If you’re looking for an extraordinary way of living and you love the water, Seattle’s houseboats or floating homes might be perfect for you! It offers the chance to develop a strong sense of community and escape the feared “Seattle freeze.” Living in a houseboat provides an adventurous experience that is hard to come by in a condo or a single-family home in Seattle. So, if you’re seeking the quintessential Seattle lifestyle, search no further!
Before buying a floating home or houseboat, you must know the answers to a few questions:
Is a ‘Floating Home’ the same thing as a ‘Houseboat’ in Seattle?
No – although the word “houseboat” is loosely used to refer to any floating property, there are many important differences between Floating Homes and “true” Houseboats, such as Floating on-Water Residences (FOWRs) and Registered Barges (commonly known as ‘house barges’)*. Floating Homes are much more desirable than houseboats for the reasons we’ll cover in the rest of this article.
Do houseboats and floating homes own or lease their moorage?
Most Floating Homes communities are co-operatively or condo owned with full ownership of the slips, the dock, and the water and mud and organize themselves through a Board or Homeowners Association (HOA).
On the other hand, most Houseboats owners (FOWRs & Barges) lease their moorage from a marina, usually on month-to-month or annual leases. Marina owners have granted most houseboat owners (FOWRs & Barges) ‘liveaboard status’ which is permission to live on the houseboat on a full-time basis. This is a status the marina management can take away at any time. Lack of moorage ownership and lack of control of the ability to occupy the property on a full-time basis are some of the main reasons Houseboats sell for significantly less than Floating Homes.
We have a private list of all Floating Homes docks and Houseboats marinas in Seattle that details the ownership status.
What does keeping a floating home or houseboat in its slip cost?
Most floating homes own their slip and their monthly HOA fee covers community expenses (just like a condo unit on land) such as sewer, water, dock maintenance, reserve funds, etc. An in-depth statistical analysis we conducted in 2022 revealed that floating home owners paid monthly dues of $550/mo, on average. The highest HOA dues were about $1000/mo. On the other hand, houseboats typically pay a ‘slip fee and a liveaboard fee’ to their marina landlords that lease them the slip. As of 2022, houseboats paid an average of nearly $900/mo to lease their slips, with some paying nearly $2,000/mo.
In floating home communities, the decision to raise the monthly dues or levy a special assessment for specific improvements or repairs is jointly decided by the floating home owners through the board or the Homeowners Association. Unlike condos on land, special assessments for repairs or improvements to the community are rare. In a condo community on land, the buildings’ roof, siding, windows, balconies, etc, are almost always shared expenses, whereas, in floating home communities, only the dock and part of the utility infrastructure are commonly owned.
Where are houseboats and floating homes located?
Nearly all floating homes and houseboats in Seattle can be found on the waters of Lake Union in the neighborhoods of Eastlake, Westlake, and Northlake or on the waters of Portage Bay. Floating Homes in Seattle are located in designated floating home community docks, while houseboats (FOWRs & Barges) are located in recreational and commercial marinas, next to powerboats and sailboats. Prospective buyers quickly understand that living in a recreational/commercial marina feels distinctively different from living on a Floating Home dock.
We have a private list with all the addresses of floating homes and houseboats in Seattle, which we use to give our buyers and sellers an edge.
How do utilities work on Houseboats and Floating Homes?
Two utilities (electricity and sewer) work quite differently on floating homes than on Houseboats.
Floating homes have electrical service comparable to homes on land, typically 200 amps. On the other hand, most houseboats in Seattle use a 30-amp electrical connection, similar to what an RV or a sailboat would use. Houseboat dwellers need to be conscious of how they use their appliances because a 30-amp connection is not enough to simultaneously power a heater, a blow dryer, and a microwave.
As for sewer, all Seattle floating homes must be connected to the city’s sewer by code, just like a home on land. On the other hand, houseboats have a blackwater holding tank onboard that collects toilet water (just like powerboats or sailboats). A local pump-out company such as Pumpout Seattle can empty the holding tank once a week or bi-weekly at an estimated $25 per pump-out. Water from showers, sinks, and washers drain directly to the lake (like powerboats and sailboats), so it is crucial for houseboat dwellers to use eco-friendly soap products.
