Winter Boat Buying

First published 12/9/88 in several Maryland newspapers

Winter boat buying

by Tom Dove

While most people are turning their thoughts from boating to winter sports, a few astute folks are roaming through marinas, looking for bargains in used boats.

This is the time of year to do it. Many boats have been hauled out of the water for the cold months and are in a perfect position for a buyer to make a detailed inspection. Their owners are not thinking about the summer boating season and may be receptive to offers. Some of them may want to sell before the end of the calendar year for bookkeeping or tax reasons.

A used vessel ashore for the winter is a forlorn object. Out of its element, with old bottom paint and barnacles exposed to view and its scruffy topsides exactly at eye level, it is like a glamorous model who has been spotted at the local supermarket in an old sweatsuit and without makeup. All of these factors make winter boat shopping an exercise in reality in a sport that relies heavily on fantasy.

As you stand before it in the cold December air, it is relatively easy to concentrate on what a used boat will need in the way of resotration rather than how it will make you feel when it is anchored in a quiet cove or docked beside a classy waterfront hotel.

Certainly, used boats are better values than new ones. A new, standard production vessel in the 30-35 foot range may easily cost more than $100,000 if it is made by one of the better builders. Even a low-priced, cheaply-built one with a short equipment list may cost $60,000 new. You can buy a comparable ten- to fifteen-year-old boat from a reputable builder for about one-third of that amount and, with a modest amount of work and/or cash, have the equal of the new one.

Boats are not like cars; they do not wear out unless they are very badly abused. When you buy a used boat, you normally get a complete, working package. It will have anchors, fenders, docklines and lots of other accessories you would have to purchase for your new boat before you could go out on the water. They may not be in perfect shape, but you can replace them gradually and enjoy the boat in  the meantime.

A used boat has already been ‘debugged’ by its first owner. Any new vessel has defects that must be corrected by the builder or dealer and the second buyer is spared the hassle of curing them. On the negative side, the engine may need work, sails (if any) will be old and nearing the end of their useful lives, and other mechanical and electronic devices aboard will be of obsolete design and advancing age.

Let’s take an example: a Tartan 34 is a good, solid sailboat. One built in the mid-’70s and still in pretty good shape can be bought for about $35,000. Even if you have to replace the sails, have the interior completely reupholstered, and install a new diesel engine, you are unlikely to spend much more than $12,000 to renovate the boat to near-new condition.  If you are willing to live with the old features and replace a few parts each year, you can have the use of a steadily-improving vessel with a manageable cash outlay. When you finish, you have the equivalent of a $95,000 boat for $47,000 without the onerous monthly payment that goes with the higher price.

Similar economies work with powerboats. I would rather put money into a substantial fifteen-year-old Bertram, Egg Harbor or Hatteras than to spend more on a brand-new ‘affordable’ boat that handles like a milk carton and will look ratty in a few years.

When you locate a boat and decide to make an offer on it, you should always have the sale contingent on a satisfactory condition report from a marine surveyor. The survey will be at your expense and may cost several hundred dollars, but it is always worth it. Look in the Yellow Pages or in a boating publication for names of surveyors, or ask a knowledgeable boating friend to recommend one.

There are many well-made vessels that are worth seeking out in the cold Bay boatyards of December. They do not have the smell of a new boat just out of the factory and there are no vases of flowers on the tables, but they are gems, all the same.

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