What to Look for in Boat Show Season

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Boat shows can be overwhelming—gleaming white fiberglass hulls of all sizes surround you in every direction, dozens of aluminum boats sit to your left and to your right with everything from sizzling-hot paint jobs to camo finish to shiny bare aluminum, and—wait a sec—those Jet Skis sure do look like a lot of fun!

So, how are you to make sense of it all? How can you intelligently shop the shows? And perhaps most important, once you’ve picked out the right type of boat how can you make sure you get the best deal available?

Boat Show Shopping, 101

Effective boat show shopping takes some preparation. Although the whole point of going to a show is to see a huge selection all at once, you should at least have a solid idea of what type of boat you’re looking for, before starting the shopping process. You don’t go to an automotive dealership without having narrowed down the field between an SUV, a pick-up, and a sport coupe, right? Think of boat show shopping the same way.

Before you pay the price of admission, you should know whether you’ll be best served by a fiberglass bay boat, an aluminum jon boat, or a cuddy cabin boat. So do some research ahead of time, and go to the show with a solid idea of what size boat is appropriate for your uses, which hull material is going to be best for you, and what the basic design should be.

Once you’re at the show, it’s time to get busy: start off by walking around and seeing which models catch your eye. Don’t let pricing drive you away from or attract you to specific boats just yet (you’ll see why in a moment). For this initial boat show shopping phase, just gather data. When you see any boat that could be a contender, grab a brochure and keep going.

This should take you most of the morning, so now’s a great time to grab some lunch. Sit down, have a bite, and let your head clear a bit. You should have seen several dozen models of interest by now, and giving your brain some time to digest all of that info is a good move. When you feel ready to get started again, break out all of those catalogs, a pen, and some yellow sticky notes. At this point, you’ll probably discard a few makes and models which, after a bit of thought, don’t seem so good anymore. But in each catalog which still holds a boat of interest, use a yellow sticky note to mark the model’s page. Then get a show guide, and plot your course to visit each one.

Now that the field’s been whittled down a bit, start collecting hard numbers. But remember, just like buying a car or a computer, prices can be deceiving. That’s why you don’t want to let the price turn you off (or conversely, get you too excited) at the beginning of the process. After recording the “sticker” price, ask a sales rep to help you make a list of every option you need, and how much it adds to cost. Same goes for power plant options, which can make a huge difference in a boat’s bottom line. Smaller powerplants are less expensive, for sure, but remember that boats with max power (or close to it) usually have much better resale value, and are easier to sell a few years down the line. Also ask the rep about the hidden costs. Shipping, dealer prep and rigging, and tax and licensing fees, for example, are all things that often aren’t included in the sticker price you see on the boat. But you can bet you’re going to end up paying for them.

After working your way through the show again and gathering hard numbers on all your boats of interest, it’s time to break out a calculator. When you add up all those extra costs, the appeal of this model versus that one is likely to change around quite a bit. Take a coffee break, clear your head again, and sit down to make a new list of your top 10 contenders, ranked by price. Then, make a completely separate list ranking those 10 by sheer emotion—how the boat looks, its “wow” factor, and other things that just plain make you want it. Finally, make a third list ranking the same 10 boats by construction quality. Lay the three lists side by side, and a few models are going stand out, ranking at or near the top of all three lists. Eliminate as many of the other contenders as you can, and you’re ready to get serious about the remaining top three to five candidates.

adherence to
a disciplined boat show
plan of attack will pay off the first time you break
a plane in your
new boat. Photo: Ranger Boats

Brass Tacks

Now that you’ve limited the field to a handful of choices, it’s time to start bargaining for real. Circle back to each boat one at a time, and make sure you speak with the same sales rep who helped you earlier. These guys are usually pretty sharp, and will remember the conversation. They’ve seen you taking notes, they’ve seen you gather brochures, and yes, they did notice when you walked over to their competitor’s display and did the same things. When you walk back into their territory, they know you’re a serious buyer who’s doing his homework—and they’ll treat you accordingly.

Sit down with each rep, and let them know up-front you won’t sign anything until you’ve also spoken with reps about the other top few boats on your list. Here’s where all that walking and shopping pays off. At this point, you should know what each specific model offers in terms of standard features, power, and price, as compared to the competition. Call out any failings to the salesman, and see if he has an effective way to counter them. In some cases they may offer an optional feature or two free of cost, and in others, they may be willing to chip away at the overall cost to make up for it. Live up to your word, and DON’T sign anything—no matter how excited you may get about the specific model, until you’ve had the same conversation for every boat on your final list.

When you feel like you have a winner and the best possible deal is on the table, remember to make it contingent on a sea trial. You need to be sure the boat lives up to your expectations when it comes to handling waves, performance, stability, and the like. Dealers won’t always like this, but they will understand it and usually accept this contingency as long as you’re willing to lay down a (refundable) deposit on the boat. Yes, this is one more hoop to jump through – and we’ve already made quite a bit of work for you, at the boat show. But the first time you advance the throttle, break a plane, and feel the wind in your hair on your brand new boat, it’ll all have been worthwhile.


Negotiating Tactics

Essentially, buying a boat is just like buying a car (though the down payment and interest rates are usually higher). But there are a few boat-specific tactics you can use to get the best deal.


  • Even if the powerplant or optional equipment isn’t ideal, consider bargaining for a boat the dealership already has in stock. Much like automotive dealerships, boats dealers pay on a “floor plan” (a short-term loan which carries the value of the boats on their showroom “floor”), so the longer a dealership has a specific boat in stock, the more they’ll want to sell it.
  • Look for last year’s models. As new models come out old ones lose value, even if the boat’s never been in the water. Dealerships will often reduce them quite a bit, to make room for the new models. When you find a prime candidate at the boat show, ask the salesman if they have any left-over of the same type from last year, back at their showroom.
  • Let the dealer know that you can get financing through your own bank (assuming you can), or, if you have cash in hand.

—Lenny Rudow

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