Project boats are sooo tempting. They seem like an inexpensive way to get into boating. Truth is, they're likely to end up being more expensive . . . and you won't be out on the water!

Project Boat for a First Boat

If you’re buying your first boat, you may have thought about getting a project boat and fixing it up to be just exactly what you want. I mean, how hard can it be? And by doing the work yourself, won’t you save money? And project boats are soooo cheap!

Okay, so what’s a project boat? It’s the nautical equivalent of a fixer-upper or handyman’s special. Basically, a boat that really can’t be used as is. Typically they’re being sold very cheaply — or even given away — just so the current owner no longer has to pay storage or look at it. There’s a certain appeal in buying an old boat and fixing it up . . . and books such as This Old Boat by Don Casey make the process look easy.

I hate to burst your bubble, but I strongly recommend that you do not buy a project boat for your first boat. Even if it’s given to you, it’s not likely to be a good deal.

Instead, get a boat that you can use right now — it doesn’t have to be perfect, but usable — and use it. See what you like and don’t like and how you use a boat.

Why not?

  • Getting a boat is a huge learning curve as it is. Trying to figure out what you really want before you’ve had any experience with a cruising boat is just impossible.
  • Even with a “ready to go” boat, you’re going to be doing a lot of maintence, repair and yes, even upgrades. You’ll find plenty of things to do on your boat, don’t worry! You’ll learn about boat systems and discover if you even like doing boat work.
  • Skills that you may have gained in building or rehabbing buildings on land will be helpful, but the experience does not directly transfer. If you do not have experience with boats — and I assume you don’t if it’s a first boat purchase — there will be a formidable learning curve. Things will take longer and you’ll find yourself re-doing things that didn’t go right the first time.
  • You are likely to discover that there is more to be done than you initially believe. Without boating experience, it’s impossible to know what all will have to be done. Even very experienced boat surveryors miss things.
  • Boats pack a lot of gear into a tiny space. Learn how it’s been done by others (and what frustrates you) before doing it yourself.
  • The work will take far longer than you estimate. It is likely to take years, not months. Yes, everyone I’ve known who buys a project boat says “I can do it faster than that.” If you haven’t installed boat systems before, it is impossible to appreciate the complexity of systems and the time involved to do “simple” things such as run wires.
  • You will not save money. Boats depreciate quickly, and boat parts are expensive. So buying a “cheap” boat and fixing it up is likely to cost more than buying one that can be used immediately but may not have absolutely up-to-date equipment. And that’s without considering the yard bills and value of your time.
  • Consider why you want to own a boat: do you want to be out on the water or sweating and contorted in impossibly small work areas?

Project boats need to be undertaken as a labor of love with the understanding that you will never get back what you put into one.

I’m not saying that you should never buy a project boat, but they are not good first boats. You really need to know what you’re getting into — and having already owned a boat, maintained, repaired and upgraded her will give you a far better sense of what’s involved.

Project boats are sooo tempting. They seem like an inexpensive way to get into boating. Truth is, they're likely to end up being more expensive . . . and you won't be out on the water!

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16 Comments
  • Ritchard Findlay
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    I spent 5 winters sprucing up my old girl. She was usable from the day I got her, but tired. I learned an awful lot – I am now capable of taking on almost any project on a sailboat, and I thought of it as therapy. Now that we are looking to upsize, I have been considering another fixer-upper. Then I came to my senses.

    I enjoyed the experience, but it’s not for everybody, and I would never do it again.

    • Chris Reynolds
      Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

      You did a great job with the first boat. No need to redo a class when you’ve already gotten an A+.

  • Kathy Bishop
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    Thinking about buying a third to upsize, but still not sure about that.

  • Jonathan Caldwell
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    A huge AMEN to this post!

  • Bill Dixon
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    You need to make up your mind. Do you want to do boating or do carpentry plumbing electrical fiberglass and sewing.

  • Laine Common
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    Everywhere we’ve lived has been a project. Some less than others. This boat was essentially a hull with unknown status on the engines (power boat). Sure we put money into it, but it’s the boat for us for sure. None of the others came close to being able to have beds for all 8 of us in our price range. And now we have the systems we want along with the experience of installing them ourselves and learning while we went. It’s really been invaluable honestly. And we’ve lived aboard the whole time, mostly at anchor.

  • Wally Moran
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    I note Carolyn isn’t addressing the point that some folks can’t afford to get into boating unless they purchase/adopt/inherit a fixer upper and thus spread the costs out over time. For some, that’s what it takes but as she notes, it’s not the easiest way to go.
    No matter what you buy, there will always be something to do on it. Over time, you’ll get ALL the experience you require – or can handle at any rate!. My second boat was a fixer upper in that it needed an engine, but was otherwise ready to go I don’t count things such as electronics or replacing chain, anchor, etc. as ‘fixing up’..
    My first several outings on it were without the engine in fact.
    Would I do it again? Hard to say. Probably, if I wanted the next boat badly enough.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 07 March 2017 Reply

      Wally, I think that even in that case, they’re better off buying a tired but usable older, smaller boat. Many can be picked up for less than the price of parts (even used parts) to make a project boat at least functional. I’m not saying never buy a project boat, just that for the vast majority of people, it’s not a good FIRST boat. Even your project boat was your SECOND boat — you had some experiece to call on in the work you did.

