6 Lessons I’ve Learned About Buying a Project Boat

Over the past several years we’ve purchased, restored and sold several project boats.  I should add that, for our purposes, we’re referring to project boats that are easily trailerable (read: less than 30 feet long) power boats, typically with outboard motors. We’ve now flipped quite a few of these boats, that we’ve lovingly spent weekends working on before passing along to a new buyer to enjoy.  And in the process, we’ve learned quite a bit.  While we do typically make money on the boats we fix up, I wouldn’t say it’s the primary reason we do this.  We enjoy the idea of restoring a boat, once the boat of someone’s dreams, to good running condition.
Our first “project” boat, a 15 foot long skiff built by a long-defunct local boat builder, was 25 years old and had been sitting in the seller’s back yard  unused for far too long.  Sally was wary of my desire to take on this project.  We used the boat for nearly two years, while slowly adding and upgrading all sorts of things, including a new Marine stereo system, re-wiring virtually every system on the boat, completely rebuilding the cockpit/control area with new gauges, switches, etc., adding new navigation lights, adding upholstered seating, and re-wiring the trailer. When all was said and done, we got the use of the boat while we had it, and sold it for nearly 3x what we paid for it.  Even after taking into consideration all of the work we’d done and money we’d spent on it, we more than doubled our money.  Since then, I’ve had far less trouble convincing Sally to let me pick up another project boat.

Our Method for Evaluating Potential Project Boats

Now, we have picking out our next project boat down to a science.  We live in Florida, where there are damaged, salvaged, or otherwise unusable boats available constantly.  I’m regularly on Craigslist, looking for potential projects; below is the process we use to (fairly) quickly evaluate whether a potential project boat is worth the time, money, and energy we would put into it.  Not every boat should be restored, in our opinion – and this is how we determine whether it’s a project we want to take on.

First Things First: Figuring Out Which Boats Are Worth Looking At

  1. Does the boat include a trailer?  While it’s absolutely possible to find boats without trailers that may be worthwhile, right off the bat this is an indicator that it may not be worth your time.  At minimum, you would have to find, or already have, a suitably-sized trailer.  Then, you’d have to deal with getting the boat onto the trailer, both of which takes additional money, time and energy.  That’s not to say that a boat without a trailer may not be worth it, but we typically eliminate boats without their own trailer fairly quickly.  Also, when you go to resell the boat, you’d either have to find a trailer to sell with it, or severely limit your buying pool by trying to sell without one.
  2. Does the boat have a motor?  Similarly to the trailer issue above, a motor in any condition is valuable.  It’s better to start off with what you already have, rather than being stuck trying to re-power (meaning replace the motor or motors) a hull.  In the case of outboard 2-stroke motors, for example, some 90% can be resurrected, even if they have some mechanical issues.  In fact, some of the best deals we’ve found had mechanical challenges which brought the price of the boat down considerably.
  3. Does the boat have a solid, serviceable hull and decks?  It goes without saying that the hull of your boat is the foundation you build everything else upon.  Some people certainly re-fiberglass or partially rebuild hulls; however, we typically do not.  Soft spots in the deck, damage from grounding or other accidents, and rotten stringers are deal-breakers, with only a few exceptions.

Next Steps: Viewing Potential Projects in Person

These first three points eliminate 98% of the boats we look at online, before we even get into deeper research.  It’s how we determine what boats to go take a look at, and which ones aren’t worth the phone call or visit. Now, here’s what we look for when we’re viewing a boat.
  1. Assess how much work you’re going to need to do to get the boat ready to sell.  This is the area you get into when you actually go to see the boat.  In some cases, there may be boats which need a good cleaning and some minor TLC in order to sell again.  Others may be bought at a discount due to season or cosmetics, and can be fairly easily resold at a profit.  Will you be doing the work yourself?  If so, do you have the skills necessary, and are you familiar with how to source the right parts?  Or will you be taking the boat to a mechanic for some major motor work?  Take into consideration factors including:
    • What the motor(s) need to run well
    • Wiring and electrical needs
    • Whether all pumps, switches and gauges work or will need to be redone
    • What is needed to get the trailer in road-safe condition (new tires? bearings? rusted parts needing replacement?)
    • Exterior work – including trim, hull, paint condition, cleaning/waxing
    • Interior work – if there’s a cabin, this can be a huge area for mold and mildew build up and damage
    • Creature comforts – if the boat has a toilet, sink, or other such features, do they all work?  Are all the parts there?  Or have they been dismantled or taken (common in project boats)?
  2. What is the boat worth as-is?  We’re working on another post about negotiating, but remember that no project boat makes sense if you pay too much for it.
  3. What is the boat potentially worth?  This is probably the area we spend the most time on, and it’s not something we get into unless we’ve already been to see the boat and think it could be a good candidate.  We use both authoritative sources (www.nadaguides.com) and actual sales listings (www.searchtempest.com) to sort out what a boat is worth after we fix it up.
For more about step #6, including the actual method I use while sitting the car after looking at a potential project boat to quickly find out whether it’s worthwhile, download the guide:
Prefer to view it as a slideshow? View on SlideShare. We’re busy planning additional posts that dig into this topic in more detail – stay tuned!

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