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Sizing Up Serviceability - The Little Things That Add Up to Big Dollars


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Sizing Up Serviceability

The Little Things That Add Up to Big Dollars

One of the best ways to reduce the high cost of boat ownership is to perform much of the routine maintenance work yourself. Having looked at over 5,000 used boats during my career, it's clear to me that the reason why so many boats suffer from poor maintenance is that the builder gave no consideration to the ease of maintenance. Often times, just doing the simplest of chores is a difficult proposition.

-Engine access
- Stern Drive Boats' Engines
- Oil Filters
- Batteries
- Fuel Filters
- Generators
- Steering system
- Exhaust system
- Air conditioning
- Sea cocks
- Bilge Pumps and Float Switches

Not only does poor accessibility to those aspects that require frequent maintenance make it very difficult for owners to do the work, it drives up the cost for those that normally pay others. You get a $300 bill for an oil change and you start thinking about extending the period between changes. The same goes for air conditioning service or anything else for that matter.

When sizing up that prospective new or used boat purchase, here are a few things to specifically be on the lookout for.

Engine access

Are you going to have to take apart furniture, move 300 lb. convertible sofas, pull up nailed down carpeting just to check the fluid levels? If so, you're facing a major maintenance problem. Engines should be easily accessible with no more than a lifting of a hatch. Carpet should not be nailed down, but left loose so that it can be pulled back.

Stern Drive Boats' Engines

Many stern drive boats have engines jammed so close together that pulling spark plugs is a near impossibility. So is changing starter motors and many other components. Engines that are jammed into tiny compartments drive up the cost of labor hours and turn self service into self immolation.

Oil Filters

Where are the oil filters, and can they be easily reached? If not, is there a relocation adaptor available? Can the oil pan drain plugs be reached in order to install an electric pump out system? Many times it can't, so that the installation will be difficult and costly.


Are you going to have to crawl on your belly and repeat the army boot camp experience to service or change batteries? These cantankerous things need to be located front and center, not stuffed back in some dark corner that can't be reached without injury.

Fuel Filters

Fuel filters may require frequent changing, so it's particularly important that these be located in a spot with easy access.


Generators are often the most troublesome in terms of accessibility. A complete lack of adequate space makes this an inevitability. But when combined with engines that are hard to reach, it's a double whammy.

Steering system

This, too, should be easily accessible. How are you going to maintain the rudder stuffing boxes if you can't reach them?

Exhaust system

All elements of the exhaust system should at least be visible. If there are mufflers hidden behind fuel tanks under a non removable deck, you'd better hope that you don't own that boat when that part of the exhaust system requires repair or replacement, and the deck has to be cut up to do it.

Air conditioning

More and more we find A/C units buried in places that can't be reached. There is really no excuse for this sort of thing, and you'll end up paying more because of it. A/C units in boats frequently break down.

Sea cocks

Ever try to change hose clamps on a sea cock situated UNDER an engine? There's no reason why a builder shouldn't have taken the time to locate them in a convenient place, it's just a lack of consideration.

Bilge Pumps and Float Switches

The same goes for bilge pumps and float switches which are an item that requires frequent cleaning when bilges get greasy. How are you going to do that when it's located under the engine?

The smaller the boat, the more pronounced these problems become as builders sacrifice machinery space for interior space. Most boats more or less have a few difficult servicing issues. But it pays to be on the alert for boats that have too many of these problems. If that is the case, then the cost of ownership is likely to be a bit more than you anticipated.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, then ease of service should be one of your primary criteria to help keep the pleasure in pleasure boating.

Your First Boat

by David Pascoe

By far, the most frequently asked question we get in our emails is the one by first time boat buyers asking about what brand they should buy. Bewildered by literally hundreds of choices out there, they have neither the knowledge to make an informed choice, nor any place to turn for answers.

Part I Outboard -vs- Stern Drive
- Closed -vs- Raw Water Cooling Systems
- Brands

Part II -Style
- Size-vs-Quality
- Luxury-vs-Utility
- Your Situation
- Where You Use Your Boat

Part III By Owner or Dealer
- Appraisals
- Financing
- Warranties
- Deposits
- Titles
- Trailers

Indeed, we're almost as bewildered as they are. It would take a cast of dozens of experts just to survey the field of new offerings every year, not to mention hundreds more experts to assess the existing millions of used boats. That's a feat no one has yet managed to tackle. That's why no one just give you a list of recommended boats. We can't just line boats up on a counter top and evaluate them; they're too big and the boats can't come to us, we have to go to them.