  • Tanith Nalya Tritton
    Posted at 06 March 2017 Reply

    Bring Out Another Thousand

  • John Fox
    Posted at 09 March 2017 Reply

    Even buying a ‘ready’ boat doesn’t mean getting out on the water. We bought a boat a year ago because it was a ‘deal’. The survey was pretty clean, a few things wrong but nothing that seemed expensive. We expected to haul her out, paint the bottom, replace a couple of sea cocks, and off we go. The biggest problem was mildew on the interior. So we proceeded to unload everything and get down to scrubbing.

    We were delayed three weeks moving her for a haul out because the engine died the day we bought her (new lift pump). Then, while we were practicing flaking the main sail on the dock (might as well practice something), the mainsail ripped and it was discovered while it was visibly in good shape, it had dry rotted. KaChing! So, once the motor was fixed, off we trotted for a short haul out.

    Three months later, the new sail was ready, the bottom was scrubbed, sea cocks replaced, and a host of little things completed. She was ready! So back into the water she goes. I motored a mile up river to her new slip, and smelled diesel. The engine was leaking.

    Three weeks later, the diesel is fixed, but Hurricane Matthew decided to shred our jib. We left it up and tied it like every other boat in the marina, but it turned out it too was dry rotted. (We think both sails were the original sails and were over 20 years old).

    Fortunately, she had a genoa in a sailbag, so we took her out for a shakedown motor cruise and she was fine. Discovered the depth sounder wasn’t working right, it was intermittent.

    Took her out a few weeks later, and discovered the genoa was is good shape but our furler is a double line furler and we can’t reef her, and the sail was HUGE! Having her out meant we couldn’t see anything to port or starboard, depending on the tack. We know they cut the mast when she was bought, so we guess the furler was never adjusted, there was almost no clearance between the bottom of the sail and the furler.

    So .. next week, she is getting hauled out again for a new furler and forestay (because .. might as well), new sail, and new depth sounder.

    We might get out sailing before our one year anniversary ….

    Lessons learned. Next time we will get a boat that is ‘ready’ AND is being actively used. This boat had sat for two years at the dock.

    To be fair, I’ve learned an awful lot about the boat. And she was a pretty good deal, we now have as much money into her as the owner originally wanted a year before we bought her, so I wouldn’t say it was a financial disaster.

  • Rebecca Kyes
    Posted at 09 March 2017 Reply

    Our “starter sailboat” was a 23ft trailer-sailer. We purchased her from a Boat Angel site through eBay, so we were able to deduct the initial cost of the $1500 purchase. We purchased her in July and picked her up in August. We spent a year gutting the interior, sanding, painting, making new cushions, sewing curtains, and upgrading things on the trailer. The following summer, we took her out on Grand Traverse Bay and learned to sail. We learned alot about how she worked during our year of lovingly restoring her. $3,000 more dollars later, we had a great little boat, but resail value was nil.

  • Daniel McNece
    Posted at 23 March 2017 Reply

    I bought a sailboat that the previous owner said “only needs a couple things” and she’s ready to go. I looked over the boat realizing it needed more work than what he was saying. I bought it anyway and got to work on some projects. Tried putting it into a lake to sail but more issues and more work. Got to sail only three times in one year it was in the water. I hauled out and started a refit working on a lot of major projects. Now, 5 years of ownership, 3 sailing days, and lots of projects. While I bought the boat to sail, it turned out to be a bigger project than expected. I don’t regret buying the boat… in fact, I have considered finding a project boat to save.

  • Jackie Hammer
    Posted at 04 April 2017 Reply

    I have been looking at boats that are under the 5000 range. Basically I am just looking for a boat to gain more sailing experience in. I have no plans to do any kind of expensive repairs. Will of course clean out mold. My question is; is it reasonable to request to sail the boat before buying. I found a 25′ Oday. It is on the hard. They want 2000 bucks for it. I like the boat, not pretty but would suit my needs. I just need to make sure it floats. Owners don’t want to deal with it at all. They inherited the boat from granpa, and have absolutely no desire to sale. Don’t want to let me take it and try it out on the water, before buying it. They say for a boat that cheap they don’t want to hassle with it. I offered a deposit, which was to be refunded if the boat took on water☺ It is on his property. What do you think. I just don’t want to buy it and watch it sink☺ This will be my first boat. To be honest there are so many out there, I’m tired of looking. Any advice would be appreciated. Sorry this was so long. By the way, I offered 1500. They dont want to go below 1800.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 04 April 2017 Reply

      It’s normal to get to sail a boat before buying it . . . but the first two (small) sailboats that I bought I did not put in the water before buying. Like you, the previous owner simply wanted to get rid of the boat and made a very good deal on the boat. If you have a friend who has more boating experience, you might get him/her to look at it and give an opinion (that’s what I did). Also, be sure that you get everything that goes with the boat: sails, covers, any tiller that might have been taken off, and so on.

      Bottom line is that it really depends . . . is the deal good enough that you’re willing to risk it? For a first boat, I’m inclined to say get one with a seller who is a little more helpful, but it may cost a bit more.

      • Jackie Hammer
        Posted at 04 April 2017 Reply

        Thanks for the reply. I do need to find someone that could take a look at it. I just dont want it to sink, and make sure the tiller works. That is the plan then. I will not pay the asking price though, no matter what. Guess if I don’t get it, it wasn’t the boat for me. Thanks again.

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