How to Buy a Used Boat

Sailboat on the water

During my childhood summers, there was nothing I loved more than spending time on our family boat. It may have been small, used and in need of some serious TLC, but it gave us years of adventure and family bonding.

Today, I realize that everything fun I enjoyed back then had a flip side: maintenance, expenses and paperwork, just to name a few.

While a boat is a fun purchase, it requires work, and that work starts well before you own the boat if you buy used. If you’re in the market for a used boat, make sure the previous owners kept the boat in good condition and that all the logistics square up. Here’s what you’ll want to check out before you sign on the dotted line:

  1. Registration: Sometimes boats don’t require registration if they’re below a certain size, only used on private waters or some other criteria your state determines. But if the boat needs to have but does not have a registration, discuss with the owner who will cover the cost of registering the boat in your name. If it’s currently registered, check with your state boating and fishing department to learn how to transfer the registration. (It’s usually free of charge or for a nominal fee.) Also, know that there might be tax issues if the boat doesn’t reside in the state in which it’s registered.
  2. An inspection: First ask the current owner if the boat’s ever been involved in a collision, fire, sinking or other disaster. Inspect the condition of the boat yourself and also get an expert opinion from a qualified marine surveyor. If the boat is small and inexpensive, you might skip the survey—but definitely take the boat out for a test drive before committing to purchase.
  3. Title: Make sure the title matches the registration. (For extra confidence, check that the title is listed with the National Vessel Documentation Center.) Some titles might list liens on the boat; if so, make sure your purchase agreement requires the seller to pay them off. Your state can advise you on what paperwork and signatures are needed to transfer the title.
  4. Hull Identification Number (HIN): If the boat’s HIN doesn’t match the HIN on the registration and title, the boat could be stolen, making the transfer or purchase risky business.
  5. Tax Liens: To ensure there aren’t any tax liens against the boat, check with the Secretary of State’s office located in both the seller’s state of residence and the boat’s state of registration. As an extra precaution against any hidden liens, contact the U.S. Coast Guard.
  6. How much it will cost to insure: A boat is not a small purchase, and you may want to protect your investment with insurance that covers both damage and liability. (Even the smallest boats carry risk of liability.) Talk to your ERIE Agent to see how much it may cost to insure the boat you’re considering. He or she can answer any questions you have related to keeping you and your investment protected.
  7. Purchase agreement: Protect yourself by putting contingencies such as securing financing and passing the inspection in writing.
  8. Bill of sale: It’s finally official! Just make sure the seller’s name appears on the bill of sale exactly as it does on the title and registration.

By following these steps, you’ll pave the way for a smooth sale—and years of smooth sailing and good memories ahead.

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