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So you say you want to buy a boat…

About eight years ago, we had the same thought, though we knew almost nothing of boating and ownership, other than we had fun when we went out on some friends' boats. With some friends of ours (a family of four with similarly-aged children), we went looking for a family boat that would handle at least 10 people, have plenty of space for everyone to relax, and be capable of towing various water toys for the kids.

Our plan was to buy the boat together, and split the expenses 50-50. After much searching, this is what we wound up with…

That's a 2002 Maxum 2400SD, a 24-foot-long (more like 27 with the swim platform) family cruiser of a boat. Although old in calendar years, the boat had a brand new engine, and appeared to be in good shape. (Maxum was a Brunswick brand; they also own Sea Ray. Brunswick discontinued the Maxum line in 2009.)

One of the things we had trouble finding before we bought our boat was information on actual real-world costs: Just how much money will you spend not just to buy, but to use and maintain a power boat? To help others who may have similar questions, I'm going to share our actual costs from seven years with our boat. If you're thinking of getting into boating, perhaps some of this cost information may be useful.

Note that our boat ownership actually ended just before this summer, as we sold the Maxum in June. This was a tough decision, but our kids are older and have different interests now, so we weren't using it enough to justify keeping it. We're back to guest boaters…

The boat

We didn't have a huge budget for our boat—between both families, we set a $15,000 maximum budget. That's not a lot of money in the world of boating—there are numerous $100,000+ family boats out there…and on a boat like that, our budget wouldn't even be a down payment! That meant we were looking at boats from the 2000 to 2005ish years, as these tended to be near our budget limit.

The 2002 Maxum 2400SD seats 11 people, has a huge padded open front deck, and includes a small closet with a marine toilet (which turned out to be quite important with many small kids on the boat). It also has a fresh water supply with two sinks and two built-in shower sprayers, and rides really nicely even in rough water. It came in right on budget, and with the exchange of some money and signatures, it was ours…well, half ours.

But this isn't a boat review, so let's get to the numbers—what follows are our actual, real-world boating costs over the last seven years. Warning in advance: This is not an exciting read. I've interspersed some pictures from our time with the boat to make it more palatable, but it's tough to make expenses entertaining.

Raw expense data

Because we were in a partnership on the boat, we used a spreadsheet to track who paid for which bits of stuff for the boat, so we could balance the spending between the two families. We did this for five years, at which time we bought out the other family's share when they purchased a boat of their own. I continued to track everything we spent money on after we bought the other half of the boat. As a result, I know exactly how much we spent on boating over the last seven-ish years.

One major expense category that's not included here is "Tow Vehicle Expenses." Unless you're planning on keeping your boat in a marina (which has its own costs), you'll need a vehicle that can tow your boat with its typical load of fuel and gear. And you'll need gas for that tow vehicle—and a lot of gas, because when towing, you'll be getting horrible mileage; we averaged about nine miles per gallon while towing. I didn't track the costs associated with towing, though, so I can't include those expenses.

Here's how the money flowed out, covering November of 2010 through April 2018…

Repair & Maintenance$4,598
Trailer Work1,981
Licenses & Fees424

Summarizing the expense data

$19,153. That's a lot of money—over $4,000 more than the acquisition cost of the boat itself, just to use and maintain it for seven seasons. (In Oregon, unless you're a fishing-type person, boats are usable from sometime in May through late September or possibly early October.)

Keep in mind that we had partners for the first five seasons, so our own out-of-pocket costs were split in two for those five years, saving us about $5,000. If you can find a group that you really get along with and trust with financial matters, partnering is a great way to reduce the cost of boating.

Spread across those seven seasons, the boat cost $2,736 per season. During that time, we put 389 hours on the engine, or roughly 55 hours per season. We were on the water much more than that, though, as we'd often motor to a cove somewhere on a lake, then anchor and swim and hang out for hours. I'd guess we spent three times as much time at anchor as we did in motion, so our total usage hours was probably around 1,500 (1,100 at rest, 400 under power).

Doing the math, the boat cost us about $13 per hour of boat time, or $49 per hour of engine-in-use time. Any way you look at it, that's not inexpensive. For us, though, it was well worth it: We got to see sights you can't see from shore. We had our kids with us, outside, not glued to electronics, playing and having fun. We got to cool off on hot days. We got to ride fun toys behind the boat, and some of the kids learned to wakeboard. Others just had fun swimming or riding in a tow behind.

Looking back, we're glad we bought the boat, and while it was sad to sell it, it was time—the kids have found other interests, and the boat wasn't getting used nearly as much; we probably would have only used it two days this summer.

Details on some of the expense data

Repair and Maintenance - $4,598

This was our single biggest expense bucket, but in some ways, it's not as bad as it may appear. Nearly $2,000 of the total was for new GatorStep foam flooring, which we installed last winter and used just once before selling the boat. This replaced some ancient and deteriorating (and very dirty) carpet, and probably helped the resale on the boat. And $922 went to add a second battery and rewire our nav lights. Finally, another $700 or so went towards trying to repair an issue we had with the dashboard in the boat.

