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The Art of Buying a Used Sailboat.
(and other information for first time buyers)

First time buyers will quickly discover that it is possible to buy a good size sailboat on the used market for less than half of what most people pay for the average family car - and only a fraction of what people pay for a nice water-front cottage.

Prospective buyers will also discover that the used market has been the main source of sailboats in central Canada for well over two dozen years. The supply of brand new sailboats largely disappeared in the mid to late 1980s when the market became saturated and the phenomenal growth in the popularity of sailing reached its peak. Fortunately, today's used market offers a good selection of sailboats in a wide variety of models and sizes at very affordable prices. The only draw back is that most of these used boats were built 20 to 30 years ago and are starting to get a little old. Although these boats still have a lot of life left in them, many could use some minor repairs and upgrades, and there's always the possibility of a major defect.

It should also be noted that the resurgence in the popularity of sailing which occurred in the late 1990s means that prices on the used market are no longer falling as they had been during the preceding decade. Nevertheless, prices are still very low and the used market offers some outstanding values. Many of the popular used boats sell for 20% to 30% of what it would cost to buy their brand new equivalent.

(Note that this website has more detailed articles on the history and nature of the used market, and the ins and outs of inspecting a used boat.)

  Getting a Handle on the Used Market.

The used market has no set prices, showrooms, or nice neat options lists. Instead, the prospective buyer has to contend with a multitude of boats, sellers, and asking prices. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the age, condition, and equipment of the used boats can vary significantly. The best way to get a good feel for the used market is to conduct a detailed study of boats offered for sale, including equipment lists and price trends. Comparison shopping will be easier if you focus on one or two of the more popular makes such as C&C, Tanzer, Mirage, CS, Grampian, and so on.

Needless to say, the Internet is a great place to begin your study of the used sailboat market. This website is an obvious source of information, but you'll get an up to the minute picture of pricing trends and the availability of certain models by scanning the listings posted on the web pages of various brokers. When spring rolls around you should also check the classified sections of the newspapers in major cities in central Canada, although it seems that the Toronto Star often carries the largest number of ads for sailboats. There's also a good chance you will find something worth considering in the "for sale" binder or bulletin board (both in real life and cyberspace) at the local yacht or sailing clubs.

In addition to the above, be sure to take a close look at the classified section of magazines such as GAM, Canadian Yachting, Ontario Sailor, Boat for Sale, and L'Escale Nautique. GAM is a non-glossy magazine with an informal style that has been around since 1957, and has a huge classified section for sailboats. Unfortunately, this Toronto based magazine can be difficult to find on newsstands, but a subscription is very inexpensive. Boat for Sale is also based out of Toronto, and this yellow covered publication is widely available at newsstands in central Canada. Every issue has hundreds of classified ads (power and sail) and a value guide which gives the price range for many boats on the used market in Canada (this value guide can sometimes be a little off in terms of recent price trends for certain models, but it's still very informative).

You should also take a look at what the various brokers have to offer. Since anyone can call themselves a broker, be sure you are dealing with a reputable firm or individual. The author of this website has dealt with a number of brokers over the years, and can attest that the majority are professional, very knowledgeable, and seem to genuinely like their work. These are the brokers who will often answer questions and provide advice even when they realize that they may not be able to come up with the type of boat you are looking for. On the other hand, there are a fair number of brokers out there who don't know what they are doing or who come off as the quintessential snake oil salesman who's determined to sell you a boat in a single afternoon. Fortunately, it doesn't take long to realize what kind of broker you are dealing with.

Some people shy away from boats listed with brokers on the belief that commission fees will mean higher prices. In reality, boats generally sell for their market value, regardless of whether you are dealing through a broker or directly with the seller. And yet, a good broker will often make the process of buying and selling a boat much easier. If you are conducting your own search for a boat and contact a broker, indicate that you have been looking at certain models, and that you are interested in some of his or her exclusive listings. This will prevent any mix ups that might occur if a broker looks for a boat to suit your needs, and comes up with something you already know about, or would have come across on your own.

  Have your questions ready.

