Sunday, November 1, 2009

Motor Boating on Budget

Boats up to 28 feet can be easily towed by a pickup truck.  However, the best bang-for-the-buck is in smaller outboards which are inexpensive to buy, easy to service, and easy to store.  You can get out on the water without being a millionaire!

Again, the point of this blog is how to live better, not how to live a monastic life.

Owning a boat might seem like a wild luxury, but it can be a reasonable proposition, if you plan carefully.

Wags like to say things like "a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into" or "The two best days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it."

Both attitudes reflect poor planning and maintenance, not underlying issues with boat ownership.

You can own a boat - on a budget - and enjoy it all the time. But it does take some work, planning, and some creative thinking.

I've had boats nearly all my life, growing up on a lake. I've learned firsthand what it takes to keep a boat a shape, and the mistakes you can make in boat ownership. Here are some ideas from what I've learned over the last 40 years or so.

1. Don't Pay for Storage: If you don't live on the water, owning a boat can be expensive. I grew up on a lake, and the cost of "storing" our boat was nothing. When the boat was not at our dock, it was on the trailer, and the net cost of ownership was minimal - merely the cost of maintenance and gas. My latest boat costs about $3000 a year to store at the local marina, regardless of whether I use it or not. Unless you live on the water, consider owning a boat you can trailer to the water and store for free in your yard. Paying monthly fees for storage, even just "a couple hundred" a month, adds up to a sizable portion of your disposable income.

2. Pick a Reasonable Size: Boats of up to 28 feet can be trailered by a standard pickup truck. Beyond that, you need to hire someone to hoist the boat out of the water or haul it with a commercial trailer (and perhaps a wide-load permit). Like RV's, the cost of ownership skyrockets at the point where you cannot handle the machine yourself (changing a tire on a travel trailer takes 20 minutes with simple hand tools. A flat tire on a motorhome, on the other hand, often requires a call to a commerical truck garage). Many marinas charge $100 or more simply to haul out a boat. It is not cheap. So I think the first thing to consider, for boating on a budget, is a boat that can be towed on a standard boat trailer. Don't think this limits you to small runabouts - my 26-foot Bayliner has a refrigerator, a stove, a hot-water shower, a bedroom and even a microwave, and can be towed easily with an F-150 and stored in a barn. My slighly larger 30-footer, on the other hand, requires more robust equipment that I possess, just to haul it out.

3. Avoid Stern Drives: Many inexpensive boats are sold with stern drives. A stern drive uses a car engine (usually a mexican-made Chevy small block V-8) attached to a drive mechanism that protrudes through the back of the hull. In terms of purchase cost, they can be far less than outboards (a 300 HP stern drive can run $15,000 new, while a comparable outboard might fetch twice as much). However in terms of maintenance, particularly in salt water, they can be a nightmare. Outboard motors can be flipped out out of the water and flushed to remove salt and prevent corrosion and prevent marine growth. Stern drives sit in the water, day after day, corroding and accumulating algae growth and barnacles. For freshewater use, a stern drive can be fairly reliable, if properly maintainted and not left in the water. I have had somewhat good luck with my Mercruiser Alpha I (Gen II, avoid the earlier Gen I models) but the Bravo II on my 30-footer has been an expensive lession. Volvo Penta outdrives are generally considered far more reliable, but again, for salt water, I would not recommend them. And never, ever, buy an OMC stern drive - they stopped making them long ago and parts are hard to come by. Avoid off-brand or obsolete outboards, however. An old Chrysler, or Force outboard is going to present a lot of trouble and be hard to get parts for. 

4. Visit WalMart, not West Marine: Boating parts are expensive, or at least they are at the boating store. West Marine and other boating stores operate on the premise that if you own a boat, you are loaded with money, and as such, don't mind paying a lot for boat parts. But increasingly, basic boat parts are available at WalMart, including brand name items such as Mercruiser oils and filters. For example, a complete spin-on fuel filter and water separator assembly (including fittings) sells in Wal-Mart for $25, while the "boating store" wants four times as much (and $25 just for the spin-on filter). Before you drop big bucks at the boating store, shop at Wally's first. One thing you'll note there is that most of the equipment is geared toward smaller boats. 

5. Consider your Boating Needs: Buying a bigger boat just to get a little more room or to impress your friends is one sure way to go broke. The boating websites are filled with postings from folks who succumb to "two-foot-itis" and seek validation (and stroking) from fellow posters (many of whom are shills) for their churning of their own boating inventory. The boating industry would like you to think it is "normal" to buy a new boat every few years, going up in size in the same way GM used to guide its customers to "upgrade" from a Chevy to a Buick. But such a path benefits only the manufacturers and dealers, not your pocketbook. While it is nicer to have a larger boat, for the few days a year you end up using it, does it really make a difference? 

