Tips for Selling a Boat

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2014 • all rights reserved

In the digital age, the online listing is the key to selling a boat. A few dos and don'ts for taking great boat photos that will get the right people to look at the boat.

Shortly after we bought our boat, I got a number of emails asking for tips on preparing a boat for sale — specifically for taking photos and showing it.

Having just been through the joy of wading through hundreds of listings when we were looking for a boat, as well as having bought and sold one in the past, I’m happy to share a few thoughts. These apply whether you’re selling the boat yourself or working with a broker.

Let’s start with the fact that almost every search is initially conducted online. The photos and description are what’s going to make someone call or come visit. And for people like Dave and I, who live 500 to 1,000 miles or more from a boat, we really want to have a feel for a particular boat before we commit to the time and money involved in a visit.

My belief is that 100% honesty and transparency is best in listing a boat. Yes, you want to present it in the best light but you don’t want to “trick” someone into thinking it’s something it’s not. What’s important isn’t getting hundreds of people to look at the boat; it’s getting the one right person to look at it. Great, accurate, inviting photos and a detailed description of the boat will do it.

If you are planning to use a broker, start by looking at the broker(s) listings. Are they well presented? Do the photos make the boat look inviting? Is the information complete? If you don’t like how the broker is showing other boats, don’t use him/her for your boat — there is no reason to believe he/she will do a better job for you. No matter how personable they are, if the online listings aren’t appealing no one will visit in person.

On the other hand, if you’re planning to sell the boat yourself, spend some serious time — maybe 4 or 5 hours — looking at listings online. Make note of what’s included in listings that you like (doesn’t matter if you actually like the boat, just whether you like how it’s presented). Pay attention to how the photos are staged and how descriptions are worded. What makes some listings stand out? How can you apply those lessons to your boat?

Next, begin by de-cluttering and de-personalizing the boat. Prospective purchasers want to imagine themselves on the boat and so removing family photos, the kids’ drawings and so on will go a long ways. I know. It’s hard.

Clean, clean and clean the boat some more. Make it sparkle! Pay particular attention to the galley and heads. Clean the oven, defrost the refrigerator, clean inside every locker and straighten the contents.

To take the pictures, use a camera with a ultra-wide-angle lens. Not a fisheye, but one specifically designed for small spaces without distortion. This is what separates great boat photos from the merely good — the ability to get much more of each “room” in the photo. This will make the boat look much more roomy. Using a typical point and shoot or cell phone camera just won’t do justice to your boat. A good broker should have a good camera and know how to use it; if you’re doing your own, ask friends who are into photography if they have the necessary equipment and might be willing to do the photos for you — or think of hiring someone.

Pick a nice sunny day for the photos — the sunlight coming through ports and hatches will make the boat look much better.

If you’re living on the boat, or if it’s being stored, there’s probably a certain amount of clutter on the boat. But the photos don’t have to reflect that. Clear each area of the boat as photos are being taken (never let the broker take the photos without you being there to do this!). Yes, it’s a lot of work but the boat will show much better. A prospective buyer wants to see the v-berth, not five bags of sails, 3 PFDs and whatever else is laying on the v-berth.

Some people and broker like to “stage” the photos with linen and dishes on the table, pots on the stove and so on. I’m not a fan of this as I want to see exactly what’s there, but I know it’s a personal issue.

Take lots of photos — 50 or more is not unreasonable as some won’t turn out well. Thirty or more in the actual listing is not unusual (if you’re using something like SailboatListings.com or Craigslist where the number of photos is limited, remember that you can email more to interested parties). But those should not be of the same items, just from a different angle. Use close ups of all electronics. Avoid the temptation to use professional photos from the manufacturer — people want to see the actual boat being sold (I get furious over “sistership” photos when I’m looking).

Look at the photos as you take them to make sure they’re sharp, totally in focus and that you don’t have “stuff” in them — a power cord hanging down through the center of a picture, books and eyeglasses on the nav station, a dirty glass in the galley sink, makeup on the counter in the head, whatever. Also make sure that there is nothing in the pictures that’s not included in the sale. Retake as necessary. NOTE though — don’t try to hide any problem areas. In fact, take a photo specifically of the problem. As a buyer, I get very suspicious when I visit a boat and discover that a book “just happened” to hide a stain on the upholstery. I wonder what else the seller is trying to hide and tend to walk away.

Once you have all the photos, edit them as necessary. Delete the ones that are blurry or otherwise bad. For the good ones, I’m not saying to “Photoshop” them and alter what’s there, but crop if helpful and also add arrows or circles to point something out if it’s not immediately obvious. Give the photos names that clearly explain what something is (if the online listing lets you caption photos, do that too). Seeing “Photo 1” doesn’t tell me a thing about what you’re trying to show.

