Updated January 15th, 2023
I love sailing and sailboats. Sailing is my favorite way to spend time in the summer. I’ve owned a lot of boats in my days. A few Sunfish, Lasers, Catalina 27s, a Catalina 22, a Hobie Cat, and so on. I’ve been around the block a few times now with small boat ownership. I’m a habitual boat shopper always looking for a deal or an upgrade. The cost of a boat can be as little or as much as you want it to be. How much does a small boat cost? Let’s take a look at what it will cost you to buy your perfect boat.
What is a small small sailboat?
Before we get into the topic of cost, lets talk about what exactly is a small sailboat? A popular sailing magazine Cruising World does their boat of the year awards every year. They consider a 36 footer as their “best compact cruising yacht”. From an ownership perspective, there is nothing compact about a 36 footer.
We watch the show Below Deck Sailing Yacht on Bravo. We can dream anyway. The boat on the show is a 180 foot luxury yacht with a paid crew and captain. One of the guests made the comment “I’m glad this is over 170 foot. Anything under 170 feet just feels too small”. Some people consider a 150 foot super yacht a small boat.
For this article, we’re looking at boats 30 feet and under. Even with that definition, there is still a huge range of costs from free to as much as a house.
How much does a small sailboat cost?
The cost of a boat is somewhat proportional to it’s length. A 14 foot Sunfish will cost a lot less than a Catalina 30. As you move up to a larger boat, the cost of the boat will go up and so will the overall cost of ownership. The best way to approach this question is to take a look at some real world examples. I’ll try to take a look at the least expensive and most expensive options out there for each size range. From dumpster diving on Craiglist, to shopping for a used boat on yachtworld to buying new.
Sunfish – $100 to $5000
A Sunfish is one of the very cheapest ways to get started in sailing. There are thousands of them out there. A Sunfish a 14 foot long 1 or 2 person sailboat. They are easy to rig and fun to sail. They are sturdy and last a long time. They have a strong One Design racing class too. You can get a Sunfish from anywhere from $100 for a used boat to $5000 for a brand new boat. They are a great value in a smaller boat and can give you a lot of bang for your sailing buck.
I once picked up a Sunfish for free on Craigslist. Someone had one they just wanted to get out of their garage. Free for the first person to pick it up. It was a decent conditon boat that with a little work was a competitive racer.
The average price for a Sunfish with a road worthy trailer is around $500 to $1000. You can keep it in your backyard so there are no marina or needed storage costs to go with it.
Moth Mach 2 – $10,000 to $22,000
At the dead opposite end of the cost spectrum for a small 1 person sailboat is the Moth. The Moth is an international development class boat that foils. A competitive used Moth will start at $10,000. The latest Mach 2 Moth will set you back at least $20,000. These are also one of the most difficult to sail boats in existence. You’ll be able to keep up with that giant foiling America’s Cup yacht you saw on TV with it.
Hobie 16 – $1500 to $12,000
Hobie Cats are the most popular and famous beach catamaran out there. The Hobie 16 is the beach boat you see and think of any time you see a sailboat at a beach resort. They are extremely fun to sail and are pretty sturdy and long lasting. I had picked up a Hobie 16 for a few years during one of my Craigslist dumpster diving sessions. It cost me $1500 and was complete, ready to sail with a roadworthy trailer.
From a quick look at Craigslist and Facebook marketplace, $1000 seems to be the going low price right now. That should get you a complete boat with trailer. If you want a boat to race you should be aiming closer to $5000 for a less used boat. For those who prefer to buy new, they still make Hobie 16’s. A new boat will currently run you $12,000. Add another $2000 for a trailer.
Nacra 17 – $15,000 to $30,000
At the other end of the spectrum from the Hobie 16 is the Nacra 17. Nacra 17’s are the latest in 2 person catamarans that foil. They are one of the boat classes raced in the Olympics. You could pick up a beater Hobie 16 and have some fun for $1000. The cheapest you can touch a used Nacra 17 for is $15,000. If you want a new boat get ready to drop at least $30,000. As with all high performance foiling boats, they use a lot of carbon fiber and exotic materials. They have a ton of complexity and controls that also adds to the cost.
