Revisiting the Question about Older & Bigger vs Smaller & Newer

Revisiting the Question about Older & Bigger vs Smaller & Newer

It was an interesting question back then, and one that generated lots of discussion.

“For a given amount of money, is it better to buy an older, bigger boat, one with outdated electronics and equipment, or a newer, smaller vessel, with more contemporary equipment and electronics?”

For many boaters, it remains a valid and relevant question...or does it?

A number of years ago I posed that question to a panel of well-respected brokers and other professionals at an East Coast TrawlerPort. While it created a buzz of opinions and back-and-forth debate, the end result was that the panel unanimously decided to go with the newer, smaller cruising boat for a more turn-key experience.

Several months later, I offered the same question at TrawlerPort on Lake Union in Seattle. Similar discussion and perspectives, but in the Pacific Northwest, the conclusion went in the opposite direction. Buy as big a boat as you can afford, knowing that you will need to spend another 25 percent or more on getting the boat up to a level of current equipment and system standards. Sweat equity was viewed as a worthy endeavor, as one potentially ends up with a more comfortable and capable cruising boat.

Flash forward to 2017, and I thought to revisit the question, curious if things may have changed in the intervening years. I am well aware that a lot of time has passed since those panel discussions, we’ve seen changes in the industry resulting in part from an economic roller coaster, and many of the older boats once considered viable a decade or more ago have not aged very well.

In fact, maybe the discussion has changed.

I called experienced yacht broker, Chuck Grice, of Virginia Yacht Brokers. Chuck has been in the business for a very long time and has first-hand knowledge of the ups and downs of boat buying cycles. The economic downturn forced change, many builders disappeared, and some people now have a different view on what they want to do with their leisure time. Chuck and fellow broker, Bob Starr, operate a successful powerboat brokerage just outside Great Bridge Lock on the ICW in Virginia, so they see every single boat that travels this marine highway. Whether you are a regular snowbird, are doing the Great Loop, or simply headed north or south in the protected waterway, you idle past their office windows as you leave the lock heading south.

As I suspected, things have changed enough that perhaps we now have a different conversation. Chuck confirmed what others have told me. Younger people are just not in the market for a cruising boat. Older couples are the ones buying boats now, usually as part of a retirement plan, or at least well over 50 and slowing down to smell the roses after years of building successful careers.

As  far as Chuck is concerned, these buyers generally fall into one of two groups of trawler folks.

The first group includes the traditional cruisers, couples who want to live the dream of full-time cruising on their own boat. They want a comfortable boat they can call home, and enjoy moving with the seasons. And taking it slow. Smell the roses. Life is good. They may be trading up from a smaller boat, or looking to expand their horizons with a more capable boat that is stabilized and capable of ocean, Alaska, Caribbean, or more remote cruising. Or just moving with the seasons.

The second group of buyers represents somewhat of a new phenomena, those primarily planning to do the Great Circle, the loop around North America. It is an adventure spanning one or two years.

Of course many of the traditional cruiser types also have the loop on their radar, especially those from the Midwest and East Coast, but a growing number of people are only focused on the Loop, not long term boat ownership. They see this trip as an experience on their bucket list, to see North America in this special way. Chuck told me his clients now include couples from New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. More people want to explore this continent from the unique perspective of a boat. And they only plan on the Great Loop for the duration of one or two years. Period. Then sell the boat and move on.

Vastly different buyer types, for sure, but the common thread is that they are older, generally over 50, and most are approaching or in retirement. They are much less interested in a major refit project of an older boat, and at this point in their lives, want more fun to enjoy themselves, travel, and be with family.

Over the years, I’ve met countless men and women who explain it to me rather simply:

“Look, Bill, I figure I have 10 more years of boating the way I am used to. I think it makes sense to sell our current boat and buy a new one, as the boat and its systems will serve me well for 10 years, unlike our current boat, which is already over 10 years old.”

I have heard this so many times, as they reach a certain age, as in their late 60s. They understand that they will be less confident, less adventurous, less capable of handling a big boat by themselves as they approach their golden years, and they want to live life NOW while they can.

But buying a new boat is simply out of the question for many people. New boats are incredibly expensive, beyond reach. But now that we are in 2017, the thousands of Taiwan-built trawlers from the ‘70s and ‘80s, which represented great value on the used market 15-25 years ago, are often beyond a little TLC. Mild steel tanks rust and leak, windows leak, hoses cracked, loose fittings, screwed-down teak decks leak, and poorly maintained mechanical and electrical system.

An older Marine Trader that has been well maintained by all of its owners. A viable choice, but finding a trawler of this vintage in this shape is getting harder these days. And it likely has issues that will take time and money to deal with.

An older Marine Trader that has been well maintained by all of its owners. A viable choice, but finding a trawler of this vintage in this shape is getting harder these days. And it likely has issues that will take time and money to deal with.

