Getting the Most When Selling Your Boat or…
The White Glove Approach to Selling Your Boat

by Ronald Riggs



Whether you want to move up, move down, or move out, sooner or later you will come to that second happiest day in a boat owners life: the day you sell your boat. How do you sell your boat quickly, and for the most money? What are the most important factors in selling your boat? How do you avoid the biggest mistake most boat sellers make?

The three most important factors affecting the sale of your boat are price, condition, and exposure. Exposure means that to sell your boat, buyers have to know it is for sale. This is the advertising and marketing of your boat and is the job of your selling broker. They can also help you set a realistic selling price. So let’s talk about the one factor most under your control, and probably the one most neglected – the condition of your boat.

“The biggest mistake seller’s make,” says Karen Trusty, owner of The Sailing Life Yacht Brokers in Portland, Oregon, “is they don’t look at the boat as if their mother were going to arrive.” Karen, who has been selling boats for 22 years, goes on to say that sellers don’t consider the cosmetics, especially the teak. “The boat’s condition may be okay for the seller, but not for selling. For every dollar you spend on cosmetics, you get a lot back.” Simply put, to get the most when selling your boat, Clean It Up!

So, what to do? First, take a good, hard, honest look at the teak. Try to look at it as if you were buying the boat. Does the beauty and shine of the teak stir the passions of desire in your soul, or does it make you gag? (Oops, are we in trouble already?)

If the teak is in good shape, but it’s been a few months since you last touched it up, sand it lightly and give it a couple of new coats of varnish. If the old finish is peeling and/or bare wood is showing, completely strip off the old finish and clean the wood. Now you have to decide what to put on that teak.

Teak Oil is fast, cheap, and easy, and looks pretty good – for about a week. Varnish is beautiful, but you need eight coats, an expensive brush, and a steady hand. Consider using Cetol. It goes on more like paint, and two or three coats will give you a good looking finish that will last for a couple of seasons – more than enough time to sell your boat.

Next, take a look around the deck. If your boat is more than 10 years old, the gelcoat is probably showing wear and tear. Repainting the entire deck is expensive and time consuming but you can often brighten things up by just painting the non-skid areas. One-part polyurethane with flatteners to reduce glare work well. Borrow a lesson from real estate and keep the colors neutral – a light gray or tan. Avoid harsh colors like mustard gold and baby-puke green. They often look dirty even when new.

Here’s another hint: If you can, wash all halyards and sheets in the washer (on gentle cycle). Throw in a little fabric softener. You’ll be amazed at the improvement in the look and feel of the line, especially if they’ve been in salt water. Don’t put them in the dryer, just coil loosely and put back on the boat. By the way, before pulling halyards and other lines from the mast, be sure to send up “messenger” lines so you can get the halyards back up there! Now let’s go down below.

In real estate, they say the kitchen sells the home. On a boat, the galley and saloon sell the boat. All of the latest electronic toys and gadgets are nice, but if the inside is dirty, beat up, and smelly, you’ll lose the sale.

Karen’s advice: “Take all of your personal stuff off the boat. Get it empty. Get the boat looking as open as possible.” This includes clothing, foul weather gear, extra towels and bedding, and food (especially food). If it doesn’t go with the boat, get rid of it.

This is important for two reasons. First, the less stuff on your boat, the less cluttered and more spacious it feels. Second, if buyers see it, they will want it. If you want to keep that Weems & Plath bronze sextant that your grand-father used as a Merchant Marine back in the ’20s, then take it home. You don’t want to lose a sale over a used piece of equipment.

Now, having said all of that, don’t take everything off. A boat with too much stuff feels small, cramped, and cluttered, but a boat with nothing in it feels sterile, impersonal, and uninviting. Take your cue from the new boat dealers and look how they present their boats at the boat shows – a couple of throw pillows on the settees, two place settings on the galley table, some books, a boating magazine or two, and a few knick-knacks. You want to create a warm, inviting, comfortable place.

Interior teak is often left unfinished by the manufacturer on the theory that teak doesn’t need finishing. The truth is, it is expensive and time consuming for the builder to finish the teak, and would add to the price (or take away from the profit) of the new boat. Owners often leave it unfinished but this is a mistake. Unfinished wood looks unfinished. Clean, sand, and varnish all wood. Only real wood, though, not the wood-grained Formica. You might consider using a polyurethane such as Verathane rather than varnish since this will be easier and faster. Two coats of satin or semi-gloss should give good results.

While you’re down below, wash all interior surfaces with soap and water or a spray cleaner such as 409 or Fantastic. If you have fiberglass surfaces, apply some car wax after cleaning. This will really shine them up and hide small scratches

Now take a good whiff to see how the boat smells. This is best done when first coming on board after the boat has been closed up for a while. What do you smell? Diesel? The holding tank? Sour milk? Be aware that your buyer’s nose will be a lot more sensitive than yours. Chlorine bleach works well to eliminate or greatly reduce most odors. Dump a quart of bleach in the bilge, followed by two to four buckets of water – sea water will do nicely. Also pump the holding tank then put in another quart of bleach and two buckets of water through the head discharge plate. Let those slosh around for an hour (go sailing), then pump them out.

The head and sails have surprisingly little impact on the sale of a boat. The head needs to be clean and functioning as any other piece of equipment. Whether you have five sails or twelve won’t make or break a sale either, unless perhaps it is an all out racer. The condition of the sails, in the extreme, may affect the price, but not the sale. That is, if you have only a main, jib and genoa, they’re all 30 years old, and they’re as limp as a handkerchief, then you can expect a lower price, but if the buyer likes the boat otherwise, you’ve got a sale. I wouldn’t recommend replacing all of the sails, because you’ll get back only a fraction of the cost.

Should you make repairs or improvements prior to selling? Karen says “Don’t bottom paint or do projects you’ve been planning, such as shelves, just get the boat really clean.” The reason is, you won’t get your money back. But, she does recommend that you fix cosmetic things that need to be fixed, like dings in the gelcoat.

What about broken equipment? This is a judgement call. If the knotmeter is broken you won’t get your money back if you replace it. But, if you’re selling a boat in “Bristol” condition, the buyer will expect it to be repaired or replaced anyway, so you might as well do it up front. Another thing is too many broken items may turn off interested buyers.

Here’s what happens: Buyers see a lot of things that are broken and don’t work. They assume the boat has not been well maintained and wonder what else is wrong that they can’t see. They now go looking for problems and will find them (real or imagined). If they’re still interested at this point, they will offer a much lower price because they now see the boat as a “fixer-upper.”

On the other hand, if everything works, the boat is clean, and looks good, they will assume the boat is in good shape and tend to overlook or minimize problems that do show up. They will rationalize minor problems as “normal wear and tear” and easily fixed. What’s true in life is true when selling a boat: buyers’ perceptions become their reality.

Don’t forget the engine. If it’s an outboard, haul it to the dealer or service center for a tune-up and oil change, including gear oil and all filters. You want it starting on the first or second pull of the starter rope, then running smoothly. For an inboard engine, have it inspected and serviced by a qualified technician and get a written report of condition, including compression readings, if possible. This will greatly ease the mind of you buyer. And, of course, clean it as much as you can.

Are you done? Not quite. One last piece of advice from Karen: “For older boats and especially wood boats, have it surveyed.” She says a recent survey really helps to sell a boat.

Well, it was a lot of work, but you’ve cleaned up the boat and it’s looking pretty good. In fact, it is probably looking better than it has in years. You are now miles ahead of 80% of other boat sellers, and have an excellent chance that your boat will sell first.