When it's time to get information on a particular boat, most brokers and individual sellers will be able to fax or e-mail you a fact sheet describing the vessel and its equipment. But sooner or later, you'll find yourself phoning to make inquiries or ask for additional details. Rather than ramble through a hit-and-miss conversation, you should have a set of questions prepared in advance.

If you don't already have the information, be sure to ask about the age, location, and maybe even the colour of the boat. (Do you really want to buy a turquoise boat?) Some manufacturers built different boats in the same size range, so you should confirm that you and the seller are talking about the same model. Enquire if the boat has had any major problems such as osmotic blistering, and if so, how they were repaired. Try to find out its history - is the boat on its second or third owner, has it been used primarily for racing or cruising, and has it ever been sailed in saltwater?

You should definitely have some questions ready about the boat's equipment. For example, does it come with an old wooden cradle, a steel cradle, a folding cradle (preferred by many clubs), or trailer? How many sails does it have and how old are they? Is there a headsail furling system? Perhaps a spinnaker and pole? Ask about the engine, anchor(s), batteries, and electronic equipment such as a VHF radio, depth sounder, speed/log, etc. Are there any extras - maybe an autopilot, dodger, stainless barbeque, inflatable dinghy, awning or bimini, etc. Enquire about the appearance of the boat. Has its hull (topsides) and deck been painted, and if so, was it a professional job? Are the gelcoat and anti-skid areas in reasonably good shape, and do the cabin cushions have to be replaced? And of course, it never hurts to ask why the boat is being sold.

  The value of boats on the used market.

When pursuing the used market for the first time, it is also important to recognize that, apart from size, the boat's age, equipment, and brand name can be major factors in determining its price. For example, boats will generally command a better price if they bear the name of a well known manufacturer that had successful production runs in the 1980s. Conversely, boats will sell for less if they were built by a company that had a spotty record, or that produced most of its output in the 1970s. Moreover, a design that is largely unknown in a local market will often sell at a discounted price, even though it may have a very good reputation elsewhere in North America. And needless to say, when it comes to a boat's age, a higher price will usually be assigned to the younger boat, and this will become very obvious when you are looking at two identical models that were built tens year apart.

Aside from intangibles such as a boat's age and pedigree, gear and accessories will also have a considerable influence on prices, especially for equipment that is an integral part of the vessel. For example, a boat equipped with an inboard diesel engine will be worth more than one that has an inboard gasoline engine or an outboard motor. And wheel steering in lieu of a tiller will increase the value of most boats over 25 feet in length. A good suit of "newer" sails will do much to justify a higher price, as will a spinnaker or a furling headsail system. If anyone doubts the value of this additional equipment, they should consider that the cost of a new furling/reefing headsail system for a 26 footer will probably run around $2000. This almost doubles if you want a new genoa that is specifically cut for use on a roller furling system (which is recommended).

If you are looking for the best possible price, be careful of the older than average boats that may be listed for unbelievably low prices. It's possible to find one of these in most boatyards. They may seem like a great deal, but once you take into account that their engine, sails, batteries, wooden cradle, windows, hatches, head, stove, cabin cushions, and much of the rigging and deck gear have to be replaced, you quickly realize that you are buying a little more than a keel and scuffed up fiberglass hull and deck. The price may be reasonable for what you will get, but it hardly rates as the deal of the century.

Moreover, if a good bargain is your main objective, you may have to concentrate on the large used sailboat market in the Toronto area, and conduct much of your search during the off season in autumn months. Winter may seem like a good time to find boats at low prices, but trudging through a boatyard of waist deep snow can discourage even the most anxious of sellers. Nevertheless , there can be a brief flurry of activity in the weeks surrounding the Toronto Boat Show every January. While it is possible to find good deals all year long, there will probably be less bargaining room during the busy spring period which usually runs from the beginning of April right into June.

  The Costs of Transporting a boat.

There is a good chance you may end up buying a boat that is located some distance from where you'll want to moor it. If there is convenient waterway access, it is always possible to sail the boat to its new port. This assumes that it is in the water and ready to go, otherwise you will have to make one or more trips to where the boat is stored to get it ready for launch and the sail home. And you'll still have to figure a way of transporting the cradle from one boatyard to another.

