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The smart buyer: What to look for in a warranty

Would you buy a boat without asking the price? Obviously not. Nor should you buy without looking closely at the warranty — and the folks who will service it.

Be sure you are clear about the warranty's terms and conditions before you buy a boat.

A warranty is the manufacturer’s promise to stand behind its product.

All warranties are limited, and there is no standard warranty in the industry. You have to read it to find out exactly what it does and doesn’t cover. Federal law requires that it be available to you to read before you buy a product.

Most boat warranties include a structural warranty and a parts and components warranty, sometimes called a stem-to-stern warranty, that’s usually of shorter duration than the structural coverage. Structural or hull warranties can cover just the hull, the hull and liner, or the hull, liner, stringers and grid system. Some include the deck, but that may be warranted separately or not at all. Typically the hull is warranted against a structural defect that renders the boat unfit for use, but be aware that if the underlying grid is not included in the warranty, hull damage resulting from the failure of a stringer might not be covered.

Builders increasingly are offering lifetime hull warranties. Note the exclusions; they usually don’t include protection against fading, crazing or stress cracks, which are considered cosmetic. Osmotic blistering often is excluded, but with wider use of vinylester resin and water-resistant outer skins more builders are becoming comfortable offering blister warranties. But be careful: A blister warranty — and sometimes other parts of a boat warranty — may be prorated so that the builder pays a smaller and smaller percentage of the repair bill as the years go by.

Stem-to-stern warranties address the scattershot approach to warranting a boat’s components. Boatbuilders typically have warranted only those boat parts they manufacture. Parts and components made by others were warranted — if at all — by the original manufacturers, and owners had to go directly to them when there was a problem. Stem-to-stern warranties usually cover components made or installed by the manufacturer.

Some component warranties still cover only those components not warranted by another manufacturer; stem-to-stern warranties handle all warranty claims through the manufacturer’s dealer network, except those related to the engine and propulsion system, which are covered through the engine manufacturer’s warranty.

Standard engine warranties protecting against defects in materials and workmanship typically are two or three years, with some manufacturers allowing coverage beyond that through extended protection plans, which really are service contracts, but a few now offer true five-year warranties. Again, check for exclusions. Engine warranties don’t typically cover parts subject to normal wear and tear, and in the second or third year they often exclude certain parts or cover major components only.

Be sure to look at when the warranty’s protection starts. It shouldn’t kick in until you take delivery of the boat. Also, be aware that most warranties require you to mail the registration card within a certain time period. Don’t stretch that deadline or you could void the warranty. Find out whether it’s your responsibility or the dealer’s to mail the warranty card.

Most warranties are transferable, which adds to a boat’s resale value. Check the details; most transfers involve a fee, and you must send written notification of the transfer. Some warranties are transferable just once. With others, length and scope of coverage are reduced upon transfer. Again, determine whether the dealer will be handling the documentation and fees involved in the transfer.

Most warranties specify that the manufacturer pays for parts and labor only. That means the warranty won’t cover the cost of transporting the boat to an authorized service facility or other incidental costs, such as hotel or rental car bills. Some will pay for haulout and relaunch, but most won’t pay for storage, dockage, rigging, diagnosis or other associated costs.

Be aware, too, that you have responsibilities under the warranty, and if you don’t fulfill those responsibilities the warranty may be voided. Most warranties are voided if a boat is used for racing or commercial purposes; is abused, neglected or misused; sinks; or is involved in a serious accident. It may be voided if the boat is overpowered or modified in some significant way or if you try to repair a warranted item yourself or use someone other than a manufacturer-authorized technician to do the work.

Warranties are complex, and clearly some are better than others. If you’re shopping for a boat and have narrowed the field to a few possibilities, secure copies of warranties and read them before you talk with sales personnel. Go through the warranty line by line with the salesperson before you sign a contract, and talk to him or her about how the dealership handles warranty problems and service in general. Make sure you’re clear as to who is responsible for performing the warranty service; it’s usually the function of the selling dealer.

A good dealership with a reputation for service will want you to be familiar with the warranty so there are no surprises when you have a claim. Remember, too, that a warranty is only as good as the manufacturer and dealer who stand behind it.

December 2013 issue