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Know how: Purchasing a Storm-Damaged Boat

It may be an ill wind that blows no one any good, but still beware that storm-damaged bargain boat...
           Good boats to be had for a song? Maybe, but be sure to look before you leap   

           Good boats to be had for a song? Maybe, but be sure to look before you leap   

This past hurricane season was particularly hard on boat owners in both the Caribbean and the Florida and Gulf coasts, thanks to Harvey, Irma and Maria. BoatUS has estimated that more than 64,000 boats were damaged in the United States alone. While for many boat owners these storms have meant a loss, for others, they represented a possible opportunity.

In fact, before Irma had even cleared the coast, many bargain hunters were already looking for deals. But be warned: while this might seem like a great way to get a nice boat at a bargain price, some caution and common sense are needed to avoid purchasing a proverbial hole in the water where your money vanishes faster than light into a black hole.

First and foremost, before rushing off to a hurricane zone to find the perfect boat, it is best to take your time. The better deals on damaged boats will come from insurance sales—since these boats tend to have been worth more prior to a loss than an uninsured boat—and it often takes weeks or even months for the insurance companies to evaluate and arrange for salvage of the boats they insure. As a result, the good deals will not be gone if you wait. In fact, waiting often results in better deals as there will be more selection in general for buyers.

           A sunken boat will inevitably bring with it a whole host of problems   

           A sunken boat will inevitably bring with it a whole host of problems   

Insurance companies will write a boat off as a “Total Constructive Loss,” or TCL, for several reasons, and understanding these will help in selecting the right boat. Generally, the boat is considered a TCL if the estimate for repairs is around 75 to 80 percent of the insured value of the vessel. Insurance companies also know estimates rarely, if ever, run under but often run over, so they make an extra effort to cut their losses before starting repairs.

With larger storms, such as Irma, they may be forced to liquidate boats they would have otherwise had repaired as well. For example, if a boat cannot be repaired within a reasonable time period the insurance companies may total it so that the insured will not have to wait an entire season without a boat. After a large storm not only are repair yards fully booked, but the repair facilities may also be damaged, making getting repairs done difficult or impossible. Often these lightly damaged boats make a good investment depending on pre-loss condition.

Before looking for a hurricane boat to restore you must also decide if this type of project is right for you. Ask yourself if you have what it takes to make the needed repairs. Hurricane-damaged boats often require many skills and resources to rehab. Therefore, if you are planning on hiring others to do much of the work, I strongly suggest you reconsider getting one of these boats. Skilled labor is expensive. The fact that the insurance companies are liquidating the boats means they have already determined it was not practical to hire a yard to make the boat usable again. Ultimately, storm-damaged boats are only financially practical if you can provide the necessary sweat equity to save labor costs.

           More often than not, repairing a storm-damaged boat is beyond the ability of most DIYers   

           More often than not, repairing a storm-damaged boat is beyond the ability of most DIYers   

It also has to be considered where you will be able to work on a damaged boat if you get one. Do-it-yourself boatyards are getting increasingly rare. The boat will likely also need to be moved, either to where you live or, at a minimum, to a yard other than where it already is, further adding to expenses. Unless the boat is a small trailable one, there will be a lot to consider when it comes to working locations. Of course, if you go and work on the boat in its current location, you will be ahead of the game. But as most repairs can take weeks and or even months to complete, most of us have to move the boat to where we live and work.

If after taking into consideration all these factors, you still feel you have what it takes to handle a project of this type, it is time to think about selecting the right boat. With that in mind, I suggest you start by looking at boats as if you were shopping for a normal used one. You will, for example, still want to find a boat that was well maintained and that has the equipment and gear you want and need. For the time being, ignore the damage and evaluate the boat in its pre-loss condition. Check things like engine hours and the condition of the sails and rig. If the boat was poorly maintained and/or had a lot old worn-out equipment before it was damaged, keep looking. Also take some time to find the normal resale value for any of the boats you are looking at, as this will help you later decide how to bid.

In terms of where to find the best storm-damaged boats. There are several sources and like most things, some are better than others. For example, I would leave contacting the insurance companies directly as a last resort. After any storm, insurance companies are inundated with calls and have little time to deal with bargain hunters because they are busy dealing with their client’s claims. A much better place to look would be with those companies that specialize in liquidating these boats and which can be easily found online. In fact, these will be your best source, as these are the people charged with selling the boats once their claim is satisfied. You could also contact towing and salvage companies in the affected areas as well as local marine surveyors. Another option might be contacting a local insurance broker for some help.

