Anybody who has ever fixed up a house before putting it on the market knows the smart money is spent renovating kitchens and bathrooms. Sure, you can dump a bunch of cash into wall-to-wall carpeting or a new surround-sound system, but those types of upgrades rarely bring the return on investment that a new kitchen or bathroom will. Similarly, when it comes to production powerboats up to about 60 feet length overall, experts say there are several types of refit projects that tend to pay off for anyone trying to spruce up a boat for sale. There are, of course, caveats, starting with the fact that every boat owner has a budget. “We’ve done refits ranging from $30,000 to $200,000 on boats between 30 and 40 feet,” says Matt Graham, chief operating officer at Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in Maine. “It really depends on what the owner is trying to do.” Still, he and others say, when the plan is to try and sell the boat, certain projects should be at the top of the list for consideration. Here’s a look at their advice.
With older, production-built powerboats—especially those with gas engines—the top refit project most experts suggest is a repower. “A lot of the ones we’ve done—especially boats from the 1990s—have old gasoline engines. At this point, their useful life is done, so we generally lean toward replacing them,” Graham says. “A lot of them are at the end of their useful life, and frankly, they’re pretty outdated anyway. It doesn’t matter whether you want to sell the boat or want trouble-free use for the next 20 years. I would replace it.”
John O’Connor, general manager of Safe Harbor New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, also says the biggest return on investment is often a repower. His yard sees many requests to replace older gas engines with newer diesel power plants, but that’s not always possible. “It’s tough on the purpose-built production boats, where they’re designed and set up to be, say, an inboard-outboard, the engine space doesn’t necessarily lend itself to doing anything different,” O’Connor says. “So, you would have to replace propulsion with a like-kind engine.”
James Knight, founder and CEO of Yacht Tech Inc. in Florida and Washington state—which services and refits Nordhavn builds—says making sure engines are in top-notch condition is also his number one recommendation. “A lot of people are buying these boats because they’re ocean-crossing machines, and many of them are single-engine boats,” Knight says. “It’s super-important that the engines are maintained to a good standard.”
Brook Streit, sales engineer at Kraft Power Corp. in New Jersey, says changing a boat from gas to diesel inboards can bring a big upswing in value. “I was just talking to a guy who had a 40-something Bertram with gas inboards, and the same boat that had been repowered was worth $100,000 more. It’s a big difference,” he says.
It’s also a big-ticket refit item. On a boat about 26 feet long with a single engine, the cost for a gas-to-diesel repower will likely be in the ballpark of $40,000, Streit says; on some types of 50-footers with twin screws, the cost of the engines alone can be about $70,000. However, the sales pitch for selling the boat after the repower can dramatically improve, he adds. “Even going diesel to diesel, if you have an older boat, we can put in something with almost 200 more horsepower, and the engine weighs less than the original engine, and it burns less fuel. Plus, it’s a clean-burning, common-rail engine,” Streit says. “So you go from cruising at 12 knots to cruising at 22 knots, and you’re burning the same amount or less fuel, depending on how the boat is laid out.”
SOFT SPOTS IN THE CORE
Another area of primary concern, experts say, should be making sure that a boat has no soft spots that indicate water damage in the core. “A lot of old powerboats sometimes have core issues between the composite layers,” Graham says. “It might be rotted, especially if it’s balsa. So, I would take care of that. It can be a pretty big job, but it’s something that will stand out on a survey if you have soft spots on the boat.”
Water damage on older boats can also affect interiors, which start to break down, so items such as leaky portlights, hatches and windows may need fixing. When thinking about whether to invest in major interior work, though, Graham urges boat owners to consider other options. “There are some cheap ways to upgrade interiors, but if you’re looking to sell the boat, I wouldn’t,” he says. “Most owners ask us to provide an estimate and then leave it up to the buyer. With our design department, we’ve even shown how some upgrades could be made, like splitting a big cabin into two cabins, with a rough estimate of how much it would cost.”
It only takes a couple thousand dollars to create plans of that nature, he says—a much less expensive and safer resale investment than doing the actual refit work. “Things like changing the cockpit seating or turning an open cockpit into a three-season boat, we can draw all that, and then you’re not doing something that a potential owner might not want,” he says. “In a boat up to 60 feet, you’re getting all kinds of uses. Some people live on boats that size. Others just use them to commute a couple times a year.”
Alternatively, though, on boats where the new owner will likely have a similar use pattern as the previous owner, and where there are few boats of a certain type on the brokerage market—say, with a long-range cruiser like a Nordhavn—investing in an interior refresh can be smart. “The market has changed a lot recently,” Knight says of the Nordhavns. “Recently, we had people walk on board a boat and admire its beautiful headliner, carpeting and cushions. Even though it needed some maintenance, they bought it. I think it’s because there are so few boats on the market, and people are in a rush to make a decision.”
The next refit investment that experts typically recommend is the addition of convenience features—especially in today’s market, where it’s often newer boaters doing the shopping. “Anything that actually makes the handling of the vessel easier is usually a good idea,” O’Connor says. “Upgraded bow thrusters and stern thrusters, that sort of thing.”
Convenience features can also mean systems that allow for remote monitoring of everything from bilge pumps to security systems. More than ever, boat buyers feel such items are must-haves, as opposed to nice-to-haves. “The way people boat nowadays is different from 20 years ago,” O’Connor says. “Being on an NMEA backbone, for instance, lends itself to things like remote monitoring that gives people peace of mind.”
Graham agrees: “I’d also look at whether a boat is connected to an NMEA 2000 backbone. It can be really nice, especially for seasonal boats in the Northeast.”
ALL THE REST
Most other refit projects are basically a dealer’s choice, the experts say. They might be nice to do, to create the equivalent of “curb appeal” for a boat, but they’re not likely to bring as big of a return on investment.
“Other upgraded amenities are tough to speak to,” O’Connor says. “People all use their boats differently. But if you’re upgrading something like refrigeration, that’s important. And air conditioning, that’s another job that we will typically get into as people are doing upgrades. They’ll swap out the old units because the technology has gotten a lot better. You can add to an existing system that’s not performing well.”
Helm electronics, he says, should be lower on a refit list, if they’re on the list at all, because a lot of boaters have a personal preference for certain brands.
Knight agrees, adding that technology changes very quickly. Helm electronics that are installed at the beginning of a refit might not be the top-of-the-line equipment by the time the upgrade is done and the boat goes up for sale. “Sellers focus in on electronics early, but I think that’s a mistake,” Knight says of the Nordhavns. “A lot of these boats have old Furuno systems that work quite well and can get you around the world. But buyers might want the latest and greatest and could be willing to change that on their own. So, I put electronics lower on the list of refits to consider.”
This article was originally published in the January 2023 issue.