How to Start a Boat Cleaning Business

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Quick Reference

If you have a passion for boating, then you already know the kind of work that goes into maintaining a single small boat. If you’ve cleaned a boat, you’ve seen how time-consuming and physically demanding the task can be. Starting a boat cleaning business of your own can let you put your experience and talents to good use, helping other boat owners to maintain their vessels and keeping boats looking great. This can be a rewarding career opportunity and gives you the chance to build a business all your own.

Business Overview

Boats spend much of the year immersed in water, leading to barnacle and algae growth, mildew, salt corrosion, and other issues. Regular cleaning can help to not only keep boats looking great but is also essential to their protection and maintenance but cleaning a boat is a big job. Boat cleaning businesses offer everything from hull cleaning to waxing to interior cleaning and polishing, too. They’re a convenient option for boat owners who don’t have the time to maintain their boats as needed.

In addition to general cleaning services, some businesses provide more in-depth boat detailing services. These services may consist of polishing metal, conditioning vinyl, and polishing the boat’s exterior, too. Boat cleaners are mobile operations that travel to where the boat is located, so they commonly work in marinas and travel to private docks.

Industry Summary

While statistics referring specifically to boat cleaning aren’t available, details about boat ownership provide insight into the boat cleaning industry’s potential. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the recreational boating industry experienced a seven-year climb through 2018. Powerboat sales reached approximately 280,000 unit sales in 2018 alone, and that climb is predicted to continue in the coming year. The increase in recreational boat ownership is due to economic growth and increased consumer confidence. Consumers also sought out a way to spend more time with friends and family. Additionally, marine manufacturers have recently focused on offering products at various price points, making watersports more accessible to new buyers.

The result has been that more people are buying boats, and boat sales across all categories increased in 2018. Freshwater fishing boat sales increased by 2 to 4%, while personal watercraft sales grew by 6 to 8%. Pontoon sales increased by 4 to 6%, and cruiser boats between 22 and 32 feet also saw sales of 2 to 4% higher.

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Industry Trends

According to Linchpin SEO and the growth in boat sales, the boat rental industry is also growing, indicating another potential market for boat cleaning businesses. Rentals are predicted to continue growing through 2026, which means rental businesses will have more boats to maintain and clean. Direct-to-consumer rentals are currently undergoing the strongest growth.

The average age of boating participants has always been around middle-age, but that age is gradually increasing. Younger people are pursuing other activities, so the current median age of boaters is over 50 years. This trend will likely continue to increase, and older boaters are more likely to invest in boat cleaning, so they don’t have to do that task themselves.

Boats have gradually become more affordable, so they’re becoming more family-oriented. This increased affordability is due to improved engine technology and manufacturing efficiency. While some boats are now available at lower prices, boat sales still average $146,904 per boat. This figure does include expensive vessels like yachts, so that figure may be skewed somewhat high. Still, boat ownership requires plenty of disposable income, which means that many boat owners will want to invest in their purchases and likely afford boat cleaning services.

Target Market

A boat cleaning business will target boat owners, who are often just over 50 years old. A business may have a more specific target market, though. Some businesses may specialize in smaller motorboats and sailboats, while others may specialize in yachts and other luxury craft. In most cases, a boat cleaning business will need to market to boat owners who have plenty of disposable income and who either don’t have the time or capability to clean their boats or who want to invest in their boats with a regular, thorough cleaning.

Skills, Experience, and Education

Starting a boat cleaning business doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experiences can increase the chances of the business being a success.

Knowledge of boats and the boating industry. A background in the boating industry helps a business owner work around boats intelligently and safely. An experienced boater may also have an existing network of connections to help build the business.

Boat cleaning experience. Experience cleaning and maintaining boats is a must. If a business owner doesn’t have this experience, they’ll need to learn from someone who can educate them on proper products and techniques to use on different types of boats.

Knowledge of cleaning chemicals and safety. Boat cleaning products contain different chemicals, and using the wrong product on the wrong surface can damage a boat. A business owner will need to know which products to use and how to use them properly.

Attention to detail. An eye for detail is a must and will help a business owner ensure they do a quality, thorough cleaning job.

Customer service skills. Running a boat cleaning business involves frequently working with customers, so strong customer service skills are important.

Networking skills. A business owner who has strong networking skills will be able to build up the business and make important connections with dock owners and more.

Cost to Start a Boat Detailing Business

Startup costs for a boat cleaning business are minimal because this type of business doesn’t require a workshop or significant equipment investments. Plan to spend about $2,500 to $10,000 purchasing cleaning supplies and equipment. If you don’t have access to a vehicle that you can use as your business vehicle, this will need to be one of your business investments.

Common startup costs for a boat cleaning business include:

  • Cleaning supplies such as vinyl detergent, wood polish, glass cleaner
  • Cleaning equipment such as a vacuum, steam cleaner, brushes, mop, and towels
  • Business van or truck and trailer
  • Promotional materials, like business cards and brochures
  • Signage

Steps to Starting a Boat Cleaning Business

Step 1: Write a Business Plan

After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a business plan. Having a business plan will force you to focus on important aspects of the business like who is your target market and why will they choose your service, marketing strategy to let potential customers you are open, projected sales and expenses, and lots more.

Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.

How to write a business plan
Free sample business plans

Step 2: Name the Business

Finding the perfect boat cleaning service business name can be challenging. Not only does the name have to resonate with your customers, but it also has to be available to use.

Related: Tips and ideas for naming a boat detailing business

Step 3: Form a Business Entity

A business entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from, which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and Limited Liability Company (LLC). Each type of entity has its own pros and cons, such as liability exposure, costs, and administrative requirements.

Related: Comparison of Business Entities

Step 4: Select your Location

Most boat cleaning businesses can be run out of a home garage or basement, which is used primarily to store cleaning products and equipment. If a business expands to become a multi-vehicle business with staff, it may be necessary to rent a garage or storage space. Rental costs will depend on the size, location, and amenities available at the space.

Related: Choosing a business location

Step 5: Apply for Business Licenses and Permits

A boat cleaning business owner will need to obtain certain business licenses and permits. These permits and licenses can vary based on the state and town where the business is located.

Some of the common local, state, and federal registrations a boat cleaning business may need to include a sales tax permit and Employer Identification Number, among others.

Related: Common business licenses, permits, and registrations by state

Step 6: Find Financing

Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a boat cleaning business is another. To get a loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs.

Related: Finding the money to start a business

Step 7: Open a Business Bank Account

Keeping your business and personal finances in separate business bank and credit card accounts makes it easier to track the business’s income and expenses.

Step 8. Get your Marketing Plan in Place

Effective marketing will help a boat cleaning business to develop a large clientele and a full schedule. Common marketing techniques include social media marketing, print advertising, online advertising, and handing out flyers and brochures at local marinas, yacht clubs, and boat brokers. Networking also plays an important role in marketing a boat cleaning business as it generates word of mouth awareness. Marketing costs will vary depending on the type of activity performed.

Related: Low-cost ideas to market a new business

Step 9: Get Insurance

A boat cleaning business will need several types of insurance for full coverage:

  • General liability insurance will help protect the business against damages it could face if a client is ever injured or their boat is ever damaged due to the business’ actions.
  • Commercial property insurance helps cover expenses that the business might face if its equipment or supplies were damaged in an event like a fire.
  • Workman’s comp insurance protects the business against expenses like medical bills and legal fees it might face if an employee were ever hurt while on the job.
  • Commercial auto insurance covers the business-owned vehicle and protects the business from expenses that it could face if the vehicle is ever involved in an accident.

The cost of insurance will vary depending on the business’ location, the value of the boats that it works on, and even the number of employees on staff. To get the most accurate idea of what to budget for insurance, request quotes from multiple providers. When comparing the quotes, look beyond the difference between premiums and consider other factors, like the differences between deductibles, policy exclusions, and policy coverage limits. Keep in mind that if you’re working on highly valuable boats, like yachts, you may need coverage limits beyond standard coverage, and that can increase the price of a policy.

Related: Common types of insurance a business may need

Step 10: Hiring Employees

Most boat cleaning business owners can manage their businesses without staff, at least initially. As the business grows, it may be time to hire an employee or two. According to ZipRecruiter, boat cleaners earn an average of $28,053 per year, though salaries can range from $17,500 to $50,00 per year.

Salaries are just one expense that comes with hiring employees. A business’ budget will need to include workman’s comp insurance, unemployment insurance, and paid time off in addition to salaries.

Related: Hiring your first employee

Step 11: Set up an Accounting System

Setting up an accounting system for your boat detailing business is critical to your small business’s long-term success.

Staying on top of taxes not only keeps the business out of trouble with the government, but the numbers can be used to track and monitor trends and cash flow in the business and maximize profits.

Related: Setting up accounting for your business

How much can you potentially make owning a boat cleaning business?

Cleaning boats can be a profitable venture, but many factors will affect the profits that a business sees. Special offerings, like boat detailing services and winterizing services, can command higher prices and bring in more income from current customers. Other factors like a business’s location, reputation, profit margins, and years in business will also affect its profits.

Things to consider before starting a boat cleaning business

Boat cleaning is a seasonal business unless you’re located in an area like Florida or Southern California. Consider complimentary services that you can offer, like winterization and spring cleaning, to get more frequent business from your existing clients.

Pricing is generally better received when there are packages instead of an hourly rate, as potential customers may think you will be slow to generate more billable hours. Stick with two or three packages and then charge extra for additional services, such as hull detailing.

Building a strong reputation is also essential in this industry. Word travels quickly through local marinas, so if a business does a great job cleaning boats, other boat owners will quickly learn of that. The opposite is also true, so focus on providing great customer service and going above and beyond with every job.


American Boating Association
Boat Owner’s Association of the United States
BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water
Clean Marina
International Detailing Association

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