Used Boat Buying: How to Talk to the Broker

The third installment in our series about buying a used J/35 sailboat provides a list of questions to ask and other helpful advice.

23rd September 2010.
By Paul Grimes

After getting “hooked” by the J/35 ad on Boats.com in February, I called the broker with some questions.  His name sounded familiar, as often happens in the marine industry.  The boat business is way too small, probably because it’s hard to make any money in it, but the industry seems even smaller because that financial reality often forces people to move around if they stay involved for more than a few years.  Sure enough, the broker, Ed, and I had worked for the same company at different times, and then in the same building, for different companies – at the same time.  After sorting that out, we started in on the J/35.

The boat had been stored inside. Good . . .

As I suspected (it’s a small world), this boat was owned by a nice family whom my wife and I had met when we had our previous J/35.  They had even come sailing with us to try out the boat, and I think our kids closed the deal by having fun with their kids down below, bouncing around in the V Berth, and climbing in and out, and in and out, (and in and out) of the forward hatch.  Who could resist a floating jungle gym with room for parents to chat in the cockpit?

They bought this boat later that summer, but Ed said that their plans had changed, and they had decided to sell it.  The boat was stored inside (a good sign), in Marion, MA, and the owners wanted a little time to clean it up before it was shown. (Hmm . . .). The yard in Marion had been maintaining the boat since they bought it (another good sign).  Ed also said they might be a little flexible on the price, but they had just listed it, and it was priced very fairly ($39,000 for a 1989 model year boat). We agreed to talk again in a couple of weeks to see if the owners had had a chance to work on the boat.

...But the owner needed time to clean before showing. (Hmm.)

My questions to him had come from a fairly standard list that I use.  Here’s that list, plus a few more thoughts on this stage of the process.

  • What to Ask the Broker or Owner
  • Why is the boat being sold?
  • How many owners has it had? Where has it been located?
  • Has the boat ever hit a rock or had major repairs done for any reason?
  • How long has it been for sale?
  • Is it in or out of the water?  (When was it last in the water?)
  • Who maintains the boat? Where is it stored?
  • Every boat has a to-do list.  If the owner/you were keeping the boat, what would be next on the list?
  • When were the photos in the ad taken? Are they current photos?
  • How many people have looked at the boat.  Have you had any offers?
  • Has the boat been surveyed recently or for a previous sale?
  • How flexible is the price?

Don’t be Afraid to Take a Look

Another confession – We bought the J/35 discussed above, which was located about an hour’s drive from us, but there was another J/35 listed about for a similar price about three hours away.  I had an appointment to see the other boat, but ran into a full weekend of youth sports, etc. with our kids, and decided to cancel the appointment. Now I wish I had made the effort to see the other boat – if only for peace of mind.

Another reason to err on the side of seeing too many boats is that it gives you perspective – just as looking at multiple houses or cars helps you to learn what you like. And just like cars, even the “same” type of boat can be very different from one model year to the next.  In J/35’s, for instance, boats from earlier model years do not have opening ports in the main cabin, or a full bulkhead separating the head from the V-berth, or storage shelves outboard of the settees in the main cabin.  And boats from the same model year will have different options onboard – cabinets, tables, etc.  Finally, you have to see a few boats to get a feel for what “good condition” is for an older boat.  In this case, I thought we had learned this in our first go-round with J/35’s, but it still would have been good to see the other boat.

Besides, looking at boats is fun if you have time to do it.

The one that was "too far away" that we should've looked at

If the Boat is Too Far Away – “Phone a Friend”

A problem arises if a boat is too far away and would require an expensive or time-consuming trip to visit.  But what do you do if you are very interested in the boat?  Hopefully, you’ve been on other boats of the same model, so you are at least familiar with the design.  It seems natural to assume that a survey is the next step, but that’s not cheap either – usually around $20 per ft. plus haul-out expenses.  Furthermore, it’s more common to reach an agreement on the price and have a signed Purchase and Sale agreement before conducting a survey . . . and you haven’t even seen the boat yet!

An alternative approach is a walk-through by a friend or, better, a surveyor.  Many surveyors will perform this service for an hourly rate, and visit the boat, take pictures, and report back. It’s important to let them know what your intended use is for the boat, and any specific concerns you may have. This does not replace a real survey, but it can help you determine whether the boat really is worth pursuing or not.  If it is a boat to pursue, it’s still a good idea to make the trip to see it yourself before going further.  Boats are a big investment, and only you can decide if you are getting the “warm and fuzzies” from a particular boat.  Remember, until you’ve seen the boat in person, you’re in love with the ad, not the boat.

Next Up: Looking at the J/35 – what we found.

Editor’s Note: This article is part 3 of an ongoing series about buying a used sailboat.

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

Read part 2, Used Boat Ads

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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