So it is that all of you who
- make internet searches for serious information on boats, like we provide in our boat reviews, aren't going to find it. Not many people are willing to risk getting sued by publishing negative information. It's far easier to go with the flow. 

It's been said that the Internet has been largely responsible for creating better informed consumers. This comes mainly though complaints on forums and web sites like 'My Crappy Larson' at We agree. Nowhere else can information be rounded up and transmitted so rapidly and made available to such a wide audience. But it has also led to a higher level of wariness by first time boaters that have cruised the forums and have heard the horror stories of first time buyers who have gotten burned.

So what to do? Well, our first recommendation is one that won't sit too well with many first time buyers who are intent on purchasing a new boat. That's because our suggestion is to buy a used one. Yes, an used boat.

Oh, we've heard the arguments about buying someone else's troubles a hundred times over. But since when don't new boats have problems? How many times does the typical new boat owner have to lug his boat back to the dealer for warranty work? Much too often, if our experience is any indicator.

The fact is that there are huge economic and reliability advantages in purchasing a boat that has been pre owned and pre tested, if I may use that term. A boat that has been used for a couple of years has been out there banging around on the waves. If there's anything that's not right, anything that's going to break, it is likely to have already done so. If the deck is going to pop loose from the hull because it was fastened with aluminum rivets, a quick glance at it will surely tell the story.

But the new boat has a warranty, you say? Sure, but how many heart aches do you want to go through seeing to it that the warranty gets properly honored for a brand new boat that clearly has problems?

The economics make even greater sense. Take a cue from larger boat buyers. Over 90% of all boats over 30 feet sold every year are USED BOATS! Ninety percent. And we're talking here boats of up to ten times the value of the typical entry level runabout. Take it from the more experienced boat owners who know value when they see it; used boats are a tremendous value. Let me explain why.

Let's say that the new twin outboard, twenty foot runabout you're looking at can be had for $40,000 straight out of the box. A comparable model that's four years old sells for $20,000. That's a  whopping $20,000 difference. And for whatever may be wrong with the used one, that twenty thousand will cover the cost of repair of any problems many times over. And the higher the price, the greater the new/used price spread is going to be.

And keep in mind that part of what you are paying for with a new boat is the fancy dealer show room, as well as his profit.

What greater inducement can be offered a first time buyer? And even if your purchase does turn out to be a mistake, it will be a mistake that only costs about half as much.

Outboard -vs- Stern Drive  Many people still aren't clear on this point, yet getting the right criteria to make a decision is simple.

If a boat is to be left afloat in sea water, outboards are the best option. Why? Because outboards can be lifted up out of the water; stern drives can't.

Stern drives are fine for fresh water and those who keep their boats in dry storage.

Closed -vs- Raw Water Cooling Systems   This applies to any type of inboard power. This choice is also a simple one.

If you're operating in sea water, the closed cooling system should be considered mandatory. Sea water does the same thing to your engine as salt on the roads in winter does to your car. And sometimes the corrosion damage occurs very, very quickly.

If you're operating in fresh water, you do not need a closed cooling system and there's no point in paying the extra cost.

Does this apply to outboards? No. The outboard motor sits vertically on the drive unit. When the engine stops, all the cooling water runs out by means of gravity, so internal corrosion is not the same problem as it is with inboard/stern drives without closed cooling systems.

Brands When it comes to quality and separating the wheat from the chaff, this is not an easy task. Asking others is one way to get information. Try taking a trip to the local marina or launching ramp on Saturday and start asking questions. But beware that most boat owners take boat ownership personally. Many are reluctant to admit that the boat they own is not all that it should be. If a guy says that his boat is the greatest thing on the water, he may not be giving you the whole story. Assuming he knows the whole story. Not many people are willing to admit to making a mistake.

Conversely, a guy who says his boat is a pile of junk is probably so irritated with the thing that he'll probably be glad to show or tell you exactly why. So take him up on it. Or at least ask a few pointed questions. The unhappy owner is usually a better source of accurate information. On the other hand, if the owner can give you some very specific reasons why he likes his boat, by all means listen to him.

