Buying a boat: an expert guide to avoiding the pitfalls

Upgrading, downsizing or buying a boat for the first time can be a nerve wracking experiencing. Theo Stocker talks to a new owner, a boat buyer and a broker about the pitfalls to avoid

Whether you’re dreaming about buying your first boat, or you’ve been a boat owner for years, it’s worth considering whether the boat you currently own, or plan to own, is right for the kind of sailing you do.

If you bought a boat to realise your dreams of the wide horizon, but you spend your weekends marina hopping, then handling and keeping an ocean-capable yacht might take the shine off boat ownership.

Equally, cramming a family of five into a 22-footer for a fortnight’s Channel cruise can be done, but is everyone going to enjoy it and want to come back?

A Westerly Konsort alongside a marina

Think about the sailing you plan to do when narrowing down your choice of boat. Credit: Alun Jones

The process of buying a boats can be daunting.

It involves big sums of money and you may be emotionally attached to your current boat.

Nor do you want to buy a dud.

A little chutzpah, however, goes a long way when taking the plunge to buy your first boat or change to a boat that suits you better.

Buying a boat: Choosing the right kind of yacht

Alun Jones, now the proud owner of a bilge-keeled Westerly Konsort, recounts his journey to first-time boat ownership

Without realising it, I think I had always wanted my own boat.

I devoured the Arthur Ransome books as a kid, sailed dinghies at school, and then joined the Royal Navy and crossed the oceans as the First Lieutenant of a Destroyer.

I had once owned a Cornish Cormorant dinghy which I sailed with my three boys, but having sold her in the sort of fine condition that breaks your heart, I was feeling the pang of no longer being a boat owner and I knew I had to find an affordable way of getting back in the game, but this time something bigger.

In life, whether it’s having a child or buying a boat, there’s never a ‘good time’, but there is always a ‘too late’.

Thus spurred, the next target was to get myself an affordable yacht, but which one would suit?

Enjoy the search

I found the search for the perfect yacht to be fantastic therapy in its own right, and there’s plenty of advice out there.

As I trawled the internet, I settled my heart on many, many different types, from Cornish Crabbers to a Westerly W33 ketch and everything between.

Learning as I went, I could start to narrow the search.

When buying a boat, make sure the boat suits all parties involved in the purchase.

When buying a boat, make sure the boat suits all parties involved in the purchase. Credit: Theo Stocker

For example, once you have decided to keep the boat in Wales, you have to give serious consideration to a bilge keeler for access to more of the half-tide ports, but that assumes speed is not vital.

You also have to be honest about your own ability, the number and experience level of your crew and the interest level of your family.

When you factor in price to all this, including a margin to complete all those necessary jobs, you may find yourself paying a bit more attention to those old Westerlies than you ever expected.

For me it was a short step from there to a Westerly Konsort.

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Having settled on a model, I spoke to the most experienced sailor I knew, my boss, Paul, and devoured his advice like Holy Scripture.

He said sagely, ‘As long as the survey says the hull is ok, you need to be aware of three big investments. The engine is vital and expensive to replace, your standing rigging keeps the mast from falling down, and the sails are your main propulsion, so make sure they’re all in good condition. The rest of it is up to you.’

I reverted to web surfing, and found the array of boats available and the range of prices baffling.

In the meantime I researched everything about my new home waters and about boat ownership.

Remembering an old Admiral’s advice to introduce family to the boat slowly and with gin and tonic, I opted for a pontoon berth in Penarth Marina over a cheaper mud berth.

Buying the boat

At this point things took a genuinely bizarre turn, for which I thank my good fortune.

Having heard me bang on about sailing at some point, a good friend of my wife got in touch to say that her father was getting too old to sail the family boat – wait for it – a Westerly Konsort bilge keeler, and would we like to buy her?

I fired off all the questions my months of research had taught me, and learned she had a new engine (25 hours on the clock) and was well-maintained and recently surveyed.

And a good price too.

We had a family discussion about whether this was a ‘good time’ and decided that it wasn’t, but there would never be a better one, so I called the broker and put down a 10% deposit before I had even seen her.

I then set off up the length of Wales to Port Dinorwic to reassure myself I wasn’t mad! I wasn’t.