Most people opt to have the boat trucked to its new home port. The cost will depend on the size of the boat, the distance involved, and a few other factors. For example, if the boat has to be lifted onto a float trailer, there will be additional expenses for the use of a crane or travel lift at both ends of the trip. If the boat isn't too large, and is sitting on a good steel cradle, it should be possible to transport it with a hydraulic trailer. This can lower costs because hydraulic trailers are capable of picking up and lowering a boat on a cradle without the use of a crane or any other equipment.

As a very rough example of the cost of transporting a boat (as of 2001), you would probably be looking at a total bill between $600 to $750 to move a 26 footer on a hydraulic trailer from eastern lake Ontario to Toronto, or vice versa. The cost will obviously increase for larger boats or trips where the truck driver has to overnight en route. Transportation companies can usually give you their best price if they can arrange to have the delivery of your boat coincide with a haul back (where they transport another boat for someone else on their return trip). However, such arrangements usually require that you be flexible on the date for the transportation of your boat.

There are a good number of companies specializing in the transportation of large boats, and you should phone around to get an idea of cost and what's involved in moving a sailboat. You may also want to ask about their experience and equipment, and whether or not they are familiar with the boatyards where they would be picking up and delivering your boat. And remember that these companies are very busy during the spring, so you should make inquiries as early as possible if you have to have your boat moved on a specific date.

  Club and Marina Costs.

Keeping your boat at a marina or yacht club will constitute the lion's share of your operating expenses. When calculating this expense, try to come up with a global figure for your slip (wet mooring), winter storage, and launch and haul out cost. Depending on the facility, there may also be separate charges for raising and lowering the mast, storing the cradle or trailer during the summer months, hooking up to electricity at the dock, the regular use of the waste pump out service, and even a space to park your car. If you're considering a sailing or yacht club, you'll have to factor in the initiation fee(s) and the annual membership dues.

Commercial marinas do not have initiation or membership fees, but their mooring, winter storage, and other fees tend to be higher than those of sailing or yacht clubs. You should also consider that by joining a club, you'll get more than a place to simply park your boat - you'll be able to participate in racing programs and year round social events, you'll have reciprocal rights with other clubs, etc.

Needless to say, fees will vary considerably from facility to facility, and from area to area. It may be possible to provide a very rough example of the total cost of keeping a 26 foot sailboat in the water in 2001 under different scenarios. Obviously, you can expect to pay top dollar to keep such a boat near expensive water front property in a major urban environment or popular recreational and boating centres. For example, the annual cost for membership, mooring, storage, launching and haulout could top $2000 at some of the premier clubs which are relatively close to the Toronto downtown area. Furthermore, you may have to pay as much as $3000 in initiation fees, and possibly another $2000 to $3000 in debentures or equity shares. And there may be a few extra charges for things like a parking space for your car and minimum bar/restaurant bills each month. (Note that it's often possible to spread the initiation fee over year several years, and that much of the debenture or equity share may be refundable when you leave the club.)

If you are willing to forego certain frills and a posh clubhouse, you may still be able to find a facility within range of the downtown area that has no debentures or equity shares, and where the initiation fee will be much lower than the example given above. There could even be some cost savings with the basic annuals fees. Moreover, you'll be able realize even greater savings if you keep your boat on a swing mooring instead of tying up at dock. (Your boat would be tied to a mooring buoy within the yacht basin, and you would have to use a dinghy or water taxi to go to and from the boat.)

The best way to keep costs down is to do a bit of driving to get away from the large urban areas. This should make it possible to find a marina or nice club where mooring, storage fees, membership dues, and other expenses associated with a 26 footer will total between $1400 to $1800 a year, although these costs will probably be closer to the top end of the range if you choose a place that's in the middle of a popular boating and recreational district. If, on the other hand, you settle for a facility that is a little off the beaten track, and are willing to do without certain luxuries (i.e. electrical hookup at every slip), it should be possible to keep annual costs under $1400. And then there are those semi-secret hideaways where it may be possible to arrange for swing mooring and basic launching and haulout services for well below a $1000 a year. Unfortunately, it sometimes take a year or two of asking around to get a lead on such places.

