What’s it take to live in a houseboat?

Plenty of homeowners are willing to pay a premium for a view of the nearest lake or river. But that’s not close enough for some people who want to live atop the water.

That’s the lifestyle Larry Clinton chose. For the past 29 years, he has lived in a floating home in California’s Richardson Bay, near Sausalito, Calif. He says he appreciates living close to the bay’s wildlife.

“My wife and I say that our view is like having the nature channel on 24-7,” Clinton says. “The bird life changes with the season and even with the tide. When the tide is going out, we have wading birds picking through the mud, and when the tide comes in, we have diving birds. We have a great variety of natural life right outside our windows, including sea lions and harbor seals.”

Another plus, Clinton says, is that his neighborhood is about two miles from the Sausalito ferry and about 10 to 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco.

Clinton and his neighbors do not live in true houseboats, which can move under their own power. Their homes are more conventional structures that float on platforms made of logs or concrete-encased foam.

Graham Marden, real-estate broker in Portland, Ore., says that these residences are anchored to semipermanent locations on the water. He says that about 4,000 floating homes, ranging from about $70,000 to $999,000, are clustered in the rivers around Portland.

In fact, there are houseboat docks along the East, West and Gulf coasts, as well as on the Great Lakes and on numerous smaller lakes throughout the country. Inland locations include Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, Lake Travis in Texas and Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico.

Laws and logistics Kevin Bagley, a real-estate broker at Special Agents Realty in Seattle, says that laws in his hometown, where he and his wife live in a houseboat, specify the types of residences that can occupy local waterways and the rules that apply to them.

Cities treat houseboats and floating homes differently. Houseboats must have seaworthy hulls, engines and navigational equipment, in addition to meeting U.S. Coast Guard standards for flotation, fuel, and electrical and ventilation systems. Floating homes must adhere to local construction codes and be in approved moorages.

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Houseboat and floating-home owners have different needs and concerns, too. Because houseboats are generally not attached to sewer systems, for example, they have holding tanks for waste.

Tanks for fresh water are also a good idea, Bagley says. In cold weather, marinas often shut off the water supply rather than risk having their pipes burst.

Houseboat buyers can expect to pay sales tax on their purchase, Bagley says, but they do not have to pay property taxes, unless they own a share of the dock where they moor. About half of floating-home owners moor at condo- or co-op-style docks, he says, but most houseboats are docked in rental slips.

Buyers pay excise taxes at sale, Bagley says, and prices per square foot are typically higher with floating homes than with houseboats, but there is also less rocking as the water moves.

Melissa Ahlers, a real-estate broker with Seattle’s Lake Real Estate who lives in a floating home, says that people with floating residences typically have fewer financing and insurance choices than with conventional houses. That can mean interest rates on mortgages that are a half-point to one point higher.

Buyers of houseboats and floating homes often must go to specialized banks, such as members of the National Marine Bankers Association, to get financing. Big banks may not be familiar the difference between houseboats and floating homes. For example, in addition to a conventional home inspection, buyers may request having divers inspect the underwater portions of a floating home.

Landlubbers must adjust Homeowners moving from the land to the water face some adjustments.

For one thing, homes on the water are more exposed to the elements, Clinton says, which means they can require more caulking, painting and other maintenance than houses on terra firma.

Houseboats’ mechanical systems — including their engines, inverters and sewage pumps — also require upkeep.

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And life on a dock means being farther from your car, which can be a hardship if you are accustomed to the convenience of an attached garage.

“From the parking lot, it could be a 100-yard walk to your home — which, if you’re carrying groceries or dry cleaning in the rain, can be something of a challenge,” Clinton says.

Ahlers and other residents of houseboats and floating homes say that for them, the benefits of living on the water outweigh the hassles. They say that one of the biggest joys is the close-knit neighborhood that forms on the docks.

“The reason we moved here was because we wanted to be near downtown Seattle, and we wanted to be able to have a boat right next to our house,” Ahlers says. “But we’re staying because of the community.”

By Scot Meyer of SwitchYard Media

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