When buying anything from a private seller, you will want to make sure that everything is above board and legal. To protect yourself, you will want to know how to ensure the boat you are buying is not stolen so that you are not facing any legal issues when you purchase it.
Below I have included important things to look for to ensure that you are not buying stolen property, as well as what you should do if you believe a boat has been stolen.
How to Avoid Buying a Stolen Boat:
There are steps that you can take to make sure you do not purchase a boat that was previously stolen. Some of these things are simpler than others, but you will want to make sure you take every precaution available when buying from a private seller.
1. Work with a Broker
Working with a Broker will allow a third party to facilitate the sale of the vessel. They are usually used for larger boat deals, but they can also be hired for any needs.
These brokers will be able to go between you and the seller and will have resources available to them to look into the legitimacy of the deal. They will also be able to tell you if a deal seems like it is too good to be true, which can be a warning sign of an illegal sale.
2. Make sure the Documentation is Correct
Before you purchase the boat, you should receive all the necessary paperwork, and if they cannot provide you with this, then that is a red flag as well.
Documents that you will want copies of can include:
- Build Certificate
- Previous Bill of Sale
- Certificate of Registration
If you cannot be provided with anything that proves ownership of this vessel, you will want to be very skeptical, proceed with caution and dig even deeper.
3. Check the Hull Identification Number (HIN)
Much like the VIN on a motor vehicle, a boat will have a similar designation called the HIN.
If your HIN does not look right, you might want to check it in an online database. This will be able to tell you if the HIN is valid or not. If it does not come up in the system it could have been altered and is likely stolen.
You can also check the HIN on websites that report stolen boats. If the HIN is valid and you plug it into one of these sites it would be able to tell you if it has been reported stolen. You can also check the HIN with law enforcement and they would be able to tell you if it is a stolen vessel as well.
4. Find the Owner and History of a Boat
Finding the owner’s history of a boat is also a good way to learn more about it and get a feel for if it was sold to the new owner instead of stolen.
You can do this by looking up the HIN number on a website that sells boat history reports. This will likely have a fee, but it will be better for you in the long run over buying a stolen vessel.
Make sure you are looking up the HIN and not the boater registration number.
Be aware that a recently sold boat may not yet have the new owner on the report until it gets transferred.
5. Find the Boat Registration Number
Boat registration numbers are often required to be placed on each side of the bow of the bow of the vessel and must remain with the boat regardless of change of ownership in the same state.
To decipher if the registration number is valid you want to make sure it follows a basic layout that includes:
- Displayed in 3 parts with a hyphen or space separating them
- The font will be block letters
- Must be attached to the boat in a contrasting color for visibility
If you find the registration, you should be able to get the information about who currently owns the vessel. If they are not your seller, it is likely stolen or not properly registered which is not good either way.
6. Check if your Outboard Motor is Stolen
You will also want to check to see if your motor was stolen as these are often originally sold separately and can be changed or removed.
This is similar to checking whether or not your boat has been stolen. You should:
- Check the serial number
- Run the serial number through a stolen database as well as checking if it is valid
- Make sure the sticker hasn’t been tampered with
- Make sure the serial number follows the usual format
- Make sure the engine is what it says it should be
- Check with local authorities to see if anything has been reported
There have been cases of people not only tampering with the serial number on a motor but listing the motor under a different manufacturer to try to throw off new buyers.
You will want to make sure your motor is what it has been claimed and that everything checks out.
7. Check if a Boat has Previously Been in an Accident
Much like checking to see if a boat has been stolen, you can also check to see if it has been in an accident.
You can do this on a boat history site similar to looking up previous owners. This can be very useful information when buying a boat if you are curious about the condition.
You can also see if the boat was salvaged and it would also be able to tell you if it was reported stolen.
8. Use Common Sense
Another big tip would be to use common sense.
If something doesn’t feel right, or someone or something feels shifty, likely it is not a good transaction.
You should trust your gut feelings and instincts when dealing with these deals. Sometimes a good deal or a boat that you really want can cause you to ignore those feelings, but you shouldn’t.
There will always be another sale you can be a part of.
9. Be Willing to Walk Away
Even if you found the perfect boat, you will want to make sure that you are fully prepared to walk away from the deal if it doesn’t check out or doesn’t seem right.
This can be the hardest part, especially if you are really attached to that particular boat, and likely that particular price.
If you have a boat that you like in mind, you should be able to find other sellers who have the same boat. If the deal you are looking at seems to be much lower than all else offered, this is also a red flag.
Even if the boat wasn’t stolen, a low offer could also mean mechanical issues or other problems that might cost you more in the long run.
What Happens If You Buy A Stolen Boat?
If you buy a stolen boat, even if you did not steal the boat yourself, is that it can get taken away from you and you would not get any money back, and unfortunately, this is one of the best-case scenarios.
If the county, state, or federal agency that seizes the stolen property decides to keep it they can, and usually they will.
There have also been instances of people buying stolen boats and getting charged with possession of stolen goods.
Oftentimes, the police will try to work with you and you should report it immediately, but you want to make sure you keep all contact information with you for the seller and anything else you can provide to the officers or other officials you have reported the stolen boat to.
Ideally, you will not be put in this situation if you properly check out the boat in advance to ensure that it is not stolen.
How do you Report a Stolen Boat?
If your boat was stolen you will want to report it to the authorities immediately. The sooner you report a stolen boat the better it will help the attempt at recovery.
In addition to this, an official report will be needed for you to make an insurance claim on your vessel.
Most insurance companies will help you if your boat was stolen and you will likely want to get that process started as quickly as possible.
This is so you can pay off any loans or other financial obligations you have that are attached to your boat since insurance payouts can sometimes take weeks and you will have to keep up on your payments in the meantime.
Buying anything stolen is less than ideal and you want to make sure you protect yourself from it. If you follow the steps above you will be less likely to buy something that was stolen.
Make sure to be careful, do the appropriate amount of research and make sure your deal checks out against other deals and public databases.
You will also want to make sure that if you suspect a boat you are trying to buy was stolen, you report it even if you don’t buy it.
Remember, when in doubt, check with the authorities!
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.