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Connoisseur's Guide to Buying a Yacht

Kim Kavin

Buying a yacht is a process that can take days, months, or even years. There are countless new and brokerage models available, some built on a production scale and others custom designed. You can pay hundreds of thousands or tens of millions of dollars depending on the quality, size and personalization you desire.

Whether you are considering a motoryacht or a sailing yacht, there are four basic categories of yacht: production, semi-custom, fully custom, and brokerage. Deciding which of these categories best suits you is the easiest way to begin narrowing down your specific yacht choices.

Production Yachts

Production yachts are like most automobiles, built on a factory line that creates one after the next with the same look, shape, and size. The economies of scale mean that for new yachts, production models are typically the least expensive. They are also usually available faster than new semi-custom or custom yachts, but the drawback is that there are few options to personalize the yacht. You may be able to choose the hull paint and interior decor from a preset catalog, but that's usually the limit in terms of customizing your yacht straight from the factory.

Historically, production yachts have been small, while custom yachts have been big, but technological advances are making larger and larger production yachts available all the time. Today, many yachts in the 80-foot range, for instance, are production models. You can get shortest-length production yachts for less than $100,000, and the largest-scale yachts have price tags of $5 million or more.

Semi-custom Yachts

Semi-custom yachts combine the cost and time efficiencies of production models with many of the same optional features and design characteristics of custom yachts. If you purchase a semi-custom build well before it is due to be launched, then you can often change far more than just the interior decor. Some builders will let you change the number of cabins, the configuration of the cabins, and some on-deck features such as hot tubs and bars. You can often add and remove entire rooms as long as you don't change the hull design, key systems, or critical bulkheads.

More sailing yacht and motor yacht builders are using composite technology to offer semi-custom yachts at increasingly larger sizes. This is true even of established large-yacht brands such as Christensen, Trinity, Westport, and Feadship, which currently offer semi-custom motor yachts as large as 164 feet and have 200-foot-plus models on their drawing boards. Many of the existing models fall in the $25 million range. Sailing yachts are typically at least 20 percent less.

Fully Custom Yachts

Fully custom designs are the most expensive and time-consuming option, whether you want a motor yacht or a sailing yacht. Custom models often take two to three years from conception to launch, and they sometimes require an extra year's time on top of that just to get a bay in the world's most in-demand shipyards. On the other hand, custom yachts offer something that no other kind of yacht can: Every single item onboard is crafted and built to your specifications, right down to the color of the screws and nails.

For some clients, the process of building the yacht is just as much fun as owning and using it. They relish in the construction process itself, making monthly visits to the shipyard and working hand-in-hand with naval architects and interior designers to achieve the exact yacht of their dreams. Of course, this experience comes at a price. A custom yacht today can cost more than $100 million.

Brokerage Yachts

Brokerage is world yacht market speak for "used." You can find brokerage yachts of every size and style, from 25-foot sailing yachts to 250-foot motor yachts. Typically, brokerage yachts come at a price advantage when compared with new yachts of any variety. They also have the advantage of being available immediately, since they are already completed and on the water. The obvious drawback to a brokerage yacht is that it comes with wear and tear. In some cases, this means light use; in others, it presents major challenges.

No matter the condition of the brokerage yacht you're considering, you would be wise to factor a post-sale refit budget into the yacht's cost. Most people who buy brokerage yachts at least change the interior decor. Some new owners go so far as to change all the onboard systems and helm electronics, including serious engine-room overhauls. Still other buyers of brokerage yachts purchase them with the intent of gutting and completely refitting them, often getting what they consider a customized yacht much faster and less expensively than they would if they bought a brand-new custom design.

Which Style Is Right for You?

Whether you are considering a motor yacht or a sailing yacht, your first step should be to decide whether to buy production, semi-custom, custom, or brokerage. Here are some of the things that might nudge you one way or another:

  • If getting your yacht quickly is your primary goal, then you should consider a new production or semi-custom yacht, or a brokerage yacht that does not require an extensive refit.
  • If having your yacht exactly the way you want it is your key aspiration, then you should consider a new custom or semi-custom yacht, or a brokerage yacht with a large after-sale budget for refit.
  • If price is your main consideration, then you should shy away from new, fully custom yachts. You can often find new production or semi-custom yachts in the same price range as custom-built brokerage yachts, though the new models will typically be smaller.

When You're Ready to Shop

After you decide which type of yacht interests you, you'll need to find a yacht broker whom you can trust. Working with yacht brokers is much like working with real estate agents: They typically all have the same inventory, but some know it better and can help you more than their less-savvy colleagues. Much of your broker-selection process will boil down to finding a personality that you enjoy working with regularly.

There are countless yacht broker agencies, some with major worldwide operations and others — often just as reputable — being run out of home offices. You can qualify a broker's expertise to some extent by asking which professional organizations he or she has qualified to join. Organizations such as the Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association (www.mybamembers.com) and the Florida Yacht Brokers Association (www.fyba.org) require experience and sponsorship before a broker can be admitted, and the groups work to encourage professional standards of business.

Reputable yacht brokers will direct you to online listings and send you yacht brochures for review. This will help you narrow the field of available yachts to a number that you and the broker can inspect in person together, or to a number of shipyards that you and the broker can visit if you decide to go with a semi-custom or fully custom design.

Touring Yachts and Shipyards

The easiest place to tour yachts is at boat shows, where builders display their models — new and brokerage alike — for the specific purpose of finding a buyer. The two biggest shows in the United States each year are held in Miami in mid-February and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the end of October. There are also major boat shows throughout Europe and the rest of the world all year round. At a typical large boat show, no matter what kind of yacht you're seeking, you can usually tour a dozen or two dozen models within the span of two or three days. This is a good way to compare one yacht with the next, since they sometimes will literally be lined up side by side. Sea trials can also be arranged for yachts that interest you the most.

Touring shipyards is trickier, as they are all over the world. Should you decide you want a semi-custom or custom design, then you can work with your broker to arrange shipyard tours at the same time your potential interior designers, naval architects, and project managers will be on site. That's the best way to ensure you get to know not just the shipyard's processes, but also the key people who will be overseeing the creation of your yacht. Having personalities that work well together is key in the custom-yacht building process, as the same team will most likely have to work together for several years.

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