Waterfront property certainly has its appeal. Access to the river, lake or ocean can provide endless enjoyment, especially if you’re a person who likes getting out on the water. But have you considered living on the water itself?
There are a few options for making your next home on a boat or along a dock, from houseboats to a yacht or sailboat to a more permanently fixed floating house. Here’s what you need to know.
A floating home is most often used to describe a house on the water that doesn’t have a motor or navigation system, commonly docked among other floating homes. The hull is often made of concrete. Because they’re not mobile under their own power, floating homes typically stay in one place long term and are permanently attached to electrical, water and sewer lines.
Floating homes “essentially are barges that houses are built into,” says Scott Collins, who serves as public relations co-chair with his partner, Arleen Ma, for Floating Homes Association Inc. in Sausalito, California. The association located in Richardson Bay, which is north of San Francisco, is made up of a community of roughly 400 floating homes.
Houseboats often have a more house-like look than a sailboat or yacht, with a rectangular structure to maximize space indoors. The hull is more often made of fiberglass, steel or aluminum, and the motor and navigation systems mean a houseboat can travel on its own and be hooked up to side systems in a marina slip for access to power and water.
However, you’re less likely to use a houseboat for day trips down the river or out onto the lake. Bill Drage, principal owner of houseboat manufacturing company East Coast Houseboats, says that most of his clients plan to keep their houseboat dockside at all times. The size and shape of a houseboat makes it harder to direct than a yacht or sailboat — Drage says one client “said it was like moving a refrigerator across the water.”
Other Boats as Residences
If you prefer the look of a more traditional boat, you can choose to live on just about anything you can afford as long as it’s comfortable. Yachts, trawlers and some sailboats have enough space to live below deck.
If you’re living on a powered boat or boathouse and primarily staying in a marina where you have a slip, know the marina’s rules before claiming your boat as your permanent residence. Some marinas have a maximum number of nights allowed on board, while others are more amenable to full-time residents.
How to Buy a Floating Home or Houseboat
Floating homes are frequently sold along with their slip, and in many ways sell like a typical house. Real estate agents will list the property on the market like they would any home on land. In cities where floating house communities are established, you can often find floating home listings on Zillow, realtor.com or other consumer-facing real estate information sites.
However, a floating home cannot be purchased with a traditional mortgage. Floating home loans do exist and are more commonly offered by local banks and credit unions where floating home communities exist than a national bank or lender. Houseboat manufacturers, floating home builders and floating home communities can be a helpful resource for researching your loan options.
Financing a houseboat is the same as financing any other kind of boat, and it is considered a personal property loan.
If you’re looking for a houseboat or another type of boat you can convert into your new home, websites for boat sales, houseboat and boat manufacturers and boat dealers are the best places to go.
The Cost of Owning a Floating Home or Houseboat
Like with buying a house, floating homes and houseboats vary widely in cost to buy one. For a new houseboat from East Coast Houseboats, Drage says the range starts with a one-bedroom, 22-foot houseboat that starts under $90,000. At the higher end of the spectrum, a two-story houseboat that’s 50 feet long and 16 feet wide goes for around $350,000.
Existing floating homes and houseboats on the market can be less than $100,000 and reach $1 million, depending on size, style, condition and location. If a slip comes included, you can naturally expect to pay more.
Don’t forget to factor in the monthly cost of keeping a slip or berth on the dock. Collins and Ma report berth fees to be a part of the Floating Homes Association in Richardson Bay can be hefty. “They can be expensive — they’re over $1,000 a month. But the property taxes are not set up on the land, only on the dwelling. So you’re property taxes are less, but your berth fee is more,” Collins says.
If you’re living in a marina that isn’t an established residential community, you may not be required to pay property taxes at all. Be sure to inquire with the marina as you calculate your bottom line.
What to Know About Maintaining a Floating Home or Houseboat
The amount of maintenance you’ll find on a floating home or houseboat is similar to what you’ll find in most homes, though how you maintain it may be a bit different.
When it comes to systems that don’t operate exactly the same as a home on land, a person with experience working on floating houses is ideal. “Plumbing and electrical and painting — you really should have someone that specializes (in doing the work),” Collins says. In a floating home community, you’re likely to find that those specialists are your neighbors.
With so much exposure to water, expect a bit more rust and warping as a result. “Wood and metal deteriorate literally in front of your eyes,” Collins says.
Phyllis and Guy Biederman have been residents of Floating Homes Association Inc. on Richardson Bay for about nine years, and they note that regular maintenance issues would be most closely in tune with having a seaside home, because of the similar levels of exposure to salt water and weather coming off the water.
Because many floating homes have a concrete hull, it’s important to check on the hull’s condition and be diligent to repair any cracks that form. “It would kind of like having a cracked foundation,” says Guy Biederman, who teaches creative writing.
“Except houseboats can sink,” adds Phyllis Biederman, a nurse.
[Read: The Guide to Living in a Van.]
Tips for Living on the Water
Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind before you forego life on land for a floating home or houseboat:
Get to know the neighbors. Especially if you’re living in a community of houseboats or floating homes, you’re likely to recognize your neighbors quickly, and even more likely to become close. “The minute we moved here we received welcome gifts like flowers, cookies, books,” Ma says of the Floating Homes Association community. “I thought, ‘This would never happen in the city.'”
Less is more. Like with living in a tiny house, your storage on a floating home, houseboat or other kind of residence on the water will leave you with minimal storage space. To avoid the added cost of keeping a storage unit on land, get strict about how much you accumulate. “Any time something comes into your house, something has to come out of your house,” Collins says.
Prepare for plumbing inconvenience. Even if you’re living dockside, plumbing on a floating home doesn’t work the same as it does for a house on land — a pump that uses electricity is a key part of getting waste out of a holding tank that’s part of your home and to the line that goes to the sewer. “If the power goes out, which it can do quite a bit in the winter, you don’t flush your toilet and you don’t use your water,” Guy Biederman says.
Try it out first. Life in a floating home isn’t for everyone. Make sure it’s a good fit by visiting friends who live on the water or sign up for a tour of a floating home community. Additionally, Drage says about 80% of his clientele right now are people purchasing houseboats to use as short-term rentals through services like Airbnb or VRBO, which can be an easy opportunity to try out dockside life for a couple nights — or even a couple weeks.
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