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Interest in boating has picked up months before the spring thaw.
Dealerships and industry experts say the steep decline in boat sales during the recession has reversed, with business inching back to more normal levels.
New powerboat sales were up 10 percent in 2012, the industry's first sign of recovery, and this year powerboat sales are expected to be up another 5 percent to 7 percent, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
"The housing market has improved, consumer confidence has steadily increased the last two years, and spending is on the rise. All of those are factors that are helping to fuel stable growth for the U.S. recreational boating industry," Thom Dammrich, the group's president, said in a statement.
If the economy continues to improve, boating ought to have sustained growth this year and into 2015 and 2016, according to Dammrich.
Leading the industry's growth are small fiberglass and aluminum outboard boats 26 feet or less in size, which continued their upward climb in 2013 with a 6.7 percent increase in the number of boats sold. Ski and wakeboard boats also did well, with sales up 11.7 percent.
January is one of the strongest months for boat sales as manufacturers and dealerships offer incentives at shows where they hope to land early business and gauge consumer sentiment for the rest of the year. Many of those buyers will take delivery in the spring.
Buyers come to the shows armed with hours of research they've done on the Internet, which can expedite their buying decisions, said Mark Gaska, with M-W Marine in Hales Corners, Wis.
"We had a 2014 preview show in December where more than 300 people came on a Saturday. Considering it was a day when they could have been Christmas shopping, that was remarkable," Gaska said.
Some of the manufacturers offer several thousand dollars in incentives to buy a boat in January and take delivery of it later.
The shows also help dealerships generate customer leads, said Charles Plueddeman, a freelance writer from Fond du Lac, Wis., who has covered the marine industry for many years.
"Nobody is predicting a big, sudden surge in demand for boats. I think they're looking at slow, steady gains," Plueddeman said.
The boating industry was decimated by the recession, largely because sales depend on access to credit, including home equity loans.
Last spring, a shortage of late-model used boats sent prices higher and dealerships sought trade-ins to augment their inventory. In some cases, people paid roughly 25 percent above the suggested retail price for a used boat that was only a few years old and was in very good shape, according to dealerships, and sellers were getting up to 50 percent more from selling a boat on their own compared with accepting the trade-in value.
This year, manufacturers have boosted production. There will be more new boats available, according to the Boat Owners Association of the United States.