By: Steven Bull – Host, Water Ways TV
Here's the story of my journey buying an older, smaller boat.
Ten years ago my wife and I bought our 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer. It was the biggest boat I’d ever driven – other than one time my father-in-law talked-me-through driving a 50-footer very briefly. I grew up around the water and had spent countless hours driving bowriders and PWCs, but this was a new adventure.
A big one in every sense of the term.
My wife grew up on larger boats with her family owning a 27-foot cabin cruiser and her dad owning a fishing charter business for many years in the 1980s and 1990s on the Great Lakes. Suffice it to say, she was all-in on the boating world and when she finally relented and settled for yours truly, it wasn’t a matter of would we get a boat but rather which boat we would get.
The only firm opinion we kept during our search was that my wife insisted we get a boat we could enjoy for many years and wouldn't outgrow. We did not want any “footitis” (the made-up 'disease' where boaters think, "just two feet longer would give us exactly enough extra room… then another two feet after that" ad nauseum).
So we took out a loan to buy a $125,000, 38-foot powerboat with two berths and plenty of storage and relaxing space just as we were hoping to have a child (spoiler alert: we did). The first year docking it was nerve-wracking, but my father-in-law’s words of wisdom were genius:
“Your first big boat is always terrifying to drive but you get used to it. So, do you want to get used to 38 feet and be happy for years, or 28 feet and then have another leap of stress when you move up after a couple seasons?”
While I think our decision was fantastic, and it worked out better than I ever could have imagined, I recognize not everyone is in the same position when buying their first boat. Maybe you’re not sure that you’re all-in on the boating life and don’t want to make such a significant investment. Maybe your budget is lower which is perfectly understandable. Maybe you have no idea what you need.
All of this led to a decision for Season 2 of Water Ways. The plan was this -- I would find something reflective of a true entry-level first-time boater who wanted to get into the lifestyle. I set a budget of $20,000 USD (approx. $25,000 CDN), or roughly the cost of a used SUV, and searched BoatDealers.ca to find boats in my home province of Ontario, as well as neighbouring provinces and states. We left the door open to traveling for pickup because it’s 100% possible to acquire and transport a vessel from just about anywhere.
A friend of the show, and a supporter of Water Ways from its genesis is John Patterson. John started St. Clair Boat Sales in 2019, and as luck would have it, he had a boat that would fit my budget and my requirements in one of his listings.
I was looking for was a powerboat with reasonably comfortable sleeping quarters, a head, some sort of galley, and ideally an 8'6" beam so it could be trailered without special permits. What I found was a 1994 Monterey 265 SEL selling for $24,000 CDN. It checked all the boxes!
FOUND ONE! NOW WHAT?
First of all, what do you look for once you find a listing online for something you like? If it’s close enough to check out in person you should go immediately, but that’s not always the case. If it's some distance away, your first step should be an email or phone call to the seller. Yes, private sales happen all the time and sometimes you can get a better deal (but not always), but I prefer the confidence of dealing with a reputable broker. Their business is largely referral based and bad word-of-mouth can poison their sales so they, in theory, should try extra hard to make you happy and not trick you into buying a lemon. Furthermore, I have confidence in their abilities because they do this all the time and can help with the paperwork and legalities that must be navigated during the purchase process. Sadly, there are horror stories out there where someone gives cash for something that is carrying an outstanding loan or lien and the creditor takes the boat back. A broker knows how to do the research, but be sure to ask whomever you are buying from to confirm there are no outstanding loans or liens in writing so you know you’re in the clear.
ARE THE BONES GOOD?
If the boat isn't nearby, ask the broker to do a video walkthrough for you on FaceTime or Skype or, at the very least, record one and send it to you. Ask questions. The trustworthy ones will tell you up front about any dings, scratches, or issues. These are older boats, they’re not going to be showroom-ready and flawless, but that’s ok! What you want is to know if it’s in good condition and the seller will either provide, or you can arrange, a survey report. These are done by trained professionals – and you’ll need one for the insurance – and costs can vary (they often charge per foot of length). Sure, it’s another expense but well worth it when you’re down to the final decision. The peace of mind is worth the investment for me.
The list of details a surveyor is looking for is long, and it's one I’m thinking I should include in Season 2 of Water Ways! In brief, they confirm if the structure, or bones, of the boat are solid, and check for moisture and mold and other issues that insurance folks (and the buyer!) are particularly interested in. A VERY IMPORTANT note about marine surveys is that they are not mechanical ones and do not factor in how the engine(s) run. If you go through a broker, marina, or dealer they often have a service department or affiliated mechanic that can comment on this, but the best way to test things is to do a sea trial. Does it start fine? Does it run at speed comfortably? Does the boat feel steady? Are there any leaks visible in the engine compartment? Do the electronics work? It's an important part of the process and should definitely be included if possible.
SURVEY SAYS… GREEN LIGHT!
The Monterey looked good for my needs, it fit my budget, and the survey found it to be in excellent shape despite being nearly 30 years old. There were issues, of course, but they all were cosmetic. Low moisture levels of the hull, stringers, and deck and a lack of leaks detected around the portholes and hatches are what you want to see. A survey also includes an estimated replacement value based on the quality of the vessel and what similar ones are going for. This in no ways ties your insurance company, nor the next buyer, to that exact figure but it serves as a guide. (For the record, the surveyor determined the $24,000 boat had a replacement value of $26-28,000. Score!)
(*the clip of my survey with John Patterson starts at 11:25)
Most larger insurance brokers handle marine as well, but if not don't hesitate to ask Lord Google and you’ll get an estimate very quickly. Brokerages want your money so this happens lightning fast! In many states and provinces, you need your boat insured before a marina will let you moor there. Be sure to consult your insurance company and make sure you're legally operable wherever you go boating. The onus is on you.
IT’S MINE NOW, TIME TO PERSONALIZE!
One thing I was guilty of was thinking that a boat is a finished product and it can’t be tweaked or modified, as opposed to a house where it's common to repaint, renovate, or otherwise customize.
To be sure, there are many things you can’t do. You generally can’t knock down a wall below deck to open up a room, and the materials inside don’t usually lend themselves to painting and personalization. But, there is a lot that you can do.
For starters, I wanted anti-fouling bottom paint. The main reason for this is to keep it running smoothly through the water. The underwater ecosystem is a mad scientist and the growth that can happen on the hull of a boat can be fascinating and gross even after just a few weeks. Some look like they have shag carpet attached to the hull, which, physics lesson aside, creates a lot of drag and wasted fuel if you want to go anywhere.
Then there's the interior. There is a lot that I want to do this summer, all of which will be reflected on Water Ways TV and our social media. The major projects include: having a custom swim platform extension made to make it useable (it’s currently a dangerously tiny and useless strip), installing a SideShift stern thruster to give lateral control. The boat has a single engine and I’m used to twin-engines allowing me to spin the boat. I also want to replace the delightfully-outdated floral curtains down below, remove the carpeting, and put in faux-wood floors for easier cleaning and a more modern look. I might even upgrading the electronics and/or galley fixtures (i.e. a convection/microwave vs the older microwave).
All of that is strictly personalization and not required. The boat is in great shape and could be enjoyed as it is, but I want it to be my boat not just a boat. Why not put a little effort in to make it work for me and my needs? I enjoy it. And, like some renovations on a home, it can add value to your vessel. Don’t do it as an investment, but consider it a bonus!