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How to find free or cheap boats for sale

free boats

HOW TO FIND CHEAP OR FREE BOATS

Did you know it’s possible to find free boats for sale? Finding cheap boats has been an obsession at various points in our lives. Having bought three boats over the last five years, we’ve literally spent days of our lives scoping out good deals. In all that searching, we’ve come across dozens of free boats (yes, they do exist!).

There are two things you need to know to find a free or cheap boat:

  1. Where to look
  2. How to uncover the hidden gems

In this article we’ll share the best places to search and our search strategies for uncovering the really sweet deals.

WHERE TO FIND CHEAP BOATS FOR SALE

Online marketplaces

There are several big marketplace sites where you can search for cheap or free boats. We’ve seen free boats on Craigslist. Other marketplaces include Kijiji, Facebook, and eBay. While these sites have thousands of boat listings they also tend to be very competitive because everyone uses them and wants a great deal! At the end of this post we’ve included a list of tactics that will give you a competitive edge.

Only marketplaces are also a great place to find used boat parts. If you’re buying a used boat, you’ll almost certainly need to replace or repair a few things.

cheap sailboat

We found this cheap sailboat on Craigslist and sailed it across the Pacific (after spending a lot of money on retrofits!)

Listing sites and magazines

While you’re not likely to find a free boat on any of the paid listing sites (e.g. YachtWorld) there are some websites and magazines that only list cheap boats for sale. It’s worth checking the following places regularly:

Boat Angel sells donated boats for cheap with all proceeds going to charity.

Free-boat.com scours the web weekly for free and cheap boats and post them on their site and Facebook page.

Good Old Boat magazine has a page listing project boats selling for under $5,000. This is a good place to look if you’re interested in a cheap or free sailboat.

Wooden Boat Magazine has a “free boats” section in every issue and lists free wooden boats online

Boneyard Boats is another great Facebook page to follow for free boat listings

Boat Auctions

We know of other boaters who’ve found cheap boats for sale at auctions (though it isn’t something we’ve tried ourselves). Boats that have been repossessed, written-off, salvaged, or seized are often put up for sale at auction. Many auto auction companies will  list boats and some even run dedicated marine auctions.

These days you can find most auction pre-sale inventories posted online.

free boats

We found a few free and cheap boats in this Mexican boat yard.

Marinas and boatyards

Oftentimes the real hidden gems never make it online. Call your local harbor master and boat yards to inquire about cheap or free boats. Very often they get stuck with abandoned boats that they need to move.

For other places to expand your search see our post: the 5 best places to buy a used boat.

THE BEST TIME TO LOOK FOR BUDGET BOATS

While it’s possible to find cheap boats for sale at any time of year, these are the best times to search.

Off season

The best deals will be found at the end of the boating season when owners are looking to avoid marina fees for the winter months. Search volume for boat sales is roughly 40% lower in the off-season, which means less competition for you!

Hurricane season

If you’re open to looking further afield you can very often find good deals on storm damaged boats. A great book on this topic is Sailboat Cowboys Flipping Sail Post-Sandy: The Art of Buying, Repairing and Selling Storm-Damaged Sailboats. 

Divorce season

Many boats don’t survive a separation or divorce. According to some research divorce filings peak in March and August.

cheap boats for sale

We found this cheap aluminum boat on Craigslist. It’s not pretty but it’s been perfect for exploring the lake.

8 TIPS FOR FINDING CHEAP OR FREE BOATS

If there’s one place to find a screamer of a deal, it’s Craigslist (or other community buy and sell sites like Kijiji). We’ve even come across a few free boats on Craigslist over the years. Most of these search tactics apply to any search platform but some of them are specific to Craigslist.

1. SET THE RIGHT PRICE LIMITS

Look above certain price thresholds

When people are looking for boats online they usually search for certain “sticky” numbers (prices that everyone searches for). Common thresholds include $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, $25,000, $50,000.

