Skip to main content

Project boat advice from the trenches

I’ve been buying boats for more than 50 years — sinking derelicts, kayaks, sailing dinghies, small power cruisers, center consoles and large motorsailers. Some have been new; most have not. I’ve learned some things in the process, through lessons hard and soft, and I’ll share a few here.

Image placeholder title

The impossible dream

If you want a boat, go do it, but do it sensibly. Many think they can justify buying a first or next boat by calling it a “project boat” and fixing it. We’ve seen people spend years trying to “fix ’er up” only to give up long before the job is done or even lose interest after it’s done because of the difficulties and the advanced arthritis and aging the project caused.

If you buy a house that’s a fixer-upper, you’re going to find a huge competitive market of products and tools. Stores such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s have a large customer base, most of whom are savvy about saving money and are doing many of the same things you’re doing. It’s a good buyer’s market to be in.

And to get work done on that house you don’t have to lift it into the air and put it in a yard besieged and strangled by EPA regulations, sitting on valuable waterfront property and paying high dollar to workers who, at least in theory, know something about the eccentricities of boat work. Also you’ll be part of a smaller market and, thus, may have less competitive buying power.

If you can’t do enough of the maintenance to fit it within your budget, don’t get that boat. But don’t despair, either. Get a different boat — newer or smaller or simpler — that’s more suited to you. Whether the boat is in a semisinking state, newish or new, there are going to be projects that you’ll have to do yourself or pay handsomely to have done. You’ll need to know your skills and abilities and be able to meaningfully assess your capacity to acquire new ones.

Easier said than done, you’re probably thinking. It is, but such is often true of the entire boating experience. Here are some tactics that will help.

1. Go over the entire boat thoroughly — on your hands and knees and slithering like a snake, if needed. Do this before you fork out the money for a surveyor. You’ll probably see things that you don’t understand or that you think are red flags. Ask the broker, dealer and/or seller. They should be able to tell you. If they can’t, they’re not doing a good job or perhaps they’re hiding something. Best-case scenario, you’ll better know whether you can afford the boat and be better informed as to what you’re getting and how to deal with it.

2. As you’re going over the boat, think not only about wires and plumbing and rot, etc., but also about how well it’ll suit the way you want to use it. Think about features such as spaces, getting out of the hole with a load, running in waves and all other features that may be relevant to the type of boating you expect to do.

3. Find a surveyor with a good reputation, preferably someone who doesn’t do a lot of work for the broker. The broker is going to want the sale to go down. A potential conflict of interest, even though the parties are good and honest people, can inadvertently skew opinions.

4. Go with the surveyor and ask him to explain what he’s seeing. Ask questions. If this is a boat for which a survey is inappropriate, at least find a knowledgeable friend to go over it with you in an informal survey.

5. Insist on a meaningful sea trial in relevant conditions. This will vary with the boat and its intended use. Sea-trialing a 30-foot express cruiser with no loading and nearly empty fuel and water tanks on flat water may not tell the whole story.

As you do this type of due diligence, if you begin to feel that you’re biting off more than you can chew or that the boat is not for you or you have other doubts, don’t hesitate to walk away or at least back away for a while to do some soul searching. Boats don’t die very quickly. There are plenty of used boats of all types out there. There are also plenty of new boats, with builders anxious to sell and anxious to turn out a product to get those sales. This means you can afford to investigate thoroughly to be sure what you get is what you want — now and in the future.

Get it right the first time

Charlie Koller is in the midst of a rehab of a Sisu 22 that was previously a workboat.

Moving up is a natural inclination. We all want to do it, whether it’s with cars, houses, jobs or boats. But this facet of life isn’t always a great idea when it comes to boats simply because it’s so expensive. I’ve never sold a boat for as much as I had in it. And I’ve been moving up with boats — as well as down and sideways — since I was around 10 years old. In my opinion, it’s best to get the biggest and nicest boat you can reasonably afford and handle, rather than buy a compromise with the idea that you can get what you really want later. I say this simply because of the cost.

