On the Selling of Boats

The process of selling Villa stretches all the way back into November, when we arrived in New Zealand and started getting her polished and ready. That was a decent amount of work: it was time to put a new coat of varnish on the countertops, fix the crack on her shoulder that had re-opened after its first repair in Colombia, finally finish gluing down and patching all the headliner… a lot to do, but all work we’d expected to do eventually.

And we had to shine her up to take good pictures; another whole big pile of work, but mostly just a matter of cleaning and moving our stuff, and again, work that we’d expected. We got that done, we posted an ad we were happy with, and we got a compliment from the guy who runs the first website we used: “fantastic job on your entry. Your photos are beautiful. I think you may be the best seller we have ever had.” This warmed our freezing-in-New-Zealand’s-“summer” hearts.

What we did not expect was how disruptive the sale process would be to our lives. We would be about to go somewhere in a good sailing window, and then we would get contacted by someone who wanted to see the boat the next day; suddenly we were stuck in place because the wind wasn’t going to let us leave and come back. And living aboard while selling meant that every time someone came, or even did a video call, we had to reconfigure the boat from livable into presentable and back again. It’s hard to overstate how exhausting that was. After about three two-hour video calls, doing the same cleaning and answering the same questions, we realized how important it was to have a walkthrough video. We could have saved so much time if we had shot it at the same time as our pictures!

We also weren’t expecting the amount of work it would be to deal with all the potential buyers, and how just utterly weird some of those interactions would be.

There was the couple who contacted us the day our first ad went live, and drove four hours to see her the next day. We gave them the tour, and they nodded along sagely, and as they were leaving, they asked how much it cost to anchor once you can’t see land any more.

There was the guy who brought along six people for moral support, including the twelve-year-old niece whose effusiveness about what a nice boat it was clearly embarrassed the party elders; they would later tell us that they’d hoped Villa would not be quite so nice, so that her price might be negotiable. Their party arrived at the same time as a nice little squall, which meant ferrying two dinghy loads of people out to the boat and back in the rain.

There was the guy from London by way of Trinidad who kept us on a video call for two hours, while he shot off increasingly unrealistic ideas about how he could cut deep into Villa’s structure to make her into a different boat. All the while with his camera turned off, though he did send us a picture of his coffee-making setup.

There was the guy who sent an initial reach-out every time we posted an ad on a new service, but never responded when we replied to his questions. (“Thanks for reaching out again. As I said last time, the engine is…”)

There was the couple with the 55 foot custom racing catamaran lying in the Marshals, looking to downsize as they got older. They also reached out after every ad went live. They would ask a couple of questions, and then ask whether we were open to trading boats, or would like to trade boats, or whether we’d given up yet and were open to non-cash options, like trading up to a 55 foot custom racing catamaran maintained by two people who were getting to old to feel comfortable taking care of her.

After a while we started to have a sense of how serious someone was going to be just based on their first message. A super short email meant that they would almost certainly never respond again. But a very long message was also a red flag; the more personal details they included, the more likely they had something in mind other than paying the purchase price. I have an autistic child, does that get me 40% off the purchase price? Will you stay aboard as crew? Would you be willing to take payment in installments?

And nothing more was heard.

There were many people who would gladly have bought her, even just on the basis of our video, if only she were in some more convenient location. Two couples looked at having her shipped back to the US (one on each coast), and concluded that the roughly $50k freight put her out of their budget. We lost count of the number of Australians who would love to come and see her if only she were a thousand miles west. (This always hurt a little to hear: we had only just arrived in New Zealand when Australia changed their animal quarantine rules and effectively made it impossible for us to come with Captain. So every Australian would-be buyer was a reminder that we were trapped, stuck living and selling in the second-rate country we increasingly regretted coming to.)

In fact there were several Australians for whom the distance was only a logistical problem, one of whom would have likely snapped her up had we not found a buyer in New Zealand first. One of them offered to let us come back and borrow the boat again after the sale; a sweet offer, though also one of many data points that suggested he was a bit flighty.

There was the British guy who would gladly buy her, only he would need several months to sort out a New Zealand visa. Don’t Brits get visas on arrival? Well, normally yes, but he had overstayed in Australia in the past, so now it would be more complicated… we continued to receive emails from him about every other week throughout the process.

Arguably the kicker was the guy who asked us, in dead seriousness, if we would sail the boat with him to South Africa, a journey of either 7000 uncomfortable miles as the crow flies, or about two years at a comfortable cruising pace.

The first guy to make a serious offer came to see her with his disinterested wife, after telling us he couldn’t afford our boat; we told him to come by and see her just to see a Prout, since they’re rare in NZ and he would be good practice for another showing later in the morning. He fell in love, of course, but so did his wife, who (we surmise) agreed to kick in some of her money, because after several rounds of us saying “the price is not negotiable”, he offered us our asking price. He hurried to lock it down by sending a deposit, and then as the weeks dragged on and he came to grips with his financial reality, he found an excuse to back out at survey time. Which we kind of did predict, and in hindsight we should have just turned him down earlier. Here he is, complaining in all the groups we follow about how expensive boats are, and how it’s because of taxes, and why can’t he find a perfect boat for half what ours costs?