Price is the other major part of the equation. Generally speaking, repeat, generally speaking, higher prices indicate  higher quality. The problem is that with a new boat, it's tough to prove that claims to higher quality are really valid until the boat has been put to the test.

So once again we come full circle to fact that the used boat usually represents the better buy. It's been put to the test, so that if it does have problems, at least you have the opportunity to discover those problems by getting it surveyed.

What about the 'experts'? Could you hire a surveyor to advise you? When it comes to small boats, probably not. The fact is that there's no money in small boats for surveyors, so there are probably very few that would even try to specialize in building a wealth of information about small boats. Besides, there are too many of them.

The bottom line is, whether you buy new or used, that when making that first boat purchase, there is some risk involved. Keep in mind that boat builders are very, very small companies, not the likes of a General Motors or Honda with billions of dollars in resources. Boat builders come and go with considerable frequency. Some aren't very good with, or even have the ability to give good warranty service. Hence, that fabulous warranty the salesman touts may have a different basis in reality.

Therefore, the element of risk isn't all that great between buying a new boat or used. Of course, we'd recommend that you get any used boat you buy surveyed first. That will cut the element of risk right down to size.

In Part I, we discussed the relative merits of buying a new versus a used boat. In this segment we'll take a look at the basics of trying to decide exactly what type, style and shape of boat that you think you need, versus what may actually best fit you purposes.

Part I Outboard -vs- Stern Drive
- Closed -vs- Raw Water Cooling Systems
- Brands

Part II -Style
- Size-vs-Quality
- Luxury-vs-Utility
- Your Situation
- Where You Use Your Boat

Part III By Owner or Dealer
- Appraisals
- Financing
- Warranties
- Deposits
- Titles
- Trailers

As a newcomer to boating, it's tough to make intelligent choices mainly because you don't have enough experience. That often leads to the situation in which the boat you think you want ends up not really fulfilling your needs. Of course, if you've got the money to spend, that won't make much difference. You just go out and buy another one. I'm addressing here primarily those who can't afford to make a first time mistake.

This is one of the reasons why I recommended an used boat as a good first choice. If your decision is a wrong one, the amount of money invested is far less. But let's say that you're determined to buy a brand, spanking new boat.

Style  The style or design of the boat is important only insofar as that affects the practical use of the boat. As we pointed out in our Bubble Boats article, there are a lot of boats out there with the latest in new styling that may leave a lot to be desired in terms of both ergonomics and safety. A newcomer isn't likely to understand that a boat with heavily rounded fore deck can be downright dangerous. But an experienced boater knows only too well that if you can't move around on it without fear of falling on your head, or overboard, fancy styling can be as worthless as wings on an elephant.

Style also seriously affects ergonomics. Ergonomics is the study of how manufactured products relate to the movement of the human body, the intent being to create more user friendly products. When it comes to boats, ergonomics is often badly overlooked, and many boats, particularly small ones, are anything but user friendly. We've seen some incredible examples of this lately involving boats with so much upholstered seating that the only place to walk around in the boat was ON the seating. Sure, the boats looked wonderful in the pictures. But the reality was that to use the boat, you had to walk on the furniture. Pretty, yes. Practical, no.

Size -vs- Quality This, in my view, is the most important issue of all. It's human nature that we all want the biggest item for the money. After all, we have been talking about ergonomics here, and that means adequate space to move around in. But as with everything in life, more space = more money. And lots more.

Builders and designers know that the way to attract your interest is to give you as much space as possible. They also know that to do that, they have to drastically cut costs somewhere in order to give you more space for your money. In other words, builders are always attempting to give you more space for basically the same amount of money. Unfortunately, this works against our desire for decent quality, as they have to use cheaper materials and construction methods to give you that larger space for less money.

Luxury -vs- Utility  Builders also know that people are constantly demanding greater and greater luxury in their boats. Naturally, more luxury costs more money. So, again, somehow, someway, the builder has to find a way to rob Peter to pay Paul. The more fancy interiors, the more high tech gizmos and gilhickeys boaters want, the more these things drive up the price.

So where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you with same conundrum that even experienced boaters find themselves grappling with. The age old question of quality and durability versusshall we say, pizzazz! It's a question of utility and practicality set against the lust for luxury.

