What Should You Expect When You Buy An Old Boat?

There are lots of old boats out there, and the price tag is tempting, when compared to a new boat.  In this area (mid-Atlantic) you can get a 70s-era Pearson 35 for $15k – $20k.  A new 35 foot boat will run you well into six figures.  Most of us don’t want a second mortgage, so we are willing to consider the 40-year-old boat.  But what do we get for $20K?

1971 Pearson Pearson 35 located in Rhode Island for sale
35′ Pearson Pearson 35 
Rhode Island
Description: Fully equipped and ready to sail, this classic 1971 Pearson 35 #136 was purchased by its current owner in 1993 and has undergone a stem to stern reconditioning/ renovation since, including new engine, new winches, custom teak interior with new drawers and storage areas, new hatches, fabric covered cushions, rug, and much much more… Includes all sails, safety equipment, navigation systems, electronics, cooking and kitchen items, sleeping gear and more. A very special one-of-a-kind boat that must be seen to be appreciated.

Sound too good to be true?

It varies with each boat, of course, but at a minimum you will get a boat that may have some hull blisters, leaking plastic ports, an outdated sanitation system (rebuild the toilet, etc), a freshwater system that needs replumbing (new hoses, new pump, new gaskets), electrical system that’s been patched into – sometimes unsafely, and an engine that you know nothing about.  On deck you will get a set of running rigging that may be old, or need replacing, and perhaps the original standing rigging. The gel coat may be tired on deck, or may have been repainted, as has the topsides. It may have sails that are 20 years old and need replacing.  All the wood needs attention above and below deck, and the whole thing needs a really good cleaning.  Sometimes a bulkhead needs replacing because of old ports leaking water on them.  For years.

But, isn’t there a “good” old boat out there for sale, if you look carefully?  Um. . . yes.  Usually not for a bargain basement price, although there are great deals to be found, certainly.  Well-found boats are usually priced accordingly, though certainly more affordable than a new boat.  Here’s the catch, though – how would you know if you found a “good” old boat? Ah, you’ll take a surveyor with you! That may help . . .  I’ve heard both good and bad regarding experience with surveyors.  If you are going to engage one, you should hire the most picky, critical surveyor you can find – because you don’t want him to miss anything.  Certainly you should NOT hire the guy a yacht broker or boat seller recommends.

But what should you expect when you find that “good” old boat?  Should it have no problems at all?

Now, here’s the truth:  All boats have dirty little secrets, even the “well found” boats.  There is always something that needs renewal, rehabbing, or refitting. Urgently. That’s because boat maintenance is a continuous cycle of getting ahead of a disabling problem before it gets the upper hand.  Boats that get behind on the continuous cycle are boats that develop severe problems.

So, say you’ve found a great, old boat that is worth what you are willing to offer for it.  Here’s the question you have to ask:  What’s the next big thing you have to replace or refit on this boat?  In fact, that is the question for your surveyor too.  How much money in the near term do I need to spend to stay ahead of a disabling problem?  Never mind the long-term out look – it is predetermined that you will spend a fair amount of money as time goes by.

What if you find something that you and the surveyor missed, and the owner didn’t know about/didn’t tell you about?  Well, that’s a strong possibility, because it’s really hard to cover all the bases when you only have a couple of hours to look over a boat.  In fact, I guarantee you will miss stuff.  But there are ways to own an old boat and not lose your mind or all of your money.  And that is the subject for a subsequent post. . .


  1. David Grimm said:

    No matter how you slice it. You can figure adding the cost of the boat again to the purchase price. So if the Pearson is $20,000 by the time you get her sailing you’ll have another $20,000 invested in her. Then Break Out Another Thousand.

    • David, that sometimes is the case indeed. No arguments – boats cost money to keep, park, maintain, and operate. I think the problem comes when folks expect to pay only the purchase price.

    • It’s been my experience that no matter how much gear that boat has the selling price will be close to the average price for other boats of it’s make, size and year. The ones that are less usually need a lot of work. When we bought our boat we paid 2/3 the average price and immediately plunked down enough cash to bring her up to the lowest priced comparable boat. The only advantage to buying cheap is that after you’ve spent the money for repairs and upgrades you’ll really know what you have. Most times the average priced boats have old electronics, need engine work and have fiberglass problems. I think it all balances out in the end. You’re gonna spend a lot more than you did initially one way or another.

      • There is certainly money to “save” buying an under-priced boat, and confidence to be gained by installing your own systems, etc.. It’s always a “buyer beware” situation, though, and purchasers of old/used boats should never think that there is any such thing as a “turn key” boat.

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