If You Have A Problem,By Charles Fort
We Have A Solution
Published: June/July 2013
Misunderstandings between consumers, manufacturers, dealers, and service providers happen all the time. BoatUS Consumer Protection has several services that can help resolve disputes. The best part? They're free for members.
Boat ownership is not always smooth sailing. A while ago, a BoatUS member from North Carolina contacted Consumer Protection, reporting that he was being treated unfairly by the dealer where he purchased his life raft. He had bought the life raft for his boat in case the worst happened and, not wanting to take any chances, had it serviced every year by the dealer. The dealer had told him that as long as the raft was serviced annually (at a cost of several hundred dollars), the warranty would remain in effect. But at the last servicing, the dealer said that a few key items had been water damaged over the last year and wanted to charge the owner hundreds of dollars for repairs. The owner explained that the raft was enclosed all year except for the annual service, but the dealer still refused to warranty the repairs. The owner called BoatUS Consumer Protection. We contacted the manufacturer of the raft, who agreed to cover most of the repair costs, even though they still believed the raft was damaged from exposure.
BoatUS Consumer Protection has several resources that can educate you to be a smarter buyer or seller, show you how to avoid common problems, and go to bat for you if problems arise. These benefits are for members only and are included at no cost with your BoatUS membership.
Dispute Mediation Program
The BoatUS Dispute Mediation Program, the only one like it in the country, is the flagship of Consumer Affairs. We have years of experience mediating between manufacturers and members. We're often able to keep the lines of communication open and find common ground. While we can't solve every problem, we have a good track record facilitating reasonable resolutions.
How To Use It: Dispute resolution comes into play only after your own attempts to resolve a problem have failed to bring about a satisfactory response. Before involving BoatUS, contact your dealer or manufacturer via letter or email with a complete description of your problem and the desired outcome (see sidebar for a link to a sample letter). Here's how to increase your chances of a successful resolution:
- Include copies (never originals) of any invoices, repair orders, photos, and communications you've already had with anyone involved. In the example above, it's less likely the life raft owner would have gotten any assistance without his original purchase invoice, so always save them, and any other paperwork from your purchase.
- Be specific with the problem: "The engine always quits when it's first started, especially when it's cold, and then I can't start it again for a half-hour."
- Describe what's been done already: "The dealer replaced the carburetor twice and adjusted the timing, but it didn't help."
- Tell them what you want: "A loaner engine while mine is being repaired and tested, or a discount on an new engine."
Give them a reasonable amount of time to respond — 30 days is usually enough. If you don't get an adequate response by then, contact us. Our online complaint form is the best method (see sidebar for a link) because it asks for all the info we'll need to get started. You may also need to send us copies of invoices, repair records, and communications via mail, email, or fax. After evaluation, we'll open a case file and write to the manufacturer on your behalf. We may also contact state and local consumer-protection agencies, talk to industry organizations, and use other industry contacts to try to resolve the problem.
Consumer Protection Database
How To Use It: Go to the website (see sidebar) and enter the company name to find out how manufacturers, dealers, brokers, or other marine service companies have responded to complaints, or to see if there have been problems with a specific boat or engine model. You'll also find service bulletin information, as well as kudos when a member wants to share good news about a company.
Over the years, we have strived to improve relations between consumers and the marine industry, which is why we established the BetterBOAT dispute-resolution program. BetterBOAT is a cooperative effort between BoatUS, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas (MRAA). It relies on a panel of peers to get especially-complex complaints resolved — without going to court.
How To Use It: The BetterBOAT program is best suited for serious problems involving new boats and motors, with companies that are members of NMMA (most major boat and engine manufacturers). Complaints received from the Dispute Mediation online complaint form will automatically be placed in the BetterBOAT program if they meet these criteria and BoatUS has not been able to resolve the dispute through the normal Dispute Mediation Program.
In the past, the U.S. Coast Guard couldn't force a company to issue a recall for a serious safety issue if the problem occurred more than five years after the date of manufacture, but that timeframe was recently increased to 10 years. That means that some second and even third owners might not get notification from the manufacturer about a recall. Our recall database puts that information at your fingertips.
How To Use It: New recalls are posted online (see sidebar for links) and all other U.S. Coast Guard recalls are posted at the Coast Guard's site, along with an archive that goes back for years. Recalls can be searched by manufacturer, boat model, and year.
Consumer Protection has two valuable guides to help you buy and sell a boat, and to help you learn how to find marine services.
