outdoors

Beginning in 2020, boat registration will be required annually instead of every three years. Tommy Braswell/Special to The Post and Courier

A news release issued earlier this week by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has created some angst among boat owners in the state. The South Carolina General Assembly has changed the way counties will collect property taxes on boats beginning in January. And that means changes also will be taking place that affect the registration process for boats.

The new registration process will resemble that used for automobiles, and the process will be phased in over a three-year period. Under the current system, boat owners register their vessels for $30 for a three-year period; under the new process, they will pay $10 annually. The annual registration fee will be included on and paid via the boat owner’s county property tax bill, just as SCDMV vehicle registration fees are paid.

As a result of the legislation, property taxes for boats will be collected by counties in advance for the coming year. Under the current system, property taxes for boats are collected “in arrears,” or for the previous year. Once the property taxes and registration renewal fee for the coming year have been paid by the owner, the county will notify SCDNR to issue a new set of annual registration numbers for that vessel.

Some other things to remember:

  • The month of expiration for new registrations (new boats or used boats coming from out of state will be based on the date of sale.
  • For in-state changes of ownership, the new owner will need to visit their county tax office first to pay the taxes due for the coming year. The new owner can then apply for the title and registration using the paid tax receipt and other required documents (must be done within 30 days of purchase to avoid late fees).
  • The expiration month on the vessel's current decal will continue to be the month that property taxes are due on the boat for current owners.

Questions and answers

Because of concerns expressed over social media after the news was made public, SCDNR followed the news release with answers to many of the concerns that had been voiced:

• Is the amount of the registration fee for boats increasing?

No. SCDNR is not changing the amount charged for boat registration fees and has not requested any change in the fee amount. It will be $10 annually going forward, rather than $30 every three years. 

The expiration month of your boat's current registration decal will be the month property taxes and registration renewal fees (for the upcoming year) are due, and most boaters will pay the annual fee as part of their new tax bill. An exception will be boats that a county has determined no longer have any taxable value. SCDNR will continue to mail registration renewals for those boats directly to those owners.

• Are taxes on boats going up?

The change in the way taxes are levied on boats that was requested by the counties and approved by the S.C. General Assembly does not affect the amount of taxes paid on a boat. It only affects when they are due to the county.

• Will my boat’s registration numbers change annually?

No. There has been some confusion on that point because of the language used in the news release. When a boat is registered in S.C., the registration number for that boat stays the same for as long as it remains registered in S.C. The new annual decal and registration card issued for a boat when your county of residence notifies SCDNR that the taxes and registration renewal fee have been paid will include the boat’s registration “number” on them (as they do now).

State law also requires that owners ensure that the registration number of their boat is clearly marked on the bow of the boat – that requirement also has not changed.

• I just put a current three-year registration on my boat. Will it be good next year?

Yes, 2021 and 2022 watercraft decals are valid until their expiration dates. Only property taxes will be due on your boats until the expiration month and year of your current decal.

• What is the reason for these changes?

Essentially, this change was requested by county governments to assist them in collecting the taxes due on boats. Under the old system, having multiple years of unpaid back taxes due on boats with expired registrations was often a problem. Counties needed a more efficient system for collecting the taxes due on boats within their jurisdictions.

This is a separate issue from the amount of taxes charged for boats or other personal property, and whether that is a good way to fund the costs of services provided to county residents — public safety, fire protection, schools, libraries, etc. Questions or comments on those topics would be best addressed to your county or state elected officials.

• How can I avoid being charged taxes for a boat I no longer own, or for purchasing a boat with back taxes due on it?

It is very important for boat owners to notify SCDNR within 30 days of selling or disposing of a boat that is registered in their name. Not only is failure to do so a violation of the law, it can also cause a tax bill to be generated by the county for property you may no longer own.

Likewise, purchasing a used boat with back taxes due on it can cause a big headache for the new owner. You can avoid this scenario by using SCDNR’s free “SC Boat Facts” online lookup to check the registration and tax status of a potential used boat purchase before you buy. This and other boat titling and registration info can be found on the SCDNR website at dnr.sc.gov/boating.html.