NEW YORK It hits some baby boomers sooner and harder than others, that yearning for a tangible reward for years of sweat and sacrifice: the Big Toy.
For some of us, a nice fishing rod will do. But others want something truly big: a sports car, a boat, even a plane.
Since it's a feeling associated mostly with males, and often those approaching should we say fighting off? middle age, it's often cast as foolishness. And since it involves objects of desire with big price tags, it's seen as financially foolish.
It doesn't have to be.
Many enthusiasts of foreign cars, boats and planes have found ways to indulge themselves without sacrificing the kids' college fund or cashing in the 401(k). With careful planning and selection, they might even be able to call their purchases legitimate investments. Maybe not the best investment, but not the worst one.
And it's not just for the rich.
Consider Ed Brearton of Warwick, R.I., a truck driver who in the mid-1990s got the yen for a small plane. He had a pilot's license and through someone in the aviation business got a line on a 1968 Piper Cherokee with a new engine for a bargain price of $32,000.
That's a lot of money, sure. But what many people don't know is that a quality airplane, like a quality foreign car or fine boat, holds its worth. While the purchase probably will require a loan, it won't necessarily involve a loss.
Case in point: Because the price of new Cherokees has soared, Brearton sold his plane four years later for $15,000 more than what he paid.
"Everyone who owns an airplane, if they keep it in good condition, will get more when they sell it than when they bought it," he said.
Like many Big Toy owners, Brearton quickly discovered that owning something like a plane didn't mean he had time to use it as much as he wanted. He sought out another pilot as a partner, getting half his investment back and also halving the cost of maintaining and insuring the plane and keeping it at a local small airport.
The airport's "tie down" fee was a relatively modest $50 to $60 a month, and insurance was $1,800 a year "which is cheaper than some cars," Brearton said. There are a couple of stiff costs, including the $3,000 annual fee for engine inspection. And after every 2,000 hours of flying time, the engine needs to be replaced, at a cost of about $14,000.
If those kinds of expenses scare you, consider what Joseph Genovesi did: get a 10-year-old Porsche 911 Carrera, enjoy it for four years and then sell it for just $500 less than he paid for it.
Genovesi, 39, a partner in a small New York City real estate company, D.G. Hart Associates, said the price range for the car was the mid-$20,000s. He has owned a series of Big Toys and follows a formula that he says ensures he'll lose little, if any, money: "Buy it used, and buy top quality."
Buying used helps you avoid the depreciation in value that new cars and many planes, boats and other items suffer in their first year. And buying quality helps your Big Toy hold its value and makes it much easier to sell.
"If you're stuck with a toy you can't sell, then it isn't a toy any more," Genovesi observed. "It's an albatross."
John Witmer, who owns AIC Auto Sales Inc., a dealership of fine used cars in Quarryville, Pa., says one reason cars like Porsches are a good investment is they are popular enough to create a competitive market for service and parts. Get too exotic in your choice, he acknowledged, and the price of parts and service can soar.
Porsches made from 1984 to 1989 are considered especially well designed and manufactured. They sell for perhaps $20,000 to $35,000, but Witmer says they might continue to appreciate in value until they sell for the original new model price.
That doesn't take inflation into account, of course, and there's still the cost of insurance and a garage. (You don't want to leave an expensive car out in the rain and dust.) Witmer notes, however, that because insurance companies know Porsche owners baby their cars and customarily use them only on weekends, "they're often pleasantly surprised to find that their premiums are less than any other car."
When Brearton traded in his plane and Genovesi his car, they both replaced them with boats commonly considered a floating money pit. Neither sounds particularly worried.
Brearton bought a new 24-foot Maxim that sleeps six. "I love it. I use it every weekend," he said.
Genovesi's plying Long Island Sound in a 28-foot Grady White outfitted for fishing. He stuck with his formula, buying it used but very well-maintained.
Boat dealer Phil Catalano Jr. of Greenwich, Conn., agrees. He said a new Grady White costing $100,000 will sell used a year later for $80,000 to $85,000, but "then it won't lose its value." The brand has a reputation for good design and low maintenance, and he has a waiting list of customers for used models.
"It takes a lost of the pressure off people who don't know if they're making a mistake," he said.
And who needs an $80,000 mistake?