So there you have it. The cost of keeping a 26 footer at a club or marina can vary from a few thousand to a few hundred dollars a year. It all depends on where you want to keep the boat, the kind of services and conveniences you are looking for, and what you can afford.  [ links to more info ]

One last note on the subject of where to moor a sailboat. In the early 1980s people would sometimes buy their first boat only to discover that yacht basins at nearby marinas or clubs were all filled and had a 3 or 4 year waiting lists. It's a lot easier to find a spot today, but with the renewed interested in sailing, some facilities are starting to get crowded again, and the yacht basin at some of the popular spots will fill up by the beginning of summer. It's best to phone around ahead of time to avoid any disappointments.

  Boat insurance.

Insurance for a 26 foot sailboat will probably run between $150 to $300 a year (as of 2001). A basic policy which will insure your boat for depreciated value will be the cheapest. However, this means that if the insurance company has to pay to replace any component on your boat, you will only get the depreciated value. For example, if your outboard motor is stolen, you will get far less than what it cost to buy a new one. Factor in a deductible, and the cheque from the insurance company could be pretty small.

Another option is to insure the boat for an agreed upon replacement value. The higher the agreed replacement value of the boat, the higher the deductible and the cost of the insurance policy. However, it also means that if your boat sustains serious damage, there's a greater chance the insurance company will pay for full repairs rather than declaring the boat a total write-off.

It is usually a good idea to phone a few insurance brokers or companies that specialize in marine insurance to ask about costs and the different options for insuring a sailboat. You should remember that you'll probably need a recent survey to obtain marine insurance for a boat that is over 10 years old (and that insurance companies will insist on another survey every 10 or 15 years thereafter). You should also confirm that your policy will allow you to sign agreements with a "hold harmless" clause. This is important because many clubs and marinas will insist on this, and if you sign such an agreement without permission, you could void all or part of your insurance coverage. Fortunately, marine insurance policies generally allow people to enter into "hold harmless" agreements with marinas and clubs.

People who buy smaller boats (usually under 25 feet in length) sometimes have the option of insuring them under their home owner's policy. This is an attractive option because it can be very inexpensive and there may be no need to obtain a surveyor's report. But generally, home owner's insurances will not provide you the same kind of coverage as a real marine policy, and most will not allow you to sign an agreement with a "hold harmless" clause. In fact, your regular insurance agent will probably give you a strange look if you ask about permission to sign a "hold harmless" agreement.

  Operator Cards.

In 1999 the federal government introduced a new set of regulations which will eventually require operators of all boats fitted with an engine to obtain an "Operator Card". However, this requirement is being phased in gradually. For example, in most cases, people who were born before April 1, 1983 will have until September 15, 2009 before they have to get an "Operator Card". In other words, adults will generally be able to operate a sailboat that is fitted with an engine for the balance of the decade without any type of licence or permit, including the "Operator Card".

It should be noted that the "Operator Card" requirement applies to sailboats equipped with an engine, but not dinghies or other types of boats that are not fitted with a motor. Moreover, anyone born after April 1, 1983, currently requires a card to operate a boat fitted with an engine. People will also need the card by September 15, 2002, in order to operate power driven boats under 4 metres in length (approx. 13 feet in length). This last requirement is primarily aimed at operators of jetski-type (personal) water craft. There are also some exemptions from "operator Card" requirements for people renting or chartering a boat, and for operators of foreign boats visiting Canadian waters for less than 45 consecutive days.

Obtaining an "Operator Card" involves passing a very basic written exam on boating safety (usually a multiple choice test). If you are already fairly knowledgeable about boating, it should be possible to pass the test without taking a boating safety course. You may, however, want to review the Coast Guard's "The Safe Boating Guide" and whatever safety manual that is published by the organizations administering your exam. If you are new to boating, you should have no problem passing the test after taking a relatively short boating safety course (typically a one day course). The Canadian Coast Guard has accredited various organizations to give the boating safety course, administer the tests, and issue the "Operator Cards". Once issued, a card is good-for-life and no renewals are required.

