Ownership in a vehicle is often proven by having a title. A title is a document that proves legal ownership in a piece of property.
One of the most common and well-known titles is for your automobile, but you also will likely need a title for your boat.
Not every boat requires a title, so I have compiled a quick guide to help you understand what does or doesn’t need to have a registered title.
Registration versus Titles:
Before we dive into what boats do or do not need a title, we should first go over the difference between a boat that is titled and a boat that is registered.
A title is to prove ownership in a vessel.
This is important when it comes time to sell something because it helps to prove that it is yours to sell, and after it is sold, the new owner of the boat will need the title to prove that they now own the boat.
You should keep your title in a safe place in your home and it is not necessary that it be kept on your vessel.
Registration is the process of documenting your vehicle with your state. You will want to register your boat in the state that it will be primarily used in.
Registration is not needed to sell a vessel but does need to be on board if you intend to use your vessel.
If you are stopped by the coast guard, you will need to provide your registration to them and you could be in trouble if you do not have it.
When is a Boat Title Required?
Whether or not you need to title your boat varies based on boat type or length as well as the state you live in.
Some states look at the boat length to determine if you need to title your vessel.
Some states look at whether your boat is motorized or not and often do not require a title for a motorized vessel.
Some states require any boat that needs to be registered to also have a title.
Below, we listed the most common rules per vessel, but because each state has different rules, you will want to know what the rules are in your state.
A yacht is generally only considered as such if it is over 30 feet long. Most states agree that a boat needs to be titled if it is over 12-20 feet long, meaning that all yachts are larger than the required length.
In addition to this, some states require a vessel with a permanently attached motor to be titled, which would apply to yachts.
2. Pontoon Boats:
Pontoon boats can vary in size so it is possible that they may not need to be titled in states where they do not meet the size requirements. The average size for a pontoon boat is 22 feet long.
Since some states only require a boat to be 12 feet or longer, they are required to be titled in most states.
They also always have a motor, which is also a condition that would require a title.
In Michigan, your boat doesn’t have to be titled if it is less than 20 feet, which applied to some pontoons, but it does need to be titled if it has a fixed motor.
This means that even if you do not meet the size requirement, it is likely that you will still have to title your vessel.
3. Deck Boats:
Like pontoon boats, the rules for deck boats will vary per state.
Deck boats are often on the smaller side with a size that averages between 19 and 23 feet.
They are equipped with a motor. This means that the same rules apply to them as listed above for pontoons.
Runabouts are small powerboats that are generally between 14 and 24 feet in size. This means that they will qualify as small enough in some states and will not require a title.
They will not qualify in a vast majority of states and similar to the examples above, they will need to be titled in all states that require motorized vessels to be titled.
5. Ski/Wakeboarding Boats:
Water ski or wakeboard boats do not have a wide variety of sizes because they are most efficient when they are between 20 to 22 feet in length.
For this reason, they will not qualify for the exemption for smaller boats in any state except Michigan, and because they have a motor, they will not qualify there either.
6. Center Console Boats:
Center console boats have a larger average with lengths that are often between 17 and 36 feet.
This means that they are not likely to meet the size exemption.
They are also motorized boats as well.
7. Bass Boats:
Bass boats can vary in size from 16 to 25 feet which means they might be able to meet some size exemptions.
They are motorized though, so they will have to follow the same rules as motorized vessels.
8. Aluminum Fishing Boats:
Aluminum fishing boats are boats that fall under the smaller side with a maximum length of 24 feet. This causes them to fall in the same category of bass boats.
These boats can also come with a motor that could require them to be titled.
9. Daysailer Sailboat:
When talking about titles in regards to sailboats, the requirements can vary. If a sailboat meets the specifications to require being registered, they will likely need to be titled.
This can be based on size or whether or not there is a back-up motor or other power source attached to the sailboat.
Like all the other options, even if you are not required to title your sailboat, it is an option you will want to consider and look into.
If you have to finance your sailboat, you will likely have to title it as well.
Catamarans will follow the same requirements as sailboats or power boats since there are catamarans of both types.
Likely your catamaran will have a motor and be long enough to require a title as well as registration.
Trimarans are no different than catamarans. These too are longer vessels that are often equipped with a motor even in addition to sails.
If you own a trimaran, you will likely need to have a title and registration.
12. Personal Watercraft:
There is some debate over whether or not a personal watercraft, such as a jet ski, requires a title. Because of its smaller size, it might not be a requirement to title a jet ski in your state.
However, a majority of states will require a jet ski to be titled because it has a permanent motor as well as being required to be registered.
