Should you buy a boat at government auction?

It took some time, but Robert J. Ball finally bought his dream boat-a 92' sportfisherman. The boat was loaded: twin 1,400-hp Detroit Diesel inboards, air-conditioned flying bridge, tuna tower with control station, four staterooms with three built-in entertainment centers. The salon had the requisite galley, dinette, and bar. There was only one problem: Ball purchased the boat with profits from a Ponzi scheme and the Feds found out. Being no fans of fraud, they seized his boat, One More Time, and put it up for sale. Originally valued at $5.5 million, it sold for $1.8 million.

You, too, can get a relative steal if you browse through the spoils of the government's war on white-collar crime. How? Just go to a government auction. Here we outline the ways to learn which boats are great deals, and we toss in a couple of tips on bidding.

The Treasury Department supervises a number of agencies that seize boats: IRS criminal investigators-who were responsible for confiscating One More Time-U.S. Customs, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The U.S. Marshal Service, a Justice Department agency, also seizes vessels. Both the Treasury and Justice departments contract with private companies that market on the Internet to sell $120 million in confiscated property annually. "This benefits the public because all the information you need is in one place-the process is streamlined and centralized," says Brittany Bartlett, public relations coordinator for EG&G Technical Services, the company that handles sales for the Justice Department.

How do you get on the inside track? Have e-mail alerts sent to you with details about when and where an auction is going to take place. Check Web sites for specifics, such as what forms of payment are accepted and where you can pick up your new boat when the sale is complete. You also can check the terms and conditions of each sale online. Normally auctions are free; however, in the case of One More Time, because of the high price of the boat, the Treasury Department required a fully refundable earnest money deposit in the amount of $100,000-just to bid.

Is there anything to be wary of? You bet. To buy a boat from U.S. Customs, for instance, you may have to travel to Puerto Rico, South Florida, or Los Angeles. The shipping costs could negate some of your savings. Plus, the boats are in as-is condition, and the government doesn't allow sea trials. You can look at them in person, though; the auction contractors usually hold a public preview day. "We encourage people to see the boats. You should never buy sight unseen," says Bartlett. "These boats come in all types of conditions, some still wrapped in plastic, some with bullet holes in the sides. We see a lot of bullet holes."

Also, to buy the boat you must have your money matters prearranged. "The government won't finance your boat," stresses Bartlett. (All the proceeds from government auctions go into forfeiture funds that funnel money back to law enforcement and crime victims.) The biggest downside? No warranties. If the boat is defective, the government won't take it back.

But all things considered, you could get the deal of a lifetime. Shimon Swissa is happy with his first foray into government auctions. He was the winning bidder and new owner of One More Time. Says Swissa, "I'm very satisfied with the auction. Everything happens for the best." We wonder if Robert J. Ball would agree.

For auction information, contact EG&G Technical Services at www.treas.gov/auctions/customs; for U.S. Marshal Service auctions, contact Bid4Assets at www.bid4assets.com.