boat registration - Coast Guard vessel documentation - yacht registry

Boat Title Search Advisor
Answers to frequently asked questions about boat title research.

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Can I rely on a boat title at face value as proof of ownership?

Boat titles, registrations, and Coast Guard certificates of documentation should not be relied upon at face value as conclusive proof of ownership. This is especially true of state issued boat registration certificates. In certain non-title states, a boat registration can become easily established with very little or no evidence of ownership. These can then be converted to a boat title in other states or even Coast Guard documentation without any further questions. A prudent buyer should research the boat's ownership and title documents in depth before accepting any boat title, registration, or Coast Guard certificate of documentation at face value.


Do all boats have a hidden hull identification number?

All boats built for U.S. consumption after August 1, 1984 are required to have a second instance of the manufacturer's or builder's hull identification number hidden somewhere on the interior of the hull. In order to find this location it will be necessary to contact a marine surveyor, a law enforcement official, or the manufacturer.

How are make and models designated for boat registration purposes?

Although often interchanged, the term "make" typically pertains to the name of the builder or manufacturer and "model" is the name under which the vessel is marketed or sold. Although model names are fairly definitive, there can be some ambiguity regarding the builder. This is due to the fact that the hull itself is sometimes built by a different company than that which completed the construction. In these cases, the completion phase usually usually prevails.

How can I determine whether a boat hull identification number is formatted correctly?

All boats manufactured for consumption within the United States after November 1, 1972 are required to have a twelve character hull identification number. It must begin with a three digit manufacturer's identification code, show a production or serial number, and indicate the year model or production date. There are three different ways in which this can be formatted depending on the production date.  Additional information may precede or follow the hull number, including the country built, but this is not considered as part of the hull number itself. Although complete hull numbers may be shown on some earlier models, this was voluntary and there were no particular formatting requirements. Our database service has a hull number verification tool which will check any hull number for validity and show a breakdown of the various components.

How can I verify the builder or manufacturer of a particular boat?

The first three letters of any hull identification number for a boat or vessel built after 1972 should contain what is known as the "Manufacturer's Identification Code" or "MIC". Our database service includes a listing of manufacturers which can be searched by the MIC code. The results will show detailed information such as the builder's address, telephone number, and current standing.

What if the actual length of a boat differs from the registration or documentation records?

 It is not uncommon to find some variation in what a boat title or registration shows versus an actual measurement. State level registrations will typically show the overall length which includes any overhangs such as bowsprits and swim steps. However, the Coast Guard will exclude such protrusions for documentation purposes. Registration agencies may furthermore take an owner's declaration for the length unless presented with a builder's certification or manufacturer's statement of origin. Minor differences should not be a cause for concern unless they affect the boat's resale value, tax assessments, or moorage rates. If the discrepancy is substantial, further investigation should be undertaken to determine how this came about.

What if the year shown on the registration records differs from the seller's representation?

Year designations can be confusing because there are three different methods to consider when it comes to boats. The "model year" as designated by the builder is typically incorporated into the hull number on most vessels built for domestic consumption after 1972. This often supersedes the actual "year built" by one or two years. The year built can be further broken down into two construction phases when the hull and final construction take place in different years. Most state level registrations will reflect the model year. On Coast Guard documented vessels however, the year cited will typically be that of the final construction. Any substantial variations beyond those described above should be cause for concern.

Where will I find a boat's hull identification number?

The hull identification number on boats built after November 1, 1972 should be located on the right hand upper corner of the transom. On double ended boats, it can typically be found on the right hand or starboard side close to the aft most part of the hull.

Who assigns boat hull identification numbers?

Boat hull identification numbers are assigned in one of  three different ways. In most cases the boat factories will establish a hull number which is preceded by their three letter identification code as assigned by the Coast Guard. State registration agencies can also assign hull numbers where none has otherwise been issued. This usually applies to home constructed boats, older boats where none was ever assigned, or foreign boats which were not imported for consumption. The Coast Guard can also issue hull numbers under these circumstances when a boat is documented for the first time. The state and Coast Guard agencies all have their own unique code designations for the first three letters of the hull number.


