A title is a state-issued legal document that provides proof of ownership. If you have a clear title issued in your name, then you own that property.
A title helps deter theft and allows you to prove a vehicle or boat is yours legally.
One of the most common and well-known pieces of titled property is an automobile, but you will likely need a title for your boat also.
In some states, you will also need to title your outboard motor.
Not every boat requires a title, so we compiled a quick guide to help you understand what does or doesn’t need to have a title:
Registration vs. Titles:
Before we dive into what boats do or do not need a title, we should first go over the difference between a title and a registration.
A title proves ownership in a vessel and/or motor.
This is important when it comes time to sell something because it helps 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 or safe deposit box at a bank. Never keep the title on the boat unless the boat is your home.
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 the authorities stop you, 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?
It is always a good idea to title any vessel that your state allows, whether or not it is required.
Different states have different requirements, but, in most cases, boats over 12 feet and motorized boats need to be titled.
In some states, anything over 20 feet will need to be titled, while other states have a horsepower requirement.
Below, we listed the most common rules per vessel, but be sure to know your local laws.
A yacht will require a title in almost every case with few, if any, exceptions. Also, know that yachts are most likely federally registered. Federally registered boats have additional documents that show ownership and history of the boat.
A federally-registered boat will be named and will have a number displayed prominently in the cabin.
If you consider a yacht, we recommend having a professional service perform a document search before you buy.
2. Pontoon Boats:
Pontoon boats will most likely need to be titled. Even if your pontoon doesn’t require titling, you should obtain one if permitted.
A pontoon boat’s average size is 22 feet long, meaning they are required to be titled in most states. They also have a motor, which is another condition that requires a title.
In Michigan, your boat doesn’t have to be titled if it is less than 20 feet, which applies 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, which means the same rules apply to them as listed above for pontoons.
Runabouts are small powerboats between 14 and 24 feet in size, making them small enough not to require titling in some states. However, based on their motor size/length, most states will require titling for a runabout.
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. With their higher horsepower engines, this means they will require titling in any state that titles boats.
6. Center Console Boats:
Center console boats have larger average lengths, between 17 and 36 feet, and have higher horsepower engines making them required to have a title.
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 on the smaller side with a maximum length of 24 feet. This causes them to fall in the same category as bass boats.
These boats can also come with a motor that could require them to be titled.
9. Daysailer Sailboat:
When talking about titles for sailboats, the requirements can vary. If a sailboat meets the specifications to require being registered, it will likely need to be titled.
This can be based on size or 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.
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 if they have sails.
If you own a trimaran, you will likely need to have a title and registration.
12. Personal Watercraft:
It might not be a requirement to title a personal watercraft in your state because of its smaller size. However, most states will require a jet ski to be titled because it has a permanent motor.
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?
Most states do not require a title for smaller boats powered by paddle, oar, or sail. In some states, you can voluntarily title a boat if you would like.
As previously stated, you should title your vessel if your state allows it.
This will come with a fee, but it is a good way to prove ownership in your boat should the unthinkable happen. Some states do not require a title at all and only require registration.
In states where your boat is only required to be registered, you may have the option to title the vessel if you wish.
Below we have compiled a list of boats that often do not need to be titled:
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 your state’s specific rules. Also, some lakes have registration requirements for canoes.
Like a canoe, you will likely not have to title your kayak because it has no motor.
Beware, though. If you motorize your kayak, you may have to obtain a title or registration.
15. Rowboats and other Manpowered Vessels:
Rowboats, paddle-boats, or other manually powered vessels will not require a title or registration in most cases.
No matter what type of vessel you have and whether it requires a title, make sure that you follow all other rules and regulations set forward by your state.
The most important of these regulations is to carry a lifejacket onboard for each passenger. This is true with powerboats, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and other human-powered vessels.
While you want to make sure you follow the law, you want to make safety your number one priority.
How to Register your Vessel:
Registering your boat 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, varying by state.
Most kayaks, paddle-boards, canoes, rowboats, and other manually powered crafts do not need to be registered, but, again, this varies by state.
Usually, registering your watercraft can be done in the same place you register your automobile. Be sure to know the registration requirements in your state.
The steps to register your boat are as follows:
- 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 Uniform Commercial Code(UCC) documentation that shows the financial institution listed as the lien holder.
Financial institutions do this so that they can ensure they get their funds paid back in full.
If you cannot make payments on your loan, the financial institution then has the right to repossess your vessel. This is granted to them as the lien holder.
You are also responsible for paying them back in full before you can sell the vessel. After the loan is paid off in full, the bank will release its lien, and the new owner can then take possession.
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 take ownership of the vessel, then once your financial institution signs off on it.
Uniform Commercial Code(UCC):
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 must 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 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 follow 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 our specialist when it comes to pontoon boats and recreational watercraft. She is often found sailing the freshwater lakes of Michigan. She is also a light-traveler who enjoys camping and traveling the world. Read more about Shelby here.