This document explains the licensing procedures and regulations in the U.S. that apply to homebuilt watercraft, hovercraft, three wheel vehicles, and passenger cars. It also provides tips on obtaining insurance.
Vehicles that are operated on the public roadways or waterways must have a title and a license. With manufactured vehicles, the title is issued by the manufacturer to identify the particular vehicle and establish ownership. A title is issue only once in the life of a vehicle and lasts as long as the vehicle exists. Normally, a vehicle does not have to meet any regulations nor even to work in order to be become a titled entity. In order to operate a vehicle on the public roadways or waterways, however, it must be licensed. A license will be issued on a homebuilt vehicle only if it meets applicable standards of construction and is appropriately equipped. A license will have to be annually renewed by paying a fee.
Vehicle manufacturers have to comply with federal regulations in the construction of their products. Homebuilt land vehicles (cars, motorcycles, ATVs), whether built from a kit or entirely from scratch, are regulated on a state level and must therefore comply with the regulations of the particular state in which they are licensed. Homebuilt vehicles are not regulated on a federal level – at least not formally. Normally, the state-level regulations that apply to such vehicles are less stringent than the federal regulations that apply to manufactured products, but much depends on the state in which you live. For example, the motor vehicle code of many states contains language requiring that all motor vehicles are equipped according to the federal regulations in effect when the vehicle was manufactured. Homebuilt aircraft and watercraft must comply with federal regulations.
Visit the appropriate agency in your state and obtain a list of the required equipment and inspection procedures applicable to your vehicle. That way, local requirements can be accounted for as the item is built.
Obtaining a Title
Before your finished vehicle can be inspected and licensed, you must first obtain a title. (A separate title may not be required for boats, hovercraft, and ATVs, depending on the state.) If your specially constructed vehicle is based on the chassis of an existing car or motorcycle, the title of the vehicle that supplied the chassis will probably be used as the title for the new vehicle. If you did not use a chassis from an existing vehicle, a new title must be obtained. The new title may or may not be provided by the same agency that provides the license.
To obtain a new title, you will have to present receipts for all components and materials to the appropriate state agency. In most states, however, the titling agency will accept a title bond in place of the receipts. Purchase the title bond. It will save hours of time pouring over receipts with an official in an attempt to document your ownership of the vehicle. Regardless of the procedure in your state, save all receipts because they will be the only proof that you actually own the vehicle. Moreover, receipts may be required to document the car’s value when obtaining insurance. Before your finished vehicle can be inspected and licensed, you must first obtain a title. (A separate title may not be required for boats, hovercraft, and ATVs, depending on the state.) If your specially constructed vehicle is based on the chassis of an existing car or motorcycle, the title of the vehicle that supplied the chassis will probably be used as the title for the new vehicle. If you did not use a chassis from an existing vehicle, a new title must be obtained. The new title may or may not be provided by the same agency that provides the license.
To obtain a new title, you will have to present receipts for all components and materials to the appropriate state agency. In most states, however, the titling agency will accept a title bond in place of the receipts. Purchase the title bond. It will save hours of time pouring over receipts with an official in an attempt to document your ownership of the vehicle. Regardless of the procedure in your state, save all receipts because they will be the only proof that you actually own the vehicle. Moreover, receipts may be required to document the car’s value when obtaining insurance.
In the U.S., cars having four or more wheels in contact with the ground are classified as passenger cars. Homebuilt or specially constructed passenger cars must be correctly equipped in order to obtain a license, and equipment requirements vary from state to state. Your finished vehicle will be inspected and licensed by the appropriate agency of your particular state. Normally, the agency will be entitled Department of Motor Vehicles or Motor Vehicle Department. In California, for example, homebuilt cars are inspected by the California Highway Patrol and the actual license is issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Before you begin construction, it’s a good idea to check with the appropriate agency to find out how your vehicle will have to be equipped. That way, the necessary equipment can be incorporated into the vehicle as it is built. Most states provide a booklet outlining the correct equipment and licensing procedure for specially constructed cars.