Boats in a drying harbour in the UK

Knowing that he would want to sail into drying harbours, Alun opted for a bilge-keel. Credit: Alun Jones

Astraeus, built in 1979 and owned for 25 years by the vendors, was well-equipped but a little tired in places.

Alun Jones

Alun Jones

As well as the new engine she had a radar, GPS and an old analogue echo sounder.

There was a heater and a new oven, though the upholstery was looking worn. Even the headlining droop looked manageable.

Most importantly, there was nothing stopping her from being launched and sailed away.

I paid the balance and she was mine. Wow.

All that remained was how to get her home from the Menai Strait to Cardiff, for which I engaged a delivery skipper.

Given the snagging list he handed me as I took the lines at Penarth Marina, I’m glad I hadn’t attempted to deliver the boat myself, alone.

But for now, I happily cheesed down the mooring warps of my very own vessel.

Narrowing the search

  • Decide where you will keep the boat. Will it be on a swinging mooring, a marina berth or in a shallow or drying harbour? Choose a boat that suits the places you will sail to, and for which you can afford the mooring fees.
  • How will you sail the boat, and how many crew will you have on board?
  • What kind of sailing will you realistically do? Be honest about the reality, rather than what you dream about doing.
  • Discuss what you want from your boat with any co-owners. If your spouse wants a boat to feel comfortable and safe in, a high performance racer might put them off sailing completely.
  • If the hull and the structure seems sound, look at the engine, rig and sails, as these are the major costs.
  • Set your budget. Include 10%-20% of the boat’s value for work that may need doing following the purchase

Buying a boat: Finding the right boat for you

Dag Pike explains how to tell if a boat is worth making an offer on and the benefits of a professional survey

Don’t even think about buying a yacht without a professional survey, given the relatively modest cost compared to ending up with a boat with serious problems.

Three boats for sale lined up in a brokerage yard

From a distance, does the boat look right, mast straight and sitting square? Credit: Theo Stocker

But you can get a good idea if a boat is worth a more serious survey with a quick 10-minute survey, and anyone with experience of boats should be able to do it.

Overview: Are there any obvious signs of neglect? Check if the mast is upright and in line with the hull, and the same with the stanchions. Is there discolouration on the hull, particularly around the hull-deck join?

Hull: Is the gelcoat in good condition under any surface grime, or is it powdery? Check for gel-coat cracking, signs of damage or impact. With your head close to the hull, look along the boat for any undulations. The hull should run fair.

When buying a boat, check the Hull-keel join on a yacht

Take a look at the hull-keel join for movement or corrosion. Credit: Theo Stocker

Keel: Check the hull-keel joint for corrosion. The joint should not open up at all and is easiest to check when the boat is lifted. Check for signs of grounding on the keel. Rudder and stern gear Give the rudder and the propeller a wiggle. There should be no movement in the rudder or shaft bearings.

Deck: Walk around the deck and check for cracks around deck fittings, including chainplates, that might show they’ve been strained. With teak decks, check for compression of the wood around fittings, seam caulking coming away or exposed screwheads, which suggest a worn deck and possible water ingress.

A deck fitting on a Sadler 29 yacht. Check deck fittings when buying a boat for cracking

Cracking around the deck fittings could be a warning sign. Credit: Theo Stocker

Gently bounce up and down on the deck, coachroof and cockpit sole. If you feel sponginess or movement underfoot, it could be a sign of delamination.

Mast: Check all fittings are securely attached with no corrosion around them.

Check the mast and stanchions look straight when looking at a boat to buy

Do the mast and stanchions look straight and square? Credit: Theo Stocker

Use a pair of binoculars for fittings higher up and check those you can see for signs of deformation, cracking or corrosion. Check the running rigging for signs of chafe.

Engine: The state of the engine compartment is one of the best guides of the standard of general maintenance of the boat. A messy, dirty engine suggests a lack of care. Check the seacocks while you’re there.

Dag Pike

Dag Pike is one of the UK’s best-known nautical journalists and authors, covering both sailing and motor boating for many years.