Should I do a background check on the boat owner?

Ownership validation can be a critical aspect of vessel or boat title research, especially in situations where historical information is lacking. This type of research involves personal background discovery about the vessel's owner with respect to such party's authority, credibility, and financial wherewithal. Statements of title warranty and other representations will not be of much help if the owner is insolvent or nowhere to found in the event of subsequent problems. In the case of a legal entity, trust, or estate, you will also need to identify those representatives who posses the right to conduct transactions involving the vessel.

Where can I find a chain of vessel or boat ownership?

Establishing a complete chain of boat ownership on Coast Guard documented vessels is usually a matter of obtaining an abstract of title. However, not all vessels have remained in documentation continuously since they were initially built. State registered or titled boats are another matter as these agencies do not maintain abstracts and typically dispose of their records periodically. Microfiches showing copies of prior boat title or transactions may be available in some cases, but these are only obtainable by special order and it may take some time. On some vessels, especially older boats, it may not be possible to construct a complete history or chain of ownership.


Can I search for a state registration record by the boat's name?

A boat's name and hailing port are only required when a boat is Coast Guard documented. This type of information is not requested or gathered when a boat is registered or titled on the state level. Accordingly, there is no way to search state records by such criteria.

Can I search for a state registration record by the owner's name?

State registration agencies do no typically access boat records by an owner's name. In almost all cases, you will need to provide a hull identification number or the boat's registration number when requesting a record print-out.

How can I find ownership information on a state registered boat?

Ownership information is very difficult to obtain from most state registration agencies because of strict anti-disclosure laws which have now been implemented throughout the country. In these cases, the requester must present a written application showing sufficient cause for needing the information. Such restrictions have resulted from actions by boat and vehicle owners who suffered damages after their information was made public.

When should I run a Uniform Commercial Code search on a boat?

Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings will not perfect a lender's security interest on boats that are state titled or Coast Guard documented. They are typically used for smaller boats in those states that do not issue titles. It is a good practice however to include this type of research in any transaction as they may reveal tax liens and filings on certain furnishings which may not qualify as an integral part of the boat.


How can I tell if a boat has ever been documented?

The most obvious indication would be the existence of an official number marked somewhere on an interior structural part of the vessel. This would be a 6 or 7 digit number preceded by the letters "NO.". However, an official number is often obliterated when the boat has been removed from documentation. Other indicators could be the existence of a name and hailing port on the vessel's exterior. The lack of state registration numbers marked on the forward part of the boat could also be a signal as documented boats are not allowed to display these. Our BoatScope database service would be a great place to search for a cross-reference between the factory hull number and an official number. If all else fails, you can contact the National Vessel Documentation Center to see if they can find the hull number reference in their system. Documentation is of course a moot point if the vessel is under 23 feet in length as it would not likely meet Coast Guard requirements.

How do I conduct a vessel documentation title search?

When a vessel is initially documented, the Coast Guard generates a corresponding master record which is titled "General Index or Abstract of Title". In addition to some basic information about the vessel, all transactions involving changes of ownership, mortgages, supplements, and liens are recorded as individual entries. The abstract may also contain notational information regarding a vessel's documentation status. A copy of the abstract along with can be obtained from the National Vessel Documentation Center by any interested party. Much of the information is however coded and may be difficult to decipher for the layperson. It may therefore be worthwhile to seek professional assistance when conducting such research. Coast Guard abstract of title services are available from our "Services" page.

How do I obtain copies of vessel documentation recordings?

Copies of virtually anything submitted to the Coast Guard in conjunction with an application for documentation can be ordered from the documentation center. This includes any subsequent recordings such  as bills of sale, transfers of interest, preferred mortgages, and claims of lien. When ordering this type of information however, it will be necessary to provide the recording data as referenced on the abstract of title.


