Used Sailboat Ads – Notes from a Boats.com-aholic

What the surveyor-author has learned after years of looking at ads and then looking at the boats.

16th September 2010.
By Paul Grimes

OK, I have to admit it. I’ve lost many hours of valuable sleep time over the years clicking through ads on Boats.com. The addiction is a classic response to variable reinforcement – the same thing that drives lab rats nutty. They hit their food levers at higher rates because they never quite know when they’re going to get a pellet, and I keep logging on because I never quite know when something new is going to appear. Over the years, we’ve bought three boats and sold two, using Boats.com.

The lead photo in the ad that won the author over.

Above is the lead photo in the ad for the boat we just bought. I had been looking for a J/35 due to the reasons I mentioned in a recent article: Used Boat Value: The J/35 (but I’m also a sucker for a dark-colored boat in warm afternoon light). The rest of the ad is below (with names omitted), but first, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years from looking at ads and then looking at the boats.

Check principal dimensions, then compare them to something you know.
If an ad catches your eye for an unfamiliar design, check a couple of the numbers in the “Boat Details” section. I look at “Dry Weight” and “Max Draft” before anything else. If you’re looking for a performance racer/cruiser, it’s not going to work to have a 35 ft. boat that weighs 13,000 lb., and draws 4.5 ft. And if you’re looking for a liveaboard cruising boat with shoal draft, the same length boat that weighs 10,000 lb. and draws 7 ft. deserves no more of your attention.

Looking up the dimensions for a few boats that are already familiar to you can give you a good baseline from which to compare.

Check the PHRF rating
How many times have you seen the phrase “a good turn of speed” in an ad? One quick way to check these claims is to check the PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet) rating, which is used to assign a time handicap to that type of boat for racing. Most local PHRF organizations have listings of “base ratings” for various designs. These are the ratings that would be assigned to a “stock” boat of a certain model, and they can give you a good idea of how the performance of that model compares to other boats. USSailing has also compiled a database of high/low ratings from the different local organizations.

A recreation of the original ad on Boats.com.

Faster boats are given lower ratings, but remember that this one number won’t tell you the whole story – whether the boat is comfortable, or good offshore, or better in heavy or light air. For a preliminary boat search, though, it can give you a quick idea of how the boat compares to others.
Check for Boat Reviews
The Boats.com boat review section is a quick way to find great information about many designs.

Do a Search
Do a wider internet search using the make and model and see what comes up. You can even include the boat name in your search and see what appears. You may well be amazed by what you find. If you think the boat may be documented, you can even do a search of documented vessels in the US. If the boat is listed, this will show not only the owner’s name, but previous names and owners of the boat – more fuel for the internet search engine.

Beware the Extensive Race Record
While club racing isn’t too tough on a boat, beware the boat with the impressive one-design, or high-level handicap race record. Racing hard puts a lot more stress and wear on a boat than regular daysailing. And remember that while boats have to be well-prepared to do well, it’s the sailors who win the races.

A deck photo, the only abovedecks shot in the listing

Notice what’s NOT Mentioned
As you might imagine, ads tend to elaborate on the strengths of the boat but not on the weaknesses. So as a prospective buyer, it can be insightful to note if there are no pictures of the boat’s interior, or if the sails or electronics are not mentioned specifically.

Don’t be Afraid to Call the Broker
I’ve found boat brokers to be a rather pleasant, low-key group of people who are happy to answer questions about a boat they have listed. Certainly they are working for the seller, and I wouldn’t expect them to offer negative comments without being asked, but if you ask a question, you will generally get a straightforward answer.

Next up: A Talk with the Broker.

Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 of an ongoing series about buying a used sailboat.

Read part 1, To Buy a Boat or Not to Buy a Boat

Paul Grimes is an engineer and marine surveyor living in Portsmouth, RI. Read his detailed reviews of the J/35 and Hobie 33.


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