Accommodation: Look around windows and hatches for signs of leaks. Similarly, discolouration of the woodwork could reveal other leaks. Lift up a sole board to inspect the keel matrix for cracking and the keel bolts for signs of movement.

Steering: Look for wear and tear in the cables and quadrant. More than a small amount of play in the steering system should cause suspicion. You should also look at the rudder post seals for signs of leaks.

Few boats are perfect and you are likely to spot a few issues, but put it all together to give you a view of the overall condition of the boat.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and you should always rely on a professional surveyor, but it should give you somewhere to start and is doable in a 10-minute viewing.

If there’s anything major, however, you may decide to walk away, or if you think you can fix it, bring it up with broker when discussing price, ‘subject to survey’.

Making an offer

Neil Chapman, founder of www.boatshed.com, shares his tips for making an offer when buying a boat

Buyers, always make an offer, and sellers, always consider an offer.

The single largest barrier to selling used boats is a buyer’s perception that a lower offer would be insulting or unsuccessful, and a seller’s unrealistic expectations and unwillingness to consider an offer.

A surveyor checking the hull of a yacht

A good surveyor will spot potential problems you. might not be able to see. Credit: Graham Snook

While some sellers may indeed be unwilling, the more pragmatic should be open to having a conversation at least.

Valuing boats is less precise than car valuations, not least because of the limited data available and the huge variety even within the same model boat.

It is always worth having an open and honest dialogue about your interest in a boat with the broker or the vendor.

Neil Chapman, the founder of Boatshed

Neil Chapman is the founder of brokerage boatshed.com

As a buyer, opening the conversation, even at a low level, is the key.

A good broker should be able to give you an indication of the vendor’s disposition to considering offers, and how serious they are about getting rid of the boat.

Our data suggests that the price many boats are sold for is up to 20% less than the original listed price.

There are also plenty of boat owners out there who do not have their boats listed for sale, but may be willing to sell should someone come along and offer them a sensible price for their boat, so it’s always worth asking around.

The boat- buying process

  • Before you go to view a boat, get as much information about it as possible. Look at all the available images and read up whatever information you can get.
  • Talk to the broker. They should know the boat pretty well by the time they list it for sale, so ask them plenty of questions, including about the seller’s expectations and willingness to negotiate.
  • The broker will accompany you on a viewing. Most of them will be sailors themselves and should be equipped to offer practical advice about boat ownership.
  • If you do decide to make an offer, the broker will always communicate this to the owner and negotiate if required.
  • Once your offer is accepted, a 10% deposit will secure the boat. The deposit will be kept in a secure client account and the boat is now placed ‘under offer’, preventing further bids until you decide to complete the purchase.
  • An Agreement of Sale is then signed by buyer and seller, at which point the buyer can proceed with checks, including an inspection by a qualified surveyor.
  • The buyer chooses and engages a surveyor and covers the costs of the survey, including any boat lifts required. Don’t rely on old survey reports. The broker, boatyard or class association can usually give you a list of surveyors if you don’t already know one.
  • If you are happy with the results of the survey and want to proceed with the purchase, you then pay the balance due to the client account, prior to the transfer of ownership.
  • Should the survey not go well and you choose to withdraw your offer for the boat, your deposit is refunded.
  • The broker handles all negotiations between parties, the paperwork, title and brokerage issues, and once they hand over the documents, the boat is yours.

Pitfalls of buying a boat

  • Decision making: For couples, buying a boat is a joint decision and it is essential this isn’t driven only by the more experienced sailor. Almost 90% of your time on board will be spent at anchor or in harbour, so performance isn’t the only consideration. You’ll enjoy the boat more if it gives you both what you want.
  • Survey: Never buy a boat without a professional survey. Even if the boat isn’t perfect, at least you know what you’re getting.
  • Price: The market tends to over-value boats. Don’t be put off by asking prices and don’t be afraid to make an offer.
  • Research: If you’re a first-time buyer, there’s plenty of information online to give you an idea of what to expect. Online groups and forums will be more than willing to give their views on particular boats, too.
  • Experience: You and your partner will enjoy boat ownership far more if you both feel confident on board. Getting some training, possibly even on your own boat, will help anyone feeling nervous about handling their new yacht.

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Source: Yachting Monthly

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