Project boat

A frequently asked question on boating forums, principally from first-time buyers, is: “Should I buy the cheaper boat and “do it up,” or buy one in better condition but more expensive?” Replies usually start, “It all depends on your skill levels, the condition of the boat, your personal circumstances and your budget.” In trying to answer the question, definitions should first be clarified, because boating metaphors often mean different things to different people.

A PB will be a vessel that has been neglected and needs a lot of work to restore it. But if a buyer has a limited budget, a project boat may be the only way he can acquire a particular model. For the right person, who is capable of doing restore work, a PB can eventually result in a nice boat that is quite a lot more valuable than the buyer paid. They come in all shapes and sizes, and not necessarily older boats either, because many older boats were built to a more robust construction then some modern vessels.

Project boats ashoreThere are many reasons why a boat will decline into a PB. Financial factors of the owner usually plays a large part, or an owner may become ill or elderly and be unable to physically attend to his boat. Also, once a decision is made to sell a boat, the incentive to maintain it often declines, and if left unattended it can quickly deteriorate.

Boats like these can be found in marinas everywhere and are like abandoned puppies, begging for a new owner to take care of them. Boats like these two can often  be had for no charge, because the marina wants them out of the way. A person could trailer one away, or pay to keep it on the hard while repairing it.

Buying a RTGB is usually predicated by a buyers budget, and what he wants to do with the vessel. If he wants to immediately use it, he will be more likely to consider a RTGB. Also, if he lacks the skills, or the time to repair a PB, a RTGB will be a better choice. However, they are normally more expensive than a PB. It should also be remembered that a RTGB will likely not be entirely free of faults either, and there may be things to be done which require the same skills as the PB restorer, but usually to a lesser degree.

It is often said that a project boat can be a “White elephant,” because the cost of restoration may finish up exceeding the cost of a ready-to-go boat, due mainly to increases in the costs of materials. A buyer of a PB will usually be able to buy a bigger vessel for his budget than a RTGB version, and may then be able to finance the restoration from income. This can be a sound strategy, provided the buyer has the time and ability to undertake the various jobs. It can be particularly appealing if the boat can still be used during the restoration, so that some pleasure can be had while the work progresses.

A buyer will usually have a particular make and model in mind, and it then becomes a question of the cost of model A, which has been well looked after, relative to model B which has been neglected, but consequently less expensive. Newcomers often look at project versions of a boat through rose-colored glasses, and their lack of experience makes it difficult to accurately assess the costs associated with restoring a project boat. A well-used rule-of-thumb states that any estimate should be doubled in both costs and time, but this will often be unheeded by an eager PB buyer. Unfortunately, this is why project boats are frequently seen “For sale by owner,” by people who, for one reason or another have found it impossible to continue with a PB. The vessel then transfers to another enthusiastic buyer, and sometimes even a third. It is therefore important for a prospective buyer of a PB to assess whether he can (a), actually do the work and (b), enjoy doing it, because if there is little enjoyment, the project will quickly sour, resulting in yet another, “For sale by owner.”
On the other hand, a skilled and experienced project boat restorer can “flip” a boat he has restored, and even make a profit

An inspection by a professional marine surveyor will be most advisable to a first-time buyer, furthermore, a survey is a sound investment to any buyer of a used boat, and normally required by insurers anyway. A good surveyor will be able to assess the cost of restoration of a PB to any level, either to be done by the buyer himself, or by a boatyard, and there will be a very, very, big difference between the two estimates. Much can be  learned about the condition of any boat by a careful inspection by a buyer himself, and many areas of neglect will be obvious even to a novice. Upon receipt of a survey a PB buyer should then make an honest assessment of his abilities and limitations to actually undertake the project, regarding time and finances.  It should also be remembered that boat surveyors are far from infallible, and there will probably be things that he misses on any type of boat.

The age of a boat, along with the age of the buyer, may determine what type of vessel will be best for a particular person. A young man might consider that he has plenty of time to restore a PB, before he even thinks about sailing it anywhere. An older person, perhaps recently retired, will have a different perspective, and may opt to buy a RTGB that requires little or no repair, and which can be enjoyed immediately with the minimum of attention.

The skills and abilities needed to restore a PB are often underestimated by newcomers to boat ownership. For a project boat, which a buyer plans to largely restore himself, the skills might require the ability to repair or replace complicated electrical equipment, plumbing, carpentry, hydraulics, sails and ropes, and the many branches of these skills. It is perfectly possible to learn how to do individual tasks from reference to specialist nautical books, Internet forums and suppliers' help-lines. However, even with the knowledge of how to do something, it still requires skill and tools to actually do it.