Video or not? If you are going to use video, my feeling is that it should be in addition to still photos, not in place of them. Frankly, Dave and I never saw a video that was particularly helpful — we preferred still photos where we could look at one for a while and discuss what we saw. If you opt for video, it’s better to narrate what is being shown than have music in the background. I tend to prefer an edited video with narration added in post-production than someone trying to talk and film at the same time.

Now it’s on to the description of the boat. Depending on where you list it, you’ll have different limitations and formats. I recommend having a separate document that can be sent to interested parties that lists absolutely everything about the boat (read about creating this here). If you can, save your basic document as a PDF so that no one can alter the document on you.

Now, from the complete list, create your description or give it to the broker for them to do the same. If you’re selling it yourself and have only limited space to describe the boat, try to hit the big ticket items that make your boat attractive (electronics, dinghy included, rebuilt engine, new sails . . .). If it’s a production boat with many built, there’s no need to rehash features common to all if you’re short on space. If you’re not confident of your writing skills — or if you’re not a good speller — ask a friend who is for help. Spelling in particular is important as people enter search terms and if a word isn’t spelled right in your description, it won’t show as a match.

The listing itself. If you’re working with a broker, ask them to tell you the minute it’s online and immediately check it for accuracy as well as for how well it shows your boat. Insist that any inaccuracies be corrected immediately. Yachtworld, which most brokers use, lets people set up alerts for new listings — and these tend to be people (or their brokers) who are serious buyers. Don’t let them see an inaccurate listing for your boat!

If you are listing it yourself, enlist a friend to look at the listing when it’s at the “proof” or “confirm” stage. It’s just too easy to miss mistakes when it’s something you’ve been working on. A fresh set of eyes will pick up things you miss. If your friend is a boater or in marketing, so much the better.

Finally, pay attention to how similar boats are listed. For example, we just purchased a Gemini catamaran made by Performance Cruising, Inc. On Yachtworld, over 90% are listed as “Gemini” in the manufacturer/model field. On Sailboat Listings, they’re listed as Performance Cruising. You want yours listed as the others are so that people using the search function will find your boat.

Showing the boat. Even if it’s a broker who is actually showing the boat, it’s up to you to ready it. It should be 100% clean, fresh smelling and clutter-free. Prospective buyers will be opening pretty much every locker, so make sure that they are neat and organized (if there is just too much stuff crammed in there, it pays to remove some of it, even if you have to rent a storage unit). If you want people to think that there is plenty of storage space, make sure that there is a bit of empty space in every locker (very important in clothing storage areas).

If you have any funky head smells, do everything in your power to rid the boat of them. I highly recommend Marine Digest-It (read my post about it). Baking soda and simply airing the boat out will help too.

And finally, make the boat look appealing. This is where I’d stage the boat — lay out the table as though dinner is about to be served, put fresh flowers on the table, plump up the throw pillows, open the hatches (assuming it’s not raining), put fresh towels in the head, fresh sheets on the bed, and so on. Absolutely no tools or paint in sight!

Got other tips or pet peeves? Leave a note in the comments!

BG

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Comments

  1. Fred Christoffel says:

    I could not agree more with the third paragraph on representing your boat as something she is not. We are in the process of finding a new floating home and were keenly interested in a boat in Ft. Lauderdale. Living in West Texas it takes considerable effort and expense to look at said boat. It was advertised (by a big name brokerage) as an owners version complete with pictures, detailed descriptions, everything you are looking for and expecting in an online listing. Unfortuntially the images of the vessel where that of another of the same model but a true owners version in the Caribbean that was also for sale. Imagine our disappointment and frustration when we realized their deception. Having worked in the entertainment industry for 35 years the one lie that will get you every time is trying to pass off a headshot of yourself that no longer looks like you; that’s what online dating is for.

  2. Here’s a couple more thoughts:

    When selling a boat
    If you are not able to be at the same location as the vessel, ensure you have someone to prepare the boat for showing. For example, running the AC on a hot day when a prospective client is arriving and ensuring the boat stays clean throughout. If you keep your boat in a Marina, an inexpensive method to keeping your boat washed and prepared for showing is to pay a person in the marina (usually a live aboard) a small weekly stipend help out. When we sold our last vessel, we also offered the caretaker 1% of the sale price of the boat to keep up appearances in addition to stipend. This way we knew they were motivated and had a vested interest. The boat sold quickly. Don’t be cheap when selling a boat! Buyers have a lot of options.

    When buying a boat
    If you become interested in a boat located in another location to avoid the expense of traveling to the boat, consider getting someone local to help out. On several occasions when purchasing our current boat, we contacted a local person to do a once over for us. This entailed taking a few pictures and emailing them to us, looking at the general condition of the boat, and calling us. We were able to find people via local boatyards, a local boat broker (other than the listing broker), craigslist, on-line forums (www.multihulls4us.com and http://www.cruisersforum.com) etc. We paid these folks about $200 (or less) for the once over. Most of the brokers did not take the money but simply asked if we would use them as a buyer’s broker if we settled upon that particular boat. This costs the buyer nothing as the seller is paying commissions. The commission is split between the two broker agents.