6. Avoid New Boats and Boat Shows: Many folks buy new boats from dealers or at boat shows based on monthly payment. For "only $699 a month" you can have a brand new floating barge. But boats depreciate very rapidly after initial purchase, and the low-monthly-payment finance plans often mean you are "upside-down" on the loan in short order. After an initial depreciation, a boat often levels off in value for many years. Many boats are rarely used, and one in good shape that is decades old, can still be a good value. It is not unusual to see 10 and 20 year old fiberglass boats still plying the waters, particularly fresh waters. In this regard, boats are not like cars in that they do not hurry off to the junkyard as fast. Not sure of condition? Hire a marine surveyor first. 

7. Be Handy: Boats, like RVs, require a lot of maintenance, from basic washing and waxing to repair of minor items to major engine overhauls. Being able to do a lot of this work yourself can save a ton of money. Marine mechanics, like boat stores, often assume that you are loaded if you own a boat. And many times, their waterfront location means they have a high overhead. Again, if you can trailer your boat, you can take it to a mechanic at a remote location that is far cheaper. But basic things like oil changes, winterizing, washing, waxing, bottom painting and the like should be things you can tackle youself, or the cost of boat ownership will be exorbitant. 

8. Don't Buy a House for Your Boat: Some resort areas try to sell vacation homes to boaters on the premise that they should own a dock for their boat. To me, this is reverse of how things should work. If you buy a waterfront home, it is great to have a boat to go with it. But buying a home on the water so you can keep your boat there is somewhat reverse logic and a horribly large expense.

In my personal experience, the first motorboat I had, a 1970's Starcraft with a Johnson V-4 outboard, had the lowest cost of ownership. The boat was kept at our home (no storage fees) and rarely required maintenance in the fresh water lake we used it in. I did most basic maintenance myself (winterizing, rebuilding carburators, etc.) and other than replacing a battery every few years, it required little more than gas. My parents took it to salt water and left it in the water, where it quickly decayed, unfortunately.

The next boat I had was a 1985 Bayliner 21 footer we bought for $5000. We kept this on a trailer (no storage fees) and took it to local lakes, the Potomac River, and even the Florida Keys. It was a nice boat, although the older engine had some issues. We kept it for a few years and sold it on e-Bay for the same price.

Our 1996 Bayliner 2655 has been a very reliable boat, even after installing a new gas tank and engine (or perhaps because of this). It now resides at our lake house, so the annual cost of owning it is largely limited to insurance ($200) and gas, plus an annual oil change. We keep it on a hoist in freshwater, so the degradation to the stern drive is limited. We kept in in Florida for a brief period, and the expense of repairs was somewhat steep. Water pumps on stern drives need to be changed on an almost annual basis in the salt.

Our last boat is a 2004 Bayliner 285. It is a nice boat, comfortable to live aboard, but does not handle very well (more barge-like than our 2655 which handles like a speedboat and can pull waterskiiers). The Bravo II outdrive has eaten two output couplings to the tune of $3000 apiece (replacement requires removal of the engine). Storage fees run $3000 a year. The cost of owning this boat has been many times that of all the previous boats combined.

As you can see, there is a point where the cost of boat ownership increases exponentially, at about the 30-foot mark. Below that, you can trailer and haul and handle the boat yourself. Maintenance is simple and direct, and you can store the boat in your back yard. But over 30 feet, you have to hire someone to do everything (even drive it, in some instances) and the costs increase not linearally, but exponentially, by length.

If I was to buy another boat today, it would probably be a later model, but used, 24-26 foot "walkaround" cuddy cabin trailerable boat with a Yamaha four-stroke saltwater outboard. Such boats can be purchased fairly inexpensively, handle the chop well, and are easy to maintain - and easy to sell to fishermen and the like if you decide to move on.

Note that I changed the title of this article to MOTOR Boating on a Budget. Because there are also sailboats. As I noted my my RVing on a Budget blog entry, trailerable RV's (without motors) are far less expensive to buy and maintain than motorized RVs (motorhomes). The same is largely true in boating. A sailboat can be far less expensive to purchase and maintain than a motorboat, provided it is well cared for. The fuel costs can be staggeringly less, and in some cases, non-existent. Depending upon your circumstances, a sail boat might be the right solution for your boating needs.