Blue View – Comparing the Cost of Owning a Van vs Owning a Boat

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Blue celebrated the first anniversary of his adoption yesterday. It was just a year ago that we rented a car in Cheapeake, VA, drove to New York City, and bought our lightly used Ford Transit 250. Since then, not only have we gotten a good start on his upfitting, we've added just over 18,000 miles to the odometer.

Over the years that we lived aboard Nine of Cups, we obsessively kept track of the money we spent on her – everything from maintenance and refitting expenses to diesel and mooring fees. I thought this might be a good time to make a reckoning of what the various costs on Blue have been, and then compare the costs of living aboard a boat with the cost of living in Blue. I've arbitrarily separated these into two categories: the fixed costs and the operating expenses.

Fixed costs

These are the things that don't change much whether Blue is parked in the driveway or on a road trip.


  • Blue: It cost us more to buy a vehicle in New York, transport it to Virginia, then register it in Nevada than it would have if the transaction wasn't so complicated. On the other hand, Nevada doesn't charge a sales tax if a vehicle is purchased from a private party. The total was $628.
  • Cups: Annual Coast Guard documentation fee: $26


  • Blue: While this does vary depending on our annual mileage, I've included it as a fixed cost. This past year, the annual cost was $892 in Nevada.

  • Cups: Insurance for the boat was expensive, especially when we were going offshore – which was most years. Typical annual cost was $2747

Upfitting Costs

  • Blue: This was the cost to convert Blue from an empty cargo van to a camper. We had several missteps which inflated the cost considerably. For example, we bought a rooftop air conditioner that we used temporarily on Cups to help us cope with the Virginia summer heat, with plans to eventually use it atop Blue. While it served its purpose on Cups, we decided it was too noisy to use on Blue, and we sold it on Craig's List. The money we lost was added to the cost of Blue's upfit. The $800 Leesa mattress that didn't work out so well in Blue will end up being used on our bed in the Las Vegas house when we find another alternative, but its cost is still included in Blue's upfit numbers as well. There were several other things we did that either didn't work out or, in retrospect, would do differently, saving money in the process. Maybe the next time? Our total cost to date is $11,607. We still have a long way to go, but we may still make it under our planned budget of $20,000.

  • Cups: This is where it starts getting difficult to compare numbers. Do we just count the cost of upfitting Cups to convert her from a weekend sailor to an offshore boat, or do we include all the refit costs over the years? What I've arbitrarily decided to do is to estimate the cost to convert a new-ish weekend sailing boat to an offshore cruiser. If the boat is reasonably well equipped and most of the onboard gear – sails, rigging, electrical, engine, electronics, etc., is in reasonably good shape, this is what I'd budget to upfit her, assuming I did most of the work myself:

    • Solar Panels and controller: $1000

    • Wind generator: $3500

    • Water desalinator: $5000

    • Batteries: $2000

    • Ground tackle: $2200

    • Storm sails: $2500

    • Liferaft: $4000

    • EPIRB: $2000

    • Emergency gear: $1000

    • Essential spares: $3000

    • Offshore communications: $2500

Total upfit cost: $22,200


  • Blue: This also gets complicated. It's easy to take the purchase price and subtract the current Blue Book value, but shouldn't we take into account the increase in value due to the upfitting? If so, how much did the upfit work increase its value – if at all? In looking online, I've found used 2015 van conversions ranging from $50,000 to $120,000, but these were all completed conversions, while Blue's conversion is far from complete. The formula I've decided to use is to take the purchase price plus the upfitting cost as the basis, then subtract the current Blue Book value and 75% of the upfitting cost. The difference will be my definition of the depreciation. So:

    • Purchase price: $28,000

    • Upfit cost: $11,607

Basis: $39,607

    • Current Blue Book: $30,300

    • 75% of upfit cost: $8,705

Current Value: $39,005

Depreciation: $602

  • Cups: To determine Cups' depreciation, I took the purchase price, added the original and annual upfit costs, then subtracted the selling price. Then I divided this amount by the number of years we owned her – 18 years, to derive the average annual depreciation.

    • Purchase price: $175,000

    • Original Upfit cost: $18,400

    • Annual Upfit costs: $196,956

Basis: $397,856

    • Selling Price: $150,000

Depreciation: $240,356

Annualized: $13,353

There are some startling observations here. First, while we got a very good deal on Blue, his Blue Book value actually went up this year. It's nice when a vehicle holds its resale value, but I don't think I've ever owned a vehicle that increased in value over the course of a year. Second, I was gobsmacked by how much money we spent over the years refitting Cups – almost $200,000! I was aware that we spent, on average, $10,924 each year, but I never calculated the total over the eighteen years we owned her. This is in addition to all those repair and maintenance dollars, which will be accounted for in the Operating Expense section later.

Summary of the First Year's Fixed Costs:

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Stay tuned when I present more amazing and engrossing information in next week's blog when I compare the operating expenses of the van versus the boat.