           Arranging a professional inspection is vital to ensuring you don’t end up owning a money pit   

           Arranging a professional inspection is vital to ensuring you don’t end up owning a money pit   

If you are not familiar with boat construction or skilled at doing major repairs, I would strongly suggest that you hire a professional to both help evaluate the extent of the damage and help determine how much it will cost to repair. Many boats may have hidden damage that is not easy to find right off. As mentioned before, you will want to have a good feel for a boat’s pre-loss condition as well. There’s no point in buying a boat you hope will be a quick fix only to find out there is major hull core damage!

Keep in mind when inspecting any vessel that you need to have the owner’s or insurance company’s permission to board and that your time aboard may be limited. Use caution when boarding, as there can be hazards from the damage or contaminants. Always wear shoes and protective clothing when inspecting a boat.

Not all storm damage is easily repaired, and some boats are to be avoided as a matter of course if you want to come out ahead. For the most part, I suggest staying away from any boat that has been submerged, even if it is only a partial submersion since the extent of the damage from water intrusion can be difficult to fully evaluate in the short time most bidders are given to inspect a boat. Boats that have been grounded can also have hidden damage, with repairs to rudders and running gear being particularly expensive. Boats with dock rash or which have had collisions with other boats or fixed structures are often your best bet. Rig damage can also be relatively easy to fix, although parts can be expensive.

Once you have found a boat you are comfortable with possibly repairing, it is time to look at the numbers. In fact, this is vital. Before you even think about placing a bid it is important to know your limits and stick to them, since it can be all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of the whole process.

There are two key numbers to keep in mind: the first is what will the boat be worth once the repairs are complete; the other is the cost to make said repairs. Whatever estimate you come up with, double it just to be safe. Don’t forget to add in closing and transportation costs. That done, subtract the repair cost from the estimated finished value and you have your maximum bid. This should not only be your top number but the one you stick to, no matter what.

In addition, be warned that purchasing a hurricane boat is often not a simple task, and there are some pesky bureaucratic black holes to watch out for. As noted earlier, most insurance companies will contract a company specializing in liquidating its insured assets. However, while some of these companies specialize in marine work, many do not. The larger of these are organizations are often very professional and will do their best to help you out, but not always, and some smaller, local companies may be downright disreputable. Before placing any money on the table, so to speak, know who you are dealing with.

No matter who you are dealing with, make sure you fully understand what you are buying. Make sure the seller has the right to sell the boat and that you will get the title free and clear. That free and clear part is especially important as you do not want to end up with a salvage or yard bill when the auctioneer’s gavel hits the block and you become the new owner. Make sure you read and understand any contracts before bidding. Any reputable company will be happy to provide you with a copy of the sales contract prior to doing so. If there are limits placed on when the boat is to be moved to make sure you understand that as well.

           Beware of injury whenever you step aboard a hurricane-damaged boat   

           Beware of injury whenever you step aboard a hurricane-damaged boat   

Many auction companies require that winning bids be moved within a short period of time, after which you will have to start paying storage fees. You also want to make sure that what you think you are bidding on is what you are going to get. For example, make sure any gear aboard when you viewed the boat is going to remain there after the sale. You do not want to bid thinking there is a full set of sails only to find out the previous owner removed them after they became yours.

Finally, knowing how to bid is also important. There are basically two types of auctions held with salvage boats. The first is an open bid, where you know just what the other person is bidding. The other is a closed bid, where you submit your best bid and hope for the best as you have no clue what other bids may have been placed. You may also come across modified versions of these, such as eBay, where you knew the high bid but may not know a person’s proxy bid. Speaking of eBay, the days of the small closed auction are coming to an end as an increasing number of liquidation companies turn to this site to reach a larger group of the bidders in an effort to get the best price possible.

In many ways, bidding in an auction is a bit of an art. However, the key is to never get caught up in the excitement and end up bidding more than the boat may be worth. Again, set your top bid based on boat value less estimated repairs and expenses, and then stick to this number!

Returning to last year’s hurricanes, with so many boats damaged in the Caribbean, many have expressed interest in finding a storm-damaged boat in places like the BVI. However, for several reasons, I feel this is not a practical option.

For one thing, many of the damaged boats there were in charter service, and the charter companies are going to do and did do what is needed to get back in business as quickly as possible. This means (and meant) stripping boats not worth fixing to get the ones that were repairable backup and into service. Many facilities in the area were also damaged, so getting help may be difficult at best, especially since many local yards are going to give priority to their regular customers—the charter companies. Getting parts to make even temporary repairs may also be difficult and expensive, and many of the boats were under foreign ownership, which will only serve to complicate things further still.

Bottom line: although it may be tempting, you are better off sticking close to home when looking for that great deal. 

Wayne Canning is a marine surveyor based in Southwest Florida who has sailed extensively aboard his Irwin 40, Vayu, which he purchased as hurricane salvage in 2006. Wayne also recently published Fiberglass Boat Restoration, a guide to selecting and restoring older fiberglass boats

July 2018


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