Especially taxing on an old PB can be electrical repairs, because there may not be any wiring diagrams, and the wires will likely be brittle, with insulation cracked or chaffed. The complete wiring system on an old PB may need replacing, which is both tedious and expensive. Even an experienced person sometimes needs to call in a specialist for certain jobs, especially if special instruments or gauges are needed, like in air conditioning systems diagnosis. Apart from the skill, knowing where to buy materials at the right price is also an important part of the equation. The prospective buyer of a neglected boat should very seriously and honestly consider whether he can tackle most of the jobs, because employing even unskilled assistants can greatly increase costs.

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Even if the new owner of a project boat has the skills, repairs frequently require a large collection of different tools, especially for carpentry work. The author recently repaired a damaged toe-rail on his schooner Britannia. It required shaping and splicing-in a new 6-foot-long teak plank, 7-inches wide and 1-inch thick. The tools that were employed were: a bench circular saw, an electric hand sander, a bench sander, a jig-saw, an oscillating sander, a bench and a hand router, a power planer, a power drill, four clamps, four different chisels, and numerous screws, glues, caulking and varnish. If a person has to buy or rent some of these tools repair costs will rise. The Author already had them all, so the actual cost of the toe-rail repair was only $130 for the wood. This was a bit different to a quote from a local carpentry shop for the same job, of between $600 and $800. During the course of Britannia’s restoration there have been numerous similar instances of savings amounting to thousands. By doing repairs himself an owner also gets to know his boat intimately, which one day might be a life saver at sea.

Whether to buy a project or ready to go boat can also depend very much upon the personal circumstances of the buyer. Spouses often have input as to the type of boat being considered, and especially the budget. A single person might not have any constraints and may even live on the boat, thereby reducing costs in other directions, but a married buyer with children may not have these options. The latter would probably be better to consider a RTGB that can be enjoyed by all members of the family straight away, even if this stretches his initial budget. Repairs on any type of boat can take up a lot of time, and if a couple are both inexperienced conflicts can occur.

In 2011 I began searching for a specific model of a ketch. I flew from Florida to Mexico, to Seattle (twice) and the BVI’s, to inspect boats. My budget was around $180,000, but I was unable to find a vessel to my liking. I then found a similar-sized ketch on my doorstep, but I immediately saw that it was in the project boat realm. It was obvious that it suffered from a lack of maintenance, and many things did not work at all. I still paid for a professional survey, after which I bought the boat for less than one-quarter of my budget. As I began working on the boat, I discovered things that even the surveyor had overlooked and which I was not surprised about at all. For the first two years most of my time was spent repairing or replacing broken items, using left-over funds from my budget. The advantage of this was that I now had new, modern equipment, which was under warranty.
I have been messing about with boats for over 50 years and consider myself to have above-average skills in all the categories mentioned above. I also already had all the tools and  I was also newly retired, so I had the time to work on the boat, and I have a wife who enjoys sailing and varnishing. In fact, we were ideal candidates to buy a project boat. Some of the alterations I made were well outside an average project boat buyer's realm.

BathspaceBathroom I changed the ketch to a schooner, by moving the masts and standing rigging. I installed a square-sail on the foremast, then converted all the sails to roller furling, operated from the safety of the center cockpit. I completely remodeled the three cabins and installed a full-size hot-tub bath in the owner's aft en-suite bathroom. The galley was modernized to include a deep-freeze, a washer/drier and microwave oven. I installed two electric toilets with waste treatment systems to do away with messy holding tanks. I fitted two air conditioning units, and upgraded all the plumbing and instrumentation. I bought a new 45 miles high definition color radar to replace the ancient defunct Decca unit. The cost of modifications and restoration over the years has been nearly $100,000, but even after adding the cost of buying the boat it is still less than my original budget, and I now have a boat exactly to my liking. These, along with many more innovations, are detailed on Britannia’s website,
BritanniaOf course, none of these alterations and additions includes my labor, (although it does include the costs of specialists for certain jobs), and if this is added the figure would be exceedingly higher. The accountant will no doubt say labor should be costed-in, but my reply would be that I have mainly enjoyed the whole exercise, along with extensively sailing the boat in-between projects. So should I not therefore factor in the cost of the enjoyment, and at what rate? Now, ten years later, I own a very unique brigantine schooner, that bears no resemblance whatsoever, either inside or out, to the original project boat.

In trying to answer the question first posed, so much depends upon the boat and the individual buyer. This article is therefore only an outline of possible eventualities, and the pitfalls that may confront a would-be buyer of either type of boat. In the final analysis, “Caveat emptor” may be the best advice that can be given.