Refurbishing an Old Boat: Wise Investment or a Money Pit?

Refurbishing an Old Boat: Wise Investment or a Money Pit?

When it comes to buying or refurbishing an older boat, it’s important to consider the financial viability. While it may be tempting to buy a 1980s Haines with great sea-keeping abilities, the cost of replacing parts can add up quickly. You’ll likely need to rebuild the stringer system, replace the transom, replace the wiring, buy a new trailer, and even fit an entire new engine. In this article, I will explore the different factors to consider when deciding whether an old boat is really worthwhile.

Perishable Items

Every boat will have components that will wear out over time. These components can include items such as rubber hoses, wiring, sea cocks, exterior gelcoat, window seals, shaft seals, rudder seals, o-rings, oil seals, silicone seals, and hatch seals. If these items haven’t been replaced on a 20 year old boat, it’s safe to assume they may need to be if you decide on refurbishing an older boat.

cracked fuel line
A 21 year old fuel line beginning to show its age

Mechanical Wear – Salt Age

Saltwater can take a toll on a boat’s mechanical components and older boats are more likely to have issues with corrosion and leaks. Here are some general guidelines for the lifespan of different types of boat engines in saltwater:

  • Outboards: 15-20 years
  • Sterndrives: 13-15 years
  • Diesel Shaftdrives: 15-20 years

It’s important to keep in mind that these are just estimates. The actual lifespan of a boat engine will depend on how well it has been maintained and its power rating. In any case, the older the boat, the more likely it is to need work. The cost of labor and parts can make it worthwhile to consider a re-power, even if it’s initially more expensive.

damaged engine
Saltwater got the best of this engine…

Cosmetic Wear

Items like the seating, flooring, covers, and gelcoat all wear out, even if the boat isn’t being used. These are the types of items that buyers often notice first when considering a used boat or refurbishing an old one, but they should be lower on the priority list compared to the mechanical and structural components. In saying that, the cost of replacing items such as teak, covers, clears, and seating can be significant. For example, it’s not uncommon to receive a quote of $10,000-$15,000 to replace covers and clears on a 40-foot sports cruiser, and that’s not even considering the cost of project managing the work and coordinating with trades.

Age and Usability

The value of a boat will tend to decline as it gets older, whilst the maintenance costs will increase. In general, a boat over 10-15 years old is more expensive to maintain than a newer model. If reliability is a priority, it’s advisable to buy as new as you can afford. What’s our recommendation? Well, it all depends on what you’re after and your budget. For instance, a boat that’s less than 5 years old can often be purchased a lower price than buying brand new and will still have plenty of life left. On the other hand, a boat that’s over 15 years old is much more likely to have more issues and defects during and after the purchase, especially as it ages with time and use. It’s important to consider all expenses if you plan on refurbishing an old boat.

Buying Too Big and Old

Let’s pretend you’ve got a budget of $250,000. For that budget you could buy an old, late 90s or early 2000 flybridge cruiser that is 35ft or larger. The whole family could sleep aboard, and you could also spend weekends away. In that same price bracket, you could buy a fully specced 24ft trailer boat with the latest outboard, fishing gear and electronics. Whilst in some cases both may be a good option, don’t be fooled into going too big. In reality you may be getting something old and unreliable that you don’t have the time or money to upkeep. Along with the cost, fixing an older boat also takes an inordinate amount of time. So if you’ve only got a few weekends a month to go boating, the newer 24ft trailer boat is going to ensure you’re out boating more regularly as opposed to dockside refurbishing the flybridge cruiser.

Power to Weight Ratio as Technology Advances

You might see boats from the 80s and 90s still running around on older engines and wonder: “how?!” Put simply, the introduction of modern, high-performance engines. Since their creation in the late 90s, engine life span has been significantly reduced. Typically, a boat manufacturer will want the greatest output from the lightest, most compact engine. The more power an engine produces, the more heat it will create. Resultantly, engine cooling systems had to be upgraded. An older engine will often provide a much lower power output in comparison to its modern-day counterpart. The engine block is larger and heavier, meaning it will last longer. The cooling system is simplified and less prone to be affected by temperature fluctuations. With all that said, don’t forget an old engine will still have plenty of seals and hoses that will still perish and are still very likely to need maintenance!

But Aaron, I really want to refit an older boat. How can I do it properly?

It’s not uncommon for people to buy an older hull and spend significant amounts repairing, replacing, and refurbishing them. Cosmetic renovations will no doubt be part of your refurbishment, but I urge you to not forget about the mechanical and structural components, and look at those before the cosmetic ones! I’ve seen numerous boat owners focus on cosmetically restoring their boat, but neglect the mechanical and structural aspects and become disappointed when I come around and uncover pre-existing problems.

A good refit can be done, but you first need to determine whether it’s even worth refitting. If you decide that it is worthwhile, you should should plan the refurbishment by assessing the overall condition of the hull, engine, and electrics before starting and allocating resources accordingly. Before purchasing an older hull for refurbishment, I would highly recommend organising an inspection so that you’re fully aware of what you’re potentially purchasing. There is no point ordering that brand new Mercury outboard only to find the transom is rotten when you go to fit it. I’ve added up too many refit receipts that total more than the cost of the boat. The owner would have spent less if they bought a newer, more reliable option and didn’t refit an old boat.

By planning the refurbishment of an old boat properly, you will avoid doubling up on work. Imagine painting the entire deck, only to find that you need to cut it up to remove the engines. Another scenario is fitting a brand new outboard, only to find the transom fails shortly after. These are two examples that I see on a regular basis.

I hope this article gives you some insight and helps you determine whether or not refurbishing that older boat you’ve got your eye on is worth it!

About the Author

Aaron O’Donoghue is a qualified Marine Surveyor & Engineer with nearly two decades of experience in the industry. He is an experienced boater from Sydney who grew up on the waters of Sydney Harbour. He left school at 15 to complete an apprenticeship as a Marine Mechanic. In 2015, he founded BoatBuy, where he has inspected thousands of boats and is passionate about helping others enjoy their time on the water. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field. Do you have a boating related question? Feel free to reach out to me via email here.

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