Having said this, it goes without saying that if you’re really enjoying boating, you’re going to move from one boat to the next. But trading in boats every few years is not as practical as it is to trade in cars. When you buy that boat, think in terms of many years. For example, if you’re thinking about having children or grandchildren aboard, factor that in. You’ll want more than one sleeping area and maybe an aft cabin for separation of your sleeping area. If you’re getting to the point at which aches and pains are warning you that you’re losing mobility, factor that in. Look for boats with wide decks, comfortable spaces and extra maneuvering equipment, such as both bow and stern thrusters or a joystick system.

An investment but not a good one

Getting a boat is very different from other acquisitions, such as getting a car or a house. Many of the rules of thumb don’t apply, or apply differently. For example, if you buy a new car, it may depreciate about $10,000 or more when you drive it out of the dealership. Unless you enjoyed being in the stock market in the latter part of 2008, you probably don’t like feeling this much instant loss.

To make it worse, there’s not going to be much likelihood of the car regaining its value unless you keep it in a garage for 20 years or more until it becomes an antique, and you can find a wealthy masochist. If you buy a house and maintain it well — this isn’t very difficult, compared with boats — there’s a reasonable chance, depending on the market and whether you bought wisely, that you can get more when you sell it. Boats are in a different stratum of reality.



Boats deteriorate far less than cars. They aren’t sheet metal hurtling along over bumps and potholes. They do have to survive often horrendous conditions on the water, but there are a lot more 30- and 40-year-old boats still in regular use than cars that age. And after a number of years, you may be able to get close to what you paid, but those dollars are likely to be much less valuable.

It’s also true that you seldom get anywhere near the value of what you put into it for equipment such as engines, electronics, thrusters, etc. But if you’re buying this boat as a monetary investment, you’re missing the point. It’s an entirely different type of investment. A boat is a means to great pleasure, self-reliance, a feeling of independence, a realization of self-worth, family fun and communion with nature. The true value of these assets far exceeds what you get when you resell that boat.

Pig’s ear boats

Despite what I just said, it is possible to buy a boat and realize a monetary asset gain, but you need to have this in mind from the outset. The feasibility of this depends largely on the type of boat and its condition. A complex larger boat is less likely to work for this. Systems deteriorate, and even the boat itself may be more likely to deteriorate structurally.

For example, an express cruiser may need the air conditioning, refrigeration, thrusters, engines or generator replaced — it never stops. It may not need these when you buy the boat, but the more you use these items, the closer they come to their demise. You’ll need to replace or repair all of this fancy stuff before you can sell the boat for serious money, and the cost of replacing and repairing may kill any investment potential.

But there’s more to the “investment” idea. I’m not talking about buying boats for the purpose of “flipping” to turn a profit. Boats don’t readily lend themselves to this, and you really have to know what you’re doing. There is a category of boats that are relatively easy to bring up to par, maintain and repair. These are also good candidates for some appreciation on resale. Boats in this category generally are relatively small; well-built; simple, without a lot of systems; and have developed a good reputation over the years. They are usually fairly old and may be considered to be quasi-classics, even classics.

The fact that older fiberglass boats often had much more glass in them and much thicker hulls is important. I’ve seen quite a few new fiberglass boats that, in my opinion, were nowhere near as tough and well-built as older boats. You often find these older boats in a semi-abandoned state in somebody’s back yard or in a boatyard. They may look awful. But you know it’s a well-designed and built hull that has proven itself over the years. And being simple, there aren’t a lot of systems to repair and maintain.

Cleaning, painting, gelcoat repair, stripping and varnishing can be done by most people (perhaps in your garage) and can be very rewarding, not only personally but financially if you decide to resell.

Vintage Boston Whalers exemplify this type of boat. Bill Sisson, the editor-in-chief of Soundings, has a 1968 17-foot Boston Whaler Nauset that he lovingly restored and maintains. You’ve seen it many times in this magazine. Bill has some good advice: “Don’t buy an older boat that’s so obscure it doesn’t have a lot of fans. Look for features such as design pedigree, a proven hull and a popular following. Not only will this help if you later decide to resell, but you’ll find plenty of good advice and help from others who have the same boat.”