Obviously the course and tests relating to the "Operator Cards" addresses only the minimum boating safety information, and they will probably have little, if anything, on how to handle a sailboat. Although an afternoon's worth of instruction by a friend will take a lot of the mystery out of sailing, beginners will get the most out of their boats by signing up for a recognized sailing course. The Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons (CPSS) and Schools affiliated with the Canadian Yachting Association (CYA) offer a whole slew of excellent courses on such topics as dinghy sailing, sailboat racing, cruising, offshore sailing, piloting and navigation, marine maintenance, and so on. The course material put out by these two organizations is first rate and is well recognized. The Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons tend to be known for their superb series of classroom courses given in the off-season, while CYA courses generally place more emphasis on practical training on the water, although they too offer instruction in a classroom setting during the winter months.

  Boat Licencing (& registration).

In Canada recreational sailboats can either be licenced or registered. Licenced boats will have a number on each side their bow, while registered vessels will have the boat's official name on each side of the bow along with name and home port on the transom. (Note that most people apply a name to licenced boat, but it has no official standing.)

The registration process is used for commercial boats and ships, although there are provisions for recreational vessels. Registering a boat, or changing ownership of a registered boat, involves a bit of paperwork and will cost several hundred dollars. However, registration does offer certain advantages over licencing if you plan to sail around the world and put in to a lot of foreign ports. Nevertheless, registered recreational boats are still fairly rare in this country.

Most sailboats in Canada are licenced. If you are buying a licenced boat, you will have to fill out your name and address on the back of the licence given to you by the previous owner and mail it, with some basic supporting documentation, to one of over 300 Service Canada offices across the country. In a few weeks you will receive a new licence in your name. The whole process is marvellously simple and still free.

The only problem you might encounter is that the pervious owner may not have kept the boat's licencing up to date by giving notice of a change of ownership. (Note that a boat's licence is an indication of ownership, but it is not proof of ownership.) The reason people sometimes "forget" to give notice of a change of ownership is because the provincial governments use the federal licencing system to identify individuals who may have purchased a boat and to send them a tax bill.

Yes, in most provinces, you are expected to pay the provincial sales tax (PST) on a used boat. This applies to both licenced and registered boats. Generally, there is no federal GST on used boats when sold privately by an individual, whether directly, or through a broker. There are, unfortunately, a number of exceptions to this no-GST-rule. For example, Canadians can expect to pay GST when importing a used boat from the States or some other country. In provinces with a harmonized sales tax (HST), buyers may end up paying what would be considered both the GST and PST on used boats. A case in point - Nova Scotia passed a law making it legal for the province to keep the GST portion of the harmonized sales tax (even though the federal government does not charge GST on most used boats). Moreover, there is GST on used boats when sold by a GST-registered vendor (for example, a boat dealer selling a used vessel that was taken in as a trade-in).

It should also be pointed out that under the current regulations, recreational boats under 15 gross tons and powered with a motor of less than 10 hp (a definition which covers almost all sailboats powered by an outboard motor of 9.9 hp or less), do not have to be licenced or registered - it's purely voluntary. However, a licence must be maintained once it is issued for a boat, even if the vessel did not have to be licenced originally. Moreover, all boats powered with an engine must be licenced (or registered) to use various canals and certain waterways in Canada. The same is true if you plan to take your boat into US waters, and some American authorities can be quite severe about enforcing this requirement.

And finally, it should be noted that independent of any licence requirements, there is a minimum amount of safety equipment that must be carried onboard in order to legally operate a boat in Canada. The exact list of mandatory safety equipment is determined by the category or size of the boat, and it generally consists of a number of common sense items such as life jackets or vests, fire extinguishers(s), oars and/or an anchor, and so on.


Note that the information provided in this article is very introductory in nature. You'll obviously have to do more research by surfing the web, by reading magazines and books, and by speaking to any sailors you may come across. You should visit nearby marinas and yacht clubs to see what's available in the local used market, and you should be ready to ask lots of question when you find someone who is willing to lend you a little of their time. One of the better ways of getting into "the loop" is to sign up for boating safety courses and on the water sailing instruction. This will increase your contacts with people who are familiar with sailing and the boating market, and it won't be long before you form your own opinions on how to go about buying a used sailboat.

Good luck, and good boat hunting.

by Michael McGoldrick, 2001.
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