How can I conduct a title search on a foreign vessel?

Foreign registry systems are for the most part quite similar to our Coast Guard vessel documentation program here in the United States. In most cases the respective federal agency can issue a transcript of registry which offers the same basic information as our Coast Guard's abstract of title or certificate of ownership. Some foreign provinces also issue boat registration certificates or licenses which serve the same function as those issued by our states. The biggest challenge in obtaining foreign vessel title reports is, of course, the language barrier. Accordingly, foreign searches often require assistance and cooperation from the seller while working in conjunction with a qualified translator.


How can I determine if  there are any tax liens filed against a particular boat?

Delinquent tax liens can emanate from the Internal Revenue Service all the way down to a state, county or municipal assessors office. These may not always be related to the boat itself, but can become attached as they apply to all real and personal property of the owner. Unfortunately, such liens are not easy to detect because they are handled differently by each jurisdiction.
      Tax liens are not typically listed directly on a boat's registration, title, or Coast Guard documentation certificate. However, they may show up in the underlying records and may in some cases block subsequent registration or title transactions. If the boat is Coast Guard documented, a tax lien may show up as a claim of lien on the abstract of title. On the state level, tax liens may be recorded with the Secretary of State or a County Clerk as Uniform Commercial Code filings (UCC). The operative word here is "may" because tax agencies are not always consistent in how they post liens.
      In checking for tax liens, a UCC search should be conducted in the jurisdiction where the boat is registered and where the owner resides. If the boat is state registered, the registration agency should be contacted to see if a tax lien has been flagged on their records. When the boat is Coast Guard documented it will be  necessary to order an abstract of title to see if any  claims have been filed. Running a credit report on the owner may be another good resource for finding tax liens. In  addition, you may find tax lien postings in our boat lien claim database which is part of our BoatScope database service. If this seems confusing or all consuming, you may ultimately wish to obtain the services of a boat title professional and a search provider that has access to a wide range of public records.

What is a hidden vessel or boat lien?

In the realm of maritime law, a vessel is said to have taken on a persona of its own. In other words, the vessel can by its very existence create debts and liabilities just as if it were a real person. These will follow a vessel to subsequent owners, even without an awareness by such parties. If such obligations are not recorded or otherwise made public, they are termed as hidden liens.


Where can in find boat damage reports?

Boat owners are required by law to file reports when their vessel has been involved in substantial collision events and those related to casualties. Law enforcement officials must also record any such occurrences in which they have become involved. Although this type of data is made available to the general public, it can be subject to errors and omissions. Detecting boats that have suffered damages resulting from hurricanes, sinking, grounding, and other non-reportable events is more challenging. There are commercial databases which gather such information, but these are not fully conclusive. These limitations should accordingly be offset by a thorough inspection from a qualified marine surveyor.

Where can I find stolen vessel or boat reports?

The most obvious way of detecting a stolen boat or vessel is to check the hull identification number for alterations and to validate that it is properly formatted. Although not always possible, researching the complete chain of ownership will also help verify a current owner's rightful possession. There are public databases which facilitate stolen boat searches, but these are not conclusive and should not be relied upon as such. If there is any reason to suspect the vessel is stolen, you should contact a local law enforcement agency. They have access to a nationwide vessel identification system which is not available to the general public.

How reliable are boat history reports?

Boat history reports or searches cover things such as damaged, stolen, auctioned, recalled, and foreclosed boats. They do not typically address issues regarding boat liens, vessel mortgages, and claims. Although boat  history reports are a valuable tool in researching a vessel's background, they are not fully conclusive and should not be relied upon as such. Additional research measures should always be taken and they should not become a substitute for additional protections like thorough inspections, marine surveys, vessel title insurance, title warranties, or other seller assurances.


Visit our database page for the nation's premier boat history report with a full compliment of title search resources. Includes eight maritime databases all rolled into one convenient interface. A must-have service for any prospective buyer, marine lender, or maritime professional.


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