Buying an older boat

don’t be afraid… just know what you’re getting into

The used boat market is pretty frantic these days. Inventory is low, and it seems like when you do find a boat and inquire it’s already on contract or sold. There’s a variety of reasons for this, which is a topic for another day, but if you’re the ‘right’ buyer, you may want to consider an older boat. Unlike the late model boats with all the bells and whistles, older boats tend to take a little while longer to sell. You may not have thought about buying a 20, 30, or even 40 year old boat – many people wouldn’t – but you might want to consider it.

Every boat requires time and effort to be kept in a healthy state, and the older a boat gets this commitment is only going to get deeper, so what do I mean by the ‘right’ buyer? I don’t think it’s a first time boat owner. It’s probably someone who grew up in boats and wants to continue, or maybe re-establish, their boating journey. It needs to be someone who has a bone-deep love for boats and boating. It’s someone who, once they sign up to buy an older boat, believes they are as much a caretaker as an owner.

pros and cons

The first obvious benefit of buying older is purchase price. A well built, well equipped 30 year old boat from a reputable builder will cost a small – and I mean small – fraction of what a new model costs. Whether or not it’s actually a viable candidate to buy will depend on how well it’s been maintained. More on that later.

Another plus is older boats tend to have a fairly distinctive look, much different than the modern cookie cutter affairs you see on the waterfront. If you want something that doesn’t look like everything else, try looking for something older.

Early fiberglass hulls tended to be overbuilt, that is, more ‘glass was used to form the hull than was really necessary. Over time, in the interest of efficiency, builders figured out the minimum needed to do the job. (arguably, some builders have pushed this envelope a little too far) Nowadays, these old hulls are commonly referred to as being ‘built like a tank’. All this points to the fact that an older hull, if not compromised in some way, may well have ‘good bones’ that are going to last a long time.

it’s not all unicorns and rainbows

Let’s be clear eyed about this. For every ‘pro’ an older boat has, there will be one or more ‘cons’. The manufacturer may have been out of business for decades. Parts may be hard to find. Well intended – but less than proficient – previous do-it-yourself owners may have compromised woodwork, electrical, plumbing, and other systems. Maybe it’s got teak decks and/or acres of exterior brightwork which can be man-hour black holes as well as sources for long term water intrusion (soft decks, anyone?) Maybe she’s got so many deferred items that she’s become a ‘project boat’, meaning you’ll be spending more time working than boating, which is a sure recipe for familial unhappiness.

I’ve helped quite a few folks navigate this process, so here are a few thoughts I’d offer if you’re still reading and ready to consider an older boat.

mitigate the risks

You can largely mitigate risk by removing unknowns. Start by using the services of a professional broker who will protect your fiduciary interest, be your staunch ally, and help navigate the process. Once you have the boat on contract, it goes without saying that you’ll have a reputable surveyor perform a complete pre-purchase survey which will include a thorough in and out of water inspection as well as a trial run. Do some research to ensure the surveyor you select is highly experienced. Discuss how he plans to document items that may work just fine but are not consistent with current ABYC codes, because the boat may have been built decades before the standards were put in place. You want him to identify these items, because that’s his job. However, if he classifies these items as ‘urgent’ or ‘critical’ you may have problems with your insurance company once you send them the survey report as a precondition to binding coverage. You may also find additional peace of mind by hiring a dedicated engine surveyor who will focus solely on the powerplant(s). The subsequent written reports help present a focused picture of the boat’s current health which helps keep things objective, particularly if renegotiation of the original purchase and sale agreement terms occurs post-survey, which is common. Assuming there are no show-stoppers and you move forward with the deal, another benefit of survey reports is they serve as a great starter kit for your ‘to do’ list.


If the builder is no longer in business, what was their reputation? Well built boats tend to weather the stress of age better than more cheaply made examples. However, even quality built boats will not stand up well over time to negligent or careless owners. Each boat, regardless of builder, needs to be judged on its own merits.

The right seller

The right seller is just as important as the right buyer. As a boat ages, its got two potential paths, and unfortunately it doesn’t get to choose. It either passes through a chain of dedicated owners, or it doesn’t. It’s not hard to figure out which path the boat is on by looking at it. Ideally the old gal has had a small number of committed owners. My non-scientific theory is that the less owners a boat has had, the better its condition will typically be. I recently read about a sailboat built in 1956 – and still in regular use -being offered for sale by the original family. I’ll bet you a cold coke it’s a good boat.

The internet knows everything

Once you buy the boat, remember that you are not alone. Somebody else has had the problem/project/issue that you are currently facing, and more to the point there are many knowledgable, helpful folks that share what they have learned online. You’ll need to spend some time looking, but it won’t take long to separate the trustworthy advice from the noise. Also, there are many owners groups out there for various brands so research those too.

know your limitations

It’s important to be honest with yourself – before you buy the boat – about what you’re able to do proficiently and what would better be left to a professional. If you don’t already have one, build a small, trusted network of mechanics and vendors. This may be easier said than done, but you can start by asking around the docks for first hand recommendations. Once you find those gems, and they do good work for you, take good care of them in return.

get organized

Maybe you got lucky and have been handed down meticulous maintenance records dating back to the boat’s initial launch, but if you’re like the other 98% of us you’ll need to build your own documentation. You can create an ‘owners manual’ by pulling info off the web on your installed equipment. Build a spreadsheet, or if you’re not computer savvy then dedicate a couple notebooks to the task. For our 41 year old boat, in addition to building an electronic ship’s log, I’ve built a spreadsheet with three tabs – projects, scheduled maintenance and unscheduled maintenance. The project sheet helps organize my thoughts and gives me a place to brainstorm ideas and includes everything from ‘replace curtains’ to ‘install washdown pump’. Scheduled maintenance includes just that – service intervals as recommended by the OEM for every installed piece of equipment that needs periodic servicing. Once again, the internet is your friend for populating this information. Unscheduled maintenance gives me a place to add all the stuff that isn’t working optimally or just needs to be fixed outright. Truth be told, I have a fourth tab, called ‘the varnish plan’, which helps me wrap my head around all the areas that are finished bright so I can prioritize what needs attention the most. This will be an unending task of course, but I signed up for it when I bought the boat. As a grizzled squadron CO once told me, “it comes with the patch.”

enjoy the boat!

Amidst all this caretaking, don’t forget to enjoy the boat. It’s why you bought it. As you sit and relax with a cold beverage and look around your eyes will invariably stop at things that need attention. As long as it doesn’t involve water entering the boat in an alarming fashion, that’s ok. Put it on the list for later. For now, take some deep breaths, be at peace, and enjoy.

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