Best Boat Buying Tips

What to say, how to say it - and when to shut up!

I feign brushing back my hair in the hope of hiding the crackle of insults spewing from my earpiece. For 45 minutes, I've been doing the new-boat buying tango with not one partner, but two-the sales guy in the showroom, and the one barking in my ear, a 15-year pro whom I've assigned the task of getting me through this in one financial piece. Thanks to the miracles of hidden microphones and videocameras, earpieces that would make the Secret Service proud, and an unmarked van in the dealer's lot that has half the inventory of Circuit City, my undercover pro has been coaching me in how to get the best deal possible. He tells me just what-and what not-to say. I'm like a ventriloquist's dummy; I open my mouth, but it's his words that come out.

Thanks to the voice in my ear I call "Oz"-as in the great and powerful wizard behind the curtain-I'm going to prove that anyone can walk out of a dealership with both the boat he wants and a little cash left over. Oz knows all the tricks and gimmicks. He understands just how easily a person like me can be overwhelmed. No, we don't intend to bleed the dealer dry. Like you and me, a dealer has to make a living. What we don't care to do, however, is unnecessarily pad a salesperson's wallet.

Yeah, it's funny at times, even comical: You try carrying on one conversation while another plays out in your ear. It took a few tries to get it right. But in the end, it worked.

STOP 1. Feeling like the snitch who never makes it out alive in one of those bad 1950s detective movies, I look for a salesperson to engage in some one-on-one interaction. The weekend before, I cased this dealership during a local boat show, and over the past three days I've scoured the Web for information on my boat of choice.

And here he comes. The nametag says Rick. I mention the boat I saw at the show and we're off. Right away, Rick blocks my first volley at the net. "Sorry," he says with bravado, "that deal was good only at the show."

Oz pounces on this. "Come on, this guy's not even a challenge. Add up the show space, travel expenses, and all the other associated costs, and you'll discover it actually costs the dealer more to sell at the show. Keep demanding the show price. If he wants a sale, he'll cave."

I do, and after a few weak attempts to block me again, he does. Well, sort of. Rick gestures me toward the boat in question and promises to see what he can do about persuading his manager to honor the show price. Acting as if he's done me a favor, the guy even tries an early closing technique. "If I can get you the show price, can we sign the papers today?" Easy pal, we're not done yet. I mutter something noncommittal and listen as Oz fills me in.

According to the master, there are two kinds of salesmen-runners and jumpers. "Runners are just plain afraid to lose the deal-they'll cut right to the bottom line. Jumpers are a tougher breed-they'll move down in increments, then stand tough." On Oz's advice, I asked around the docks over the past week and learned Rick was a first-class runner. Upon returning from a conversation with his manager, Rick was able to knock about 20 percent off the sticker price. "Yep," says Oz confidently, "he's our boy."

Rick's mouth is moving again, so I tune back in midsentence. "…while we walk, let me tell you about some great deals we have on our other line. To be honest, they're built just as well as the boat you're interested in and even share most of the same components. We've discounted all the boats in that line in a special promotion…"

"I smell a rat," interrupts Oz. "Those great deals across the board may mean he's dropping the brand. If so, good luck getting service work or warranty coverage. Stall him while I get on the horn to the manufacturer's customer service department and find out if the dealer's sticking around. Be back in a minute."

"Uh, I'll think about it," I stammer, suddenly feeling mute without the brains in my ear. "In the meantime, let's talk about the boat I came in for."

The disappointment in the sales guy's face is obvious. Still, he recovers quickly and before long we're staring at the vessel in question. True to form, Rick heads for the bottom line with little struggle, then closes in for the kill. For some reason, however, he's obsessing about my trade-in. "We can't nail down a final price until I see your current boat," he says. "What year did you say it was?"

"I didn't," I reply, wishing Oz would get back on the line.

"Well let's get some particulars," Rick continues. "After I see it, then I can give you my best deal."

"Tell him you're not sure whether you're keeping it, trading it, or selling it on your own." Ah, my inner voice has returned. "It's important to keep everything separate. Never bring trade-in values into the initial bargaining-you'll lose track of what you're paying for the new boat. Better yet, get your butt out here. I called the manufacturer and found out this guy's dumping the brand. You don't want to do business with someone like that. Besides, I'm hungry-where did you say you were taking me to dinner?"

"Uh," I stutter to Rick, "not to change the subject…but is there a McDonald's around here?" I turn and run.

