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The Quick and Dirty Truth About Boat Buying in 2015

by Steve Morrell on 02-01-2015 in Sailing & Cruising

The Quick and Dirty Truth about Boat Buying in 2015
In November 2014, at Boating—an organization run by the National Marine Manufacturers Association promoting boating interests—I read a series of proposals put together after the election that the NMMA was putting forward to address what they called the boating industry’s top priorities for 2015:

• Reform the ethanol mandate and stop the sale of dangerous E15 fuel.
• Preserve boating access in America’s national parks and federally managed waters.
• Promote recreational fishing, so that boaters can fish responsibly without needless restrictions.
• Modernize waterways with new recreational dredging projects designed to meet future needs.
• Improve water and boating access infrastructure so all boaters have safe access to the water.

I know that the boating industry is mainly small powerboats and that sailboats are a small part of the overall picture—factors we must all consider in judging these proposals, since this is a sailing magazine. And I believe the above proposals are all well and good, but to me, I believe that one of the highest priorities every year should be to make sure Americans can buy a boat—and this wasn’t even mentioned. It made me think of my reply to a letter I printed in the August 2013 issue. I decided I would reprint it here. It starts with the letter (writer’s name withheld):

Who Can Afford a New Sailboat Today?

I was at the Miami Strictly Sail Boat Show in February [2013] and noticed the prices and sizes of all the boats. Most were in the “several hundred thousand”—dollar range. Of course, I am talking about the boats that we would call a weekend cruiser, which I think starts with boats in the 30-foot range. It seems like they are all in the high 30s and up in length, and mainly in the 40-foot length and longer. But they are way out of my price range, which is way below $100,000. Are we just building boats now for the wealthy? Whatever happened to the middle-class boat buyer?

Good question. Yup—there are mainly boats out there for the wealthy buyer. That’s just the way it’s going. But you really got me going, and I did a little research.

My memory tells me that there was an old axiom that goes back to the ‘70s that a new boat in the 30- to 35-foot range (what everyone then considered as a great size to have) was $1000/foot back then. That means a Catalina 30—the classic small weekend cruiser at the time—was going for $30,000 in 1975. I’ll assume that works. I checked and saw that the modern equivalent (they don’t make the 30 anymore, which is too bad) is the Catalina 315 and it goes for about $120,000. That’s four times the cost since back then.

Let’s look at inflation. I checked an online inflation calculator, and $30,000 in 1975 would be $126,000 in 2012. That means the boat is a little cheaper today in inflation dollars, plus you get a foot and half in length (it’s a 315), and they are all beamer (at least in the stern), and they are all built far better with more stuff. Not bad.

But that’s only part of the story. Inflation is one thing. If you can afford one—income and other living expenses—is another. The median household income in 1975, adjusted for inflation, was approximately $45,000 a year, and the median income in 2011 was approximately $50,000. So median household income is up about 10 percent since then. This doesn’t sound promising. That means, though, that if all your other living expenses were the same (adjusted for inflation), then you actually could afford a better boat today than back then. But all other living expenses are not the same. The cost of living is the real determining factor. We all know that the cost of homes, food, health care—are all way up. And these things are more important than a sailboat (I think). Cost of living has increased about 150 percent (Social Security COLA increases have averaged around 4 percent a year) since 1975, which means few people will be buying boats in the 30-foot, $120,000 range these days because their more important living expenses are much higher. And the real proof that this is true is seen at the boat show. There’s a lot more people in the middle class than in the upper class, but the number of big, expensive boats (in the small cruiser range like a 30-footer) compared to the 30-foot range is about 10 to 1. Why? Because that’s what’s selling, and what’s selling is the real proof of what’s going on.

I know this is a quick and dirty analysis, but I bet it’s not far off and the proof is in the pudding, meaning what is selling and to whom, tells the real story.

Sorry, but that’s the way it goes. But there is one good thing: There are an incredible number of good deals out there in used boats. And the number of great boats that were built in the ‘70s and ‘80s is huge. They just aren’t as user-friendly as today’s boats. So, my suggestion is get an old, solid fiberglass boat for dirt-cheap, park it in your yard and totally rebuild it. Go for the 30-foot-plus range as that is a nice size. Bigger boats bang into the dock too hard if you hit it, anyway. Then there’s maintenance and slip costs, too, so keep it small.
 Of course, there has been an “inflation” in local communities and neighbors disliking big boats in back yards, so move out to the country where you won’t be bothered. Of course, you won’t find a job out there that pays much, but that’s just the state of things today.
 Good luck in your quest for a boat.

And that, readers, is the quick and dirty situation that the boating industry and the buying public is in today.

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