Best Personal Watercraft (PWC) for the Money: The Complete Guide to Getting the Most Value From Your PWC Purchase

People who have ridden on a personal watercraft (PWC) are familiar with the adrenaline-inducing experience. For some, buying their own PWC is a logical step towards fueling their passion.

If you are one of these enthusiasts who have the money to spend, live on or near a body of water, and understand the requirements of caring for a PWC, you might be ready to purchase a PWC (or two, we did!).

By doing a little research and planning, you can find the perfect PWC to make your own.

How do you find the best personal watercraft for the money you will spend? To find the best PWC with the most value, buyers must first determine the qualities and characteristics of the PWC that will best meet their needs.  Go beyond a brand name or price tag to help ensure you have made the best purchase for your needs by identifying specific criteria that reflect your needs.

Types of Personal Watercraft

From deciding on the style of riding to the amount of seating desired, finding the best PWC requires potential buyers to dedicate the time to learn about the different kinds of watercraft.

Once the desired type of PWC is chosen, it will make the process of picking out the perfect PWC much simpler.

Stand-up or Sit-Down?

Stand-up PWCs are most commonly used for racing and doing tricks. They are made to seat one person and require a fair amount of skill and practice to ride.

Due to their lighter weight, they provide more options for transporting to and from the water.  

The speed and skill required to operate a stand-up PWC make them more challenging to learn how to use, but they offer a thrilling ride for those wanting to push the limits.

There are fewer models to choose from, which slims down the selection pool.

Many stand-up PWCs, especially older models, have two-stroke engines, which pollute much more than the four-stroke engines found in a majority of sit-down PWCs.

More regulations on pollution make it harder to find places to ride with a two-stroke engine.

Sit-down PWCs work well for single riders, couples, and families due to their larger size. The larger size also has more room for storage. They can also be used for activities such as fishing or wakeboarding. 

Additionally, sit-down PWCs are great for beginners because they are easy to learn how to operate and handle on the open water. There are plenty of models to choose from, and many come with extra features such as more storage spaces and onboard coolers.

If someone is looking for the most budget-friendly option, sit-down PWCs have the lowest price tags.  But on average, stand-up and sit-down PWCs have similar base prices. 

As far as service and upkeep costs, the amount one spends depends on a variety of factors- the age of the PWC and if the PWC is ridden in salt or freshwater.

Since stand-up PWCs usually have less features than sit-down ones, they cost less in terms of repairs. Components such as reverse capabilities and detailed displays can require costly repairs if they malfunction.  

Since sit-down PWCs are bigger, they can be harder to store, transport, and launch. It is important to know one’s vehicle’s towing capacity and pick a mode of transportation that supports both the towing vehicle and PWC.   

Green stand up jet ski jumpin

Saltwater or Freshwater?

Whether PWCs are used on the ocean or a lake, they still require the same basic maintenance. All PWCs need to be stored properly to keep safe from the elements, cleaned regularly, and have routine engine flushes to clear any debris.

You can learn more about how to do this from our article titled How to Beach your Jet Ski.

Although there are no saltwater or freshwater-specific PWCs, the necessary maintenance can differ for each type of use. PWCs used in the ocean will need to be regularly washed to avoid corrosion. 

One of the most important parts of caring for a PWC used in saltwater is making sure all the parts that come into contact with the saltwater are rinsed off, including the trailer and engine. Flushing the engine after each use is a part of general upkeep.   

As far as choosing a PWC that will work best for each water type, a buyer will want to focus on different characteristics.

PWCs that work best on the ocean will be able to handle the rough waters and are more durable to last longer. Wider hulls and padded seats can be of benefit.

Also, PWCs that have closed cooling systems can help make the engine last longer and cause fewer maintenance headaches. Since the water is more gentle on both the rider and the PWC on a lake, there is a long list of models that will work well.

Finding a fuel-efficient option can make a big difference in gas expenditures if you decide to fuel up while out on the water.     

Power

Another factor to consider when thinking about a PWC purchase is the type of engine the PWC is powered by. There are both two-stroke and four-stroke engine options, with the four-stroke being the most commonly manufactured.  

Two-stroke engines used to be popular with both riders and manufacturers because they are lighter, simpler, and less costly to produce than four-stroke engines.

The major downfall of the two-stroke engine is the pollution the motors produce. Because of this pollution, many recreation areas and even states are banning the use of PWCs with two-stroke engines.

Two-stroke engines have been shown to leak as much as 25% of the total fuel in the tank. However, changes in technology have made it possible to modify the fuel injection systems in two-stroke PWC engines to help reduce fuel emissions. 

Because 4-stroke skis have been sold for many years now, there are plenty of cheap used options on the market. I AM NOT a supporter of two-stroke jet skis due to this and their environmental impact.