STOP 2. By the second dealership, Oz and I have gotten our act together. Oz's voice is becoming my own, with no awkward pauses and no salesperson looking at me like the voices in my head are winning. I find an eager saleswoman named Stacy. We do the initial tap-dance, and she even suggests I save money by not falling in love with expensive horsepower options I might not need.

"C'mon, let's go for a test ride. I think you'll find the base engine has plenty of get up and go. And why not save a little money, right?"

"Go ahead," yawns Oz, "if you want to work on your tan-or check out hers. But before you get serious, come back with that wife and kids of yours. Bring along some gear while you're at it, too. That boat might seem like a screamer with just the two of you aboard, but load it up with your average day's worth of stuff and I guarantee it won't seem as impressive. She thinks you're looking for a bargain-then she'll see you in a year from now ready to trade up for more power."

Heeding Oz's advice, I tell her I'll come back for the test drive with my family. We start negotiating on price again, but she slams my latest lob of an offer to the ground, explaining she can't go any lower but might be able to cut me a deal on a few accessories. She suggests I install a few options myself, to save on the labor charge.

"I hope you did your homework, pal," Oz laughs in my ear. "Typically, anything not attached to the boat is probably cheaper at the local marine supply. As for installations, let the dealer do them. That way if something goes wrong, the dealer's mechanics have to fix it. Besides, do you want to install a head or tap into the electrical system? It's a pain in the butt, and I'm not gonna help."

I feel like Oz and Stacy are playing tennis with my brain. But her last offer has gotten my attention. Desperate to save her commission, she tosses out a juicier bone-an extended warranty.

"Tough call," says Oz. "The odds, however, favor skipping it. Most boats don't experience serious problems within the warranty period. If they did, the dealer and the insurance company would never make any money selling the policy. Besides, you don't have to buy it now-or even here. You can shop warranty coverages and usually have until the factory warranty expires to buy that extended coverage."

I tell her I'll return with the wife and kids for that test ride. Besides, next week is the end of the month. We'll see just how well Stacy holds fast when her quota is on the line.

STOP 3. The third time, as they say, is the charm. The negotiating process is going smoothly. Unlike Stacy, however, Chris seems to be doing everything he can to push me into the high end of the engine options. I start to open my mouth to say I'm not interested, when Oz promptly shuts it for me.

"Not so fast, hotshot. Maybe he's trying to upsell, but maybe he's using his experience to save you from being disappointed by an underpowered boat. This dealership has a good rep, and this guy's a boater. Listen to what he has to say and consider his advice."

Again, Oz turns out to be right. Chris gives me statistics on the lower engine choices, and I'm not impressed. I want more power out of the hole and a cruising speed where I won't be continually pushing the engine to its limit. We settle on power, but rather than lead me back to his desk, he seems to be prolonging the negotiations. "Come on, let me introduce you to our service manager and show you the service area."

Oz is obviously pleased. "That's a good sign, buddy boy. If he's proud to show it off, that means it has a good reputation and probably some well-trained mechanics. Ask about the mechanics' certification."

I do, and the answer is a good one. The primary mechanics all have a decent amount of experience under their belts, and the dealer sends them to factory training on a regular basis. He even shows me the certificates on the wall to prove it.

"Okay, everything sounds good, but throw him a curveball. Ask about his discount policy on an ordered boat. Builders usually offer a dealer a 5 percent discount if they buy with cash and don't have to use a floor-planning loan system. If the dealer gets a discount, why shouldn't you?"

So I ask.

"Well," says Chris, "we could do that. But you'll have to wait about six to eight weeks. Or let me sharpen the price on the one I have on the floor. That is if financing isn't going to be a big issue." Again, the answer is what I want to hear. Satisfied, we walk back to the sales office and begin to get it all down on paper. The whole way, Oz is spouting statistics in my ear about what to pay.

"Remember, the numbers can vary, but the typical markup in boat sales is maybe 30 percent. Don't completely lowball him, though. Most estimates are that a dealer's overhead is around 18 to 22 percent. So he's not working with much. Plus, you'll be back here for service. I'm more than happy to pay a fair price and know I'll be well taken care of down the road."

After a little back and forth, I make a fair offer, which Chris accepts. We shake hands and settle on a delivery date. I walk out the door and over to the van with a smile on my face.

"Hey Oz, I bought a boat." I say, all proud of myself.

He slaps me on the back and my earpiece falls out. We both look at it.

"Okay, we just bought a boat."