And even if one chose to tackles these projects, he or she will find that many of these boats were not built to be rebuilt. Ever really looked at your marine head plumbing? Would you be able to replace sanitary hoses secured with 5200 or beyond reach under the sole? Chuck laughed as he recalled how many times he’s seen sanitary hoses wrapped with Saran Wrap, a sorry attempt at odor control.

Clearly these are not the boats that our Seattle panel would recommend today.

Even the best boat builders don’t build for eternity, and everything has a limited lifespan. Pumps need replacing, hoses, batteries and cables, switches, electrical components, plumbing...there are many parts to a cruising boat. Shaft seals and cutless bearing need to be replaced more regularly than most know.

Experienced delivery captain Jerry Taylor once remarked that a 20-year-old Grand Banks is so well built that with polish and hard work, the hull can be made to look brand new. While that can’t be said for other parts of the boat, such as mild steel fuel tanks, a GB is really well made. Ditto later Krogens, and the Nordhavns that Ta Shing and South Coast Marine built are wonderful examples of craftsmanship.

The venerable Grand Banks 42 Classic. Once at the center of the trawler community, today's buyers are not interested in the associated maintenance of this dependable diesel cruiser.

The venerable Grand Banks 42 Classic. Once at the center of the trawler community, today's buyers are not interested in the associated maintenance of this dependable diesel cruiser.

I bought a new Baba 30 sailboat in 1985. Also built by Ta Shing, same as the Nordhavn 62. I took exceptional care of my Baba, but by the mid-’90s, I started having issues. The water hoses got brittle, and leaks caused the water pump to cycle on frequently. But getting to the hose clamps that held the hoses together was problematic as they were under the cabin sole. I found the nuts and bolts of the hull-deck joint had come loose, but I could only reach some of them. I could go on, but you see my point.

So if you feel in love with the Nordhavn 46 after reading Voyaging Under Power, and still dream of that boat as perfect for you and the Mrs to head into the sunset, embrace reality when you step aboard one, as some are well over 20 years old. It will not have the issues of the Taiwan-era trawlers, but unless it has been very well used and maintained, there will be issues, just that they are on any vintage yacht. This is true for Fleming, Selene, and the rest of the modern era builders. Crevice corrosion doesn’t care where it happens, and stuff just wears out.

The Nordhavn 46 has been around a long time, and is the stuff of passage making dreams, just as Robin Lee Graham on Dove sparked the imagination of an entire generation of sailors.

The Nordhavn 46 has been around a long time, and is the stuff of passage making dreams, just as Robin Lee Graham on Dove sparked the imagination of an entire generation of sailors.

Jeff Merrill, an experienced independent yacht broker (jmys.com), believes the key factors to determine a boat’s value are price, age, and hours. He tells his clients to buy the smallest boat that is big enough. And don’t just look at the purchase price, but include all of the pre-purchase expenses of surveys and inspections. He also said you won’t know the full cost of the boat until after you have owned it for six months. There are always post-purchase expenses on a new-to-you boat. Forget rebuilding systems, things invariably come up: a more comfortable custom mattress so you both can sleep comfortably each night, installing AIS or upgrading radar, adding safety gear to fit your cruising plans, converting bulbs to LED, and a lot of other things you won’t notice until you’ve used the boat for six months.

Another issue with older boats is the resale factor.  Jeff correctly pointed out resale is important when buying a boat. In two to five years, it will be much easier to sell a 2007 boat than one built in 1986.

With a few exceptions, the older it is, the more money and time and energy you will spend taking care of it. Is that what you are looking for? Merrill said today’s buyer expects a Lexus experience, which is trouble free operation.  

If you have a budget between $175K and maybe $300K, it seems best to look for a boat that is no older than 10-15 years old, 8-10 is even better. Yes, you can find a 1989-vintage trawler for $50K on Yachtworld, in fact there are many out there. But…

Getting back to Chuck’s second group who are only interested in doing the Loop, with perhaps a side trip to the Bahamas, the boat is just a vehicle, the experience is the goal. Once they complete their loop, they will sell the boat and move on to the next experience on the bucket list. They want a boat that is simple to operate, easy to maintain, and easy to resell...teak decks, varnished brightwork and stunning interiors need not apply. Find me a clean 2005 40-foot Mainship for under $200,000 and we are good to go. Wash and wear it for two years, and the slight hit we take when we sell it is just the cost of the adventure.

The Mainship 40 offers a low maintenance exterior, and is fairly simple. For many, this works for their short-term plans.

The Mainship 40 offers a low maintenance exterior, and is fairly simple. For many, this works for their short-term plans.

So I guess I would not ask that question again if we did another panel discussion, because times have changed. And what amazes me is the older boats I would recommend to check out today were the new boats back when I first asked the question.

 

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