The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

An Interesting Boat Decision—Buy or Walk?

Member Rob left an interesting comment a few days ago that got me thinking:

I have a boat on offer and am considering backing out of the deal.

The standing rigging is 41 year old rod, the rudder is wet, mold in v-berth, small leak in hull/deck joint, autohelm removed, small anchor locker (not sure how it could hold required rode) safety gear missing, no tender, no outboard, original DC panel, some “cosmetic” cracks in floor.

The following is not working: wind speed, radio, knot meter), stuffing box clamps need replacing, engine insulation needs replacing…

I am looking at 100% above offer price in updates. I would have a boat that is worth half of my investment. The uncertainty of insuring an old boat is concerning also.

At survey the batteries and water system was not hooked up and therefore all those systems could not be tested.

I think by writing this down I have made my decision. I thought this was the one and am not happy to let it go. It looked great and is from a reputable builder but was not updated where is matters most.

Here are my thoughts:

Your comment reflects the reality for so many who are considering an older boat.

My first reaction was that none of that should necessarily disqualify a boat if the basic structure is good.

In fact, sometimes getting a boat where all the kit is busted is a good thing as long as we get some price adjustment to compensate. This can be a better deal than buying a boat with a lot of older gear that still works, but won’t for long, but that the owner still wants to get paid for.

I don’t even see the rudder as a deal breaker, given that most older boats with fibreglass rudders on metal stocks will be in that situation and there is a solution. Many prospective buyers stick their heads in the sand about the rudder, so good on you for not doing that.

Also, most boats of this age will need the purchase price spent on them a second time on a refit. That’s just the way it is, as is the depreciation of that expenditure to near zero as soon as it’s spent. So good on you again for recognizing that.

All that said, I think you are right to walk away because of the too small anchor locker, since a decent anchoring setup is a fundamental need for cruising.

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Edward Scharf

What I don’t understand is many of those problems they should have seen/know before making and offer.

Drew Frye

Another question that needs answered is “how do I intend to use the boat?” To cross oceans? Day sailing a small bay? Are cometics important to you or only function? When you buy a house or used car, you can list all of the things that could be fixed, but you also need to ask if they need fixed, to suit the intended use. The car needs to be safe, but does it need to be cross country reliable or to-the-store reliablish?

If you want to sail oceans, you may be looking at a real refit, and you probably won’t get the money back unless you can do the work (and newer boaters most often lack the full skill set or the time). If you skip the refit to enjoy more limitied, less expensive sailing, you will also not get as much resale value. Boats, like cars, eventually reach end-of-life, and that is something else to consider. A boat in poor condition is hard to sell, not just for a good price, but sometimes at all. Best not to be the one caught holding the bag.

I really hate buying projects. I’d buy a smaller boat in better condition.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

My initial reaction was very similar to yours, if you can buy your way through a problem with a reasonable amount of time and money, it is not a show stopper. The standing rigging is a perfect example of this, if you budget for it, it shouldn’t be a huge deal. However, something like a teak deck in need of replacing is a much bigger deal as the amount of labor required is pretty hard to DIY and is often too expensive to pay for. If there are more than a few large time or money projects, the cumulative also can be too much as it doesn’t take more than a few $10k expenses to get in trouble. Trying to figure out the cumulative can be tricky as the surveyor will invariably miss stuff so I guess you have to extrapolate from what is found.

I can think of a few items that fall into the category of I wouldn’t buy a boat with this problem but I would fix the problem if I owned the boat. An example is an engine in a smaller cruising boat, a boat with a non-working engine is highly unlikely to make sense to buy. But if you have owned the boat for several years and know all the issues and have stayed current on maintenance, putting in a new engine makes a lot of sense as the alternative of selling at a big discount and going through all the transaction costs of getting a new boat and having to fix all its issues is far worse. This obviously assumes that you keep your boat in better than average shape, for people who try to do minimal maintenance, the opposite is true where something like an engine issue is just a reason to move to the next boat that will be run into the ground.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

I think we are generally in agreement about your example. I maybe should have qualified more but the Swan would not be what I consider a smaller cruising boat. Maybe instead of distinguishing on size I should have distinguished on purchase price. For a lot of boats in our size range and age, the boat might cost $30-$40k with a good engine and an engine swap might be $20-30k depending on the level of DIY which means the boat has to be given away if the engine is shot and even then you end up saving very little money in the end. It also makes people who already own the boat uncomfortable putting the cost of an engine into the boat but I think it is totally worth it as compared to the alternative of starting with a different boat and a different set of problems that take years to get sorted out. Going to a 45’er, the numbers might look more like $300k for a boat with a good engine and $25-40k to replace an engine so it is more likely that someone will properly discount for the engine providing a buying oppurtunity.

I would not have said this 15 years ago but as I get older, I am less willing to take on crazy large projects to save modest amounts of money.


Matt Marsh

We went through a similar discussion a few years ago (see: $30,000 Starter Cruiser). It’s helpful to separate the issues into things that are fundamentally problematic versus things that just give you a purchase price discount and can be fixed later:

Old standing rigging is a regular maintenance thing anyway, if you’re going to keep the boat for a decade or more. It’s a strike against the purchase price and isn’t too hard to replace.
Wet rudders are unfortunate, but sometimes unavoidable. I’d consider fixing or replacing one if the boat were highly desirable otherwise.
Mould might be really easy to deal with if it’s on fibreglass, or incredibly difficult to the point of being a deal-breaker if it’s embedded itself into permanently-attached wood.
Missing safety gear is no problem at all. You’d likely want to replace all of the old junk that came with it anyway.
Broken or disconnected electronics and breaker panels should just be used as leverage to bring the purchase price down. You don’t actually need all that much, other peoples’ installations are usually crap anyway, and fixing it up yourself means that you’ll understand it and can make sure it’s done right.
Small anchor locker might be a deal-breaker as there’s no good or easy way to fix that if the design’s wrong to begin with.
Engine trouble might be a way to get a really steep discount on a large expensive boat, if you’re willing to spend the time and money to re-power it yourself. Or it might be a rabbit hole of wasted cash if the re-power would cost more than the fixed-up boat would be worth. Do the math.
Minor leaks are annoying, but almost all older boats have them. Finding & fixing them is just part of the deal.
Structural flaws eg. wet core, delaminating secondary bonds, rusty glassed-in chainplates, separation of the hull-deck joint…. most boats have at least one or two minor ones, which are tolerable, but one big issue or too many minor issues are generally deal-breakers as they cost far more in time and labour to fix than the boat will be worth after.

Gordon Hinds

I bought a boat built in 1986 in New Zealand – cold molded triple skinned kauri. It had good bones but needed a lot more work than I envisaged. Like a lot more work. I paid too much (about double). I have since fixed just about everything. The advantage of the boat in question is you know it’s all stuffed. So you can haul it out, put it in a shed and redo it over the course of a year. The cost would be north of $100k, which means you wouldn’t want to buy it for more than $30k. I agree about the anchor well but you can fit a bigger box relatively easily if it’s a fibreglass hull. Pretty much everything will need replacing.