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Buying a Used Boat and Your Budget: Vintage Vessel Reality Check

buying a used boat

We are often asked to survey what we call “vintage vessels” over 20 years old. I would rather be thrown into a snake pit naked because you don’t know where you’ll get bit.

When I ask my clients why they want to buy the “old girl,” I often hear, “It’s what I can afford.”

Oh really!? What if an aluminum fuel tank that appears perfectly good today as one is able to view, then suddenly fails tomorrow? Do you have the $20k it will take to remove the engines, portions of the cabin sole, and furniture to get them out and back in? Only then to discover your marine insurance policy doesn’t cover corrosion. So, was it all that you could afford?

You, Sailor, purchase a vintage sailing vessel, and one of your stainless-steel chain plates pops off close hauled, and your rig goes over the side. If you’re lucky and manage to cut it loose before it skewers your boat, your next surprise is that the chain plates failed because of corrosion, which is not insurance-covered. You then find yourself out of a rig, all your new sails, and losing over $25k. What a deal. So, was it all that you could afford?

It has been our experience that stainless steel chain plates and their attachment bolts over ten years old have a high failure rate, especially if the vessel has been used to race or operated primarily in southern waters where salinity levels are high. Stainless steel is affected by many factors: cycle loading, crevice corrosion, oxygen deprivation, carbide precipitation, etc.

The prudent mariner will perform a random chain plate pull and thorough inspection when these components get in the eight to ten-year range and replace them if deemed necessary. This includes stainless steel stem irons. We suggest replacement after twelve to fifteen years as standard procedure.

One of the common failure points is where inboard chain plates penetrate the deck and coring, where seeping water, due to bedding compound breakdown, accelerates the normal wastage of these highly stressed components and their attachments. Only removal and X-ray or dye testing will reveal the true condition, and this was not done this date.

buying a used boat

Here’s another all too common scenario: The soon-to-be sport fisherman has an engine survey done on his engines before purchasing the vessel, but the loose cap rod bolt on the #2 piston left bank has been hiding down there for Lord knows how long and suddenly decides to let go and a connecting rod unpleasantly protrudes through the block. Your mechanic informs you that it’s $17k for the repair. That’s a lot of bait money. Again, was the boat really all you could afford when you decided to purchase it?

Your surveyor informs you there is moisture in the deck and that you won’t know how much it will cost you till you write the last repair check because you won’t know the extent of the moisture and coring decay until you get into the repair. But Mama really likes the upholstery, and you find it’s a measly $24-30k to fix the deck. What a deal!

Need I tell you about the exhaust, plumbing, and electrical systems, all of which have been working hard in the most hostile environments for quite some time?

The eggshell you depend on to keep you floating has been slamming through rough seas, bending, twisting, and deforming and is subject to doing some freaky things that only complete disassembly could discover.

If you buy this old girl and get a marine insurance policy from a professional gambler, read the exclusions, and if you don’t understand the language, call your agent and get an interpretation. You’ll be surprised what you aren’t covered for.

Buying a Used Boat: So, Neil, are you telling me not to buy the old girl? No, I’m not. This is a reality check

what to look for when buying a used boat

for you, starry-eyed, adventure-seeking, potential-second-mortgage-holder, to fix the boat.

If you buy this vintage vessel, be prepared to own it and take responsibility for your decision. I have just about broken everything on a boat you can break and paid for it out of my own pocket. I am going to tell you, as a client, the risk you are about to take. Who knows, you may get lucky. My take is that boats actually float on mercy, but mercy for boats eventually runs out and lo to the poor soul on the boat when it does.

Surveyors don’t take boats apart. We do not take engines apart. We do not remove chain plates, propeller shafts, wiring, or plumbing runs that go through bulkheads. We get on boats and look and listen to what the ship whispers in our ears. I hear lots of the same stories from these old girls. Man, am I tired and ready to go to the old boats’ home.

In conclusion, I have written a letter to you, prospective vintage boat buyers, and here it is:

My surveyor has informed me that I am purchasing a vessel that has experienced considerable wear and tear in a highly hostile environment. He has further explained that I may be forced to expend considerable sums of money that I have worked hard for due to my lapse in judgment because many areas on this vintage vessel cannot be inspected due to necessary dismantling or disassembly. I further state that I am not a victim, and if I purchase this vessel, it is solely mine, and I take full responsibility for ownership and my decision. My surveyor is to be held harmless because he explained to me that I’m nuts.

One last thing you may wish to consider about older boats is that many underwriters no longer insure 20-year or older boats because their loss ratios are higher, and you can count on higher premiums.

As a sailor and a Marine Surveyor for the past 44+ years, I’ve probably forgotten more than anyone on this planet knows about boats. I impart wisdom from many years of experience to my clients, and I will give you the best advice when considering any boat purchase. I will listen to your cruising goals and determine if the boat suits your needs and expectations. Schedule a Boat Buyer Consultation with me today – it could save you heartache and a lot of monetary grief and ensure you have fond memories of sailing.

© Neil K. Haynes (Originally published June 15, 2005)


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