Lightning – $1000 to $32,000
Lightnings are a popular 3 person, 19 foot, sloop rigged, sailing dinghy. They are raced across the US and the world. There are thousands of them out there. They are 19 feet and at the upper end of the size scale for a dinghy with no keel weight. They have a centerboard and easily trailered. They are light enough that they can be trailered behind almost any car. They have gotten quite complex with sail controls because they are actively raced.
You can get an older used Lightning that will be good for daysailing for $1000 on Craigslist. The boat will be older, it may not be self rescuing and self bailing, it will have older harder to use sail controls. If you want to race, you should look for a boat with a sail number above 14,000. These will cost you $5000 to $10000.
If money is no object and you just want to buy a new boat, then you can get a new boat made for $32,000. Add a couple more thousand for a trailer. This seems crazy to me for a 19 footer. There are plenty of competitive racers out there willing to pay it every few years.
Catalina 22 – $1000 to $25000
Now we start getting into the small keelboat cruisers that can be trailered. Catalina 22’s are one of the most popular truly compact smaller yachts ever produced. They are 22 feet long with a swing keel or fixed keel. The majority of them are the swing keel version. They were the first sailboat produced by Catalina yachts in 1969 and are still produced. There have been numorous changes to the design over the years but the basic design is still the same.
The Catalina 22 Sport is the latest version of the boat. It was designed as an updated Catalina 22 that was a competitive racer. The Catalina 22s produced in the 1990s meet the one design racing rules. They are wider above the water line. This makes them heavier so they are more comfortable for cruising and slower for racing. If you want a cheap cruising boat you can trailer behind a midsize or larger SUV these make a pretty good boat.
You can go dumpster diving on Craiglist or Marketplace and find boats for $1000 to $1500. That will get you a complete and sailable boat with a trailer. The interior cushions might not be great. The decks will probably be wet with some core rot. You’ll be on the water and cruising. A good condition boat with a good condition interior might run you $3000 to $5000.
This is the first size boat in the list that typically has an engine. They use outboard motors. In my experience used outboard motors are really hit and miss. I’ve had way more misses then hits. I would price a new outboard or recent used outboard in the cost for any boat in this size range. A good amount of these boats will come with an outboard. It may run when you buy it. Buyer beware after that. I would add an extra $1000 to $2000 into your budget for an outboard.
If you are interested in a new boat. Catalina Yachts sells them for $25,000. Plan on another $2000 for a trailer and $2000 for an outboard.
J70 – $70,000 to $30,000
If you are into racing and want the latest and greatest one designs you’ll have to dish out a bit more money. The J70 is a popular newer one design boat from JBoats. They are high performance boats with a bowsprit and big assymmetrical spinnaker. The J70 was first produced in 2012 and they are still being produced. A used boat with a trailer will set you back at least $30,000. A new boat will run you somewhere around $70,000. J70’s can be trailer sailed and ramp launched.
Small sailing cruisers or yachts
Catalina 27 – $1000 to $15,000
Next up in size is the 25 to 27 foot small cruising keelboat. This is the size boat where you start having inboard engines, wheel steering, and marine heads. The Catalina 27 is the most popular boat in this size range. Thousands of them were produced starting in 1971. The last one was produced in 1991.
These boats have a huge variety of options. They can have gas or diesel inboards or an outboard. They can have tiller steering or wheel steering. You can have marine heads, pressure hot water and propane or alcohol stoves. These are really the gateway drug of full featured cruising boats that can sleep 2 to 4 adults for a few days. I’ve owned 2 of these, a 1986 and 1984 boat, and loved them both.
These have a huge range in features, conditon in price. My first one was a full featured 1986 boat bought from a yachtbroker for $13,000. My second one was a dumpster dive 1984 with heavy storm damage for $3000. I spent about $1000 repairing it to have a very good condition boat for $4000. I have seen them lately for $1000 to $1500 on Craigslist for poor condition early 70’s boats. Most mid 80’s or newer boats with diesels run for $5000 to $8000. You occasionally see someone trying to get $15,000 for one but I doubt they will get it.
For a fixed keel boat of this size you need to keep it in a marina in the water all the time which means paying dockage or mooring fees as well as just owning the boat. There are people who trailer Catalina 27’s but they have to use some crazy level ingenuity to do it. They need a large F250 or more pickup with a very deep water launch ramp and some kind of A-frame to step the mast. For any fixed keel boat, you should factor in marina fees in your yearly expenses.