For example, lets say I’m looking for boats for sale near me under $5,000. If I search just above that threshold (say $6,000) I’m more likely to see cheap boats that other buyers won’t.

Set your max price at 30% above your budget

While it depends on the boat and how the owner has priced it, we’ve found that as a general rule of thumb, sellers will come down by about 30%.

2. SEARCH FOR MISSPELLING AND SYNONYMS

Use variants of your search terms

Craigslist’s listing data is garbage in, garbage out. For example, if a seller lists their 30 ft Hunter as a “FREE Sail Boat” incorrectly spelling “sailboat”, it won’t show up in a search for “FREE sailboat”.

Very often people use variants of brand names. For example, you’d want to search both “Chris-Craft” and “Chris Craft”.

3. USE SEARCH FUNCTIONS TO GET REALLY SPECIFIC

Learn a few of these search tricks and you’ll save tons of time.

Search multiple keywords at the same time by using the “|” key

For example, if you searched “sail boat | sailboat” you’ll get all the search results for both terms.

Exclude keywords from your search by using “-” key.

For example, “sailboats – ferrocement” you’ll get all the search results for sailboats except for those that mention ferrocement (no offence to ferrocement boat owners!).

Get specific by combining search functions using parenthesis

For example, “Home built (sailboat | sail boat) – ferrocement” would search for posts with the terms “home built” and “sailboat” or “sail boat” but not “ferrocement”.

free boats on craigslist

4. LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY TO DO THE WORK FOR YOU

Finding a great deal on a boat is a numbers game, and we’ve looked at hundreds of listings before finding what we were looking for. Technology can help you save time and search more efficiently.

Set up search alerts

You can set up search alerts on Craigslist so that you receive an email or text every time a new listing meets your criteria.

Add extensions to your Chrome browser

Popup Notifications will check Craigslist ever 5 minutes for your saved searches. Craigslist Peek allows you to preview galleries of posts you don’t have to click on each one.

Use apps to track your searches on the go

Craigslist’s mobile site can be a bit clunky to work with. The Craigslist approved app, CPlus (Android, iOS) streamlines your search process and offers additional features (like allowing you to search multiple cities at once).

boat value guide

So many boats, so little time

5. SAVE TIME BY QUALIFYING YOUR SEARCH RESULTS

Finding cheap boats for sale on Craigslist is a volume game more than anything. If you’re not carefully managing your time, it’s easy to burn out. If you’ve ever shown up to view a boat only to realize that the photos you saw online were 10 years old, then you know what I’m talking about! Here are a few ways we’ve cut down on time wasting:

Avoid scams

Avoid scams by looking for classic warning signs: typos, generic images, and sellers who don’t want to meet in person. If an ad looks suspicious try googling the ad text to see if it shows up in multiples. If it does, it’s a good sign that something is up.

Make a “must-have” list

Write up your list of must-haves (e.g. must have engine with less than 1K hours, must not have teak deck, etc.) and run through your checklist every time you find a good candidate. Ask the owner to fill in the missing information.

Ask for additional photos

Ask for photos before you spend 8 hours of your weekend driving to view a boat. Owners should be willing to send you photos because in the long term it saves their time as well as yours.

Take a sneak peek

If the boat is local, swing by the marina and quickly view the boat from the outside. This will give you a sense for how upfront the seller has been in their advertisement.

Pro tip: Craigslist can be a weird place, so remember than sellers are qualifying you too! Most people want to see their boat going to a good home. We’ve both gotten and given great deals simply because we (or the buyer) were honest, upfront, friendly, and didn’t waste time. 

