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This May Be the Best Buyer's Market in a Generation — And Now Is the Time to Act

Chrissy and Joe Theriault of Fairfield, Conn. weren't going to let the sour economy stop them from buying a new boat. In fact, it was the downturn that delivered them an amazing deal "” a whopping 39 percent discount on a 23-foot Chaparral.
An unprecedented achievement in bargaining? Actually, no.
If you're in the market to buy a boat and you have the means, now may be the absolute best time to ink a deal – possibly the best buyer's market in a generation. With sales knocked flat by the economy and many dealers flush with inventory that is expensive to maintain, serious buyers can expect both a substantial price break "” often as much as 30 percent "” and a handful of perks if they are willing to put their money down.
"These are unprecedented times," says James Baker vice president of sales at Seattle Boat Company. "By far, astronomically, this is the best time to buy a boat." Baker says the selection, inventory and incentives are some of the best he's ever seen. "A lot of times, incentives are candy-coated," he said. "Not now."

Chrissy and Joe Theriault used the economy to their advantage to swing a deep discount on the purchase of their 23-foot Chaparral.
"Every deal is going to be aggressive," agrees Rob Soucy, president of Port Harbor Marine in South Portland, Maine. "When people come into the showroom, we do what we can to sell a boat. It's a great time to be a consumer."
To better understand today's buying market and how to get the best deal, Mad Mariner reporters interviewed dealers and buyers, examined sales and talked to industry experts. The result is the latest installment of our Economic Blowdown series, occasional stories that examine the economy's impact on the marine industry in general and on boaters in particular.
There are few places where that impact is more apparent than in the showroom. Dealers across the country are anxious to make sales and willing, they say, to work with customers to help get them into the right boat at the right price. While you shouldn't walk in the showroom expecting the 50 percent off "red line special," you can expect to negotiate for a fair price and plenty of added value, including the possibility of free service and tune-ups, dockage, watertoys and more.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates that boat sales have declined roughly 35 percent this year and about 25 percent last year, a decline that's primed to take a significant bite out of the $37.5 billion recreational boating industry. This dramatic sales drop-off has the consumer uniquely positioned to take advantage of never-before-seen deals on boats this year.
Joe Lewis, owner of Mt. Dora Boating Center in Mt. Dora, Fla., says it's not unreasonable for consumers to expect price reductions of 25 to 30 percent off the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). "That's not beyond the scope of reality at all," he says. In fact, Lewis recently sold a 2008 Four Winns 22FS, which has an MSRP of $64,429, for just $47,000.

"Most of the leading [boat] manufacturers publish suggested list prices," he explains. "Many have sections on their websites where buyers can price out boats with the engine and options they want. All one has to do is compare these prices to those dealers are advertising to know the discounts are deep and now is a great time to get a great deal on a new boat."
"If you have someone who's bought a boat before, they understand the current deals," says Soucy. "If you're talking to a newbie off the street, they often don't realize what a great deal they're getting." Port Harbor sold a 2008, 28-foot Sea Ray not too long ago for nearly 50 percent off the $154,000 MSRP, largely due to aggressive dealer pricing on Port Harbor's part and a big rebate from Sea Ray, the manufacturer.
Current NADA book value for a 2008, 28-foot Sea Ray indicate an average retail value between $90,800 and $107,000, Soucy points out, which means at 50 percent off stickers price these buyers wound up with a real steal. "[The buyers] have no idea what a great deal they got," Soucy says.
Indeed, dealers and manufacturers alike are becoming very aggressive on the sales front, he explains. "We no longer have the luxury of four or five people coming into the dealership, interested in one boat, Soucy says. We have to figure this may be the only person we have on that boat for a long time. So if it makes any sense whatsoever, we do the deal."
Consumers can't expect the phenomenal deals to continue indefinitely, says John Sima, owner of Sima Marine in Eastlake, Ohio. "Manufacturers are only building boats ordered and sold to retail customers right now; they're not building for stock," he explains. "If a surge in sales happens, even a 20-percent increase, existing inventory will be gone in 60 to 90 days. Once the boats out there are gone, they're gone; and once they are, these deals aren't going to be around, either."
"These are unprecedented times," says James Baker, pictured left, vice president of sales at Seattle Boat Company.: SEATTLE BOAT COMPANY