Lake Access, an ongoing educational research project with real-time water data, released a statement regarding the impact of all types of boats on Minnesota lakes.

They maintain that “Because PWCs can be operated in shallow water, at high speeds, and in remote areas not usually frequented by boats, disturbance to wildlife may be more of a concern than other types of watercraft” (source).  

Seating Capacity

When thinking about purchasing a PWC, one must also consider how many people will be riding on the watercraft at one time. Not only can there be seating limitations, but there are also weight limit considerations.

Stand-up PWCs are made for single riders, due to the nature of the riding style and lightweight design.

Since these PWCs are designed for tricks and speed and have no seating options, they work well for solo riders seeking an adventure but are not ideal for families. 

Sit-down PWCs can accommodate one, two, three, or even four riders. The lightest weight PWCs are made for one or two people, as more riders would not fit on the smaller seat, and the weight capacity is relatively low. These PWCs can work best for one adult and one child.

The most common type of sit-down PWC can seat three people. These larger PWCs have comfortable seats and bigger gas tanks for longer rides.

They are much more stable than the smaller PWCs and have a higher weight capacity as well.

Group of jet skis in ocean with larger boats in distance

Although four-seater PWCs exist, they are more difficult to find and service. Most are equipped with a two-stroke engine that can restrict the places one can go due to pollution regulations.

Finding one used and in good condition is the best bet because finding replacement parts can be a challenge.

If a PWC is to be used for tow sports, it is important to plan to have a free spot on the PWC for the wakeboarder or tuber. Some states also require one rider to be a spotter, while other states only require mirrors to be able to check on the person being towed.

Weight capacity is also important to take into consideration. While a PWC might be rated for three people, one must also take into account the added weight of fuel and necessary safety gear.

Too much weight can cause instability and potentially make riding a more challenging experience.

Intended Use

Whatever PWC a consumer ends up purchasing should meet the purpose for which it was bought. Determining how the PWC will most commonly be used will go a long way toward simplifying the buying process. There are many PWCs on the market that work well for beginners and families.

PWCs that fall into the recreation category are best suited for those looking for a more stable ride. To keep riders as safe as possible, buyers can choose options such as reverse systems and even brakes.

If more action is desired, high-performance or stand-up PWCs might be a consideration.

PWCs can also be used for other recreational activities, such as fishing, wakeboarding, or tubing. It is important to keep in mind the amount of seating needed for each activity. 

PWCs can also be used for safety purposes. Many lifeguards utilize PWCs for open water rescues. Water law enforcement officers might also use PWCs in their line of work.  

Whether to Purchase New or Used

The decision to purchase a new or pre-owned PWC depends on the buyer’s personal preference and budget. There are benefits to both types of sales and ways to ensure the buyers get the best possible value from their PWC purchase. 

Overall, there are a few details to consider, regardless of the type of purchase the owner decides to make. Typically, the best time to buy a PWC is in the off-season.

Private sellers are looking to sell in the winter after taking advantage of a summer on the water, and dealerships are looking to unload excess inventory and previous year models.

It is also wise to determine the value of a PWC before completing a purchase. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) can provide estimated boat values for both new and used watercraft.   

When buying new, any additional upgrades could be a potential added cost. As far as used boats go, the price is dependent on the PWC’s condition, the number of hours logged, and how the watercraft has been used.   

Powersports Dealerships

Many different types of recreational and performance vehicles are sold at Powersports dealerships.

People can find motorcycles, off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft, as well as encounter knowledgeable and experienced staff members.

The benefits of visiting a dealership are numerous. Dealers can help with financing options and manufacturer rebates and warranties.

Many dealerships also carry pre-owned PWCs in addition to new models. It is also likely that the dealership will also carry accessories for the PWC, making it more convenient to get what is needed all at once.

Boat Shows

Attending a boat show is a great way to see a variety of popular PWC models from different manufacturers.

Buyers can compare and contrast the most appealing models.  Special show discounts might be offered to incentivize customers to purchase a PWC at the show.  

Online Purchase or Private Seller

One convenient but potentially hazardous way to purchase a PWC is online or through a private seller. These deals are likely to be cash only. Be sure to check the title carefully. If the owner doesn’t have one, walk away.

Some smaller manufacturers will be able to ship directly to a home. There are also online marketplaces and wholesale dealers who can ship to one’s residence or other location.

Private sellers are an excellent venue for purchasing a used PWC. Still, the buyer must be aware of what to look for to ensure he or she is getting the best value for the watercraft’s condition.

It is sometimes possible to even purchase a boat from a private seller that still has a warranty. Buyers must remember to be cautious about inspecting the PWC and knowing the value before buying.

Buying a New PWC

Although purchasing a new personal watercraft is the more expensive option, there are many benefits as well.

When buying new, there is no need to worry about wear and tear from previous owners. Buyers can feel comfortable knowing there has been no misuse or improper storage.