Catalina 275 Sport – $60,000 to $80,000
The Catalina 275 Sport is the modern 27 footer cruiser racer. In the 1970’s and 1980’s tons and tons of 27 footers were produced. There are tons of them available used from Catalina, Hunter, Pearson, S2 and so on. Once you hit the early 1990s there were very few produced. Boat makers have ignored this size for the most part since then so newer used options are few and far between and pricy.
For reference, there was a little over 6600 Catalina 27s made from 1971 to 1991. In the 30 years since 1991, there have been less than 1000 total Catalina 270s and 275s produced.
The Catalina 275 has all the features of a modern small racer cruiser. Production started in 2013. It can have an outboard or inboard diesel. It’s designed for a bowsprit and big assymmetical spinnaker. A new boat will cost you $80,000 or more with options. A used boat will run $60,000 to $80,000.
Catalina 30 – $5000 – $40,000
The 30 foot cruising keelboat is one of the most popular boat sizes you’ll see at any marina across the US. Chances are you will find Catalina 30’s at any marina or mooring field you go to. This size boat can comfortably be used for a couple or small family to go cruising for a week. They are seaworthy enough to keep the family safe in some heavy weather. They have enough storage and sleeping space so you won’t want to kill each other by the end of your trip.
Catalina 30’s all have fixed keels with inboard engines. The majority have wheel steering. Early boats have Atomic 4 gas inboards. Boats from 1980 onward have diesel inboards.
A dumpster dive special in poor condition can be had for a few thousand dollars. Expect the engine may have issues and the decks will have wet spots or core rot. The interior cushions may be the finest 1970s water stained burlap you can find. A mid 1980s decent condition, good condition boat with a good conditon disel will run you $10,000 to $20,000. This is the price range representing one of the best values out there for a small cruising sailboat. The 1990’s boats will run $25,000 to $40,000.
Catalina 315 – $130,000 to $200,000
If you want to buy a new 30 foot cruising boat, it’s time to break out the big wallet. The Catalina 315 is the typical new 30 footer. They really don’t have any more features than you will find in a 1990s Catalina 30. A new Catalina 315 starts at around $180,000 and can easily go above $200,000 with options. A used boat will run at least $130,000 and can go up to $180,000.
What other costs are there in buying a boat?
Now that we have seen the cost to buy a small sailboat can go from $200 to $200,000 what other costs are there to buy a boat. Besides the sailboat costs, there are some other charges that potential boat owners need to factor in. Lets take a look at some of the other things you may need to pay for when buying a small sailboat.
A survey is similar to a home inspection when you are buying a house. Most marina loan lenders will require one to determine the condition and hull value of the boat before they will loan money. The average price of a boat survey in the US is $25 to $30 per foot. For a 30 footer that can be $750 to $900. A survey may not cover the engine. They will take a quick look at it but for a detailed engine inspection, you will need to hire a diesel mechanic. That can run you a few more hundred.
If you are looking for a used Sunfish on you won’t be getting a survey. If you are looking for a cheap Catalina 27 for $1000 you probably won’t be dropping another $1000 on a survey. My personal point where I start considering the survey necesary is around $20,000. I’ve owned a ton of boats and been through several surveys and know what to look for without the survey. If your a first time boat owner on a cruising boat you might want to get a survey because you will learn a lot from it.
Sales tax and registration fees
The tax you need to pay on a boat varies from state to state. In Michigan you pay 6% on a new or used boat on the registration. If you are buying a used boat, the Secretary Of State will charge you tax on the amount you tell them you paid. Not that I would tell you to cheat on this, but it’s pretty easy to figure out how to reduce this amount. Beyond the sales tax, there is the registration fee which also varies from state to state. In some states it is a fixed fee. In other states it can be a cost per foot of boat length.
If your boat has a trailer or you need to get a trailer for it there is another set of expenses. You have to pay a registration fee, title feel and taxes on it as well.
If you get a marine loan on your boat, they will require you to carry insurance on the boat. Most marinas will want you to have insurance also. It’s generally a good idea to insure your boat. Sailboat insurance is cheap compared to almost anything else. Insurance on my last cruising boat cost $150 a year through my auto/home insurance provider. The secretary of state will not require proof of insurance to register a sailboat. Unlike cars, they don’t care.