Certain older Makos also fall into this category. One of my boats is a 1985 20-foot Mako. I learned of the toughness and excellent sea-handling capability of this vintage Mako from running a slightly larger one, with essentially the same lines, for years in the Bahamas. When I saw one for sale in the States, I jumped. I have no thought of selling this boat, and I know it’s been a good investment. There are other makes and models out there that would fall into this category. You just have to know what you’re looking for. That pig’s ear sitting in a boat graveyard can become your very own silk purse.

The bad and the ugly can be good

I’ve bought many boats over the years that others have shied away from. This isn’t because I like to bust my knuckles fixing boats. I don’t, although it’s been known to happen. It’s because the boats had defects that were, according to consensus, considered to be very bad. Because I didn’t evaluate the defect as being that bad, I got good deals and good boats.

The first example that comes to mind is blisters. It’s the dirty word of dirty words among boat buyers. Admittedly, blisters aren’t good, and I’d rather have boats without them. But their reputation may unfairly demean specific boats. They aren’t necessarily as bad as many think.

Just how bad they are depends on several factors. They may simply be the pox in an outer layer, or might range to large, deep areas of delamination. The hull may be very thin and not very capable of sustaining blisters, or it may be so thick that it will take some serious blisters to really make a difference — at least in the near future. They may represent rampant delamination or not much at all.

I’ve seen hulls that didn’t show many blisters but had such delamination that you could peel off huge sections of the layup. I’ve seen bottoms covered with “bad” blisters that were only superficial pimples over a good hull and were relatively easy to repair and seal.

Repairing blisters is hard work, but it isn’t rocket science. I did an immense repair job on a 47-foot motorsailer. The physical work was very demanding, but getting a good repair was primarily a matter of muscle, time, good products and a little common sense. The result was a blister-free hull. I don’t recommend that anybody other than qualified professionals do a major blister job, but it may be something you want to do and can do well. If so, you may find a boat at a very low price.

Koller repairs a deck panel.

Another hated defect is moisture content in a fiberglass hull. It can usually be determined by that fearsome tool, the moisture meter. Most surveyors probably will strongly disagree with me — and they certainly have their point — but this wouldn’t necessarily turn me off to a boat I otherwise like. There are degrees of moisture, and I’ve seen many boats with high moisture content that did just fine for as long as I knew them.

I’ll never forget a poor fellow whose beloved sailboat abysmally failed the test of a surveyor’s moisture meter. The guy pulled it and stored it for a season inside a hermetically controlled building. At the end of the season, the moisture still pegged the meter. He kept it there for the winter. The meter read the same in the spring. Exasperated — and now curious — he kept it there about two years, and the meter still pegged. Of course, surveyors tried different meters to be sure there was no malfunction. The owner finally launched and started enjoying his boat again. This was many years ago, and the boat is still doing just fine, thank you.

So if I’m interested in a boat with moisture in the hull, I don’t necessarily walk away. First of all, I know it’s a boat. This is a foreign concept to many but not to me. Second, I know I’ll probably get a better deal. I would, however, have a surveyor spend extra time checking for actual damage development that could be associated with the moisture.

Yet another example of a traditional deal-killer is soft spots in fiberglass decks. Typically the balsa coring between two layers of fiberglass in the deck has rotted because water got in. Although this can be a serious issue, it can also be not so serious, depending on the circumstances. I’ve seen older boats on which the top and bottom fiberglass layers of the sandwich were so thick (thicker than most recently built hulls) that the area of rot didn’t make much of a difference. Also, if it’s not too widespread, this is a problem that the owner can fix. However, if the rot is underneath a stanchion, this indicates not only seriously improper construction technique but also the potential for stanchion mount failure. And softness in other areas, such as in a cored transom, would be a deal-killer for me, no matter how inexpensive the boat.

There are many more examples of boat problems that may not be as bad as all the magazines say and may open the door for you to get a better deal if you educate yourself as to exactly what to expect. I don’t mean to be cavalier. Depending on the severity and other circumstances, such issues can be very serious and dangerous.