    On one particular instance, we were saved an expensive airline ticket. The boat looked awesome in the pictures. This listing broker was all thumbs up about the boat and we thought, this might be the one. A local broker went on board for us and told us the boat had been sitting closed up and was full of mold and mildew. He did not charge us anything.

    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff
    http://www.creampuff.us

  3. Jonathan says:

    Carolyn, great post. It is incredible to me how bad most listing photos are and how little brokers care about that.

    One point about lighting the inside. You want good lighting inside. For example, the photo of the dinette does not show the detail behind the dinette. Taking photos on a sunny day will create deep shadows inside, with too much contrast. Yes, it is helpful to have some shots through the ports to the outside on a sunny day, to show the view, to create ambiance.
    For other interior shots use filtered daylight (like an overcast day) or a fill flash if you are good using a flash, or all the interior lights on or some auxiliary 110v lights to light up the dark corners. This will take some experimentation over several sessions, but if you have the time, it is worth it. My favorite interior shots are around sunset with a rosy soft light outside and the interior warmly lit, looking cozy and inviting. Look at the photos for very high end boats and see how the professional photographers do it.
    When we sold our last boat without a broker, the buyers said it was our photos that caught their attention. Keep a portfolio of the best shots of your boat over the life of your ownership for the day when you want to sell.

    For shots of the exterior, make sure you have good shots of the boat sailing, this is the sizzle people dream about. And don’t take photos of the boat at the dock with other boats crowding around. Just distracts from your baby.

  4. I’m rather on the other side of the coin. After spending literally several years looking at boats, it was our experience that pictures are always deceptive, whether well done or not.

    What worked for us for shopping was to get a short list of boats in a given area and just bite the bullet and take a trip to go look at them. Never, ever, did ads (well-done or not) show what the boats were really like. In fact, the boat we ended up with was advertised by a posting in an Internet forum.

    The buyer is best warned to learn about systems and boat manufacture so he can do a good initial inspection, and if he likes a boat, get the best, meanest, toughest surveyor he can find.

    worked for us.

    • wish I could edit. I forgot to say that we enlisted a buyer’s broker who we knew and trusted, and he was able to sift through to help with our short lists. We developed a knack for looking at the ads and reading between the lines, as well

  5. …excellent post. Just now putting my Catalina 30 up for sale…thanks for the tips!

  6. Honesty all the way. I got very tired when shopping for our boat of Yachtworld listings that were basically just cut and paste jobs from when the same boat, or even the same model boat, had been listed years before. We looked at one boat where the same photos had been used of the boat as it was 10 years previously! Lazy and dishonest, that’s how we viewed the particular broker of this boat and we passed quickly because who knows what else he was fibbing about.
    One suggestion for selling your own boat, which we did, is to create a document that lists everything you’ve done to repair or upgrade the vessel, by year of ownership. I’m pretty sure that document helped us sell our Cal34.

  7. I gave the boat away!

  8. In the process of shopping now to live aboard. Want to see the walk in closet they say it has!

  9. Heather says:

    Great article. After spending TWO years looking at boat ads, I will tell you that pictures do wonders! I have clicked on ads that had NO pictures! Or only two or three pics, with no current pics, and no interior pics. I wanted to see all the bumps and bruises on our boat, so I knew what I would be dealing with when I owned it. The Boat we ending up buying had enough pictures that we drove 4 hours to pick it up. It was a worth the wait!

  10. Lyn - SY Osprey says:

    Thanks Carolyn – great articles .
    Photo’s – we have been caught out twice now. We flew from Toronto to Granada as my partner was really interested in a larger version of a cat he had previously built & owned. Photo’s looked great. We were never quite sure where the broker was based and she put us on to the owner as our questions were too technical ! We were told it was in perfect condition . All looked good so off we flew – even changing an overseas flight to fit this trip in. The owner had arranged for a couple in the same moorings to pick us up and take us out to the boat. Well – talk about presentation – baby’s bottles, stuff everywhere, mouldy cushions and the whole boat in total disrepair. Apart from a nice weekend on Granada it was a total waste of time & money.
    AND again we got caught the other day. Luckily we were in Chesapeake so were able to drive to Anapolis. Again great pics, were told it had only been out of water since last September – more like years. Again presentation and description did not meet the ads. We were told just a few weeks to get it in condition. We figure two years, doing work ourselves and we are retired so have the time !
    From now on dated photo’s and we have a few more questions to ask – even though we thought we had previously covered it all.

  11. Great article. We are now on boat #8 so we have been through this process many times. I only have one little pet peeve that you didn’t mention. When taking pictures of the heads, please make sure the lid is closed. Way nicer picture.

  12. GREAT article Carolyn! As a yacht broker, I read as many articles and blogs as I can AND – just as important – the comments that follow. Thanks for making me better at what I do!

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