SEATTLE BOAT COMPANY"These are unprecedented times," says James Baker, pictured left, vice president of sales at Seattle Boat Company.
If you're in the market to buy, there are many ways to negotiate added value to the deal aside from price reductions. To entice potential customers, Lewis says extended service programs offered by manufacturers, membership in boating groups like BoatU.S. and Sea Tow, and storage options such as marina slips and dry stack are all on the table for consumers.
There's definitely wiggle room when it comes to service and storage, says Baker. Even if he has to toss in a couple extras to make the sale, a dealer can see future business with this customer," he explains.
Baker says Seattle Boat Company sweetened some of its deals by including off-season storage as part of the package, or threw in routine winterization. For example, he says, if a customer buys a boat in September (the Washington boating season typically ends in October and re-opens again in May), the dealership will offer to store the boat free of charge.
Another way to find a good deal: close immediately, says Baker. "There are all kinds of crazy deals right now," he explains. "One of the customers' most powerful strengths is to close the transaction now."
Seattle Boat Company owns its own fuel dock. Fuel prices went through the roof in 2008, topping $5 a gallon,. To encourange people to buy last year, the dealership offered customers fuel for $2.99 a gallon through Labor Day.
"We look at situations on a case-by-case basis," Lewis says. "If something catches a customers' fancy in the showroom or they're scared about the cost of their first service visit, then yes – I have seen the "˜buying' switch flipped by including these things in the sale."
Sima says he's done deals where the dealership threw in dockage and next year's winter storage at half price – a value-added package worth about $4,000. He's also consented to include a summer's worth of service, including oil and fluid changes and tune-ups, to make a sale.
Port Harbor Marine, in South Portland, Maine, where company officials say "every deal is going to be aggressive.": PORT HARBOR MARINE

 The Seattle Boat Company, like other dealers nationwide, is offering incentives to move their inventory.
PORT HARBOR MARINEPort Harbor Marine, in South Portland, Maine, where company officials say "every deal is going to be aggressive."
Long-time boaters and savvy buyers, the Theriaults used the recession to their advantage on the showroom floor. In the end they bought their Chaparral, which they say retailed for $79,000, for just $48,000 cash. Cash was a big factor in the overall purchase savings, they say.
"They took $5,000 off the price just because we said we'd pay cash," Chrissy Theriault says. "If you agree to pay cash, dealers will lower their price." The New Milford, Conn., dealership also threw in a "safety package" with the deal, which included basic life-saving equipment and four life jackets.
Another tactic the Theriaults used to save money was to buy their boat at the end of the season, just when new models were set to debut. "We did get a good deal that way," she explains. "We were also able to negotiate a better price that included the motor we wanted."
The Theriaults agreed to purchase a model that was on display earlier in the year at the New York National Boat Show, shaving additional dollars off the final purchase price. "They gave us a discount because the boat had a few blemishes from being at the show," Theriault says. The dealership agreed to fix a few cracks in the gelcoat, and the family wound up with a new boat for a fraction of the retail price.
"I love my boat; I would live on it if I could," Theriault says.

The good news on boat sales is actually two-fold: If you're legitimately in the market to buy, not only are there deals out there waiting to be uncovered, but if you think you'll need to finance all or part of the purchase, there is, indeed, money out there to borrow at reasonable rates for those who have cash and strong credit.
"Credit is the lifeblood of boat sales, but it's not why boat sales are down," explains Jim Coburn, president of the National Marine Bankers Association (NMBA). "Boat buyers can find financing."
While some big banks exited the recreational lending market as the economy spiraled, including Key Bank, GE and Wachovia, there are plenty of others – SunTrust, BB&T, Bank of America and Bank of the West, to name a few – that are still writing consumer boat loans. Sima says he's even seen an uptick in credit-union lending among his customers, and that might be an idea for someone in the market to buy.