Your Situation   Now, if you live on a river or lake front property and have your own boathouse, you won't find yourself with much of a problem there because you can store your fancy new boat in your boathouse at little additional cost. But since few of us live under those ideal conditions, we need to first decide where we are going to keep the boat, and how we are going to use it.

A lot of boats in the stern drive category are just fine for those that have inside storage facilities available. All that upholstered luxury will do just fine if it's only exposed to the weather on the occasions that you use it. But it's another story again for the boater who's going to keep his boat floating at a marina where it's exposed to weather all the time. Here's where a boat that's a bit more Spartan and utilitarian will benefit the owner.

Where You Use Your Boat   We can draw a general rule of thumb that the more luxurious the boat, the less likely it's suitable for rougher water environments. It's pretty easy to draw distinctions between those boats that are designed for partying and day tripping, as opposed to those that are intended to get more vigorous use. You probably already know about boats intended for rougher waters have deeper vee hulls. And you've probably noticed that there's a huge gap in the market between the more rugged sport fishing boat types and the so-called 'family cruiser' or runabout.

Is there any good meld between the two? Hmmm, not that I know of, which is why I said there was a huge gap here. Which boils down to the problem of making a more difficult decision between the elements of size, shape, luxury, practicality and performance. The problem being that if you are in a place like San Francisco Bay where the wind seems to be always blowing, buying a luxury boat with a flat bottom doesn't make much sense. No more sense than buying an upholstered cocktail barge and letting it sit outside in the Florida sun for 12 months per year.

Yes, making these kinds of decisions is difficult because, in all probability, your desires are going to clash with your as yet unrecognized needs. Yes, those four color boat brochures look wonderful. But are they really? What I've discussed to this point are some of the major mistakes that first-time buyers make. They become overwhelmed by the sheer good looks of the boat, while forgetting about the more practical realities.

If you are interested in avoiding these mistakes, you need to carefully consider the points of how and where you use the boat, as well as the storage situation when it's not in use. Buying a luxurious gadabout will be fine for those who live in more ideal locations where the waters are protected or calm most of the time. They're fine for those who have inside storage available, particularly for those who will not use their boats frequently.

Next, you should consider the utility value. Here's where style and practicality often cross swords, regardless of the size of boat you're talking about. For example, a boat with a cockpit filled with luxurious seating arrangements isn't going to be much good for extended cruising or other water sports. Can't you just see it now as your guest plops down his scuba gear or water skis on that sparkling white cockpit upholstery? Or what about when he or she heads down below dripping salt water wet after just having crawled out of the ocean? On your beautiful white cabin carpeting, that is.

If you're into nothing but the heavy social scene, these kinds of boats are fine. But if you and your friends are more heavily into outdoor activities, plopping down into that finely upholstered seating while dripping wet with sweat is not so fine.

Neither is heading out in rougher waters when all those finer delicacies of luxury are subjected to walls of spray cascading off the bow, and everything inside the boat getting bashed around and frequently flying through the void spaces, only to crash against some unfortunate delicacy.

Ultimately, if your investment in a boat means anything to you, you need to consider how you use the boat carefully. Choose one where the durability of its appointments matches your lifestyle.

In Part II, we made the recommendation that an used boat offers excellent value and good prospects for reliability. But how old of a boat? And how do you go about completing a deal?

Part I Outboard -vs- Stern Drive
- Closed -vs- Raw Water Cooling Systems
- Brands

Part II -Style
- Size-vs-Quality
- Luxury-vs-Utility
- Your Situation
- Where You Use Your Boat

Part III By Owner or Dealer
- Appraisals
- Financing
- Warranties
- Deposits
- Titles
- Trailers

Our experience indicates that boats in the 2-4 year old range usually offer the best prospects. Of course, boats that are only one year old are hard to find since not many people sell at that age. Secondly, you have to ask yourself why would someone get rid of a boat that is only a year old? The reason could be financial distress, but you also have to wonder if they're getting rid of it because it is a turkey.

This is a common problem with cars, and one of the primary reasons why the owner of a year old car decides to get rid of it-- usually because it has had a train of problems that just wouldn't quit, so he decides to dump it. I should know, because I'm the proud owner of just such a vehicle.