Passenger Car Equipment Requirements
Equipment requirements normally concern items such as the correct braking, lighting, window glazing materials, safety equipment, rear view mirrors, defrosters, wipers, and other similar items. Emission controls are also an important consideration in meeting state-level equipment requirements.
Passenger cars must be equipped with hydraulic brakes on all four wheels. Braking system regulations normally require a separate parking brake, independent of the hydraulic braking system, that operates on either the two front or the two rear wheels. The hydraulic braking system must be equipped with a stop light that is activated either by a hydraulic pressure switch or by a mechanical switch on the brake pedal assembly. In most states, the hydraulic braking system must be the type having a dual-chamber master cylinder with two independent brake fluid reservoirs and independent front and rear hydraulic systems. Most states require two tail light fixtures, equipped with running lights and stop lights, but some states still require only a single tail light/stop light fixture.
A system for defogging the windshield (defroster) will likely be required. Requirements for bumpers and fenders vary between states, but fenders and vehicle-width bumpers are required equipment in most states. Some states, however, exempt vehicles of less than a specified weight. Seats belts are another item that may be necessary in order to obtain a license. Side marker lights may or may not be required in your state.
In some instances, vehicle regulations could place limitations on particular customization ideas that you may have in mind. In all states, for example, headlights must be located so the center of the lens is no closer than 24 inches above the ground. In the case of retractable headlights, the center of the lens must be at least 24 inches above the ground when the headlights are extended for night driving. If a special design treatment were to result in headlights that are too close to the ground, your finished vehicle may require extensive modification in order to receive a license. Many states permit acrylic window glazing for side and rear windows, but others require glass safety plate for all window glazing. Laminated safety plate is universally required for windshield glazing, and either tempered safety plate or acrylic glazing will be allowed for side and rear windows, depending on the state in which the vehicle is licensed.
Although homebuilt vehicles are not regulated on a federal level, the vehicle code of many states includes language requiring that all vehicles are equipped according to the federal regulations in effect when the vehicle was built. If you are in one of these state, a vehicle based on an existing automobile chassis will have to be equipped according to the federal regulations in effect when the chassis was built. An entirely scratch built vehicle would have to comply with regulations in effect in the year in which the vehicle is finished.s.
Three Wheeled Vehicles
On a federal level, three wheel cars do not exist in the U.S. If a light duty vehicle operates with not more than three wheels in contact with the ground, it is classified as a motorcycle. Manufacturers of three-wheelers must therefore equip their vehicles according to motorcycle regulations, and they do not have to meet the safety and emissions standards that apply to passenger cars. Homebuilt three-wheelers are regulated on a state level and must comply with state-level motor vehicle regulations. But state vehicle code normally does not contradict federal regulations.
In brief, three wheelers can use acrylic window glazing (or none at all), they need only a single headlight and tail light module, they are not required to be equipped with wipers, defrosters, vehicle-width bumpers, fenders, seat belts, turn signals, and parking brakes. Motorcycle emissions standards are also less stringent, or not controlled at all. Recent changes have allowed an emissions exemption – a once in a lifetime exemption – for a homebuilt motorcycle. Recently, California had no emissions regulations for diesel-powered motorcycles. Some of the foregoing may not apply equally in all states.
In most cases, vehicle regulations tend to favor the hobbyist. Motor vehicle regulations are not intended to discourage experimentation or pleasure-fabrication by hobbyists. It is generally assumed that hobbyists do not have a significant impact on highway safety or emissions. Before beginning construction of a three wheel vehicle, visit the agency responsible for inspecting and licensing vehicles in your state and pick up a copy of the pamphlet containing equipment requirements for specially constructed three wheelers. The procedure for obtaining a new title should be the same as for four wheel vehicles.
