Getting The Best Of Repairs

By Caroline Ajootian

Let's be honest, breakdowns and must-do repairs are a matter of when, not if. Being prepared helps, and the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau has tips for making the experience less stressful.

Regardless of how adept you are at routine repairs and maintenance work, the time will come when you need the services of a marine mechanic or carpenter. Don't wait for a breakdown! The best time to find a good technician is before an emergency occurs.

Marine repair tech

If your boat and engine are still covered by the manufacturers' warranties, your local dealer will be your first stop. Even if the problem isn't covered by warranty, it's a good idea to discuss the problem with the dealer because work done by a non-dealer might void the warranty. If warranties aren't an issue, ask boat-owning friends or consult with a local marine surveyor to get recommendations for a carpenter, marine electrician, and engine mechanic. A repair shop with a mobile unit will make life easier if your boat can't be moved from its berth. Talk with the technician beforehand to get an idea of labor rates, travel charges, and other considerations.

When There's A Problem

Your first step should be to prepare a written outline of what needs to be corrected. This will form the basis of your work order when repairs begin. Particularly with engine problems, describe symptoms, rather than making a stab at what's wrong if you're not sure. Next, get several quotes for the job. Written estimates are essential for all high-ticket repairs. Be aware that only a handful of states have vesselrepair laws that require written estimates. Reputable companies will have no problem working with you on this. For complex repairs, such as structural hull work, consult with a marine surveyor and consider having the surveyor serve as a liaison with the repair shop.

Boat repairs can be complicated, so unforeseen obstacles are common. For example, what appears to be a minor leak through the cabin portholes can cause unsuspected rot in wooden structural members. Ask your repair shop how much similar repairs have cost in the past, and what kinds of problems are possible along the way.

Your repair list will become more detailed and may expand as you discuss the project with the shop or mechanic. Be sure the mechanic has a copy of your work order when the project begins.

To keep your sanity and checkbook reasonably intact, keep in mind the following:

  • If your budget is tight, make this clear before the job begins. The shop may be able to suggest ways to complete the project in stages.
  • Get a written estimate before work begins. Even so, an estimate is only an approximation of how much repairs will cost if unforeseen problems crop up later.
  • Ask for a target completion date and write this into your work order.
  • Ask if the repair shop will warrant its work — there's no requirement that they do — and get a clear explanation of what this entails; 30- or 60-day guarantees are the norm and may only cover parts, not labor.
  • When tackling large jobs, boat repair shops often require payments at various stages of the project. Be sure to verify that each stage has been completed before paying. If you can't be on hand yourself, consider hiring a marine surveyor to make periodic checks.
  • Ask the shop to obtain your authorization before proceeding with unforeseen repairs or when work goes beyond the estimated price. Ask to have old or damaged parts returned to you.

When Things Go Awry ...

Before you pay the repair bill, inspect and, if necessary, sea-trial your boat or engine. Reporting problems immediately will make it easier to get the shop to take responsibility and correct them.

Rely on a marine surveyor for a second opinion if you're unhappy about workmanship or how repairs were made. Contact the manufacturer for assistance when warranty repairs are faulty.

If the shop refuses to cooperate, file a clear, written complaint with the shop, and keep all invoices to document your complaint.

Most boatyards and marinas require payment in full for repairs before boats leave their premises. Maritime law gives providers of goods and services — for example, marinas, boatyards, and mechanics — the right to take legal action to "arrest" boats until repair and storage bills are paid. The legal process even gives them the right to recoup the value of their services by selling boats, or property on board, if bills aren't paid promptly. Good service or bad, it's up to the consumer to either pay up or prove that the debt is unfair.

To improve your chances of avoiding billing disputes and maritime liens:

  • Ask for references before having repairs made. If you break down far from home, contact your boat manufacturer for suggestions about reliable shops in the area.
  • Meet with the mechanic to discuss questions you have about the completed repairs or your invoice.
  • Demonstrate good faith by agreeing to pay for undisputed portions of your bill.
  • Get a second opinion from another mechanic or a marine surveyor.
  • Don't stop payment on your check after you pay your repair bill. This can be interpreted as intent to defraud the repair shop and you might find yourself facing criminal charges.

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