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Reading the brokerage market’s choppy waves

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Last week we talked about the increased number of new models being introduced at the fall shows and we looked at new-boat forecasts for the year.

Today we’re taking a quick snapshot of the brokerage market, courtesy of John Burnham, editorial director of Dominion Marine Media, who provides monthly brokerage charts and commentary for Soundings Trade Only via data supplied by YachtWorld.com.

In a word or two, brokerage sales for the summer have been as flat as Kansas, a trend that runs somewhat counter to the modest uptick in certain categories of new boats.

“Overall, the last few months have been pretty flat in terms of the total number of brokerage boats sold,” Burnham tells me.

Big picture, sales of used powerboats are up 4 percent on the year, and sailboats continue to trend down by 1 percent.

The strongest category of used boats has been small boats — those under 26 feet. Year over year, sales of boats in this group have been up 9 percent in volume and 11 percent in value.

“All year long, the small boats, $20,000 average, have been selling better than last year,” he told me. “In August, they hit the brakes.” One month a trend does not make, but it’s one of those things that bear watching. “I don’t know if it’s an anomaly or the start of something new,” he says.

Sales in August improved for the second straight month, however, for boats in the 26- to 35-foot category, which had had a tough six months, Burnham reports. Volume rose 2 percent in August, which might suggest some sort of turn.

For larger boats — 46 feet and up — sales volume is down year over year and value is down even more, according to Burnham. “The question is why,” he says. “My gut feeling is people are sitting on the sidelines and waiting.”

The dip could be part of a natural cycle; it could be hesitation over the coming elections. It could be something else. Time may tell.

Average days to sale this year is 265, down from a high of 278 in 2010, he notes. “The numbers are definitely headed in the right direction,” Burnham says. And the small boats — as you would expect — are selling faster than the large ones.

Certain trends are evident across the new and pre-owned markets. “A lot of people could afford more boat, but they’re getting into less boat,” Burnham says. “Baby boomers — some of them — are starting to simplify their lives. And they’re retiring at a rapid rate.” Or they are at least contemplating retirement even as they remain in the work force longer, given the economic turbulence of the last several years.

Another trend: “The brokerage market continues to be held back by a lack of good, clean recent models,” Burnham says. Good late-model used boats are in short supply for the simple reason that not many were built during the past several years. The dearth of recent pre-owns is also helping to push new-boat sales.

As with new-boat buyers, recession fatigue and pent-up demand among those looking for used boats is helping to counter continued economic and political uncertainty here and abroad.

“Despite all that, those who are working and have some funds are buying boats again,” he says.

“The good news for brokers is that the business did not take as big a hit during the recession” as it did for builders and new-boat dealers, Burnham says. “Having said that, I think the business remains a really tough one.” And it continues to be choppy.

As an example, Burnham mentions a recent conversation he had with a broker who is typically not overly demonstrative, but who had just come off a very strong month. “He was feeling really upbeat,” Burnham says. “He was smiling.” But another broker Burnham spoke with not long ago said he was thinking of changing careers.

“So it really depends on your niche,” he says, “and who your clients are. It’s a tough business.”

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