The gentle lapping of the water, stunning sunsets, and inspiring sunrises – there are many reasons why life on the water conjures visions of the ultimate paradise. Getting into houseboat life can seem inaccessible if you haven’t spent time on the water before. However, with some basic knowledge to get you going, you’ll be sailing away into the sunset in no time.
Are houseboats and float houses the same?
Houseboats and floating houses are similar but not exactly the same thing. A float house or floating house (terminology will differ based on regional lingo) is essentially a house that sits on a specialized dock called a float. Float houses can be moved but need a tugboat to tow them from place to place on the water.
A houseboat has its own built-in engine. You can drive a houseboat like any other boat, going from place to place or mooring it in a permanent spot.
From the outside, floating houses look like any normal home. They’re typically smaller in size, more like a cabin or cottage than a large home, as they’re light enough to be supported by a float.
In terms of style, float houses can be any type of design you choose. While weight considerations make using certain materials like concrete or heavy-gauge metal less common, the finishing options are plentiful enough to maintain the look you’re going for.
On the other hand, houseboats tend to be more distinct in terms of their overall shape and design. Seeking to maximize the living space inside, houseboats are constructed to be rectangular in shape, with relatively few arches and curves compared to something like a sailboat.
The interior finishing you choose for either your floating house or houseboat can be entirely customized to your personal style. Both have weight limits for buoyancy purposes, but within those limits, the world is your oyster.
Market statistics in Seattle and Portland
Houseboats and floating houses can be found anywhere with a body of water and a seafaring spirit, but there are places in the US where they’re more common. Seattle, Portland, and the Pacific Northwest overall are rife with people who just want to float along. You can get on board with this lifestyle, too.
The Seattle market saw huge growth in 2021, which lined up with many lifestyle changes resulting from the pandemic and increased remote work availability. In 2021, 39 floating homes were sold in the Seattle area, compared with only 20 in 2019.
Statistics on houseboat sales are more difficult to track. Houseboats fall more into the general powerboat category, and sales are recorded differently than home sales. However, if you’re looking for numbers in your particular area, search online for houseboats for sale within your geographic area to get an idea.
Offer and demand
Areas like Seattle and Portland have an established float house history, making the availability more conducive to those new to the market. The Seattle floating house market heats up more each year, and the median time a floating house was on the market in 2021 before selling was just 12 days. If you’re looking to come aboard the floating house community in Seattle or Portland, you’ll need to be prepared to move fast to successfully close.
If you want to live in a floating house in a location that isn’t as familiar with the ins and outs of float homes, be prepared to pay more to bring in materials and experts from further away.
If you’re looking to say “ahoy” to float house life in Washington or Oregon, expect to pay an average of $1,294 per square foot or a median home price of $1.4 million. These prices are market averages. If you keep a keen eye on the real estate horizon, you’ll be able to find options that fall on either side of those averages.
Another cost factor to consider is that if you’re thinking of buying a floating home and moving it to a new location – or slip – it can become costly very quickly. Additionally, available slips are becoming increasingly difficult to find, making it trickier to relocate a floating home. It can certainly be done, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re weighing your options.
How to buy a houseboat
Now that you know about the basic differences between float homes and houseboats, let’s get into the good stuff – how you can make your dreams a reality and become a houseboat owner.
The overall cost to purchase your houseboat varies greatly depending on where you are, the size of your houseboat, how recently it was built, and the quality of the exterior and interior finishing. There are some common costs you can expect to pay regardless of the purchase price of your new houseboat.
- Inspection – An inspection differs from an appraisal because it’s not mandatory. The focus is to point out unsafe areas and needed repairs, whereas an appraisal is mandatory and meant to give the lender an accurate picture of the property’s value. There are many niche areas in a houseboat that may need repairs, so it’s critical to have an inspection done by a licensed home inspector.
- Moorage – If you’re planning on living full-time on your houseboat, you’ll need a place to moor long-term. Taking short-term trips is one of the best benefits of having a houseboat, but you’ll need a place to tank up on clean water, charge batteries, and offload greywater and sewage.
- Utilities – Depending on your vessel’s specifics, you’ll likely want to have a slip that allows you to connect to electricity instead of constantly running your batteries. Many marinas include this in their monthly or yearly mortgage fees.
- Fuel – There’s no getting around it – these days, fuel isn’t inexpensive. Make sure you have all the specifics on your houseboat’s fuel consumption and the size of the fuel tank so the cost to fill up doesn’t become a hindrance.
- Maintenance – Regular homes need maintenance to stay in tip-top shape, and that’s even more true for houseboats. Sitting in water constantly is hard on materials. To keep your houseboat seaworthy, budget for monthly and yearly maintenance.