How To Use It: Our 34-page Buying and Selling Guide is full of tips on how to get the best deal and how to protect your investment. Learn about marine surveys, transferring ownership, sales agreements, and lots more. It's available online (see sidebar for links to both). Our Guide to Marine Service has everything you need to know about boat brokers, marinas, manufacturers, and mechanics, as well as information on extended service contracts, boat liens, and transporting your boat overland.
The BoatUS Consumer Q&A forum is well-known for providing answers to consumer questions. Consumer Protection actively monitors and participates in the forum.
How To Use It: The forum is a less formal way of getting consumer advice, for BoatUS members only, and it requires a quick registration. Post a question and we'll look into it; other members may offer helpful advice, too. The forum has a valuable archive that allows you to search for consumer issues going back for years.
SeaKey, a Virginia-based company providing satellite-based security and monitoring of boat functions, appears to have foundered. Members report the service has ceased and emails and phone calls are ignored. Some members say their credit cards continue to be charged. SeaKey was purchased two years ago by Premier Customer Solutions, though the Virginia State Corporation Commission no longer lists the company as active in the state. It's likely SeaKey is out of business, so customers should stop automatic credit card charges.
Paying up front to transport your boat by sea? You may be in for a long wait to get your money back if there's a problem. Some BoatUS members have reported that they were offered discounts if they prepaid for boat transport aboard ships that sail from the U.S. to international ports. However, when problems arise — such as cancellation of the voyage or incomplete deliveries — getting their money back has been difficult or impossible. Members can access the Consumer Protection Database to search by company name to locate complaints about shipping companies.
Cable replacement needed? If you have an ICOM VHF radio with a crumbling microphone cable, ICOM will help. After a member contacted us about three different ICOM radios that were experiencing insulation degradation of the cables, we contacted ICOM America in Bellevue, Washington. They responded by saying that they would replace deteriorating cables, regardless of model or warranty status. Members will need to fill out a Repair Submission Form and send the microphone and cable, along with a copy of the form (keep one for yourself), to: ICOM America Bellevue Service Center, 2380 116th Ave. NE, Bellevue, WA 98004.
BoatUS Consumer Protection may be able to help you find a workable solution. If you need help, email us at consumerprotection@BoatUS.com or call (703) 461-2856.
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Tips On How To Resolve Or Avoid Disputes
Over the years, we've learned what works and what doesn't when it comes to resolving complaints. Following these guidelines makes it more likely you'll get satisfaction when there is a problem.
Get it in writing.
A dealer or repair facility might tell you they'll "take care of you," but without a written description of what that means, you may end up spinning your wheels when a problem crops up. A friendly handshake can quickly turn into finger-pointing, so if a boatyard tells you they'll warranty the work for six months, make sure it's in writing.
Read your paperwork.
If you're buying a used boat and see "as is" in the contract, there will be little recourse if something goes wrong. New boats come with factory warranties, but they're not all the same. Read the paperwork to find out how the manufacturer handles things like blisters, leaks, and non-functioning equipment. Who handles the engine warranty? What if the refrigerator breaks? If you buy an extended service contract, what's excluded? What are your responsibilities as an owner? If you take your boat to a shop, what's their warranty on parts and labor? Will they contact you before they proceed on further work? What's included in winterizing? Read and save all paperwork.
Keep a maintenance log.
Owners who can provide complete records of all service performed and all problems uncovered have a much better chance of resolving disputes related to maintenance. A manufacturer is more likely to help if they see written documentation of breakdowns, as well as service and repairs.
Use a professional.
Before you buy a used boat or high-value new boat, hire a qualified marine surveyor to inspect it. Not only will they point out problem areas, the report can be a basis for price negotiation. An engine surveyor can uncover issues on expensive gas and diesel engines. The money you spend on their services can save headaches and money later.
If there's a problem with your boat that may be covered under warranty, let the dealer or shop know immediately. In many places, boats are not used over the winter, but the clock doesn't stop on warranties. Also, don't wait until the end of the season and present your dealer with a laundry list of things that need repair; most warranties require you to inform the dealer right away when there's a problem.
Don't expect a replacement boat because your refrigerator won't work, or a new engine on one that is years out of warranty. Manufacturers are more likely to respond favorably to reasonable requests.
Many manufacturers have scaled back warranty and customer-service departments lately due to poor economic conditions. Harried employees may need more time to address your complaints now than when business was booming.
Don't bash the manufacturer to the world.
The Internet is a great place to vent your frustrations, but use it judiciously if you have a complaint against a manufacturer. Nothing will sever lines of communication faster than filling up the Internet with rants about a product or how you've been treated.
Contact Consumer Protection.
If all else fails, let us know. Our relationships with manufacturers, forged over years, often result in a more favorable resolution.