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How To Find And Buy Your Perfect (Used) Sailboat - Key Lessons Learned From A Recent First-Time Buyer

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 2

After having been laid off in the midst of the financial crisis, my (now) husband and I decided to take a break from our fast-paced urban careers and "Live The Dream" - aka buy a sailboat and cruise. We packed up our apartment in New York City at the end of February 2009 and drove straight to Florida where we moved aboard an 18-year old, 47 foot Wellington sailboat we had bought 1 month earlier. The longest time spent on a boat prior to our purchase was one week in the British Virgin Islands where we took our ASA sailing courses. Although we had been looking for our "perfect" used sailboat for about 6 months, when we made our purchase I have to admit we were rather clueless on boats - we knew the basics of sailing, but (honestly) really knew nothing about boat construction or mechanics.

Now we have been full-time cruisers for one year, we have a very good idea of what we did right and what we did wrong regarding our choice and purchase of our lovely sailboat ("Lucky Escape"). I thought it would be helpful to pass along our lessons learned - from a novice's point of view.

If you would like to read more about our experiences as first time boat owners and novice sailors, please visit our sailing blog:


Lucky Escape

A) Prepare An Itemized Boat Budget. First of all, ask yourself how much are you willing to spend on the boat itself? It is important to know what proportion of your savings you are willing to squander on this important purchase. In the end, unfortunately, money will be a key driving factor regarding your eventual decision on a boat. Let's face it - serious prospective boat owners will never have enough money for the boat they really want BUT it is important to buy the best boat for the money you do have. Ask yourself whether you want to use a proportion of your income/savings to buy the boat or whether you want to also look at boat financing. We personally thought boat financing didn't make alot of sense for a depreciating asset and given our decision to take time away from our careers (and dual incomes) to cruise for a while. Yet, it may make sense if your circumstances are different and would depend upon what the boat will be used for.

Next, make sure you factor into your budget the "other" costs associated with buying a used sailboat (which we learned about the hard way).

1) Pay for expert advice where you need it - i.e. having a surveyor and/or mechanics, electricians, or riggers review the boat before your purchase. $750 for a surveyor may seem expensive but the more that you know up front, the better off you will be when you are out to sea or with future repair bills. Only hire a surveyor when you are "seriously" considering purchasing a specific sailboat. Please note that I have not yet heard of an instance where a surveyor has NOT missed something on a purchase survey so you could consider hiring 2 surveyors, depending on your budget. Or hire an electrician, rigger or other tradesman if you have certain questions or concerns about the boat. (We thought our surveyor was very good but even he missed a few key items on the boat which we needed to repair later.)

2) Travel costs - you will be very lucky to find the boat you want where you are currently residing. Ensure you have the extra money to travel to the required locations, including flights, hotel, car, meals etc. You would be surprised how much this can add up to.

3) Boat (hull, liability) insurance - not everyone buys boat insurance but we decided we didn't want to take the risk. Depending upon the level of coverage you want, as well as your expertise, you will need to budget approximately 3-4% of the initial boat price. From our experience, our boat insurers required that we paid our full annual premium upfront, rather than monthly. Ask around to find a good local boat insurance broker with widespread insurance contacts (domestic and international) and work with this person exclusively. Trying to utilise several insurance brokers equals all the brokers asking almost all the same insurance companies for the same quotes for your specific coverage.

4) Towing insuance - We didn't even think of this but ran across this insurance at the local West Marine's Open House. For $100-150 per year, this is worth the investment. You are going to use it when you least expect it. We did....

5) Boat documentation - there are services which will do all the leg work for you in terms of registering your boat (your certificate of documentation), looking for any outstanding liens on the boat etc., which could run you about $450. If you have the time, just do the work yourself and save a little money. (Given we didn't know what we were doing and we were on a timetable, we hired a company in Florida to take care of all this but we later realized we could have easily done this ourselves, with a little time and patience.)