It can also be difficult to sell or prove ownership in your personal watercraft without the proper title.
For this reason, like the previous boats, you should get your jet ski titled.
When are Titles NOT Required?
Some boats do not require a title. You can voluntarily title a boat if you would like to. This will come with a fee, but it is a good way to prove your ownership in your boat.
Some states do not require a title at all, and instead, only require registration on your vessel allowing titling to be an option.
In states where your boat is only required to be registered, you would have an option to title your boat or not even if it is listed in the above list of titled vessels.
It is a good idea to title your boat, even if it is not required so that you can prove that it is yours, you can later register it in a state where a title is required, or you can sell it in a state where a title is required.
Below we have compiled a list of boats that often do not need to be titled but because each state has different rules, you will want to know what the rules are in your state.
Canoes will not often be required to be titled. Because they are shorter with no motor, you should not have to title, or even register your canoe with the state.
This can vary by state so it is still a good idea to know the specific rules in your state.
Like a canoe, you will likely not have to title your kayak. The reasons are very similar since kayaks are often even shorter than canoes and are not likely to have a motor of any kind.
Vehicles powered by manpower are not often required to be titled or registered.
15. Rowboats and other Manpowered Vessels:
Rowboats, paddleboats, or other manually powered vessels will not require a title or registration.
Similar to the options above, you will want to check with your specific state to be sure.
No matter what type of vessel you have and whether it requires a title or not, you will want to make sure that you are following all other rules and regulations set forward by your state.
The most important of these regulations is that there be a lifejacket onboard for each passenger. This is true with powerboats, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and other man-powered vessels.
While you want to make sure you are following the law, you also want to make safety your number one priority.
How to Register your Vessel:
If your boat needs to be registered as well as titled, this is a simple task in most states.
Boats generally need to be registered if they have gasoline, diesel, or electric motor.
Sailboats that do not have auxiliary power also need to be registered if they are over a certain length that varies per state.
Most kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, rowboats, and other manually powered crafts do not need to be registered but this again varies by state.
Usually, registering your watercraft can be done in the same place you register your automobile.
The steps to register your boat are as follows:
- Be sure to know the registration requirements in your state.
- Complete the registration form. This can often be done online, through the mail, or in person.
- Provide proof of ownership. This would include a title or purchase agreement.
- Pay the fees. This varies by state as well as vessel size.
- Make sure you take note of the expiration dates and renew your registration on those dates.
Make sure you keep your boat registration on the vessel when in operation and that you display the boat registration stickers or decals on the hull, near the bow, and on the front third of the boat on both sides.
Having a title or other documentation is necessary if you intend to finance your vessel.
Financial institutions will not loan you the money for your boat unless you have a title or UCC documentation that shows the financial institution listed as the lienholder.
Financial institutions do this so that they can ensure they get their funds paid back in full.
If you are unable to make payments on your loan, the financial institution then has the right to repossess your vessel. This is granted to them as the lienholder.
You are also responsible for paying them back in full before you can sell it. After the loan is paid off in full, the bank will release their lien and the new owner can then take the vessel.
A state will not register a boat into another name if there is still a lien listed without proof of termination of lien.
If you total your vessel, you will also need to pay the loan to release the lien before you can take any money provided by your insurance.
This allows the insurance company to then take ownership of the vessel once your financial institution signs off on it.
If your boat or equipment does not require a title, you might need to file a UCC document.
This is only done if you have a lien on your equipment and the financial institution needs a record of their lien on file.
A UCC is a notice done by a creditor to prove they have a financial interest in the property at hand.
This is often done with equipment that is not normally titled such as your boat motor or trailer.
If you have a lien on your boat, you are required to have insurance, much like you would with an automobile.
Your financial institution will also require a copy of the insurance that has proof of their lien listed as well.
Insurance on your boat is important because it can help you financially if anything goes wrong.
You can lower your insurance rates by taking a boater’s safety course, even in states where this is not required.
The most important thing to do is to make sure you know the proper regulations for your particular state.
If you purchase your equipment from a dealership or go through a financial institution, they will likely ensure that your title, UCC filing, and insurance documents are all in order.
If you purchase the vessel in a private sale without financing, make sure you are following the proper legal steps to take ownership of the watercraft.
Having a proper title for your vehicle helps to secure and prove ownership which will help you protect your asset, as well as allowing your boat to be insured and registered.
Shelby Sullivan is a freelance journalist who specializes in boating and recreational watercraft. She captains her family pontoon boat in her spare time with her fiancee and dog on the freshwater lakes of the United States. Shelby prefers swimming to suntanning, and you can most likely find her reading in the shade of the pontoon awning.