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Hard Sell

The small details make a big difference when it comes time to sell your boat. Follow these tips and get a better return.

For the past few months, I’ve been scouring the internet for the perfect retirement boat, one that will carry me through my “golden years” as a vagabond of the Intracoastal
Waterway. Most of the boats I’ve found have been totally unsuitable (I have specific and apparently eccentric needs, including a preference for steel hulls), but it’s fun to look—and it’s often puzzling, too. Why do so many would-be sellers, and even some brokers, present their boats so poorly, rather than giving them the ol’ shipshape-and-Bristol-fashion treatment before the photographer arrives? I’ve never claimed to be a fussbudget, but some of these folks make me look like Mr. Clean. What’s wrong with these people?

Let’s face it, the internet is like speed-dating for boat shoppers, and you’ve got only a minute or so to hook one as he or she surfs past. Don’t waste that short burst of time; make sure your boat looks absolutely wonderful, so the potential buyer can’t resist stopping to look more closely. That’s how virtually all advertisers promote their wares. No normal person looks as good in a bathing suit as the model in the ad, no bowl of soup from a can teems with as much delicious meat and veg, no car gleams in the moonlight quite the same way. This is true for professionally produced boat ads, too, where attractive people enjoy ideal days afloat under perfect weather conditions.

Apparently, folks who sell their boats often forget one basic but very important rule of marketing: Instead of making sure their vessels are squeaky clean, they simply haul off and upload photos of cabins cluttered with personal items, un-stowed foodstuffs, tools, greasy extension cords, empty beer cans and general debris. You’ll see berths with rumpled clothes strewn across them, head compartments that need attacking with serious cleaning weapons and engine rooms that haven’t been spiffed up since Y2K was a thing, with rust-riddled engines that would better serve as mooring anchors than prime movers. Would you buy a boat from these people? I don’t think so.

Because, in my book, making a boat ready for a sale generally requires a good deal of forethought, effort and expertise, I contacted a photo-savvy yacht broker for advice on exactly how to handle the process. Randy Altemus has been selling boats since 1973. Today, he’s a broker with Brewer Yacht Sales in Stamford, Connecticut. During that almost half-century, he’s sold nearly 1,000 sail and powerboats—in recent years, many of them thanks to expertly crafted listings, most created by Altemus himself. He said it’s the job of the broker to create a proper listing, since even otherwise sophisticated sellers can make mistakes. The effort pays off, he said: “I’ve found that owners who invest in the proper cleaning, preparation and staging of their yachts do best in the marketplace. The return on these investments is at least 100 percent, and the yacht finds a new home much faster.” He added that good photography and a detailed, accurate description of the yacht are also important. Let’s take these one at a time.

The Proper Cleanup

“Condition adds more to value than equipment ever will,” said Altemus, so make sure your boat is spotless above and below decks. Don’t try to save money by doing the cleaning yourself, and don’t hire cleaners unfamiliar with boats. Money spent hiring a professional yacht-cleaning crew to make your boat shipshape is never wasted; you will always get back what you spent, and usually more, in the agreed-upon selling price, he said. Professionals know what cleaning potions to use on typical boat dirt—fish blood on upholstery, diesel stains on the teak, etc.—and will scrub to a level you can’t imagine. And what’s more, they will cover areas you can’t even reach—most important on a powerboat are the engine room and bilge, and either one can take a professional an entire day to make spic and span. Thorough cleaning also removes odors, so if your broker and your prospective buyer pay a visit after studying your online listing, they won’t be assaulted by unexpected aromas. “Dirt and smells kill the deal,” said Altemus. “They won’t get past the decision-maker of the family.”

But it’s not just dirt and smells that are critical: You want all shiny metal polished until it gleams. Usually that’s stainless steel, but some boats also have bronze and brass—like maybe a clock and barometer in the main salon. Shine them up too, and make sure there’s no polish left on the bulkhead. Moreover, aluminum arches, hardtops or T-top frames, and powder-coated metal must be scrubbed clean of every grain of salt. Ditto for the radome and antennas. And clean the anchor and chain and polish the windlass until it hurts your eyes to look at it. Dock lines need to be washed and, if they’re shabby, replaced. Pros will tend to do all this without being told, and a good broker will make sure.

Then finally, if your boat has lots of brightwork you’ve let go to seed, may Neptune help you. Few out there will buy a boat that needs thousands of dollars worth of varnish work unless they’re planning a complete rehab—and even then, they’ll knock you down on the price. Better get out your checkbook beforehand.

White upholstery in particular can absorb a lot of stains—don’t leave anything up to chance.

White upholstery in particular can absorb a lot of stains—don’t leave anything up to chance.

Setting the Stage

Real estate agents often stage an empty house with furniture and decor items to make it look “homey” to prospective buyers. Staging a boat is just the opposite—don’t add anything, and remove all items that won’t be part of the sale. You might think the crayon drawing by your grandchild mounted on the salon bulkhead is art, but it’s just scribbling to the rest of us, so take it down. “Get all the personal stuff off the boat,” advised Altemus. “One person’s decor is another person’s junk. Make sure the boat looks as close to the original brochure photos as possible.”

