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When Life Hands You Lemons

Here's what to do when your boat — or any of the good stuff that comes with it — doesn't work as advertised.

Dollar sign floating in life preserver

Photo: Getty Images/Rawf8

A couple of years ago my husband and I had a brand-new depth sounder suddenly stop working on our 35-footer. After spending hours on hold with the manufacturer, I was told there was nothing they could do about it as we were out of state. Without another recourse, we had to haul the boat and buy another transducer. The experience left a sour taste. If you find yourself in the same spot, here are some steps you can take if something breaks or doesn't work properly, and you feel the problem is with the product, not with the user.

Know Your Legal Rights

If you've ever purchased a new boat, only to discover there's something irretrievably wrong with it, you may have thought, "I've got a lemon." We've all heard about lemon laws, but what most people don't know is that state lemon laws typically don't cover boats.

State lemon laws are often limited to cars, SUVs, and trucks, and vary by state. Boats fall under the Federal Warranty Law (aka Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act), passed by Congress in 1975, the federal law governing consumer product warranties. The act requires manufacturers of consumer products to clearly describe the terms of a warranty and make that information easily accessible to the consumer. There are two kinds of warranties: express, which is clearly stated, often in writing; and implied, which is usually in the absence of an express warranty and means a product should work.

When a product doesn't work, the first step is to look at the warranty from the manufacturer. The warranty has the terms and conditions and describes how to get help. It's a promise or guarantee from the manufacturer to the consumer, and as such are governed by general contract law. In the case of a dispute, warranties are typically enforced according to their terms.

If a new product doesn't come with a warranty, it's usually covered by an implied warranty under state law. All states, with the exception of Louisiana, have enacted Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Under UCC, sellers, by default, provide buyers of goods with implied warranties, such as warranties of merchantability and fitness.

A warranty of merchantability means the seller promises that the product will do what it's supposed to do — for instance, that a 65-hp outboard will run. A warranty of fitness applies when you buy a product on the seller's advice that it's suitable for a particular use — for instance, that a wakeboat is powerful enough to enable a person to surf behind the boat.

Implied warranties can last as long as four years, though coverage varies from state to state. (California, for example, limits implied warranties to one year.) If problems arise that are not covered by your written warranty, you can always investigate what protections you may have under your implied warranty. Note that implied warranties are typically much harder for consumers to enforce.

Additionally, many states have other consumer protection laws, which specifically address warranties in general, or even boat and boat-part warranties in particular. For example, Louisiana's "lemon law" for motor vehicle warranties applies to personal watercraft.

How To Exercise Your Consumer Rights

There are several critical steps that are the boat owner's responsibility, which will improve your odds of a successful resolution. Importantly, you have to create a legitimate paper (or digital) trail.

1. Act quickly. The longer you take to contact a company's customer service, the worse it looks. Also, problems tend to compound over time. By simply reporting an issue while under warranty, you'll have an opportunity for remediation even after the warranty has expired. If you have a problem but the product is a year out of warranty, technically the company is still supposed to solve the problem, but only if the same problem was first reported while under warranty.

2. Document, document, document. When you have a problem, immediately write a letter or email to the company. Don't call. Putting your complaints in written form formalizes your outreach, and the date, proving that you asked for help while the product was under warranty. Send an email, even if it's just a small problem, because it could later become a larger problem. In addition, keep all repair invoices and maintain a written log of the problems, recording pertinent details like fuel consumption, handling ability, and so on. Also keep a log of all of your communications, including phone calls. You'll be glad you did if you need to escalate later. Remember, when getting a problem repaired, usually the only way to get reimbursed later from the manufacturer is if you use a repair yard or company certified by the manufacturer.

3. Don't threaten to sue or post your complaint on social media. Avoid saying you're going to get a lawyer or go online and tell everyone you know. That shuts down your lines of communication. Instead, document everything.

4. Go out and use the product. Often people will discover that the boat or product had a problem after the warranty expired but they hadn't fully tested it prior. Be sure to use all the capabilities of a product and test it while it's new. This will help catch any issues while the product is under warranty. This is also good advice after a repair that comes with a warranty. If you wait too long to test the repair, the warranty may have expired.

So, what should we do the next time life gives us lemons (or a problematic transducer)? I won't make lemonade. I'll ask life to take the lemons back and send an email to life's customer-service manager. If I get no answer, I'll send it again, and copy the owner or president of the company who made the product. And hopefully, they'll make it right.

Full Vs. Limited Warranties

Not all warranties are created equal. Federal Warranty Law (i.e., the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act) requires companies to title their written warranties as either "full" or "limited." Here's what to expect with a full warranty:

  • Implied warranties last up to four years.
  • Warranty service is typically provided to the original owner. In the case of a sale, usually one has to do a formal transfer procedure, and there's usually a fee for the transfer.
  • Warranty service provided free of charge. Nearly all warranties specify the product must be sent back or taken to a servicing location. Consumers are almost always responsible for transportation.
  • Either a replacement or a full refund is provided (consumer's choice) if after a reasonable number of tries, the warrantor is unable to repair the product. If any of the conditions above are not offered, the warranty is considered "limited." Most marine warranties are limited, which means that manufacturers can apply selective conditions to coverage. This is why it's a good idea to read your warranties.

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Fiona McGlynn

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

BoatUS Magazine contributing editor Fiona McGlynn and her husband sailed their 35-footer trans-Pacific for two years. Now living north of 59, she’s part of their local search and rescue team and edits, a millennial boating website.