If you’re thinking about buying a boat with an issue, have a detailed consultation with a qualified surveyor to be sure you’re getting what you think. Remember that he may feel compelled to give you the worst-case scenario. Don’t blame him for that; it’s part of his job. But let him know that you’ve heard him on the point and tell him that you also want to know the details of the issue on that particular boat.

There’s a major exception to what I’ve been saying here: It’s often a good idea to avoid “hurricane” boats or boats that have suffered from other major disasters. These are more likely to have major structural damage. They may have been cleaned up thoroughly, but if they’ve been under water, you may be able to find the signs, such as sand or mud in hidden areas well above the bilge.

Although some storm damage may be easily repaired, some is costly, though hardly noticeable without a thorough inspection. For example, wiring may look fine from the outside, but if it’s been submerged in salt water, it’ll be corroding under the insulation and turning green. It’ll probably all need to be replaced, and this could be a major expense.

Structural issues — for example, the separation of bulkheads, which support the hull — also may be hard to see and difficult to repair. Cosmetic issues, minor rigging replacement and canvas replacement usually should not be deal-killers if the price is right. Also, be careful of boats that have been sitting unattended and unused for a long time. The systems may have less hours of use, but because of that lack of use they may have more problems than others that have been well-used and maintained.

It ultimately gets down to the price being right. If you’re serious about a boat with serious issues, get a good idea — maybe a yard quote — on the cost of repair. You may get a good deal on a boat that, after some work, will long serve you well.

Also keep in mind the insidious continuous encroachment of government regulations. There are some old boats that would have to be completely rewired and replumbed (as to fuel) to pass a modern insurance survey. Some don’t have holding tanks and don’t have space to build them in. Thankfully there are still areas of the country where legislators and bureaucrats display both education and intelligence, and devices such as Raritan’s Electro Scan are allowed to be used.

Koller eyes up the teak platform he made for raising the center console.

Beware also of the glib use of reassuring phrases slipping from the mouths of brokers. “Oh, you just repower her.” Right. “Just repower” is like saying, “Just a heart transplant.” The engine that sits rusting away to oblivion in the bilge of your dream boat may no longer be available. And if it is, the mounting configuration may be different. Or the transmission may not be available unless it’s rebuilt.

Just removing an old engine and installing a new one often is as expensive as the engine itself. We’ve repowered and are very happy with the result. But when you’re buying the boat, spending all of those dollars “just repowering” may be like buying the boat twice.

Take your time and be flexible

Of course, you’ve seen the car ads where the smiling, bouncing family goes down to the dealer one Saturday, finds the car of their dreams and then “signs and drives,” all squealing enthusiastically. This isn’t the way to buy a boat. Boat buying should not be impulse buying or anything close to it.

Buying a boat can take a long time, maybe years from the time you first get the bug in your brain. This gives you time to do it right. It gives you time to really see what’s out there; to come up with a list of candidates, not only as to specific boats but also as to different types of boats; learn about the boats in which you may be interested; talk with people who have experience with those boats and do a lot of looking. The process is almost as much fun as owning the boat, and you’re more likely to end up with what you want.

During this process, you may find that your goals change, in terms of both size and type of boat. This is usually a good thing. Typically people start out wanting something big and fancy, but the elements of cost, dockage and maintenance screen out most of the fleet. Changing your sights to something smaller and simpler may give a lot more pleasure in the long run. Or your search parameters may run the other way.

Older boats that have good pedigrees, such as Tom's 1985 Mako, are worth looking into.

Regardless, you won’t really know until you spend a lot of time looking and trying out, at least in your head, the boats you find. As you spend that time looking, you may make some friends up and down the docks, and this could well lead to some educational rides aboard boats on your list. This can be invaluable, particularly as the owner tells you his likes and dislikes about the boat.

Chances are if you’re reading this magazine, there is — rattling around in the good part of your brain — the idea of getting your first boat or your next boat. Don’t let the idea die. Keep it realistic and enjoy the dream — and its realization.

June 2013 issue