6 Things to Look For In An Affordable Pontoon Boat

Pontoon boats are one of the most popular types of boats currently on the water, in part due to their exceptional versatility. But though pricing has risen as performance and features have increased, affordable models still exist. Here’s what to look for when buying an affordable pontoon boat.

Large, multi-engine, multiple-pontoon pontoon boats seem to get all the accolades, but single-engine affordable pontoons provide tons of family fun. In this episode of “What to Look For” we’re going to explore some points that you need to look for when shopping for an affordable pontoon.

Once thought of as little more than senior-citizens’ sunset cruisers, modern pontoon boats have captured the attention of a growing number of boaters thanks in large part to their impressive versatility. Still up for that laid-back cocktail cruise, they’re also now party platforms, ready to tow riders on a wide variety of watersports toys, even capable of carving up the water with the speed and agility of their fiberglass, V-hulled counterparts. Onboard amenities have also followed suit, with plush furniture, multi-position lounges, attractive floor coverings and the latest audio and lighting systems. 

Budget-minded buyers need not worry about missing out, either, as manufacturers trickle down many of these same features — as well as power options and quality construction — to affordable models aimed at everyone from first-time buyers to seasoned enthusiasts in search of value.

6 Things to Look for In a Pontoon Boat

Boating editors have spent thousands of hours aboard a multitude of pontoon boats. In the process, we’ve honed in on the key areas to look for in an affordable pontoon model, as well as what items you should refuse to sacrifice for price. Here are our best recommendations of what to look for in a pontoon boat.

1. Vinyl & Stitching:

Comfort is key, but so too is durability. Vinyl should be treated to resist fading and premature aging from UV rays, as well as offer mildew-resistance. Seams should be double-stitched for durability. Affordable doesn’t mean cheap. Modern marine vinyls should feel soft and pliable, not plasticy.

What you want: Comfortable, yet durable seating that will stand up to the marine environment for many seasons.

2. Changing Room:

Pop-up changing rooms offer the privacy of a curtained enclosure for on-water clothing changes, or if equipped with a porta-potti, even bathroom breaks. Look for a foldout frame at the top to give the rectangular enclosure structure, and full-length zipper for access.

What you want: A simple curtained enclosure for privacy, with zippered access, that tucks out of sight when not in use.

3. Customization:

Look for ways in which to personalize your pontoon, including a choice of exterior colors and graphics as well as upholstery and flooring. Some choices may require a price upgrade. Weigh if it’s worth it to have your boat look unique in the long term.

What you want: A pontoon that, even though it’s affordable, doesn’t look generic…and fits your personal style.

A boating course is a great way to gain confidence and boat-handling skills. A little practice now will make it look easy when everyone is watching.

Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

4. Engine Power

Engine size will have the greatest impact on a boat’s cost, but be realistic about how you’ll use the boat. A lower horsepower engine may carry an attractive price tag and cruise comfortably, but may quickly disappoint if you plan to fill that boat with family and friends, or hope to pull towables like skis and tubes.

What you want: Adequate horsepower to carry your crew, gear, and yet still deliver the performance you desire.

5. Solid Construction & Rigging

From furniture topside to construction details both above and below deck, better manufacturers don’t compromise construction for affordability. 

What you want: 

  • Seat Bases: Rotomolded bases add style, won’t rot like wood and offer low maintenance.
  • Drains: Look for drainage gutters around compartment perimeters, and bottom side drainage holes, to keep contents dry and mildew-free.
  • Wire protection: Sadly rare on many affordable pontoons, molded backing for wiring and speakers will prevent damage during repeated loading and unloading of gear..
  • Deck materials: Insist on marine-grade plywood, the more plies the better.
  • Structural support: Heavy-duty crossmembers, spaced closer together, will add rigidity, lessen rattles and hold up during many seasons of use.
  • Foam-backed rails: Foam-backing prevents metal-to-metal contact, preventing rattles and squeaks as well as dampening vibration.

6. Accessories

Like color and graphic choices, optional accessories allow you to choose the extras you’re willing to pay for. Suggestions would include a Bimini top, brighter and longer-lasting LED lighting, and appropriate charging ports for phones may add to the bottom line. But again, outfit your boat for how you intend to use it.

What you want: Accessories that provide a long-term return on your investment, and increase your enjoyment of your boat.

Specific Considerations for Used Pontoon Boats

Used, or pre-owned pontoon boats offer another way to find an affordable pontoon boat, or possibly get a more upscale model for reduced cost. Pay close attention to the condition of furniture and flooring, as it typically wears fastest. Inspect pontoons for damage, as well as survey the underside of the deck. Like a new pontoon boat, the motor will likely be the most expensive part of the equation. Take a test ride if possible, and note any concerns. Ideally, have a mechanic inspect the engine and verify its condition.

Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, and in many states a citation for boating under the influence goes on your driving record.

Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

Other FAQs About Pontoon Boats

Find additional information about pontoon boats, including maintenance, longevity, and the used boating market below. 

How many hours are too many on a used boat?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as owner care and maintenance — or owner neglect — often has far more influence than engine hours. In general, outboard engines are considered to have a service life of 1500 – 2000 hours. The average seasonal use for a boat is typically 50 – 100 hours per year.

How long do pontoon boats last?

Like any vehicle, the biggest determining factor in a pontoon boat’s longevity is how well it was maintained by previous owners. In general, estimates put a pontoon boat’s lifespan at 15-20 years. In many cases, outboard power can also be upgraded, extending a boat’s lifespan.

How much do used pontoon boats typically cost?

The cost of used pontoons varies widely, based on a variety of factors including age, size, amenities, horsepower and overall condition. In general, used boat pricing can be researched on the internet at sites like jdpower.com or kbb.com.

What are some good pontoon boats for the price?

Many leading pontoon brands — including Sylvan, Starcraft, Bennington, Manitou, Harris, Avalon, Tahoe, Crest and Princecraft — offer affordable models that don’t scrimp on quality.

Are pontoon boats expensive or hard to maintain?

Pontoons are typically easier to maintain than a comparably sized fiberglass boat, as their core aluminum construction — pontoons, crossmembers, deck structure — is resistant to corrosion and requires less upkeep than fiberglass. Still, basic care and maintenance is essential to keep things clean and free of contaminants. Treat areas like pontoon logs and vinyl with appropriate protectant to maintain their finish. Maintain engines according to manufacturer recommendations.

Are pontoon boats hard to trailer?

Due to their size and profile, pontoons may seem intimidating to trailer but in reality they’re similar to most other boats. More important considerations are if your tow vehicle can handle the weight of boat and trailer, your route has adequate clearance, and you’re comfortable towing a boat, let alone one as large as a pontoon. Pro tip? Practice cornering and backing up in an empty parking lot before you hit the road or launch ramp to get a feel for the space needed and how the trailer responds.

Can you test a pontoon boat before buying it?

As is the case when purchasing any vehicle, a test ride is the best way to discover if the boat fits your needs. Don’t ride alone; bring friends or family members to more accurately simulate the loads you’ll be carrying. If a test drive is not available, check around a marina or launch ramp for owners of similar models. At minimum, research the boat online, including web and magazine reviews, to reveal the boat’s strengths and weaknesses.

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