My editor is stalking me at church now, so I had to get something up here...
(editors note: That's true...)
I have acquired boats through several different sources; so far only one has been new. I'm in the market for a couple more now, so I thought I'd put together some thoughts on different sources and options. Buying brand-new can be great, but buying a used boat can create a story of it's own.
I don't have room to go into detail about all our purchases, but our boats have come through eBay, online ads, trading with and buying from friends and being in the right place at the right time.
Our first boat was a tandem we happened across in Pennsylvania while on a weekend getaway. We had low expectations when we stopped in a kayak shop near the Youghiogheny River, since we were in a whitewater paddling area looking for a tandem, but we were pleasantly surprised to find out the guy in the shop was a rep for LiquidLogic and had a Zirconia demo he was looking to unload. A short time later we were headed home with a boat longer than our car strapped to the roof rack.
Even though you can buy boat at Menard's, Marshall's or Meijer, that doesn't mean you should, especially if you are looking for something for more than an easy paddle around the lake. Dick's and Dunham's carry several brands and styles and their prices are hard to beat, especially with end of season sales and coupons. But for expertise and advice you usually can't beat an outfitter or paddling store.
Rusted Moon Outfitters in Broad Ripple and J.L. Waters in Bloomington carry several brands and styles of boats and have staff who can discuss the pros and cons of each. Fluid Fun in Bristol, Indiana is right on the St. Joe River so you can easily have a test paddle, and the website says they have 400 boats on hand. They also have good advice on selecting a boat on their site. In spite of the name, Whitewater Warehouse in Dayton, Ohio also carries several styles of boats, and is located on the Mad River with an easy access for test paddles. Their hours are non-standard, so check the website before you go.
If you're comfortable with Craigslist and finding what you want, Searchtempest.com may be the tool you need. It lets you search CL within a price range, radius of your location, and use keywords, (word to the wise: if you put in kayak, also put in -pool) then export the search to an RSS feed that Outlook or any RSS feed reader can continually update for you, saving a lot of time searching.
A test paddle is not always possible, but definitely a plus when selecting a boat. At least sit in the boat for several minutes and make sure your feet fit, and that the seat can be adjusted so you're comfortable. Many boats on Craigslist have only been paddled a few times because the owner isn't comfortable with the fit or the stability once they get on the water.
The fit and feel of a boat are very personal. Boats with good secondary stability my make a new paddler uneasy because they feel like they are going to easily tip over, but the same boat may feel sluggish to a more experienced paddler. Try as many boats as possible before you buy so that you can make an informed decision and get something you're happy with.