Therefore, my suggestion is to look in the two to four year old range, particularly since prices will drop dramatically at this age. Whereas the seller of a year old boat is still thinking about the high balance on his loan and may be trying to recover that amount when the boat is not really worth that.

By Owner or Dealer  The better deals are to be found through direct owner sales. Yes, it may be easier to buy through a dealer because they will handle everything, but you are going to pay for that service in terms of higher prices  and probably higher financing charges.

Making a direct purchase from an owner is usually a simple and reasonably painless process if you follow these steps:

Appraisals  As much as I dislike used boat price guides, the fact is that these books usually determine the amount a lender will finance, so you'd best check the book value first. Rest assured that these books do no always accurately reflect the actual selling prices of boats. The way to get a good handle on prices is to clip ads and search the Internet. Make a list all similar boats you can find, noting their power and other options, plus the asking price. I usually do this on a legal pad. Then I deduct 10% to 15% of the asking price to get an idea of what I think it will really sell for. To calculate an average price, be sure to throw out prices that are unusually high or low, as these will skew the average.

For a boat in the $10k to $20K range, the deduction amount is 10%. For boats over $30k the actual selling will be closer to 15% less, so use that amount. For boats under $5K the amount will be around 5%. This is based on the fact that the lower the amount, the more people tend to set the price at what they actually intend to sell for. The higher the price, the bigger their dreams.

Financing  Before boat shopping, it's best to get your line of credit set up first. Know what your lender is going to limit you to in advance. When dealing with private sellers, it's best to streamline the process as  much as possible. When making a purchase of over $10K, we recommend that you create a purchase agreement. A standardized form is not necessary, You  type one up yourself, or even hand write one. It's every bit as legal as a printed version. What should it include? All the things that you agree upon with the seller, including the price, any conditions of sale, and most importantly, the date on which the sale must be closed by. If you're going to have the boat surveyed -- and you should-- then that should be included too, as 'Subject to survey'.

Will the sale be 'as is' or does the seller agree to fix anything that is wrong? Include this also.

Warranties  Check on whether there is a warranty and whether it is transferable. Get a copy from the seller and read it. If the boat is being brokered or sold by a Dealer, DO NOT TAKE THE DEALER'S WORD ABOUT WARRANTIES. Read it yourself, as dull as that may be.

Deposits  The owner has a right to ask for a cash deposit at the time you sign a purchase agreement.10% is customary from dealers and brokers, but direct sellers usually ask for less. Include the deposit amount in the sales agreement, and the fact that it will be refunded should serious problems crop up from the survey.

Titles  You should never buy a boat that doesn't have a title. NEVER. If the boat doesn't have one, look for another boat. Look at the title before you make a cash deposit. In most states you can verify the title though the appropriate titling agency with just a phone call, so be sure to record the title number and owner name and address. You want to be on the lookout for things like multiple owners, such as husband and wife. It's a good idea to check on whether the seller is in the middle of a divorce and that the  spouse will sign off on the title. Sometimes there is a property dispute and you don't want to get caught up in that.

Trailers  The same applies here. These are titled and licensed vehicles so you will want to make sure that all is in order with its title.

The Hull-to-Deck Joint

A Critical Look at
This Often Under-rated Element of Boat Quality

by David Pascoe

Have you ever looked at boat in which the interior was full of mildew, or all the cabinets and storage areas had rust stains from rusty tools, canned food and so on? Or the rub rails were all dented with screws popping out or missing, with extensive stress cracking along the toe rails? Or you look up under the forward cabin berths and find puddles of water, water stains and loads of mildew. Or perhaps the liners on the sides of the hull are full of water stains.

If you have, then most likely you've witnessed the effects on a boat that has a leaking hull-to-deck joint. Unfortunately, a lot of boat builders give the manner in which the deck is attached to the hull short shrift because it is quite time-consuming to create a deck joint that is both strong and water tight. 

That very large numbers of boats, both large and small, power and sail, have inferior deck joints is probably the result of the fact that the effects of a weak joint don't start showing up until the boat is getting on in years. Here's why:

Most decks are simply attached by means of screws. The deck creates a simple vertical lap joint that fits over the hull much like a shoe box lid. Then they squirt some caulking up in the gap and then just run screws through the two parts, as shown in the illustration below. With a little study of this illustration, it's not hard to see how and why this might become a problem. Fiberglass is just that, silicon glass in the form of fibers set in a matrix of plastic resin. Unfortunately, both these materials are somewhat brittle.