The latest models of PWCs have the newest technology and improvements, which can make for more fun and a safer experience for all riders.

New PWCs also come with a manufacturer’s warranty to help protect against potential issues.  If you are financing the purchase, interest rates on new models will be much lower than used.

Buying a Used PWC

There are many venues for purchasing a pre-owned PWC. Finding a used PWC can be as simple as searching these eBay listings or visiting a dealership. Before actually buying a used PWC, there are several things to request and look for in the watercraft. 

It is important to perform a careful inspection of both the engine and the exterior of the PWC to look for any visible signs of misuse or lack of maintenance. If desired, one can also have a trusted mechanic complete an inspection. 

The previous owner should also provide a history of maintenance, any mechanical issues or work completed, and the number of hours logged on the PWC. If geographically possible, the buyer can request a test drive too.

Generally, PWC engines last about 300 hours as a rule of thumb before needing major work. But well maintained units can go much longer.

A benefit of purchasing a pre-owned PWC includes spending less money on upfront costs. Not only will the PWC be less expensive, but many times the watercraft will also come with a trailer or other accessories.

For many first-time buyers and beginning riders, a used PWC is a wise choice to learn more about riding and general upkeep responsibilities.

It also gives new buyers experience getting used to all the financial components of PWC ownership.

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Pick up a shop manual if you buy a used ski

Most Popular Manufacturers and Models

After a potential buyer has determined the qualities desired in a PWC and the purchase method, he or she will have a better idea of what to look for in the different models available.

The most popular PWC manufacturers are Kawasaki, Sea-Doo, and Yamaha. Each company produces a wide variety of watercraft to meet the needs of all riders.

Knowing more about the top-performing and biggest value models from each manufacturer can help narrow down the plethora of choices available.

Top Kawasaki Models (2020)

Kawasaki produces the Jet Ski, which is the term that personal watercraft are commonly referred to as.

Of their line of Jet Skis, the SXR model is the lone stand-up PWC. It comes with a price tag of $9,999 and a four-stroke engine to comply with emission regulations. 

There is a small storage compartment that features more room than competitors’ similar models.

Additional features such as Bluetooth sound systems and seat upgrades are available as well.  The STX sit-down models are a mid-range choice that work well for multiple riders or families.

The PWC is priced under $10,000 and comes with a variety of features. The Smart Steering system helps to monitor steering and turns, as well as engine speed. 

Equipped with a large rear deck and reboarding step, the STX model works well for wakeboarders to pull themselves and the board back on the watercraft. 

Kawasaki also makes a line of sit-down models called Ultra Jet Skis. These are more expensive and will run from about $11,000 to $15,000 but are packed with extras.

High-quality sound systems, cruise control, a large storage capacity, and more comfortable seats make for a great riding experience for up to three people (source). 

Top Yamaha Models (2020)

The popular Waverunner from Yamaha is available in the categories of Luxury, Recreation, Rec-Lite, and Performance. Each category contains several models that offer a variety of features in a wide price range.

The EX series of Waverunners are in the Rec-Lite category and prices range from $7,000-9,000 depending on the desired features. These PWCs seat 1-3 people and are the most cost-efficient yet still a durable option for a PWC purchase from Yamaha.

Upgrades include the RIDE technology that provides a simple way to shift from drive to neutral to reverse, dual mirrors, and a reboarding step to make tow sports easier.

Waverunners in the LX series fall into the Recreation category. They start as low as $9,000, with the most expensive model costing about $12,000.

Seating 1-3 people, they also can be upgraded to include options such as reversing power, cruise assist with a low-RPM mode for safety, and a retractable boarding step. 

The FX collection has Luxury class Waverunners. These PWCs range in price from $14,000-18,000.

All the Waverunners in this category come equipped with a touch screen dashboard with security features and drive control, cruise control, beverage holders, and a mounting system for additional accessories. 

One upgrade to the standard features is an optional two package that includes a tube, tow rope, inflator, and fenders. Another option is the tech package with Bluetooth speakers and a GPS fish-finder.

The Yamaha SVHO is one of the options in the Performance category. This PWC costs around $14,000 and comes with a supercharged engine. With a racing-inspired seat and custom two-tone deck mats, the SVHO is not only fast but looks good on or off the water as well. 

The only stand-up model manufactured by Yamaha is the Superjet.  It runs around $9,000 and has a two-stroke engine with a fast acceleration that is perfect for the experienced rider to do tricks or tight maneuvers  (source). 

Top Sea-Doo Models (2020)

Sea-Doo manufactures PWCs in a multitude of categories, including Rec-Lite, Recreation, Touring, Tow Sports, Performance, and Sport Fishing.

The Spark model in the Rec-Lite category is one of the most popular PWCs on the market. Its low cost of around $5,000 and fun riding style makes it a good choice for those riders looking for a bit of an extra thrill. 