It’s also good to note in the actual brokerage listing any items that are shown as being aboard but won’t ultimately be included. Typically, that’s artwork: Owners don’t want to present their boat with empty spaces where art used to be, especially if the newly exposed surface hasn’t discolored like the surrounding area, and the ghost of the removed frame is obvious. There are usually fastening holes left behind where frames were mounted, too. In the interest of aesthetics, rather than removing the art, leave it in place and note the exclusion. You don’t want the buyer to think he’s getting that Blue Period Picasso in the master stateroom when he isn’t.

Once Altemus has a boat he’s representing clean and all the personal stuff is ashore, he straightens things up, fiddles with details and makes everything look nice for the photographer. “Owner-supplied photos are usually terrible,” he said. Frequently, Altemus is the eye behind the camera, but for higher-priced boats he thinks it’s worth hiring a professional photographer. The pictures are what makes a net-surfing boat shopper take a closer look, so you want every image to be arresting.

A Photographer Steps In

Forest Johnson is one of the world’s premier marine photographers. You’ve seen his work in this and other periodicals—he’s shot more than 1,600 magazine covers and countless boat ads over the past 40-some years. Here’s his advice on how to make your boat look her best in front of the lens. It’s more than just point and shoot.

The most critical thing in any and all photography is light, according to Johnson. Midday isn’t the right time to shoot a boat—the high sun throws shadows under the bow flare, while the decks and cabin tops are blasted with brightness. Often white-hued, these horizontal surfaces are much more reflective than the topsides, creating more contrast than the camera can handle. If the camera’s meter exposes for the decks, the topsides will look dark; expose for the hull, and the decks turn glaring white. Instead of dealing with this, advised Johnson, shoot early or late in the day, when the sun is low and the boat is lit evenly. In the morning the light is whiter, so colors are rendered accurately, probably what you want if shooting a boat for an ad. In the evening, the light is more golden, which makes things look warm and romantic—ideal for photographing people. Also, consider where your boat is docked and where you can shoot from—if the boat’s backlit in the morning you’ll be better off temporarily moving it. “Cater to the light,” said Johnson.

When shooting exteriors and running shots, get lines and fenders out of the way, and stow anything on deck that may obtrude. “Minimize anything that will look bad,” Johnson said. And be mindful of the background: If there’s a crane or dock or something in the shot, move until there’s a clear background. Same with foregrounds: If either you or a professional photographer are shooting your boat at the dock, don’t let pilings or other boats obstruct the view. Again, you may have to temporarily move your boat to get the best combination of sun, background and foreground. If you’re shooting running shots from a low angle, most boats look better from the bow quarter. (Clean the bottom first if the boat will be on plane.) Shooting from a height, the stern quarter is usually the best angle.

Belowdecks, the most important thing is to reduce clutter. “Simplicity is nice,” said Johnson. Turn on all the lights; even a camera phone can balance different light sources pretty well. “Hold the camera rock-steady and keep holding it even after you hear the click,” Johnson continued. Phone cameras and most point-and-shoots don’t have a conventional shutter; the click is a software-generated sound that indicates you’ve taken a picture, but it doesn’t always sync perfectly with the picture’s actual recording. “So, shoot and hold steady for at least an extra second,” concluded Johnson, “and don’t bother with the helm until dusk so you can show all the displays lit up.”

The Write Stuff

Pictures may be worth thousands of words but, unfortunately, they’re not going to do the whole job. There’s no way around it—either you or someone else is going to have to write a description of your boat to include in the listing. Don’t try to haiku the task either; buyers want lots of info, not just a terse sentence or two. “Twin 351s, low hours, new props 2003, clean bottom” is not enough. Include general information about the boat—design, construction, maybe some history of the builder—along with specific details about your boat. And include all major improvements and completed maintenance projects, like “New exhaust risers were installed in 2018,” or “The brightwork was stripped and refinished with 10 coats in 2019.” Stress things you’ve done that the new owner won’t have to pay for once he or she takes possession—engine rebuild/replacement, new fuel tanks, repair of wet coring, that sort of thing.

And don’t add a lot of flowery phrases; this isn’t Creative Writing 101. Just provide facts in simple, declarative sentences. Read the boat reviews in this magazine to get an idea of how boats are described to entice the reader. If you can’t put words together yourself, enlist the help of someone who can. Make sure they have a working knowledge of grammar, spelling and proofreading; typos put people off (as my editor keeps telling me). If you’re working with a good broker, chances are he or she will write the listing for you—yet another reason to work with a pro.

Finally, said Altemus, “Remember that nothing on the internet ever goes away, so don’t present your boat in a poor light. Do you want her to be remembered that way?” Take the trouble to do things right the first time, think about getting yourself a solid broker like Altemus, and you’ll sell your boat faster and ultimately get more money out of the deal. Heck, maybe I’ll even buy her—is her hull built of steel, by any chance?

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.