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Staying afloat

Tightening credit and fewer buyers force boat sellers to compromise on price and wait for a bite

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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If you're in the market for a boat, there is only good news: Prices haven't been this low in years, and there are plenty to choose from.

For sellers, it's a different story: Buyers are few and far between.

The boat market, like the car and housing markets, has been hit hard - maybe harder - by the weakening economy, as financial worries have risen faster than a storm tide. After all, people need a place to live, and most need a car, but few need a boat, say owners and sellers. Boats are luxury items and expensive to maintain.

Making it tougher, financing has tightened for all but for the most qualified buyers. And some would-be buyers are still wary because of last year's increase in fuel costs, even if prices have fallen from the stratosphere.

Statewide, sales of new fiberglass and aluminum boats dropped nearly 25 percent - from about 7,700 to 5,900 - between 2007 and 2008, according to Statistical Surveys Inc., which tracks boat sales.

Sellers of new and used boats are doing their best. Prices have dropped substantially, and as the weather warms, they are hoping that more would-be old salts will think longingly of spending time buzzing through the whitecaps.

"I've had boats my whole life, and I've never seen it like this," said Mike McLaughlin, who has had no luck selling his 27-foot 1985 Bayliner, which he keeps at Marina Bay in Quincy in the summer months. He blames the recession.

"I'm asking $9,500, but I'll never get it," he said. "If a dude doesn't have the money, he ain't spending."

Many other sellers have had similar trouble unloading their once-prized possessions.

Suzie MacKay of Hingham and her family were able to take advantage of lower prices last year to snag a 33-foot Chris-Craft, but now see the flip side of the market as they try to sell their 24-foot Sea Ray. They've slashed last year's asking price of $12,000 to $9,500.

"Last year was tough because of the price of gas," she said. "We're hopeful we can sell it this year."

The MacKays said they bought the Chris-Craft because they needed more room for their three-child family. They also own a Boston Whaler.

In Mattapoisett, David Tomasia is hoping that a heavy discount on his solid commercial boat leads to a quick sale. He's asking $10,000 for the 20-foot Privateer, used mainly by commercial day fishermen. He's getting out of the business because he says he's sick of the regulations and a crowd of new fishermen.

"Usually you can get $15,000 for these, but I figure, with the bad economy, I can get $10,000," said Tomasia.

The bear market has affected other parts of the boating industry as well. Business at marinas for boat slips - marine parking spots, essentially - has slowed from the white-hot days of a few years ago, when there were waiting lists.

Don Dugan, owner of Wareham Boatyard and Marina, said he hasn't raised prices on his 50 slips in three years, which has helped keep him busy. He charges $74 per boat foot for the season, which runs from April to October.

"I'm like everyone else - I'm concerned," said Dugan. "Business isn't booming, but it isn't a disaster."

It certainly is a far cry from the boom of four or five years ago, when everything that floated sold.

"You're talking about a luxury item," said Dugan. "To buy a boat at this time is a big-ticket item, so if you don't need it, you might postpone it." That's too bad, he added, because prices have fallen sharply.

"You have a lot of sellers and not many buyers, and the buyers want a terrific deal because they can pick and choose."

Michael Myers, president of Boston Yacht Sales in Weymouth, said he thinks the boat market has picked up a bit over the past few weeks.

"I feel if we haven't seen the worst, we're close to the bottom and there's a tremendous amount of pent-up demand," he said.

Jane Hirsh, a partner at the 550-slip Hingham Ship Yard Marinas, where a spot costs $104 per foot or more for the six-month season, is taking the long view: She said the economy will get better.

Sales are hurting and the selections are plentiful, she said. "So are cars, so are houses. The only thing that isn't is jobs."

And so sellers have been slashing prices.

"It's a fabulous time to buy a used boat," said Stewart Roach, president of Norwood Yacht Sales at Marina Bay in Quincy. "We're seeing tremendous reductions in price."

Boats that once sold for $300,000 are now selling for as little as $150,000, he said. Sales have picked up a notch recently, perhaps due to the better weather, but "banks have tightened up and the average person is not taking a risk."

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.