers may also investigate whether the dealers in their region have qualified for Marine Industry Dealership Certification. Over the past two years, Grow Boating has operated this voluntary program as a way to improve customer satisfaction. The organization has certified about 440 dealers so far, out of an estimated 4,000 nationwide.
Dealers who wish to become certified pay for and attend an all-day workshop that covers seven major areas, including customer relations as well as employee and facility requirements. Dealers must also document sales and service procedures and include mandatory customer follow-up.
After the workshop, Grow Boating's third-party contractor visits the dealership to verify that it meets the certification criteria. Dealers must provide quarterly documentation and become recertified annually, though that process does not currently require a site visit.
Certified dealers must also post the organization's consumer bill of rights (to read a copy, visit www.sportfishingmag.com/consumerrights) in a visible location. "We can't guarantee a perfect experience, but we're going to have a repeatable experience for the consumer," Leitz says. "If something goes awry, there's a system in place to address consumer concerns."
Industry customer-satisfaction reports support the certification process. "Consumers report increased satisfaction with their dealers that are certified versus noncertified," he says. "Not only do they have a better experience at the dealership, they have higher satisfaction with the product, be it boat or engine."
Finally, Leitz says, look for a dealer who wants to know more about your boating habits and is willing to find a boat to fit your needs rather than fit you to a boat on the show floor. "You're building a relationship," he says. "The question is: Do you want a short-term one or a long-term one?"
Financing: It May Feel Different Than Before
By Dean Travis Clarke
Fear not! You can still readily find financing to support your purchase of a new or used boat. But the process has changed somewhat. For example, some former marine lenders like Wachovia, Key Bank, Regions and Citizens National have stopped marine financing. But most still look forward to underwriting your new baby. With that said, these lenders now look askance at using your home-equity credit line to fund the down payment on your boat. In today's global financial climate, all parties have become much more cautious and conservative.
According to Bob Allen, who manages Trident Funding in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the simple facts are these: "If you plan to borrow less than $100,000, expect to get it for 10 or 15 years instead of 20. And the less money you want, the higher the interest rate you'll pay." Allen confides that borrowing more than $100,000 garners you both the best rates and best terms. "Other considerations," Allen continues, "include pretty much an across-the-board requirement for a 20 percent down payment. Don't expect any 10 to 15 percent-down deals anymore. Plus, most lenders now require a marine survey on used boats more than two years old." Allen says that some things haven't changed, however. For example, lenders regularly include the sales tax in the total loan amount, then provide 80 percent of that total. And of course, everyone demands proof of insurance at the closing. At press time, rates ranged from 6.99 to 7.25 percent. "Interestingly, rates didn't go down when the prime went down in the fall," says Allen, noting how many consumers were "miffed" at that fact.
"In addition, lenders have gotten just slightly tighter on credit scores: Where 660 used to be fine, most companies now prefer 680 to 700. Another recent change is that most lenders now require two years of tax returns when they didn't ask for any before," Allen adds.
By the way, tightening of credit also resulted in dealers being more careful about trades. Don't plan on getting financing on a boat older than vintage 1978.
Allen and others agree that if you want to buy a boat, there's still plenty of money around. In fact, though people are quieter about it, there are still lots of boats being bought and sold - even today.
Repowering: Alternatives Abound
By Dean Travis Clarke
Everyone agrees that fiberglass boats just don't go away. With proper care, they can virtually last forever. So the reasons for buying a new boat and selling the old stems more from our personal desires for something different, something bigger or smaller or ? just different. But as you've heard constantly in the media, we live in troubled economic times. Much about our boat buying has changed, from financing to what we can afford in good conscience.
So even though the time may be ripe for getting a better deal on a new boat than at any time in history, perhaps your circumstances dictate that you should hold onto old tried-and-true for a while longer. But have you thought about spiffing it up a bit? A new paint job? More advanced electronics systems? Or how about removing those old power plants that don't have the benefit of the latest engineering and technology and replace them with more fuel efficient, cleaner and quieter propulsion?
Obviously, if you have outboard power, you can trade your two 150s for a single 300 or the like. Check with your dealer or manufacturer to see what's recommended. Changing out outboards is easy. Swapping your old gas-guzzling gas inboards for newer ones or for diesel power - now that's more involved. The best way to research this is to contact your nearest diesel distributor and ask if they've made such changes on any other boats. You'll likely need to adapt your engine mounts, gear box, wiring harnesses, fuel tanks and possibly the exhaust. In some instances, this may be a relatively simple switch. In others, you may decide it's quicker and easier to buy a new boat. The manufacturer and engine distributor can be most helpful.