Buying a boat, whether new or pre-owned, isn't rocket science. Nevertheless, in their enthusiasm over a new, or new-to-them, boat, some folks forget the basics and get less than they paid for. In extreme cases, they get fleeced worse than a sheep in springtime. Here's a list of things to consider before signing on the bottom line. We can't guarantee a fast-talking seller won't still pull a wool-over-the-eyes job, but it won't be so easy for them if the buyer takes our advice.
Boat sales aren't what they used to be, so some new boats sit unsold at dealerships for years. A brand-new boat selling at a "fantastic" discount compared to current MSRP might be last year's model, or even the year before -- they are called “non-current” models. The boat's still new, but as soon as she leaves the showroom, she'll depreciate to model-year value.
So maybe the deal isn't as great as it looks. The sales contract will list the model year, but it's better to know beforehand. For that, refer to the H.I.N.
Since the early 1970s, federal law has required boat manufacturers to tag their boats with permanent Hull Identification Numbers (H.I.N.). The 12-digit alphanumeric H.I.N. indicates the manufacturer, using a three-letter code (decipher it at http://uscgboating.org/content/manufacturers-identification.php), the serial number, the month and year of manufacture (specifically, the month and year when manufacture began) and the model year. The H.I.N. is like a birth certificate for the boat.
The H.I.N. format has changed over the years, so if the boat you're considering was built before August, 1984, her H.I.N. is arranged slightly differently from boats built after that date. An Internet search will help with this, but a rule of thumb is, the last numerals show the model year. This isn't always dead accurate, but it's close.
Use the H.I.N. to prevent overpaying for a used boat. Like used cars, used boats are priced based on model year. (Production boats are, anyway; prices of pre-owned custom boats are less predictable.) Check the H.I.N. to find out the model year, then consult with B.U.C. (http://www.bucvalu.com/) or NADA (http://nadaguides.com/Boats) for their opinion on the price you should be paying. B.U.C. requires sign-up, but it's free for the basic level, which is enough.
In 2007, the National Marine Manufacturers Association started a voluntary program to certify boats built by participating members, to ensure they were built to a known standard of quality. About 70% of the American Boat and Yacht Council standards were, and are still, used as the basis for NMMA certification. As of 2018, 51 categories of design, systems, equipment, and safety are addressed.
Read a list of relevant ABYC standards at http://www.nmma.org/certification/boats/standards. The standards themselves are available through ABYC (http://abycinc.org/?). Membership is required to access the standards ($265/yr.); not cheap, but there's a five-day free trial.
NMMA certification is mostly about systems and equipment; it doesn't address construction, and no sea trial is required. A boat can be flimsy and a dog at sea, but still carry an NMMA certificate. Unlike American Bureau of Shipping, Lloyds or Det Norske Veritas (many commercial vessels and larger yachts are built under these rules), NMMA does not require every certified boat to be inspected individually. Instead, the NMMA certifies a model line, and relies on the builder to maintain the standards in every boat built in that line.
Annual re-certifications of each model line are said to be required. According to the NMMA, "The manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that all production units are manufactured in compliance with the certified design." If the builder falls short, well...so much for certification.
Today, the NMMA estimates that 85% of new boats sold in the U.S. are certified, and carry a certification plate attesting to this. That means 15% of the new boats sold are not NMMA certified. That does not necessarily mean anything is wrong with them, but it does mean that these builders are not dues-paying members of the NMMA.
Folks buying boats built after 2007 should look for the NMMA plate. It's not a guarantee -- again, certification is voluntary, not a legal requirement -- but at least it shows the builder made the effort to have the boat certified.
Boats built prior to 2007? That's where an experienced surveyor comes in, and a mechanic to check the engines, too -- something that is a good idea even for newer boats.
Engine Caveat. Just because it’s new, it doesn’t mean that the engine will reach peak expected performance. Compression, max RPM, horsepower, and unit integrity can vary. That’s why the SAE gives engine makers a 10% leeway on “rated” horsepower vs. actual horsepower.
CE Ratings. The European Union has its own set of standards for boats, and unlike the ABYC/NMMA standards, which are voluntary, these are required for all boats sold in the EU. Generally, they are the same as the ABYC standards, but they are more stringent in some areas. They also rate boats for their sea keeping abilities in specific conditions, something that the ABYC/NMMA does not do. But just because a boat has an A rating -- “Ocean”, winds up to 40 knots, and waves to 13’ -- does not necessarily mean that all boats with that rating can actually handle those conditions. It only means that based on the CE formulas and standards, it theoretically should be able to handle them.
Ultimately, the consumer’s best guarantee of good quality construction and installation is the integrity, knowledge, and experience of the builder. Good builders go further than NMMA requirements. They want to protect their reputation and they don’t want lawsuits, so they do what it takes to build a good boat. That usually requires spending more money on materials, equipment, labor, and overhead. Good boats are usually not cheap.