Rigging and launching fees
If your boat is sitting at a marina with the mast down, you may have some more fees coming. Most marinas include the launching of the boat in the storage fee when the boat was hauled out. Occasionally they do not. If the mast was unstepped or taken down you will have to pay to have it stepped.
This only applies to large small boats such as Catalina 27s and 30’s that can’t easily be rigged by people. The cost for this can vary a lot. At the marina I used, the guy running the hoists would do it for $50 in the evenings. Other places may charge a few hundred dollars. If you have a boat on the hard with the mast down, call the marina and ask before buying the boat. Not all marinas can step masts. You might have to go somewhere nearby to do it.
The Coast Guard considers any kind of sail boat a vessel. They have rules for safety equipment for even the smallest of sailboats. This can be as little as life jackets and a whistle for a Sunfish. It can be up to life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers, and more for a Catalina 30. Look here for a list of required equipment for each size boat from West Marine.
When you buy a boat, you need to take inventory of the safety equipment and make sure you have all the required items. You might get away with missing a few things. I got a ticket for not having a life jacket sailing on a tiny mountain lake in the middle of nowhere once. Fines and tickets from the DNR and Coast Guard do happen.
If you can’t find a boat nearby you might have to consider getting a boat moved. For a 27 to 30 footer this can be $1500 to $5000 for a 500 mile move. I got quotes recently to move boats from Vermont and Minnesota back to South East Michigan. I was quoted $3000-$5000 by several boat movers so that seems to be the current going rate for a 10-12 hour drive. If you have to have a boat moved you should add another $1500-$2000 in rigging and loading/unloading fees.
If the boat is rigged on land, you will have to pay for them to put the boat in the water, then pay for the mast to get taken down. You will have to pay for them to pack and prep the boat for shipping. Then you’ll have to pay to have the boat hoisted onto the truck. When the boat arrives you will have to pay for a launch and then pay for mast stepping.
Do you need to buy new sails when you buy a used boat? No. It is rare for a used sailboat not to have sails unless it was a salvage or repo taken from the owner against their will. Most people who are just daysailing or cruising can get by just fine with 30 year old sails. You won’t win races with them but they will get you around the lake or bay without falling apart. If the sails are torn with holes or a rat decided to feast on them, then by all means go buy new or new used sails.
If you buy a new boat it may or may not include sails in the purchase price. A new cruising boat from Cataline or Hunter will include a cruising mainsail and jib/genoa in the price. A racing boat from J-Boats will not include sails as racers all have their own idea for who makes the fastest sails.
Is it better to buy a boat or charter a boat?
A small sailboat can cost a lot if your looking at a 30 foot cruising boat. Is it cheaper to just do a yacht charter instead of owning the boat yourself? That depends. How often will you use your boat and are there charters available? A yacht charter fee for a 30 foot sailboat can cost a $150 to $300 a day depending on where you are.
I use my boat several times a week from mid April to the end of October. I use my boat at least 30 to 40 days a year. That’s at least $5000 in charter costs for me at the low end. It’s close to break even vs the cost of owning a 27-30 footer after everything is considered. There aren’t many charter boats available on the great lakes so I’m kind of out of luck anyway. Most sailors I know just like having their own boat they can go out any time they want and do whatever they want to it.
My dad went and bought a new Catalina 310 after I moved away to use on the Chesepeake. He maybe used it 10 to 20 days a summer. In his case he absolutely was better off chartering boats instead of buying one. There are tons of charter boats available on the Chesepeake Bay.
One other thing to consider is boat time shares. They are out there. They charge you a monthly fee and give you time each week on a boat. Depending on how much you use the boat this may be the best option for you also.
What about yacht clubs and sailing club boats?
For smaller boats such as a Sunfish or Hobie Cat. You can find some yacht clubs that have club boats that you can use instead of buying one. Fees vary based on what yacht club membership costs and whether they charge a fee for using club boats. You can keep a Sunfish in your backyard or driveway for free. You can use a public boat launch for not much. In this case it’s going to be cheaper to own the boat. If you want hassle free small boat ownership and don’t want to tow a boat anywhere, a yacht club boat could be for you.
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Staff Writer | Water Sports
Steve spent his time growing up in South Carolina doing as much as possible on the water. He is an avid stand up paddleboarder and kayaker and loves hitting the lakes and rivers near home. He is a competitive sailor and has competed in sailing at the collegiate level as well as 7 Mackinac Island races.