6) Licenses - assuming you will have a VHF radio, you will need to pay the annual fee for the Ship's Radio License. You will also need to be licensed to operate a Single Side Band Radio or Ham Radio.

7) U.S. Customs & Border Protection - You will need to apply for annual boat decals if you plan to venture into international waters ($27.50 per year).

8) Sales tax - Every state has different sales tax laws so you need to look into this before you commit to purchasing a boat. For example, in Florida, you are not liable for paying sales tax in that state if you register the boat out of state and ensure you have moved the boat out of state before the end of 90 days after your purchase date.

9) Maps/nagivational equipment - Although your boat is likely to come equipped with a few used maps in its navigation station, you will likely need to buy a few extra maps/navigational chips for your cruising. Paper maps run in the range of $5-25 (although you can download alot of the information you need from the internet for free), map kits (such as MapTech) will run you $115-120 per region (but to save money find copies that are not the latest edition as the marine stores discount older versions) and navigational chips can cost $200+ (trade-ins with Navionics will save you $99 per navionics chip).

When you do find used sailboats that you are very interested in potentially bidding on, you should compile a list of repair estimates to get the boat into the shape that you want for sailing. Factor these expected repair costs into the listed sale price for the boat. You can obtain estimates for these repairs by speaking with your hired experts or just call around locally. Be realistic with these estimates (i.e. tend to overestimate). We tried to be conservative in our budget, thinking we would fix alot of the items ourselves (even as novices) and didn't factor in enough "unexpected" costs (i.e. travel costs, marina costs, repairs such as new water, washdown pumps and the like). Please note that, depending upon the condition of your boat, this can get overwhelming so make sure you prioritise your repairs - what repairs are "essential" versus "nice to have". For example, we allocated a certain proportion of our repair budget for the purchase of one new sail which meant putting our desired dinghy davits on hold (we drag our dinghy or hoist it onboard). Also, honestly, when you buy a boat, you want to "make it your own" so you are likely to find yourself changing cushions, changing the boat's colour scheme, and buying cool new gadgets for the boat, especially if you are doing extended crusing - so factor this into your boat budget as well. A wise boatyard owner that we dealt with said to us, "You will pay for a boat one way or the other - either in a higher upfront cost or in the boat repairs that follow...."

B) Figure Out What You Want To Use the Boat For. Ask yourself if you want to keep to intercoastal, lakes or whether you will do some serious blue water crusing. This will help determine key factors about the boat you wish to purchase such as its size, displacement, sail plan, water/diesel capacity, electronics, safety equipment. Upgrading a boat for blue water cruising (which we went through) is NOT cheap - buying a watermaker, a Single Sideband Radio, and a liferaft will easily put you back $12,000. Our main wish list when looking for a blue water cruiser was to look for a vessel over 40 feet, beamy enough to be comfortable for living aboard, very heavy displacement, limited draft (to go island hopping), a dependable, long-term engine, and significant diesel/water capacity. Items that we should have paid more attention to in our boat purchase include: refrigeration system (ours runs on AC via a generator and we would have preferred a simple 12 volt system), battery monitor, manual bilge pumps, leaky hatches (here we underestimated how much they can indeed leak if you do not weather proof them properly for offshore sailing).

C) Ask Yourself What "Boat Features" Are Most Important To You. Once you have figured out your budget and what you want to use the boat for, figure out what features you feel you need on the boat. Key construction features, such as length, beam and keel, are not really changeable (unless the boat has a centerboard, such as ours) but the "extras" on a boat are. If this is a purchase for living aboard - you should seriously consider a sailboat with decent sleeping and lounging space - for example, we only targeted sailboats that had a center cockpit (and thus large aft bedrooms). Think about whether you want a boat that is less energy intensive or whether you want a boat that is "fully loaded" - including items such as ice makers, televisions, air conditioning/heating, electric watermaker, fridge/freezer, washer/dryer. Are you satisfied with important mechanical features of the boat such as: type/state of engine, generator, fuel filter system, bilge pumps (and manual back-up), battery monitor, navigation electronics (GPS, radar) ? Depending upon your energy needs and if you want to do distance cruising, you will want to consider adding a wind generator, solar panels (or both) if the boat is not already equipped with these. Our vessel has a wind generator but it generates such limited amps that we wish we had also splurged for solar panels. We did, nevertheless, add an reserve battery to utilise as our "starter battery", aside from our house battery bank, which has come in handy on several occasions.