Homebuilt watercraft must be correctly equipped and licensed in order to operate on the public waterways. In the U.S., watercraft regulations are developed and enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. Your homebuilt boat, however, will be inspected and licensed by the designated agency in your particular state; most likely an agency other than the U.S. Coast Guard. But regardless of the inspecting agency, your boat must be equipped according to Coast Guard standards. U.S. Coast Guard regulations are published in the booklet entitled Safety Standards For Backyard Boat Builders, which is available from any office of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The official will inspect your homebuilt boat for adequate foam flotation, and in the case of power boats, an approved fire extinguisher and an emergency paddle. Power boat fuel systems must be correctly set up. If a portable fuel tank is used, and it must remain in an unenclosed area, or enclosed in a compartment equipped with positive ventilation. Built-in fuel tanks must be vented to the outside with a separate line. If the boat is to be operated at night, the correct lighting will be required. In addition, there must be an approved life jacket onboard for each occupant.
It is especially important to build the correct flotation into your boat. When fully loaded with the specified number of occupants and powered by the largest specified engine, a completely swamped boat must have enough positive flotation to remain afloat. The previously mentioned booklet of regulations provides guidelines for calculating the correct amount of flotation. Flotation cannot come from hollow chambers. Instead, it must be provided by foam filled compartments. Adequate flotation will be provided in HydroRunner by filling the lower sections of the hull and sponsons with foam (9 cubic feet of foam).
Safe Powering Standards
Safe powering standards are also important, especially if you intend to design your own outboard powered boat. The U.S. Coast Guard booklet, Safety Standards For Backyard Boat Builders, also provides a formula for determining the maximum power of an outboard boat based on the length of the hull, the width of the transom, and other design factors. According to the safe powering formula, HydroRunner should be limited to roughly three horsepower. Yet HydroRunner plans call for an outboard of up to 35 hp, and the much lighter production version (not available at this time) was rated for up to 30 hp. The reason for this has to do with the way in which early safe powering standards were developed, and the safe maneuvering tests and exemptions that are allowed today.
Shortly after World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a study to determine the maximum safe power of outboard powered boats based on a number of design factors. This resulted in the existing formula for calculating maximum safe power. But as the state of the art in hull design became more advanced, these original standards no longer accounted for all possible hull designs. Although the U.S. Coast Guard still retains the original safe powering formula, they have developed safe maneuvering tests as an alternative way of determining the maximum safe power of boats that exceed the power designated by the formula. Today, outboard boats of any hull size can be powered by virtually any size engine, provided that the manufacturer (or builder/designer) can demonstrate that the boat can be safely maneuvered at full power and maximum speed. HydroRunner has successfully passed these tests, the tests were videotaped, and an exemption was granted.
If your engine exceeds the maximum recommended power, you may be asked to remove it from the waterway until it is equipped with the correct engine. If you have designed your own power boat and installed an engine that exceeds the U. S. Coast Guard’s safe powering standards, you may have to perform a safe maneuvering test to verify the craft’s safety. Normally, this will not occur unless the boat is so obviously overpowered that it raises questions in the minds of officials. Details of safe maneuvering test procedures can be obtained from any office of the U.S. Coast Guard.
HydroRunner and Personal Watercraft Restrictions
On some waterways, personal watercraft or jet powered skis are prohibited from operation or confined to certain areas. Even though HydroRunner is small, the restrictions that apply to personal watercraft normally do not apply to HydroRunner. The key distinctions are that HydroRunner is powered by an outboard engine (instead of an inboard jet), and its design is quite different from that of a personal watercraft. HydroRunner should be operated in the open waterways, not in confined areas that are closely populated by numerous jet skis. But exactly which craft are restricted on a particular waterway is up to local officials. And if HydroRunner is modified to accept an inboard jet, it will be subject to the same restrictions that apply to personal watercraft.
Hovercraft are regulated according to their operating environment. In order to operate over water, for example, a hovercraft must be licensed as a boat, and it must be equipped according to U.S. Coast Guard boating standards. Standards include items such as positive flotation, fuel system requirements, an approved fire extinguisher, night time lighting, and other regulations that typically apply to boats. Safe powering standards, however, are normally not applied to hovercraft. When over water, a life preserver must be onboard for each occupant.
