A 26 foot sailboat on a trailer in early spring after our first attempt at buying a boat on a budget

Buying a Boat on a Budget (3 great ways)

Buying a boat on a budget was a vital part of our learning process. If you’re wanting to teach yourself how to sail, wanting to go “sailing on a shoestring,” or just love the thrill of finding ways to save money, learning how to buy an affordable used boat can be a useful skill.

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Is it possible to buy a cheap boat?

In the sailing community there is an oft quoted joke about B.O.A.T. standing for “bust out another thousand,” and claims that boats are a hole in the water into which you throw your money. I personally believe anyone who wants to learn can have access, despite what people might want you to think. 

Small sailing dinghy on trailer
Our second attempt at buying a boat on a budget

While sailing is more expensive than a lot of other hobbies, I am quickly learning that it is not the wealthy man’s playground that many would have you believe. This is especially true if you’re willing to consider affordable boats and spend time finding the right boat for you. If you look at boats for sale in some magazines or at a boat show you might immediately feel priced out of the market. That doesn’t have to be the case though!

For us there were a combination of reasons to search for an affordable used boat. First, since we were teaching ourselves to sail, we wanted something small that we could afford to make mistakes with. Second, we wanted something older so we could learn about the boat through the restoration. Third, pure economics demanded that we keep the boat’s purchase price within a set range. For us the goal was under $2000 for the first boat.

How much is a boat? (Or how much does it cost to buy a boat?)

This varies based on your own interests. For most people learning to sail, you can find cheap boats under $500. The larger the boat the more it’s likely to cost….although not always. While finding affordable boats is especially easy for those wanting a dinghy or a daysailer, it is possible for anyone hoping to start sailing on a budget (even with larger boats).

Where can I find an affordable boat?

There are a lot of place that you can finding boats, especially if you’re willing to learn some basics about the maintenance boats need. You also need to consider the type of vessel that’s most suited to the type of sailing you’re hoping to do.

Facebook, Craigslist, local classifieds, and other listings are a great place to start!

This was the option we went with, as our rural location means that searching in person would take a lot more time and effort. In fact, we found both our daysailer and our sailing dinghy on Facebook and in both cases we watched them for a while before buying, which meant that the prices went down.

This brings us to two important points. When searching for a cheap sailboat, do not be in a hurry. The person who’s been trying to off-load the boat for a while will frequently sell it cheaper. Also, keep in mind the time of year, boats will be cheaper during the fall or winter in most locations (when you can’t use them and the current owner is stuck storing them).


Like the real estate notion of location, location, location, the maine version requires you to be where the boats are. This might involve asking about boats that have been possessed for fees due or hearing about (or seeing) boats that seem to have been abandoned. 

Get out there and talk to the marina owners. If you’re really extroerted (unlike me) you might even ask someone on the boat next to the one that looks like it hasn’t been touched in months. While long forgotten boats will take a little more work, sometimes it’s purely cosmetic and the person has just moved on from the sailing phase of their life.

Just Driving!

While it seems contradictory to the notion of sailing to be looking for boats as you drive down the road, don’t discount it! More than once I’ve seen boats that sat covered in a yard for years, with grass growing around the trailer only to find out that the retiree who owned it didn’t sail anymore or passed away and their loved ones hadn’t decided what to do with it. A kindly worded letter can get you far in these instances, especially if they can see your love for the water and your drive to learn to sail.

How Do I Know If It’s the Right Boat?

Finding a boat, and find the “right” boat is a task that takes some time and knowledge. It is possible to find an affordable sailboat though if you’re willing to take the time to acquire that knowledge.

Learn About Boat Maintenance and Boat Repair

For most people, when they buy a boat they hire a surveyor. Think of this as the marine equivalent to an inspector when you’re buying a house or a mechanic who checks over a car before you make a used car purchase. This can be cost prohibitive for someone buying the kind of boats they’ll be learning on, however. For example, a sailing dinghy it probably wouldn’t make sense. Most people would hire one for a daysailer if they don’t have experience though.

