With conventional real estate prices beyond the reach of many people, moving into a houseboat or floating home somewhere it's a joy to wake up every day can seem an appealing alternative. Kentucky, San Francisco, and Seattle have some of the most famous mooring spots, but many other places with lakes, rivers, and coastlines are now joining this buoyant trend. These homes are as varied as their owners: the traditional barge is particularly popular in Europe, ornate wooden homes are found on the rivers of South East Asia, and larger fiberglass two-story vessels are more common in the U.S.
But deciding to uproot your life and plunge into a floating home shouldn't be a whim. There are lots of factors to consider before making this sea-faring move.
Living in a marina can provide a strong community. If this is something you’ve always aspired to, it may work well. Then again, a houseboat can make it much easier to move if you do discover your neighbors are unsuitable.
If you’d sooner live in splendid isolation in a more remote location, be aware of the potential downsides. Who would help you out in adverse weather conditions? What happens on a cold night when you run out of something essential?
Unless you can afford a luxury home, you’ll need to bear in mind many houseboat cabins are only around 30 feet in length, and less than 15 feet wide. Chances are, you’re going to need to pare your belongings down considerably before you make the move to houseboat living. Channel the freedom you feel going on vacation and carrying only what you need. Aim to maximize the possessions that have dual or space-saving purposes; for example, a fold-out bed that works as a sofa during the day, or a foldaway table.
Carefree is great, but to make your dream a reality you need to get serious about safety. Carbon monoxide detectors and fire alarms are non-negotiables. You’ll also need an anchor, a bilge pump for pumping out any water that might leak into the bottom of your boat, and a bubbler for breaking up ice if you live somewhere that gets cold. Non-static vessels need a marine band radio, life preservers, registration certificates, and GPS in case of emergency.
Contact insurance companies in advance to make sure that they can cover your chosen home. The US Coastguard Auxiliary offers a comprehensive boat safety checklist.
Houseboats can sell for as little as $20,000, but arrange a thorough safety inspection before purchasing. You’ll also need to factor in the mooring fees in your desired location. Each marina has its own rules and application processes. Think about how you’ll pay for utilities and the cost of insurance, repairs, and maintenance. Are you happy to enroll in as many training courses as it takes so you can cope with most practical problems yourself, or would you rather pay a professional?
It might sound obvious, but the main difference between living on dry land and living on a boat or floating home is the rise and fall of the water. This could be comforting or it could make you sick. Book a nautical vacation and see if the reality lives up to the picture in your head. Spend time developing your sea legs, and find out if the lifestyle’s something you’ll enjoy.
Marinas offer practicalities like power and sewerage connections and are as varied as the locations they’re situated in. In a more northerly climate, you may need to make alternative living arrangements for the winter. Consider knocking on some doors and introducing yourself to some of the residents, to get a feel for how much you have in common with them and to absorb some first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live there.
Vessel safety checks are performed free of charge by the US Power Squadron and US Coastguard Auxiliary. If your home passes, you’ll be able to display a decal to that effect, but if it doesn’t there are no direct consequences. You will likely be handed a list detailing how to bring your boat up to standard and make it as safe as possible. An annual visit from a qualified marine technician can help protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning and fires.
Needless to say, humidity affects any home on the water. Ensure you have enough fans to help air circulate and pump moisture back outside. Specific marine dehumidifiers also exist. Think about how you can adjust your habits so that you always dry out wet items before bringing them into your home. You'll need to be always on the lookout for mold spores that may indicate a problem.
Moving aboard a houseboat might be a welcome change for those who are used to a big outdoor space, but daily life can still be improved by some greenery. Is there an area on the deck that you can convert into a small garden with water-loving plants, or would you prefer house plants dotted around the cabin? Bear in mind you’ll need to ensure they’re supported and weighted down for any stormy conditions they might have to endure.
The main difference between floating homes and houseboats is that the former can’t self-propel. This can make them permanent fixtures wherever they’re moored. It also means that they’re usually constantly hooked up to sewerage, power, and other utilities, like any conventional home. Houseboats generally have an engine and can be moored anywhere they have legal permission to be. Do your research, learn the pros and cons, and figure out which one is best for you.