How to find builders with integrity? Do they step up to the plate when it comes to honoring legitimate warranty claims? Do they pay their bills on time -- or at all? What do owners have to say about their boat builder? Are the boat builder, dealer, and engine maker all pointing fingers at each other when things go wrong? When a builder finds a serious problem in one boat, do they check all those sold to see if it was repeated?
Boating chat rooms are full of people willing to throw bricks or roses at nearly any brand. Beware of trolls -- Internet chatters that harshly bash a builder. They often are trying to take revenge on a dealer with whom they have a grievance. Our experience is that most trouble starts at the dealer level. Our experience is that most owners like their boats and are satisfied.
Integrity in Practice. Over the years, we have seen exemplary examples of the boat builder doing the right thing. When Grady-White realized it had gotten a bad load of resin, the company went into the field and bought back all of the boats made with the batch and junked them. When Tiara discovered a problem with corroding aluminum fuel tanks which were years out of warranty, it went into the field and had them all taken out at great expense and replaced them.
All new boats come with a warranty, but not all warranties are the same. Most warranties are complex, since the builder typically covers the hull, deck, and, sometimes, other components manufactured or installed by the builder.
Take the words in that warranty literally. Assume nothing. If the warranty says it covers the hull for 10 years, it means just the hull -- not the deck and superstructure.
The engine, transmission, and related components are covered by their own warranty, and air conditioning, pumps, refrigeration, and other onboard systems usually have their own warranties, but could also come under the builder's warranty.
A new boat can come with a stack of warranties. The coverage period will vary from none (batteries, propellers, damage caused by corrosion) to the life of the boat (hull), at least for the original owner. Sometimes the warranty can be transferred to a second owner, or multiple owners. Obviously, this adds value to the boat.
Whether a system is covered by the warranty often depends on who installed the equipment, and if they are qualified to do so. Some dealers install optional items themselves on boats they have in stock, rather than order a boat from the factory. Typically, items installed by the dealer are not covered by the factory warranty.
Our experience is that it is often a challenge to get a low-priced boat builder, or a small boat builder, to honor warranties, particularly in gray areas. Generally, they have not reserved enough, or anything, for warranty claims, or have spent the money if they did. And, if a boatbuilder has gone out of business, been bought out of bankruptcy, or sold, usually the old warranties are worthless.
Every boat buyer should choose an insurance company/broker beforehand; learn about the different types of policies and endorsements; and understand the insurer's requirements for writing a policy, including details of the survey, which are rarely required for new boats.
It's almost impossible to get a boat loan unless the boat's insured, and most marinas and boatyards require insurance coverage, too. There's rarely a problem getting insurance for a new boat from a production builder -- high-performance boats being an exception with rates being higher and personal qualifications of the owner being more important. Insurance is more of an issue with old boats, custom boats, or wooden boats.
Check Before You Buy. On large boats, say over 50’ (1.27 m) or so, where the owner is also going to be the operator, the insurance company may have restrictions or crew requirements. When buying particularly large boats, say over 70’ (1.78 m), unless the owner can demonstrate lots of experience, the insurance carrier may require a captain, and, on larger boats, a crew as well.
Also, the insurance policy may have geographic stipulations, as well as requirements for protecting your boat in the face of a named storm. It is important to understand all of these details before buying.
Finally, not all insurance companies pay off with alacrity. It is best to get expert advice as to which insurance company to spend your money with.
Never buy a used boat without a survey by a skilled, experienced surveyor, preferably one accredited by either the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS -- http://www.namsglobal.org/) or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS -- http://www.marinesurvey.org/). The surveyor should also be a member of the ABYC, and have access to the latest standards.
The surveyor isn't a guarantor of the boat, but provides “an educated opinion” on her condition, problems, and market value, along with a detailed written report that can be submitted to the lender and insurance company. Boats are usually sold "subject to survey," so if the buyer doesn't like what the surveyor finds, he can kill the deal, and get his deposit back. (A sea trial should be included as part of the survey, and the buyer should attend both.)
Armed with a survey report showing this or that needs work, some buyers, rather than back out of the purchase, renegotiate the selling price to reflect the estimated cost of repairs. We don't recommend this.
Everything on a boat costs more than expected once installed or fixed, and we don't want to be holding the bag for the excess. Instead, we want the seller to fix things at his expense, then we'll pay the agreed-on price. If the seller won't do this, we'll find another boat. There are plenty of them for sale.
We also recommend a separate engine survey, performed by a qualified mechanic. The general surveyor will just look at the motors, but it's important to know the state of the exhaust manifolds, check the compression, and so forth. The engine surveyor should take fluid samples to be sent off for analysis; this can show wear happening inside the engine before its effects are obvious, and is well worth the minimal cost.
Next time, in Part II of this article, we'll show how to determine, by inspecting just a few details, if a boat is a prizewinner worthy of consideration, or a piece of floating junk deserving of the chainsaw.