Article Posted: March 30, 2000

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While the popularity of many recreational activities has ebbed and flowed over the years, boating in Pennsylvania has been on a continual upswing. Today, more than 352,000 boats are registered in the Commonwealth and an estimated 21 million boating trips are taken here each year. With more and more people taking to the water, boat sales - particularly used boats sales - have been booming. Unfortunately, the informal nature of many used boat transactions can make them a tempting market for the sale of stolen boats.
Tens of thousands of used boats trade hands each year in Pennsylvania through yard sales, classified ads, estate sales or dealers. And for good reason. Used boats can provide buyers with a good quality watercraft, often at the fraction of the price of a new watercraft. In fact, just like cars, the first vessel for many boat owners is a used one.

Unfortunately, sometimes that great deal is no deal at all. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission says that while buyers usually check out the condition of the boat, they don't apply the same scrutiny to the seller. They should.

According to the Commission, while illicit sales are uncommon, every year the agency uncovers enough to keep its investigators busy. And the fact that stolen boat sales are relatively rare is little consolation if you're the one who gets ripped off by a bogus seller. In most such cases, the person who unwittingly purchased a stolen boat has to surrender the craft. Meanwhile, the seller and the money are long gone. Fortunately, the Commission says there are some simple steps you can take to avoid being taken in.

First, apply a basic principal of "buyer beware:" don't automatically assume the seller is actually the owner or has the right to sell the boat on the owner's behalf.

Unlike cars, not all boats are required to have a title document proving legal ownership. However, some boats are required to hold titles in Pennsylvania including all inboard motorboats with a model year of 1997 or newer and outboard motorboats 14 feet in length or longer with a model year of 1997 or newer. If the boat you're looking at falls within either of those categories, ask for the title.

If the boat isn't required to be titled, but has Pennsylvania registration numbers on it, ask to see the most recent registration card. If the seller can't produce these documents, be skeptical.

Be suspicious of used boats from other states. Ask to see all out-of-state title documents and/or registration documents.

Ask lots of questions. If the seller seems uncomfortable answering them, ask yourself why. Trust your gut feelings and don't be scared to walk away. If the deal seems to good to be true, it might be.

If you do make a purchase, get a detailed bill of sale that contains the seller's name, contact information and signature; full description of the boat, including any hull identification number or registration number; the date of the sale and the price paid. You'll need this information to register the boat anyhow, plus it serves as a good safeguard against seller fraud. The fact that a boat is stolen property is often uncovered during the registration process. Having detailed information can help establish a case against the fraudulent seller.

Keeping these common sense tips in mind, you can help ensure the dream boat you're buying doesn't end in troubled waters.

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