You've found the boat of your dreams, the price is right, and you've paid the seller. So the boat is yours free and clear — or is it? Well, it isn't until the seller signs over the title or provides other legal proof of ownership.
In states that don't require titling, ask to see the seller's bill of sale from his seller. Other documents that help confirm ownership are insurance policies and boat registration cards. Crosscheck the boat's hull identification number (HIN) against the numbers listed on the seller's records to make sure it's the same boat. Search the boat's title and registration with the state in which the boat is registered. If the boat is federally documented (see below), call the U.S. Coast Guard's documentation division, 800-799-8362, to see if any liens have been recorded.
Don't Forget The Trailer
Most states require boat trailers to be titled and registered separately from boats — which usually means going to two different agencies. Some states may require safety inspections. Each state has it's own trailering laws, too.
Most states require titling, and all states have some form of registration for most boats. Federally documented boats don't get registered with the state, though most states still require some form of use decal and require sales tax to be paid.
What Is Documentation?
Vessel documentation is a national form of titling. Your bank may require your new boat to be documented. If you plan to travel internationally, documentation typically makes customs entry and clearance easier in foreign ports; the document is treated as a form of national registration that clearly identifies the nationality of the vessel.
- TITLE: Required in most states if the boat is not federally documented. Trailers often require their own titles.
- DOCUMENTATION: A national titling system for larger boats that may be required by lenders
- REGISTRATION: Required in all states for most boats, except for federally documented boats
- USE DECAL: Required in most states for boats that are federally documented
To be documented, a boat must measure at least 5 net tons — most boats over 27 feet long will meet this criterion — and must be owned by a U.S. citizen. If the boat you want to buy is documented, ask the seller to complete a U.S. Coast Guard Bill of Sale (CG-1340), a copy of which must be submitted with your application for documentation (CG-1258). Information about documentation and copies of forms are available at the Coast Guard's website or by calling 800-799-8362.
Be aware of third-party documentation services that look like the official Coast Guard documentation site. They operate legally but could cost you many times more than what it does to send in the documentation yourself.
Boat Safely & Competently
With your new boat comes a lot of fun, adventure ... and responsibility. Most states require anyone skippering a boat to complete a boating safety course, and there are many groups that offer courses that meet state requirements. The BoatUS Foundation offers online state-recognized courses in 36 states for free. Additional courses on a wide variety of boating topics are also available.
You'll also need to learn how to properly handle your boat. BoatUS Magazine offers a comprehensive library of boat handling and seamanship videos and articles. Visit BoatUS.com/Expert-Advice to search the archives. Prefer hands-on training? Search for a nearby BoatUS Foundation On-Water Training course, taught by Coast Guard-licensed captains.