This section view more clearly illustrates why simply screwing a deck onto a hull is not acceptable.

You can imagine what would happen if you tried to drill a hole in a plate glass window and run a screw into it. Well, a laminate of plastic and glass fibers is not a whole lot better in terms of supporting a screw that is subject to impacts and heavy loads, as a deck joint surely is.

It should be readily apparent what happens when the side of the boat bumps up against a piling with even a moderate impact: the threaded screw is going to break right out of the self-tapped threads that is made in the very thin deck and hull side lap. But that's not what happened with the two year old Silverton boat shown in the next photo below. In this boat, the screws in the rub rail, which also hold the deck joint together, have backed out all the way around the bow in places that are not normally subject to impacts. This occurred with about 80% of all the deck joint screws. The only area spared was the transom.

To understand how this could happen, consider what happens when the bottom of the hull slams hard. That impact loading is transmitted right up the hull sides to the deck joint. You can see from the illustration above that this causes the hull side to shear against the screw joint. With repeated shearing loads, this causes the screw hole to elongate and the screws to back out. No amount of caulking is going to cause the deck and hull to hold together, so ultimately the boat starts leaking badly. Which explains how you end up with cabinets that get wet inside, and no one seems to be able to figure out why so much mildew is forming inside. It's all because the builder took the cheap way out and just screwed the hull and deck together. For as effective as that is, the builder might just as well have used a nail gun or Scotch Tape.

Of course, this is only part of the problem that results from this inferior method of attachment. The other is that every time the boat bumps a piling with this deck joint that is no longer securely fastened to the hull, and being that much weaker, every succeeding impact causes more damage. Soon, the rub rails start denting and the toe rail starts cracking from the excessive amount of flexing that is now occurring, all because the structure is progressively weakening.

The next thing you know, the rub rail is falling off. But this never gets fixed properly because the cost is very high, and no one wants to foot that bill. So the unfortunate owner of this boat asks his local boat yard to fix it as cheaply as possible -which is no fix at all - and so the condition year after year gradually worsens. And so does the damage to the interior from all the leakage that continues to occur.

Little by slowly, that nice, shiny, but still quite expensive new boat transitions to an old, beaten up, worn out boat, in a number of years that is far too short, meaning that most likely some mortgage payments still remain.

Could a picture be any more convincing than this one? Notice how every screw is backed out. A couple have fallen out completely.

So how do you avoid getting stuck with a tar baby like this? By looking very closely at how the boat is put together. On most boats you'll be able to get a look at the deck joint in the area of the rope locker or somewhere aft near the transom. But if you don't look, you aren't going to know.

Oh, I know, people have been arguing with me for years about my insistence that decks need a better means of attachment than merely screwing them together. Builders argue that this works just fine. Sure, and how many members of this debating society ever bother to take a look at what happens to their deck joints years later. And, of course, any time there is a problem, they'll blame it on the boat owner for abusing his boat. As if a boat is never supposed to touch a piling. In fact, many boat owners are so conditioned to handle their boats this way because they know that the slightest bump is going to cause damage.

Like the painted, plastic bumpers of cars, you don't dare touch anything with them.

This is typical of the kind of interior
damage that occurs from leaking deck

How should a deck be attached? Well, there are different methods with differing degrees of success. The most effective is to laminate over the joint, commonly called a 'glassed joint.' This not only strengthens the joint, but helps prevent leakage, even after impacts occur. Another effective way is to bolt the deck on, but almost no production builder will do this. That takes two people, instead of one person with a screw gun. A method that a few builders use is to use a wood backing strip glued onto the inside of the deck molding. This provides yet a third member into which the screw is set. Its effect is to act as a clamp, thereby relieving some of the stress on the fiberglass surrounding the screw.

This later method does not, however, prevent leakage, for the glass will still breakdown around the screw hole. However, the potential amount of leakage is much less, usually on the order of drips rather that running streams of water as will happen with a deck joint that has become completely separated.

We would point out that there is no excuse for a builder not at least adopting the later method since it involves very little in the way of extra time and material.

When talking about the quality of a boat, this is one of those hidden factors that makes a world of difference. Be sure not to overlook it.

Politica de confidentialitate



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