6. BE MORE PERSISTENT THAN THE NEXT GUY

That weird listing with spelling errors and no photos? Well, it could be a scam, or it could be a sweet deal on a fishing boat and a seller who doesn’t know how to use the internet! You’ll never know unless you email them. Same goes with sellers who don’t get back to you, send them a follow up email.

boat values

7. WHEN YOU FIND A FREE BOAT, MOVE QUICK!

Good deals can go in minutes, so be ready to drop everything and get down to the marina for an inspection if you want to score that the cheap cuddy cabin. Be sure to have things like your boat inspection check-list, finances and paper work in order. If you’re buying a boat and trailer, think about how you’re going to get them home (e.g. does your vehicle have enough towing capacity?)

Be clear in your mind about what you’re looking for, especially if you plan to negotiate. If you’re looking for free boats on Craigslist, know that a “seller” is going to expect you to take care of all other costs. For example, if the boat needs to be transported by trailer or pulled out of the water.

Have cash or another payment method ready so you can close the deal.

8. MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND BOAT VALUES AND PRICES

Most cheap boats are not in good condition, in fact a free boat could be the most expensive boat you ever own! So if you’re looking for a truly good deal, you should spend some time learning about boat values and pricing.

We’ve seen countless “cheap boats” only to discover upon inspection that they’re “cheap” for a reason (like not having a working engine). So, buyer beware! You can read about what red flags to look for and if you are new to boating it’s probably a good idea to hire a boat surveyor.

Happy boat hunting! 

Tory Salvia

Monday 23rd of September 2019

Sailboats are NOT cars. Years-old is not the most qualifying metric for the value of a boat. In the end, cheap boats are rarely, if ever cheap.

All boat purchasing requires three budgets: find-the-boat-budget - are you going to restrict your search to a one-day drive or are you willing to travel up and the East or West coast?

Buy-the-boat-budget: what price range are you putting aside for the purchase, including survey, sea trials, cost to launch and hull a boat for inspection?

Fix-the-boat-budget: the most mystical of all. What do you estimate in out-of-pocket costs for parts, your free labor, professional labor, and boat storage while in refit?

And of course there's the post purchase maintain-the-boat-budget that goes on for as long as you own the boat. Boat length is a big factor and more length is geometric when it comes to costs like haul-outs, bottom paint, and slip fees.

Yes, you may luck into a perfectly restored good old boat with all systems go, ready to sail off to Tahiti. Good luck. Most likely, that give-away or "cheap" boat will have a very long to-do list required to make her a safe and reliable vessel. Remember, sailing is a dangerous, contact sport where put your life and lives of your love ones and crew on the line every time you go to sea.

Cheap boats are cheap for a reason: in many cases the vessel is approaching or is well past it's bi-decade, 20 year refit, and the present owner doesn't want to deal with it. This means you, the new owner must deal with it, or pay the consequences the ocean will surely throw at you. Take two boats about the same vintage. The amount of refit costs, beyond the basics can vary to the extreme depending on the previous owner's maintenance and proper upgrades, and how often and in what conditions was she sailed? On a freshwater lake in calm waters, hauled each year, covered or stored in barn? OR sailed hard, around the world take a beating from each of the seven seas?

If you are knowledgeable about tools, have DIY experience, a lot of time on your hands, and a reasonable fix-the-boat budget -- you can do a lot of the refit yourself. But there are tasks that you may not be skilled to perform, take a long time to learn, will never do again, or require an investment in tools that you'll never use again - unless you want to become a professional boat restorer. With such tasks, do you really want to experiment on your vessel? And potentially compromise her sea-going integrity and passenger's safety? So you need to pick your refit battles and find qualified, dependable pros to do those tasks.

When looking at any vessel: cheap or not - make a 20 year refit list and start checking off what's been done, what hasn't, what you can do yourself, and what you need to hire a pro to do. Then add up the costs and time involved in restoring the vessel versus buying another not-so-cheap boat with a much shorter, less expensive to-do list that doesn't keep you tied up in boat yard for several years. This strategy will get you a better boat saving you money, time, and often your dream of sailing off on your great adventure.

In sailing as in life, there usually is no free lunch but there are plenty of "cheap" boats that will eat your lunch, and much more.

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