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The Smart Buyer: Learning to buy with a discerning eye

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Having bought, sold, refit or built more than 40 boats, I like to think I have some idea what it’s about. Even though I’ve worked in the marine industry since 1973, I still find myself buying on emotion instead of sensibility.

You should know the type of boat you're looking for and how you will use it before talking to salespeople.

Buying anything of significant value is like making an investment; it is worthy of an educated plan of attack. This is what I like to call my “Boat Buyers Survival Kit,” and it can help all of us.

First of all, what are you going to do with this boat? Whether you fish, cruise, water ski or joy ride with the family, your evaluative approach should be the same. Identify, quantify and qualify. A center console, for instance, can handle most of these activities well, especially if it has a reasonable amount of seating. A bowrider is not great for fishing, but it does most everything else well, especially if you are on the more protected inland waterways or lakes. The key here is to look at what type of boat makes the most sense for your intended purpose.

The next step: Are you a new buyer or a used buyer? It doesn’t really matter. The process is the same. One thing I have preached for years is pedigree, pedigree, pedigree. Any time significant dollars are being expended, it’s important to consider the difference between spending and investing.

Buying just anything is spending. Buying something with a pedigree is as close to investing as you are going to get. Why does this matter? It’s simple. No one keeps a boat forever. In fact, I believe most buyers sell their boat after about five years. That means the boat you are preparing to buy today most likely will be back on the market in the not too distant future. Once you decide to sell the old girl, you will want it to move as soon as possible, and quite simply, pedigree sells.

Buying new is a totally different animal from buying used. Some will only buy new — a boat that is theirs and theirs alone — and that is understandable. New boats are like a car. They come from a dealer, and they come with a warranty. There is someone in your court to assist you with any issues that occur after the sale.

My advice is to be fair with your salesperson and dealer, and they will be fair to you. You catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Not everything on a boat is a dealer-warrantied item; check your paperwork carefully.

For those who buy used, the pedigree concept still comes into play, but with a caveat emptor. She may have low hours and appear to be well maintained and simply need detailing. Maybe she needs some minor damage repaired that the seller won’t fix before the sale. Always keep the sweat equity value in mind. What can you do yourself? What will be needed that will cost real dollars? Upholstery and canvas are important trimmings and are rarely do-it-yourself items; they can add significantly to your investment. Determine what will need to be done now and what could be added to a phased-upgrade list and done later.

The real key here is to use your eyes. I recommend hiring a qualified marine surveyor. Good surveyors use years of experience (without emotional attachment) to trust what their eyes are seeing and interpret what that means. If something looks wrong or out of place, chances are it is. Engines, for instance. If they look bad, that generally indicates a lack of maintenance. Most V-8s are marinized car engines, and rarely do they get the number of hours that car engines get. This means a good cleaning, some paint, and belts and hoses — and the cost of a tune-up can be fairly reasonable.

The basic hull structure usually is not an issue with a good-pedigree boat unless there has been severe damage or abuse. Keep in mind, however, that a good pedigree doesn’t guarantee a wood transom will be dry. Even then, as long as the bones are good, it may still be worthy of consideration, depending on the level of repair or restoration you are prepared to undertake.

Power or sail, new or used, the boat-buying experience can be an enjoyable one if you go into it with your eyes wide open and are armed with the tools of experience and knowledge. Enjoy the process, and happy boating.

Gordon Reed is a former yacht captain, marine surveyor, yacht yard manager and boatbuilder with 40 years of experience in nearly every phase of the marine business. He lives in Maine and is a yacht charter broker with Ed Hamilton & Co.

June 2014 issue