MOUNT DORA BOATING CENTERJoe Lewis, owner of Mt. Dora Boating Center in Mt. Dora, Fla., says it's not unreasonable for consumers to expect price reductions of 25 to 30 percent off MSRP.
"The capacity is still there," Coburn asserts.  But just because there's money out there doesn't mean it's as "free" as it has been in recent memory. "The number-one thing I'd tell anybody that's bought a boat in the last five years that's considering it now is to expect your banking experience to be considerably different," says Sima. "Today, you need 20 to 40 percent of true equity bound into the financial deal. That number used to be five percent. It's a drastic change.  "Credit-score qualifications have also changed significantly.
"Anything below 680 is dead," says Sima. "Even if a customer is slightly above, the interest rate is going to be huge, and they'll need a huge down payment."
Coburn agrees credit guidelines have stiffened. He says underwriting guidelines are reverting back to what they were 15 or 20 years ago, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Boat loans were a little easier to get than they should have been," says Coburn. "Banks never should have lent to someone with a credit score below 640. The easy-money days are gone. Lending to consumers with credit scores in the 500s and 600s is too much risk."
As a general rule (keeping in mind numbers do vary depending on several factors), Coburn recommends consumers interested in financing a boat must meet the following criteria: maintain a credit score north of 700; show a debt-to-income ratio of no more than 30 to 40 percent (45 percent and above used to be considered okay but is no longer acceptable); expect to make a down payment of 15 to 20 percent on larger boats (26 to 35 feet) and 25 percent on small boats (up to 25 feet) and megayachts (80 feet and above).
Assuming a potential buyer meets these criteria, he should expect an interest rate starting around 5.99 percent. He should also anticipate 15- to 20-year terms on the loan, which Coburn says hasn't really changed even in the current economy.
Sima recommends interested boat buyers talk to a financial institution first before starting to shop. He says banks and lending entities are looking for five times the paperwork they once were from his customers, including things like utility bills. To make the process go more smoothly, Sima suggests compiling a list of everything you need and giving it to lenders up front.
"It used to be okay for the information to dribble in, but now, if you have it ready in hand, it increases your chances of getting the loan," he says.
"Banks aren't just going to take anybody's word for it any more when it comes to income and liquidity," Coburn reiterates. "You'll need to show proper documentation, W-2s, tax returns."
Coburn recommends interested buyers write out a balance sheet to calculate incoming and outgoing expenses, and then use that information to decide if now is a good time to make a big purchase. "If a family wants to bring boating into their lifestyle, they need to figure out their expenses and basically pre-qualify themselves," he explains.

While it's nice to get a great deal, some dealers caution potential buyers to be sure that price isn't the only thing they're thinking about when shopping for a new boat.
"Nine out of 10 times you'll be giving up the most important aspects of the product because you're so focused on price," warns Rob Youker, owner of The Sportsman in San Benito, Texas. In the end, Youker says, "You'll have to spend a lot later when you have to change boats. Then, you really didn't save anything."
Youker recommends making a list of the five most important aspects of a boat you're not willing to deviate from and don't waiver. "You'll be happier and it will cost a lot less if you do the right thing the first time."
After all, he says," People don't want the cheapest price; they want the best value."
It's also important for potential buyers to be honest and up front with their dealers, Sima adds. "Be realistic about what you want to buy," he explains. "Unless you're legitimately ready to buy, don't start shopping price."
"We try not to make it about price," Youker says. Remember, he says, "This isn't war; it should be a kick to get a new boat."

Article by Lindsey Johnson, a freelance writer specializing in the recreational boating industry. Her work has appeared in several trade and consumer publications over the last nine years, including Boating Industry, Soundings Trade Only, Soundings and Boating Life magazines. She also has worked for the NMMA.


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