After reading the books, attending a sailing school, crewing for friends and perhaps chartering a time or two, one fateful day will arrive in your sailing life. Congratulations, you have reached your destination - you are a sailor. Now you are ready to become master and commander of your own ship.
But while this turning mark in your new career is justifiably a cause for celebration, it is also fraught with many new decisions. How big a boat? How much is affordable? Should it be trailerable? Keel or centerboard?
None of these questions causes first boat buyers more insomnia than the quandary over whether to buy a new boat or a used one.
Part of the decision making process is purely emotional. If all things were equal, of course, we'd all be sitting behind the shiny destroyer wheels of spanking new yachts. We'd have the pride of owning the shiniest hull in the fleet, the wonderful smell of new teak down below, and the security of a manufacturer's warranty if something goes awry. But like most other things in sailing, all things are not equal.
New boats take full advantage of modern design fundamentals and are often faster and more fun to sail. In addition, they may use newer materials or processes that offer higher strength, lower maintenance, or easier upgrades. Yet many sailors still prefer the graceful lines of older boats, trust the heavier old-style construction and revel in the beautiful wood trim that sets their boat apart from the crowd.
What makes the buying decision difficult for many new sailors is the complexity of the compromises they may have to make. The size of the desired boat and her initial cost are the prime factors in this choice. Even though we left some drool marks on the caprail of the brand new 40 footer at the boat show, we knew she was out of our price range. That leaves two apparent alternatives: step down to the brand new 26 footer we can afford or buy an ancient 40 in our price range. Of course, there may be a relatively recent 34 footer at the same price, or a perhaps a slightly older 37. Choices, choices.
Many first-time boat buyers see only the initial cost, overlooking the final price tag. New boats are seldom complete, and often require the addition of sails, electronics, ground tackle and a plethora of other pricey gear. Many older boats come with all this paraphernalia already in place, along with a dinghy and other expensive equipment. If the older ship's apparatus is tired, worn out and in need of replacement, however, the fact that she comes with a truckload of gear negates this advantage.
The obverse is sometimes true. Any repairs needed to a new boat are usually covered by a warranty at no cost to the owner. A used boat, on the other hand, may need extensive cosmetic work that can only be accomplished by a professional at dear prices, or mandate major "sweat equity" from the owner's two hands. The need for a new engine, sails or other key hardware may even bring the final price of the used boat quite close to the outlay for a new one. It pays to inspect a used boat and her gear closely and to hire a competent surveyor.
Ongoing operating costs are frequently underestimated by new sailors and these can become a nasty surprise after closing on their new ship. Some costs are directly related to the price tag, and older boats have a distinct advantage in this area as they generally cost less. Sales taxes are often pegged directly to the value of the vessel, as are some State's personal property taxes. Insurance premiums are also tied closely to the declared value of the vessel, and interest on a boat loan will be directly proportional to the amount borrowed.
Some costs are related not to the value of the boat, but her size or length. Haulouts, bottom painting, dockage, and surveyor's fees are typically quoted in dollars per foot of length, or using some formula that includes the length. In these cases, the used boat has no advantage over her newer cousin. Indeed, the price of many things increases dramatically with the size of the boat, including sails, anchors, and rigging. And so a smaller new boat may cost less to run year after year than the larger used competition.
In the final analysis, there is no "right" answer to the debate of "New versus Used" - there is only a right answer for you. It is important to own a boat that gives you pride, one that tugs at your heartstrings when you see her bobbing placidly in the anchorage. It is also important, however, that you have enough money left to put fuel in the tank and beer in the fridge. Ultimately, the most important thing is to choose a boat and get sailing before you exhaust yourself finding the balance between new and used.