Consider the following so you can secure the best financing to keep your new lifestyle afloat:
- Loan – Depending on the condition of the houseboat you want to buy, it’s possible it could only qualify for a cash sale and you won’t be able to use a loan to cover the purchase price.
- Appraisal – Unless you’re paying cash for your houseboat, you’ll need an appraisal to secure your loan. A houseboat is considered a non-conventional structure, but if your plan is to live aboard full-time, you’ll need an appraisal.
- VHA or VA loans – Despite the name ‘houseboat,’ these vessels are considered to be powerboats and won’t qualify for VA or FHA loans.
Pros and cons
Living aboard a houseboat tends to be a polarizing topic – you’ll find people who either love it or couldn’t stand it, but very few middling opinions. Here are some of the top pros and cons to consider:
- Adventure – You’ll feed your adventurous spirit when you make the move to live on a houseboat. With easier access to watersports, you can become your best self with far less effort than having to do the same driving from your home.
- Education – If you have children, there’s nothing like real-world experiences to foster learning. Mechanics, biology, physics, electricity – there aren’t many educational elements that boat life lacks.
- Versatility – Tired of your surroundings? No problem – just hit the glittering waters and motor your way to a different sunset.
- Safety – While it’s a wonderful opportunity for your children to learn when you live aboard a houseboat, there are also inherent hazards. Living in a home essentially surrounded by a giant swimming pool requires extra vigilance and precautions on your part.
- Repairs – Ask anyone who’s owned a boat – the repairs are consistent and costly. Learning or having some DIY skills is a great start, but chances are you’ll need to find a great boat mechanic to help you with bigger issues.
- Weather – Living on water means you’re at the mercy of the sea, and if the waves are rolling, so are you. It may take some time to adjust to the motion of your houseboat, even if you moor in a calm area.
Living on the water means a few extra steps to consider when deciding whether this is the right lifestyle for you.
You’ll need to abide by local and state regulations for floating homes and houseboats. These regulations vary by location but expect to be required to navigate various levels of permitting and licensing processes to keep your home above board.
It can be more difficult to find a lender to approve you for a mortgage for a houseboat or floating house, but it’s possible. Avoid becoming discouraged if your first lender declines you by preparing to approach multiple lenders. Best case, your spirits are buoyed by an easy acceptance process. Worst case, you’re ready for the journey.
Floating homes are equipped to connect to services on dry land. Once your home is correctly serviced, you can operate normally.
Houseboats are often only built with 30-amp service, which means you’ll need to be careful about what appliances you’re running at the same time to avoid overloading your electrical system. If you’re mooring at a marina, there may be facilities there to get rid of blackwater and refill freshwater. If not, there are mobile services that will come to you.
Monthly and yearly maintenance is necessary to keep your floating home or houseboat in tip-top shape. Rust and corrosion quickly lead to leaks, which causes moisture damage to the interior of your houseboat or even makes it unlivable if left for too long.
Floating houses need to have the docks checked over by a dive inspector every three to six years, depending on the age of your home. Houseboats must be inspected on a similar timeline but can be pulled out of the water at a shipyard for the inspection.
Tips for living on the water
Think you’re ready to take the plunge? Mull over these factors to see how well life on the water will fit into your routine:
Day to day
Life is different on a houseboat or floating house, and even routine chores like getting groceries aren’t the same. Many houseboaters who moor offshore will have a dinghy (a smaller boat that’s easy to scoot to shore with) for short trips.
Similarly, floating house communities often have waterways set up to make it easier to take a small boat around instead of walking to a parking lot and using your vehicle.
If you love kayaking, paddle boarding, or watersports, get ready for the ideal lifestyle. Even beachfront properties don’t boast 360-degree access to the water like a houseboat or float house does.
Quick access to shore means you can scope out walking, running, and cycling trails. Get into a comfortable routine or explore a new trail weekly. Living on the water gives you easy access to all your favorite outdoor activities.
One of the best things about living aboard a houseboat or on a floating home is the community spirit embodied by the residents. While you can find areas with more isolated slips, many communities in Washington are community-centric and will vet new residents based on how they’ll fit into the community.
Neighborhood issues are best solved over a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine and by keeping the peace instead of escalating small problems. It’s all about diplomacy and communal spirit in float house neighborhoods, so put your best foot forward right from the get-go.
Grab your captain’s hat, cast off the bow line, and prepare for an adventurous life on the water. You can’t go wrong if you choose a houseboat on a sunny lake or a floating house tucked away in a misty, cliffside cove on the coast. Now that you know the basics of buying and owning a floating home or houseboat, you can feel confident in taking the next steps toward your dream of kicking back and relaxing while surrounded by water and beautiful views.