D) Think Long And Hard About Your Mechanical Skills and Tolerance. We bought a used sailboat that required a significant upgrade so we knew we were in for some serious maintenance (i.e. our surveyor told us we may need to put at least $60,000 in the boat to get her in tip top shape). Although this was a deterrant, we were enthralled by all the key features on the boat we ended up purchasing and just couldn't find anything similar in the U.S. that was in the same price range. Also, we reached a point where we just wanted to get going so we had a timeframe under which we needed to make a decision. Although the list of upgrades in the surveyor report was a little off-putting, the sellers were flexible and fair on the upfront selling price. We built our expected upgrade costs into the purchase price, which helped in our negotiations. However, we did have to spend 2+ months fixing up the boat before our insurance company permitted us to leave the dock and our travels to date have been halted on a few occasions as we have had to deal with unknown or new repairs. This will, of course, happen to any boat owner - whether you buy a new or a used boat - but I felt we have had more than our fair share of repair issues with the boat. The good news is that, after one year, we have upgraded/repaired virtually every system in the boat such that our repair issues are finally dwindling.

Certain people are very mechanically inclined or, if they aren't, are willing to learn - and those that are not should be prepared to pay significant repair/boat upkeep costs. Take an honest look at yourself as a new boat owner before you commit to purchasing a used boat that is in need of significant upfront repairs. It IS true - boat repairs take longer and are usually more expensive that you originally expect. This was one of our mistakes - we assumed we would do more repairs/installation ourselves when we bought the boat (to save money) but, in the end, we kept paying boatyards to do most of the major projects as we were intimitated by our lack of mechanical skills/knowledge. This eventually threw our budget estimates off by a decent margin. Yet, as time went on, and the boat bills piled up, we read as much as we could get our hands on, talked to other sailors, asked questions to our mechanics and started taking over own repairs. There are certain repairs that we just won't touch (complicated AC electrical issues, putting new diodes in the generator) but we are geting to be more and more self-sufficient for the general upkeep type of repairs - we have done most of the cosmestic work ourselves, replaced pumps, serviced the engine/generator, re-wired the bilge pumps/switches - and the list goes one. If we - two clueless white collar workers - can do it, so can you ! I just wish we had a little more faith in our abilities earlier on and taken on some more of the work ourselves (i.e. replacing our holding tank hoses which turned into an extensive and expensive boatyard repair). Of note, thank goodness for the book, "Boat Owners Mechanical and Electrical Manual" - by Nigel Caulder. We couldn't have survived without it.

E) Do Your Research. There are so many excellent resources today that you do not have an excuse NOT to research your model/brand of boat before making your purchase. Of course, the internet is a great resource - you can read up on "optimal" designs for the type of sailboat you want. Read Adrian Coles' "Heavy Weather Sailing - Sixth Edition, with Peter Bruce" - Sections 1,2 and 3 provide an interesting overview of yacht design for heavy weather conditions. Read personal sailblogs of cruisers (free) and sign up for online cruisers forums. Feel free to post questions about a particular boat you are looking at or try and find an owner of the type/brand of boat you are seriously considering. Sailboat owners usually LOVE to talk about their boats and give you advice - so utilise this useful information ! I found websites that claim to be able to do a complete history on your boat (for $40), including whether it has been in any accidents, although I am wary of the information that you can obtain from such sites.