Those three items were exceptional, and without them, the category would've been closer to $1,000. Still, when you own a boat, you will be repairing and maintaining things, and those things cost money. (We started to talk about the cost of anything related to the boat in "boat units," where a boat unit was $100: We found it felt better to say something cost 1.5 boat units than it did to say it cost $150!)

We didn't have any huge issues with the boat, outside of the dash. It never broke down on the water, and we never had a major part fail. Given the age of the boat, I was quite impressed with how well everything worked. We did replace lots of little things—spray heads for the onboard showers, cotter pins for the bimini that covers the cockpit, various nuts and bolts, etc. It seemed that, at any given time, something on the boat was always in need of some sort of repair or replacement.

The only thing that I can recall actually breaking was a water filter for the fresh water supply—one winter, there must have been some residual water in it, and it froze and cracked. When we went to use the water system in the spring, nothing came out of the faucet and we heard water flowing underfoot. Peering inside, we could see water just spewing out of the cracked filter assembly. (Replacing that was a challenge—if you don't like tiny spaces, don't buy a boat…or if you do, don't do your own repair work!)

Fuel - $2,623

If you think your car goes through gas, try a boat. By my best guess, I think we averaged between three and four miles per gallon in our boat—and we rarely ran it at top speed, which would greatly reduce that figure. To make sure we always had gas, we would fill the boat after every trip, even if we were only out for a few hours.

And it wasn't until I owned a boat that I discovered that most pumps in Oregon are programmed to shut off at $100! If we'd used a lot of gas some weekend, I'd always have to speak to an attendant to have them override the shut off.

If you want to only use a bit of gas in boating, buy a sailboat. If you buy a powerboat, buy stock in the energy companies, too.

Winterization - $2,406

This is an area where someone with more time—and mechanical skill—could save a fair bit of money. At the end of each season, the boat needs to be winterized for storage in the off season. We also had the oil changed during the winterization process. There's nothing overtly difficult about winterizing, but it takes time and some level of mechanical ability. I had none of the former and only a bit of the latter, so we outsourced it. I also liked the peace of mind that came from knowing the project was handled by experts.

Depreciation - $2,000

We bought the boat for $15K, and sold it just over seven years later for $13K, so we only lost $2K in boat value over those years. That's better than I thought we'd do, and I probably could have sold it for $14K or more if I were more serious about it: I just posted a free Craigslist ad, and ended up selling it that way. Ads on "real" boating web sites may have attracted more attention and led to a higher sale price.

Trailer - $1,981

For all the troubles we didn't have with the boat, it seems we had them with the trailer. Over time, we had to replace the tongue, the master brake cylinder, the winch system, all four tires (and add a spare), and the trailer's lights. We also re-carpeted the runners the boat slides on, installed new tie down straps, and did a major brake overhaul after noticing a smoking brake on one trip.

The only things on the trailer that are the same as when we bought the boat are the frame, wiring, and axles—we've pretty much replaced everything else!

Equipment - $1,922

So what exactly is equipment? A bit of everything. We spent about $500 on the initial fit-out: Docking ropes; anchor with chain and rope; bumpers; required safety gear; spotlight, etc. We bought a second battery for $118. Two-way radios to make truck-to-boat communication easier at the docks were $200 or so. Beyond that, the details show just a constant stream of little things—life jackets as the kids outgrew theirs, fasteners to replace old or missing ones; cleaning supplies, and so on.

That's really it for the major categories—those six groups represent over 80% of our total costs. Your actual costs will vary—perhaps greatly—from what we experienced. If you buy a newer boat, you'll pay more up front but probably save on maintenance and repairs. If you buy a wake/surf boat, you'll spend a lot more on gas, because they simply suck the stuff down when set up for surfing or wakeboarding. If you do your own winterization and repair work, you could greatly reduce your expenses.

Still, I hope this gives a sense for what one family's experience was with a relatively inexpensive (to purchase) boat over a fair length of time.

Wrapping it all up

Boating isn't inexpensive, though it can be done more cost effectively than we did it if you've got time and skills to put into doing your own maintenance. We did do a lot of the smaller stuff ourselves, but we contracted out engine work, winterization, wiring a second battery, and other big projects like trying to fix our dashboard issue.

Would we do it again? I certainly think so—boating is a lot of fun, and we have great memories from our years with the boat—it was great family time in an electronics-free environment. And while I've just actually put a price on that, you can't really put a price on that!

2 thoughts on “So you say you want to buy a boat…”

  1. I heard the two happiest days in a man's life is the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it.

  2. I like that you guys had a specific $15,000 maximum budget for the boat. My husband and our neighbors have been thinking about going in on a boat together. We'll definitely need to discuss what our combined budget would be like. Hopefully we can find a great boat that will fit into our budget! Thanks for your expense break-down!

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