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When the BoatU.S. Consumer Protection Bureau recently came across an online boat buying service whose aim is “to make the used watercraft transaction process as safe and hassle free as possible,” we got interested. When the service also promised to “uncover any hidden or previously unreported problems on all pre-owned watercraft,” we were intrigued.

After all, one of the biggest problems facing buyers is that there is no easy way to determine whether used boats are “lemons,” have been damaged in accidents or hurricanes, are stolen, or are the subject of liens or of court action.

Even warranty histories are hard to track down, since most manufacturers do not share such information with potential buyers. And manufacturers never publicize secret warranties — repair campaigns conducted on a case-by-case basis to correct defects — so there’s no way to tell if boat models have an endemic problem.

So, we just had to learn more about BoatHistoryReport.com, a Web site that offers to boat buyers a service similar to that provided to auto buyers by the highly popular Carfax, namely vessel-specific information about recalls, accidents, defects, repossessions and liens.

While Carfax gathers data from departments of motor vehicles in the United States and Canada, as well as vehicle inspection stations, auto auctions, fleet management and rental agencies, automobile manufacturers and fire and police departments, the only comparable agencies in the boating world are the U.S. Coast Guard and state boating agencies, whose data-collection systems are not considered especially comprehensive nor uniform.

Carfax subscribers pay $19.99 for information about a single vehicle or $24.99 for unlimited searches. BoatHistoryReport.com charges almost twice that much: $34.99 for a single report and $44.99 for one month of unlimited searches. We chose the latter. Once registered with BoatHistoryReport.com, we were given the choice of searching their records either for information about specific boats using hull identification numbers (HINs) or for general information about a make of boat spanning a number of model years.

The BoatU.S. Consumer Protection Bureau’s database of consumer complaints gave us a ready-made list of boats with known problems. We searched BoatHistoryReport’s records using the HINs of 10 hard-core examples of boats with serious defects, warranty issues and accident and storm damage. Our goal was to compare the information we have on file with what is available through BoatHistoryReport.com. The results were not impressive.

The Web site advises boat buyers, “Be sure to always ask your dealer for a ‘Boat History Report’ when looking at a used boat, waverunner or other watercraft. You never know what hidden problems could exist until you review the complete ‘Boat History Report’ for the vessel.”

Despite the promises, we discovered that, of the 10 cases from the Bureau’s database, in only two instances did BoatHistoryReport.com mention a serious problem (see chart). In all other cases, the online service gave boats clean bills of health.

What makes this worrisome for consumers is that BoatHistoryReport.com promotes its service to boat dealers and brokers. According to the Web site, “By becoming a part of the [BoatHistoryReport.com] program, your customers will have significant peace of mind and security when purchasing boats from your dealership/brokerage.”

Following are the various areas about which BoatHistoryReport.com says it provides data and our analysis of whether an accurate report is possible.

  • Hurricane Damage: Insurance companies are prevented by the federal Privacy Act from releasing details about claims to the general public. Therefore, boats that have sustained hurricane damage, but were not totaled, would not show up in the public record. Wrecked boats are sometimes sold at auction, but sale records published by auction houses may be incomplete or inaccurate. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Accident Reports: Although the U.S. Coast Guard compiles and publishes accident statistics each year, information about specific accidents is not made public. In addition, the Coast Guard indicates that not all accidents are reported and some accidents do not meet the criteria for being reported, namely there are no injuries and damage is under $2,000. BoatHistoryReport.com apparently does not capture on-road accidents that occur when boats are being trailered. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Groundings: No federal or state agency keeps tabs on groundings, unless the incident involves a protected area, such as a coral reef or sea grass bed. Therefore, verifiable data about the vast majority of groundings is not available to the public. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Salvaged Vessels: Some salvage events cause vessel damage in excess of $2,000 and would therefore be reported as a boating accident. But, many salvage events do not meet the criteria for accident reporting. No state or federal agency collects data on salvage. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Environmental Liens: Boats that spill oil or damage protected marine areas are subject to hefty fines and liens are placed against the vessel until the fines are paid. Like maritime liens, which are filed with the U.S. Coast Guard’s vessel documentation division, this information is not available to the public. Further, not all states require boats to be titled, so it is not possible to record liens on boats in non-title states. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Submerged Vessels: Just as no agency collects reports of salvage events, no agency collects data specifically about sinkings. Such incidents are considered accidents that, again, are not available to the public. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Seized Vessels: Vessels seized by law enforcement agencies are often sold at auction, as are vessels seized by the IRS. BoatU.S. searched the U.S. Treasury Department’s seized vessels auction Web site, found the HINs of several seized boats and ran them through BoatHistoryReport.com. The boats’ records included no information about seizures.

  • Boats On Fire: Refer to Accident Reports, above. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Collision Reports: Refer to Accident reports, above. It is unlikely that BoatHistoryReport.com could provide complete or accurate data.

  • Recalls : BoatHistoryReport.com provides information about all recalls conducted by the manufacturer of the boat being researched. This information is available free to the public at the U.S. Coast Guard Web site, www.uscgboating.org.

  • Warranty Check: BoatHistoryReport.com includes data about manufacturer’s warranty coverage on boats, but it does not provide information about actual warranty claims. The Web site advises boat buyers to contact the company directly, in some cases giving Web links, to learn more about warranty coverage. Manufacturer contact information is available free to the public at www.uscgboating.org.

BoatHistoryReport.com doesn’t live up to its promises. The site’s fees are steep, considering that the information they provide is available for free elsewhere. Most troubling is that consumers who rely on their service are given a false sense of security.

BoatHistoryReports.com told us they collect data from public and private sources throughout the U.S. They also rely upon a “marine surveyor network with surveyors from all areas of the USA and a variety of other countries who submit data on previously performed surveys,” but added, “unfortunately, sometimes issues go unreported which is why we always recommend that our clients supplement their Boat History Report with a sea trial and a thorough inspection by a certified marine surveyor.”

BoatU.S. seconds this advice. All used boats should be thoroughly inspected by marine surveyors and engine mechanics prior to purchase. (Go to www.BoatUS.com/insurance/survey.asp for a list.) BoatU.S. members also have exclusive access to the Consumer Protection Bureau’s online database at http://my.boatus.com/consumer/database.aspx to determine whether boat owners have reported patterns of problems that could point to an overall defect.

(c) Copyright BoatU.S. Magazine, September 2006

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