The Smart Buyer - What to consider when considering a refit

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Refitting a boat can be an enjoyable and rewarding task if you undertake it with the proper attitude and planning. For the purposes of this article, I’ll limit the discussion to smaller boats, as refits on larger yachts generally include project managers, interior designers and naval architects.

The refit of this Mako involved building a full-height transom to accept an engine bracket.

A boat’s pedigree should be part of your decision to proceed; quality sells, and an investment in quality simply makes sense. However, if you are entering into this process thinking it will be potentially profitable, you may want to rethink it. In my experience, “flipping” boats is not like flipping houses.

Deciding whether to refit usually involves one of two scenarios: You own the boat and are evaluating a refit for yourself, or you’re looking to buy a boat — usually at a reduced price — that needs work. Either way, I recommend a good survey as the first step.

If you own the boat, the survey will uncover any issues you may not be aware of, and the report can form an outline of what needs to be done. Surveyors can help you prioritize the work and offer guidance on pricing out projects. In addition, they generally spend enough time around service yards to offer advice about who can best accomplish the work.

Your project generally will include one or more of the five facets of a boat: structural, mechanical, electrical, electronic and cosmetic. If you’re initiating the project, you can start by thinking about what work items you can accomplish yourself and what a yard or subcontractor will need to do. At this point, you need to decide whether you can afford the entire project in one shot or whether it will be done in phases. This is where priorities come into play.

Assuming the overall structure is sound — and, frankly, you shouldn’t refit the boat if it isn’t — engines are usually first on the list for rebuild or replacement. A rebuild is usually less expensive, but if replacement is the choice — because of need or to increase horsepower — the labor hours can be significant. Controls, gauges, engine beds, shafts, stuffing boxes, struts and props may need to be changed. This will add significantly to the substantial cost of just the engine.

Choose wisely: Some engines require more work because they’re incompatible with existing components. For example, if you are converting from sterndrive to outboard, the cost won’t just be the outboards and the bracket. You’ll have some pretty big holes to fill in the hull, as well.

Electrical systems generally need a fairly simple review. Inspect all connections, check circuit protection and replace any corroded components. As equipment is added during the refit, confirm that wire types and sizes meet American Boat & Yacht Council and National Fire Protection Association standards. Make sure all circuits are properly load-balanced.

Primary battery wiring is critical, especially for effective engine starting. It must be an appropriate gauge, based upon length of runs, and must be protected by a master cut-off switch.

Upgrading your electronics suite is pretty straightforward. What do you have room for at the helm and in your wallet? There is a lot to choose from, and most of it is quite good, so it comes down to features and cost.

Cosmetics are usually the final stage in the refit, and this has a special place in my heart. I love to varnish and paint, and I enjoy the artistic freedom this offers. A boat’s personality can be changed by the choice of non-standard colors, stripes and soft goods.

A change in hull color is often the first choice. It’s generally not inexpensive, but it yields the most dramatic and gratifying results. Refinishing the deck and house is less popular, as costs go up exponentially because there are myriad surfaces, hardware, windows and non-skid patterns. Today’s linear polyurethane paints come in an incredible variety of colors, and when applied properly and given proper care they look great for many years.

There are some repairs that can push your budget past the cost of a similar boat that’s in better shape. For example, if the hull or transom has wet or deteriorated coring, you may be better off finding another boat. And with large fiberglass repairs, the structural work generally goes quickly, but the final fairing and finishing can throw your labor estimates out the window.

There is one project I wish I hadn’t undertaken. I paid very little for the boat, and then I went too far redesigning portions of the structure and reconfiguring windows, and I replaced every system. Then I hired a pro to do a top-to-bottom refinish. I chose everything for my taste, though I know that isn’t the most sensible approach. I sold the boat after over a year on the market and recovered about 30 cents on the dollar — without factoring in my labor. Don’t fall into that trap.

A refit is a great way to improve and update your boat or get more boat for the money a smaller new model would cost. I’ve done many projects on boats from 17 to 76 feet and have enjoyed every one of them. There were challenges, and some cost more and took longer than expected, but if you plan your work and stick to your plan, the process will be an enjoyable one.

July 2014 issue