A faded strip of paint on a sailboat
Cosmetic things may put off some buyers, but if you know how to assess the true condition you can get a deal.

We opted to skip this, even for our 26 footer though. It did lead to some repairs that we didn’t anticipate, but since restoration and repair is not only part of our educational process but also something we see as a long term necessity when we’re out on the water we didn’t mind. We wanted to know every square inch of the boat anyway, so it only added some extra time. If you’re learning to sail for free this might be a useful step for you too.

If you aren’t willing to hire a surveyor, or consider it unwise based on the price of the boats you are looking at, it is important to at least learn the basics of assessing a boat’s condition before you buy your own boat. In the long run it’s helpful to understand when something needs repair anyway, which is an eventuality when you are sailing. While buying a boat on a budget can be fun, it’s also important to know enough to do it safely.

One of the best books we found for this is Don Casey’s Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual. Not only does it teach some basic surveying skills, but it walks you through a lot of the repair and maintenance that a beginning boat owner needs to learn. Knowing what you’re seeing when you are looking can help you to avoid the costs of unanticipated repairs and delays to actually boating.

A strip of old boat paint after polishing
Even just a little work can make up for a lot of perceived flaws in an old boat

What If I Don’t See Boats in My Budget?

This is a very real possibility! Buying a boat on a budget is not something that happens overnight. You might have to wait. It’s especially likely if you’re budget is particularly tight. In fact, when we looked at our first boat, we KNEW we couldn’t actually buy one. We’d started saving, but the amount we’d saved was no where near the going market for boats in the 25′ range we were hoping for. My husband convinced me that I wouldn’t get anywhere reading books about how to assess a boats condition if I never looked at a boat. 

Not only was he right, but the adventure did not turn out the way I expected. The day after I contacted the Facebook seller we went to look at a 26′ Chrysler (a great choice for us because the design allowed us to sail her in shallow and deeper waters).

How did it work for us?

After talking to the owner of that first boat for a while, I explained that it was a beautiful boat but that it was in better condition than I expected based on the photo. While that would normally be a selling point, I wasn’t in a position to offer a fair amount and apologized for wasting his time. Fully ready to walk away he asked why we were shopping for a boat. When we explained our goals, he asked what we could offer. Looking at my feet I answered him honestly, expecting him to laugh…or maybe growl. Instead he accepted the offer!

A 26 foot sailboat on a trailer in early spring after our first attempt at buying a boat on a budget
Our “accidental” budget boat…I really was only looking!

Yes, I do remember saying that she needed more work than my inexperienced newbie self anticipated, but I guarantee she was still an amazing deal! (Ever wondered why we call boats “she”? That article will be here soon, because the history in geek in me can’t resist it!)

If you find yourself in this spot, or inquire about a boat without a listing so you don’t have a clue what the asking prioe is, don’t hesitate to make an offer. Now, this comes with the caveat that you shouldn’t be a jerk (which I’m sure you wouldn’t), but it’s not going to go well to insult them, tell them the boat they’ve loved is a piece of junk or isn’t worth the money! 

We got our boat because of our passion for learning to sail and genuine desire to buy it even if our funds were limited. He might have very well laughed, but then that boat wasn’t meant to be, so we could move onto the next one. Someone, somewhere, has a boat they really can’t get rid of and don’t want to deal with anymore! 

Buying a boat on a budget…again

Finding an affordable boat doesn’t even have to be a task taken on for your “learning boat.” The joy of restoring an older boat, or even a drive to sail without taking on large amounts of debt might lead you to purchase boats using these methods on future boats.

Our second boat was one of those where the owner wanted to walk away. We knew it would be easier to learn on something small (and on a calmer lake than the Great Lakes) and we’d be less upset if something happened to her. So we started considering buying a boat on a budget for a second time. We watched and waited, looking at a few boats for months while we waited till our self imposed purchase date. Until the owner reduced the price to a point it no longer made sense to wait…we jumped on it that day and the woman was grateful for the funds that shouldn’t even have covered the cost of the trailer.

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