When a hovercraft is operating over land, it is considered an off-road vehicle. Consequently, it cannot operate on public roadways. As an off-road vehicle, it may or may not be subject to regulations, depending on the state in which it is operating. In some states, the equipment requirements and operating restrictions that apply to ATVs also apply to hovercraft. Check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Parks and Recreation for regulations that apply to hovercraft in your area.
Recreational and sport hovering is also self-regulated by the Hoverclub of America. Although the Hoverclub of America has no legislative powers, they have developed a complete set of guidelines for safe hovercraft construction and operation. Hovercraft must be equipped according to Hoverclub of America standards in order to participate in Hoverclub competitive events. A copy of their booklet entitled Safety Rules and Regulations is available from them for a small fee. Write or visit their website for more information and current prices.
Hoverclub of America
P.O. Box 908
Foley, AL 36536
Insurance For Homebuilt Vehicles
The following information provides an overview of insuring homebuilt vehicles. But do not rely on this article for your insurance decisions. The most accurate information and the best advice on insurance will be available from your insurance agent. Obtaining insurance on a homebuilt vehicle is not quite the same as obtaining insurance on an off-the-shelf product. You may have to shop different underwriters to see which company offers the best coverage at the lowest price.
Vehicle insurance is normally divided into two broad categories of coverage: liability insurance, which mainly covers damage and injury to the other fellow, and collision and comprehensive, which covers damage to your vehicle. In addition to these two broad categories, there is also the separate issue of injury to a passenger in your vehicle (medical insurance), or injury to someone who is riding/driving it, which may not be covered by simple liability insurance.
Obtaining liability insurance on a homebuilt vehicle is easier than obtaining collision and comprehensive insurance. But much depends on the particular vehicle type (boat, hovercraft, or automobile) and on the status of your existing insurance.
If you already have a car insured and your driving record is clean, then you are in the best possible position for obtaining reasonably priced insurance on your homebuilt car. Have your agent add your homebuilt car to your existing policy.
Liability insurance should be relatively easy to obtain, and priced about on par with existing coverage. Collision and comprehensive insurance may be more costly and difficult to obtain. The difficulty with comprehensive and collision insurance comes mainly from the inherent difficulty of establishing a value for your car. Consequently, you may be asked to have it professionally appraised, in which case the total coverage will then be limited to the appraised value.
If you do not already have insurance on an existing car, it will be very difficult to find a company that will write a new policy on your homebuilt car. I’ve heard of people who have purchased an old car a few months before finishing their homebuilt car, insured it, then added the homebuilt car to the policy when it was finished. If you have a choice, make sure that you are not in the position of shopping for a brand new insurance policy on a homebuilt car.
If you have difficulty finding insurance at a reasonable price, you might try Policysure.Com. Policysure is an online insurance company that can provide online quotes for a wide variety of insurances, and they will quote on insurance for homebuilt vehicles. Click on the following link to go to their website – Policysure.com.
Another option is to check with a local kit car club. Someone in the club may be able to direct you to a local agent who specializes in homebuilt vehicles. Check the back pages of Kit Car Illustrated magazine for a listing of the club nearest you.
Insurance companies tend to specialize, and those that write boat insurance are no exception. As a rule, insuring a homebuilt boat should be a relatively straightforward task. But some of the larger underwriters exclude homebuilt boats. If you have difficulty locating a carrier, check with your local boat dealer for his recommendation. Obtaining insurance on the craft itself may be more challenging, mainly because of the difficulty in establishing a value and possible repair costs.
Hovercraft insurance is virtually impossible to obtain – homebuilt or otherwise. The primary problem is that there are few reliable accident and injury statistics to go by. And even if underwriters decided that hovercraft were a safe bet, there aren’t enough of them around to make it worth their while. Some hovercraft enthusiasts feel comfortable that their personal liability insurance will cover them for property damage and injury, but do not rely on this approach without checking it out. Your insurance agent is your best source of information on how best to cover your liability exposure when operating a hovercraft. Much depends on the exclusions listed in your liability policy. Also, it’s a good idea to stay in touch with the Hoverclub of America. Should insurance become easier to obtain, they will probably be the first to announce it.