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What They Don't Have To Tell You

19 insider tips on buying boats, engines, warranties, service contracts, working with brokers and private sellers, and what's never covered.

Boat for sale

Negotiating the boat-buying process can be a minefield — unless you know the right questions to ask. (Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore)

BoatUS Consumer Affairs has learned a thing or two over 26 years of helping our Members be smarter boat owners. Here are tips we compiled to help you save money, ease frustration, and be prepared when you visit a dealer, repair shop, or buy a boating-related product.

New boats may have older model outboard engines. If you're shopping for a new outboard-powered boat, the engine may not be the same model year as the boat. The U.S. Coast Guard has no model-year regulations for outboard engines, making it harder for you to determine the year in which they were built. In the mid-2000s, most engine manufacturers stopped designating model years for their outboard engines. Outboard manufacturers say that until they make a significant change to an engine, the year it was built is irrelevant. And while that's true, buyers are concerned they don't know if they're getting the newest technology. After discontinuing model years, engine manufacturers replaced the model-year designator on the engine's serial number with a code that signifies an "era" in which all engines are supposed to be the same, with similar upgrades. 

HINs don't lie. Check the Hull Identification Number (HIN) on any boat you consider buying (new or used) to make sure that the age of the boat is correct. The last two digits indicate the boat's model year.

Service contracts (extended warranties) are big profit centers for dealers. Factory-backed plans (Mercury, Yamaha, and so on) typically offer more coverage and oversight. But many dealers offer contracts through a company you've never heard of. Some of these contract plans administered by independent companies allow retailers to mark up contracts more than 100% over the actual cost they pay to the service-contract company. Know the distinction, and remember that service contract prices are a negotiable part of the sale.

Boat brokers are not regulated like real estate agents. Only Florida and California brokers have to be licensed, and only California requires an exam. Elsewhere, anyone can call him-or herself a broker. One way to increase your chances of finding a good broker is to look for a Certified Professional Yacht Broker (CPYB). These brokers are members of the Yacht Brokers Association of America (YBAA), have taken a comprehensive exam, have pledged to abide by a code of ethics, and will work with our BoatUS Dispute Resolution Program.

The end of a warranty is the end — unless it's not. Boat and engine warranties typically expire after a calendar period or a specific number of hours of use. But if your engine has a problem a week after your warranty expires, there's a decent chance the manufacturer may still help as a goodwill gesture. If you ask and are turned down, contact us and we'll see if we can get them to budge. But don't expect help months after expiration.

You can't avoid depreciation, even on an older new boat. You may be able to save a bundle buying a new boat that's one or two model years old, but it will depreciate to its model year value and have the same value as a used one- or two-year-old boat.

Manufacturers can't force you to use their dealers for routine service on your new boat. They also can't force you to use their brands of lubricants or parts. But if you use an independent shop or do your own work, keep careful notes about what you did, and keep all receipts. Don't scrimp on the quality of the lube or parts, and closely follow any manufacturer recommendations outlined in the manual. For warranty repair work, you do have to visit an authorized dealer.

How many horsepower? Engine horsepower is allowed to vary by as much as 10% either way. Disappointed or thrilled with your engine's performance? Your 200-hp outboard could be making 180 or 220 hp.

A hull warranty is just that — it covers only the hull. A hull warranty is usually defined as the fiberglass shell, including transom, stringers, and related structural reinforcements, which are below the hull-to-deck joint. That means the deck is typically not part of the warranty. Also, hull warranties often include limited coverage for blisters and none for gelcoat crazing.

Some warranties can be transferred. But not all of them. And even if they can be, there may be a cost or some hoops to jump through. If you buy a boat with a transferable warranty, call the company to find out how to transfer the warranty and call back a few weeks later to verify that it was actually done. You don't want to find out later there was a snag and you have no coverage.

Rust doesn't sleep — and isn't covered. Damage caused by corrosion is almost never covered under warranty — or by insurance.

You may be left in the cold if a manufacturer goes bankrupt. When a new company buys a bankrupt manufacturer, it usually doesn't buy the liabilities, such as outstanding warranties. Often, the new company won't honor the product's warranty, but the better ones will try to maintain customer goodwill.

Easy to insure? If you're buying a boat, don't believe blanket statements that a particular boat is "easy to insure." Each case is different and based on its own merits. Insurance policy decisions include information about the boat as well as the owner. Call your insurance company to get a quote if you're not sure.

A marine survey isn't valid forever. A marine survey is a snapshot in time. An older survey — even only a couple of months old — may not be up to date enough because of something that could have happened to the boat in the meantime. Don't rely on a seller's old survey he got when he bought the boat; get your own.


Download boat purchase agreements and bills of sale here.

When buying a boat, let the seller make repairs. Rather than have a seller discount a boat because of needed repairs, have them fix it using a reputable repair service. It's almost always more expensive than you — or they — think.

Not all upgrades will increase the market value of the vessel. In many cases, what a boat owner thinks is an upgrade that will increase value is normal maintenance. For example, if a boat owner rewires his boat, that's not necessarily an upgrade that will increase value; it is maintenance that will keep the boat current with standards and safety concerns.

Coast Guard regulations don't cover most parts of a boat. Boats have to be built to U.S. Coast Guard standards, but those standards cover only a few things, such as fuel and electrical systems and marine heads. ABYC standards cover many more things. While boats don't have to be built to meet them, yours should be.

The 'lightly used' theory. If a boat has been sitting for two or three years, it almost always will need more work than you think. Boats and engines last longer when they're regularly used, and problems compound when they're idle for long stretches.

Sellers don't always have to disclose problems. Other than a known defect or condition that might render the boat or engine unsafe, there is no obligation for the seller to volunteer information the buyer does not ask for when buying a boat from a private party. Ask the seller if there has been any major damage repaired from collisions or sinking. Use our buyer/seller forms and note what the seller says before you and they sign it.

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Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort is BoatUS Magazine's West Coast Editor. He often writes local news items for BoatUS Magazine's Waypoints column and contributes to Reports, in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He is a member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he's on ABYC tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. He lives in California.