This model includes a brake and reverse system with optional features like portable audio systems and tow sports capabilities. Even with the low price tag, the Sea-Doo Spark is a reliable option for a PWC purchase. 

The recreation PWCs, called the GTI models, start around $9,000 and are suitable options for families and beginners. They have a large front storage area and detachable rear cargo system for carrying coolers and accessories, and additional riding modes of Sport and ECO. Upgrades to the GTI Sea-Doos include a more powerful engine and Bluetooth audio system.

The GTX models make up the Touring class, with base prices of $13,000. For the 2020 models, there are upgraded engines and increased fuel capacity.   With easily accessible front and rear storage, a variable trim system, and speed regular mode, the GTX PWCs offer a comfortable and stable ride for multiple riders. 

Add-ons include a Bluetooth audio system with USB port, storage bin organizer for added convenience, and additional gauges on the dashboard.  

The Tow Sports category has the Wake Sea-Doos that come fully equipped for those looking to wakeboard or tube from the PWC. The base model starts at $12,000 and includes room for three riders. 

The increased engine and storage space allows for more power and room for added fun. The quick-attach system for extra cargo and ski pylons, along with the removable wakeboard rack and ski mode, make this PWC jam-packed full of fun. 

Three models make up the Performance class, with the least expensive starting at around $12,000. These PWCs are suited for 2-3 riders and have powerful acceleration capabilities and powerful engines.

The top of the line model, the RXT-X 300 is able to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds with a 300 horsepower engine. It also features racing components such as seats and footwell wedges. We recently compared our 2015 RX models to the 2019 GTX Limited 300. It’s incredible how much things have changed in 5 years.

Fish Pro, the unique PWC designed for fishing, has a base price of $15,000 and a capacity for three riders.

Its features include a fishing cooler and bench seat, navigation and fish finder system, attachment points for poles, and an extended rear platform with a boarding ladder for ease in loading and unloading the watercraft (source). 

Additional Considerations

Beyond the cost of the PWC itself, additional financial components span from necessary expenses like transportation systems to tow package add-ons. Factoring in the potential cost of these items can help provide a more realistic budget plan.

Prolonged exposure to weather and elements can cause unwanted damage to a PWC. Having a garage or storage unit is the ideal situation. Still, it also might be possible to have a nearby recreation area store the PWC for a fee. Read my storage article for more suggestions.

For many PWC enthusiasts, it is necessary to plan for traveling to a body of water with one’s watercraft. Many people tow their PWCs on trailers, but there are also other options of transporting a PWC.

One could use a truck bed or on the hitch hauler (read my advice) connected to the back of a vehicle. Used skis might come with trailers, but new buys will require a hauling option purchase. 

While PWC owners most likely have both home and automobile insurance, these types of plans do not include coverage for watercraft. Purchasing PWC insurance can help protect oneself, other riders, and any damages and expenses incurred from an accident. 

More expensive PWCs require more expensive insurance policies, but taking steps such as completing boat safety courses can help lower annual costs.   

Just like other modes of transportation and recreational vehicles, there is a need for regular maintenance and repairs. At times repairs may be unexpected. Basic maintenance includes thoroughly flushing the engine, oil changes, and fluid checks.

Repairs might be necessary for riding in too shallow of water or as a part of owning an older watercraft.  Don’t run them in less than 3 feet, as I’ve previously posted. Both necessary and optional accessories should and can be purchased to ensure safety, comfort, and enjoyment.

First and foremost, owners might ensure that all riders have the correct sized life jackets. Having a cover for the PWC to protect against environmental and travel damage can help prolong the cosmetic integrity of a PWC.

Keeping one of our recommended anchors on board will allow riders to take a break or help make fishing a more relaxed experience. 

Some models of PWCs will come with additional accessories such as navigation and fish finder units, fishing racks for poles, mountable camera options, and speaker systems.

These modifications are also available for aftermarket purchase. Performance kits can be an exciting way to increase the speed and power produced from a PWC.

Speeds can be increased in excess of 80 mph for even more of an adrenaline rush. 

Final Thoughts

Once the choice is made to purchase a personal watercraft, many considerations must be taken into account before actually buying the PWC. When buying new, you get a warranty and will deal with a professional salesman. Shopping online will require eBay searches and closer inspection.

If you have the means of riding and caring for your PWC, it will be an enjoyable experience. Owning your own watercraft is a great way to enjoy summers on the water. 

With the plethora of PWC choices on the market for a wide variety of purposes and riders, completing research and reflecting upon needs and wants can go a long way towards getting the most value from your PWC purchase. 

Articles contain affiliate links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. The site is also an affiliate for other brands covered in our the content. We may earn a small commission when readers purchase through these links at no extra cost to the buyer.

Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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