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 out of our lives looking for good deals. In all that time searching we’ve seen a dozen or more free boats and learned a few secrets to uncovering the real gems.
WHERE TO FIND CHEAP BOATS FOR SALE
There are several big marketplace sites where you can search for cheap or free boats. These include Craigslist, Kijiji, Facebook, and eBay. While these sites have thousands of boat listings they also tend to be very competitive because everyone wants a great deal! Below we share a few tactics for giving yourself a competitive edge.
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
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
We know of other boaters who’ve found great deals 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.
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 a good deal 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.
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 30 ft Sail Boat” incorrectly spelling “sailboat”, it won’t show up in a search for “FREE 30 ft 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”.
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.
- 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. For example, 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).
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 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
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!
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