F) Seek Out Expert Advice. We utilised a surveyor to complete a 2-day survey of our boat before we signed on the dotted line. This is definately worth the money you pay for it. Make sure you find a local surveyor through recommendations, rather than utilising a surveyor recommended by the selling boat broker. If we had more time before we made our purchase, I would have also liked to have hired an electrician and a rigger for a couple of hours (to help answer questions that the surveyor couldn't).

G) Formulate A List Of Questions for the Sellers. When we purchased our boat, the sellers had already moved out of the country and thus the transaction was done via the broker (who had limited knowledge of the boat). We should have had a list of key questions ready for the owners and demanded a full set of responses - even basic questions such as: How long have you owned the boat ? Who was the previous owner ? Do you have your original survey of the boat ? What was your maintenance schedule for the boat ? What major repairs/upgrades have you done to the boat under your ownership ? And, of course, make sure you ask any specific questions you have on the mechanics of the boat if you dont understand something. We ended up doing a certain amount of this AFTER we purchased the boat - a little late.

H)Ask For A Copy of Repair/Upkeep Invoices From The Seller. This is not meant to be insulting (as in "I don't trust you") but it will provide alot of insight into what is wrong with the boat. After we had signed on the dotted line we found a series of invoices in the boat which were very helpful, answering a number of our questions as well as informing us of certain problems (i.e. the chainplates leaked). Make sure you also get your hands on an owner's manual (if available, our boat didn't come equipped with such a book) or boat construction plans (which we did have).

I) Attention to Details ! Even if you know nothing about boats, look for the little things when you are reviewing the boat and taking it out for sea trials. For example, look at the floors, under floor boards (where possible), at the tops of the walls as well as around port holes - do you see any evidence of leaking (blackened, damaged wood, frayed varnish)? Check the inside of the chain plates. Check also for any "soft spots" in the deck (i.e. we had one near our windlass as a result of water damage which wasn't mentioned in our survey). Check out the quality of the rigging and condition of the lines on the boat (any fraying)? Check the stiching in the sails - any rips/loose threads ? How secure is the mast and is there evidence of water damage ? Check whether the heads work and whether there is odor when flushed (do this multiple times). Pick up the floorboards and look at the seacocks - are they plastic or copper ? Have the boat hauled as part of your survey and scrutinise the bottom for any damage, look at the prop and prop shaft, check the zincs and the ground plate(s). Check to make sure all the appliances work and understand how they work (fridge/freezer, icemaker, stove, microwave). Ensure there is a back up battery supply to feed your engine and/or generator. Look for any oil leaks around the engine and generator. Double check all pumps on the boat.

J) Bargain On The Price . Of course, this depends upon the starting sale price for your particular boat and how "fair" it is for its age, brand, its condition and considering the market. Sellers can be flexible on their asking price by 10-20%, depending on the state of the economy, the boat, its condition and how badly the seller wants to make a sale. We had spotted our beloved boat about 3-4 months prior to our purchase and we noted how long it had been on the market and kept an eye on its selling price. Given that the seller bears the brunt of the broker fee in a boat transaction, you may be able to save yourself a little money by seeking private boat sales, rather than through a yacht broker or websites such as "Yachtworld.com". Private sellers tend to advertise on various websites, their own website, youtube.com, or Ebay.

While there have been many lengthy books written on this topic, this article is intended to provide a summary "how to" guide as well as give the reader some food for thought if they are considering entering the wonderful world of cruising. Owning a sailboat can be challenging, frustrating, scary, and (at times) expensive but we are finding, even with our mistakes, that these negative aspects are far outweighed by the positive ones - the ability to travel to new places under our own speed, visiting corners of the world only accessible by boat, the exhilaration of being on the water and sailing, access to nature, living a simpler life, meeting new people and building a whole new set of skills along the way. We have no regrets about giving up our prior busy, stressful life for a few years of cruising....



Jan 5, 2013 9:45pm
This is an absolutely AWESOME article!!! Lots of great information here. Sounds like you had quite an adventure.

Total thumbs up!
Apr 24, 2013 9:06pm
Great information, thanks for sharing your personal experiences. This is very helpful.
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