When survey day came, the buyer had COVID and couldn’t make it, so it was just us and the surveyor. And when the surveyor found some token osmosis, he called the buyer, and the buyer stopped the survey halfway! We hadn’t known that was an option, or we would definitely have put something in the contract. This development really pissed us off, because it meant that after several weeks being “off the market” we still didn’t have a complete survey to show prospective buyers, and all that time was effectively lost. Our plan to “sell the boat, tour the south island, and fly to Thailand” rapidly unraveled in the face of this new calendar pressure. So we spent a day or two unraveling as well, before getting the boat back on the web and getting back to it. Fortunately we’d continued working on our video during this time.

There was the guy who was “six foot five”, who asked whether he would fit. (We told him “mostly no.”) He wanted to come out anyway, so we made the time, and it was immediately obvious on arrival that this was not going to be the boat for him. Not because of his height, though, which was basically the same as Andrew’s just-shy-of-6’3″, but because his wife had so thoroughly checked out of the process. She let slip that he had been looking for the perfect boat for over four years, which means that he will still be looking for his first boat four years from now, and probably four years after that.

There was the guy who messaged a couple of times about finding a time to view her, and then ended up sailing by in an even smaller cat at about 7am one day at Great Barrier and asking Andrew whether he could stop over right now. (No; it is 7am and Jazz is asleep.) And would we like to join them to scuba dive that morning? (Sadly our tanks were empty!) He then declined to come see her on land; guess he wasn’t that interested after all.

The couple who would end up buying her came out with their two small children, who proceeded to bang on the inside of the windows and generally climb everywhere. The wife showed no interest in the boat or in talking to us at all, really, so we were a little surprised when they sent us an offer. At this point we had booked our trip down to the south island, and we asked them to schedule a survey for when we got back. And then as days went by, we asked again… and again… we were almost back north again by the time they called the surveyor, who was (gasp) booked for the next two weeks. (We had to use the same surveyor who had done the bottom previously, because nobody was willing to do just the above-the-waterline section, not that they had the availability anyway.) Then just before survey day, the surveyor came down with COVID; rotten luck, and just one more delay to add to the pile. Meanwhile they brought out specialists to look at the engine, sails, and rigging, all of whom basically said “yeah it’s what they said it is”, with differing levels of sympathetic glances our way as they listened to the buyer’s questions. (The riggers, incidentally, did not give us much confidence in their abilities; Jazz had to teach one of them how to use a snatch block, and the way they climbed the boat gave us the heebies. We had originally intended to hand off our ongoing warranty issue with the new furler to the new owners, but after listening to their conversation with the rigger, we determined that it would be safer for everyone if we just took care of it. This would become another whole saga.)

We eventually got the surveyor out, though the buyers couldn’t make it at the same time. We’d blocked off the whole morning, but he only spent about an hour and a half on the boat, before declaring it basically fine. There were a bunch of questions he just asked us and didn’t verify; we got the impression that he was tying to tick an approval box for insurance, rather than to really vet the boat. Fine with us; it’s not like we had anything to hide, but if we were paying for a survey like that we’d be pretty nonplussed. Anyway he gave Villa the stamp of approval, and we finalized the contract and immediately booked our tickets home (which, because of Captain, is another whole saga which we’ve already told.) That just left the money transfer and the key hand-off, which basically went fine, though we were a little annoyed that at this point the buyers suddenly found a sense of urgency. Oh, you’d like to come up and have us show you around the boat, now that we’re rushing to get out of the country, and not sometime in the past two weeks we’ve basically spent waiting for you?

One point we keep coming back to is that, when buying a boat, the previous owners can be a really good resource, so you really want them to like you. Yes, it’s a major transaction, and you want to make sure you’re not getting screwed over, you have to do your due diligence, and any owner worth dealing with is going to understand that. But after the sale goes through, they get to decide whether to answer your phone calls. When it costs you little, why wouldn’t you try to keep them happy? We… did not get the impression that many of the people who contacted us had thought much about this. Even the ones who talked about what a great relationship we would have after they bought the boat were often oddly inconsiderate.

All told, from our first post to the completed sale was 98 days. Though we’d hoped for faster, that’s reasonably good. People sometimes talk about a range between “top dollar”, the most you might conceivably get for your boat if you’re willing to wait, and a “90 day price”, at which she will be gone within 90 days. We posted her at our 90 day price, asking what we were willing to sell her for, and we got our asking price; we were not going to lower it. In retrospect, we wonder whether we should have posted a higher price, and bought that 90 day speed by letting people negotiate down. By posting a relatively low number, we got a lot of attention from people who were straining the absolute tops of their budgets, and those fruitless interactions ate a lot of our time. But would a higher sticker price have also driven away some of the serious shoppers? Or might it have attracted more attention from people with higher budgets? It’s hard to say, in part because we only get to run the experiment once, and more generally because the Snowgoose is such a strange in-between boat; it’s not a monohull, but it’s not exactly what people think of when they think catamaran either. Most other boaters experience isn’t exactly comparable.

We’ll miss Villa, but we definitely won’t miss selling her.

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