Can I move my Floating Home or Houseboat to another slip?
Being able to easily move a houseboat or floating home to a different slip or to the boatyard for repairs/remodels/replacement is advantageous.
While technically possible, there are several reasons why few floating homes ever move. Floating homes cannot easily be moved without undergoing an expensive and laborious process to detach them from the dock. Tugboats, divers, electricians, and other specialized contractors are required to remove them from the dock and disconnect their utilities. Neighboring floating homes also need to be detached to allow a floating home to be moved because (unlike recreational marinas) most floating home docks are not built with water channels wide enough for floating homes to pass. Floating Homes at the end of the dock, or in a dock a wide channel sell for a premium because no neighboring floating homes need to be moved to allow them to pass. Also, a lengthy permit process with Seattle’s Department of Constructions and Inspections is required when moving to a new slip or swapping slips, not to mention approval from one or two Home Owner’s Associations (HOAs).
Houseboats (FOWRs & Barges), on the other hard, are much easier to move. Seattle houseboats used to be navigable vessels. In fact, decades ago, the City of Seattle required houseboats to prove they could start their engines and move around the lake like powerboats and sailboats. In 2014, houseboats were officially recognized as legal ‘residences’ by the City of Seattle and discouraged from being used as vessels. Few houseboats these days have engines, but they can be easily towed because they are small, have quick disconnect utilities, and are moored in recreational marinas with wide enough channels to navigate into the lake. You’ll regularly see houseboats being towed around the lake because they are encouraged to take a trip to the boatyard every few years for hull inspections. However, you’ll rarely see houseboats moving to a different slip due to the scarcity of available liveaboard slips in Seattle’s marinas.
How large are floating homes and houseboats in Seattle?
On average, floating homes have three times the interior living space as Houseboats and twice the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. The average floating home has 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and 1100sqft while houseboats have only 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, and about 375 sqft. Almost all houseboats are pretty rectangular in shape as they were built to fit in common marina slips meant for sailboats and powerboats. Floating homes, on the other hand, are much squarer in shape.
What keeps floating home and houseboats afloat?
Most floating homes float on old-growth logs, supplemented by styrofoam blocks and plastic barrels filled with air. A minority of floating homes – typically those built after the 1970s – have concrete floats instead of logs, and Styrofoam and barrels also supplement these. On the other hand, most houseboats have hulls made of out fiberglass (like sailboats and powerboats), which are reinforced on the inside with wood. Newer houseboats are built on more durable hulls such as aluminum and steel.
The type of float influences the type and frequency of maintenance, durability, and, therefore, sales prices.
Do Floating Homes and Houseboats in Seattle require a lot of maintenance because they are on the water?
Many buyers are attracted to the idea of having an entire lake as a ‘backyard’ but with no yardwork, but they assume floating homes and houseboats are as expensive to maintain as powerboats and sailboats. That’s because boaters usually budget 10% of the value of the sailboat or powerboat for annual maintenance expenses. However, houseboats and floating homes in Seattle are unlike powerboats or sailboats because they don’t have working engines or other navigation equipment to maintain. The maintenance of a houseboat or floating home in Seattle is very similar to that of a home on land.
Floating home maintenance has a lot in common with land-bound properties. Components above the water line, such as the roof, siding, and windows, will need the same maintenance at the same frequency as a home on land. Below the waterline is where the maintenance differs. Depending on the type of flotation, we recommend hiring divers to inspect the float every 3 to 10 years. The divers will check the condition of the sewer line, water line, and the components of the float itself, which can include the logs, concrete foundation, Styrofoam, stringers, and joists. The most common work divers perform are replacement of floatation barrels to level out the floating home, especially when they change hands, and different furniture pieces are placed in different places by the new owners.
On the other hand, houseboats require more maintenance than floating homes and properties on land. This is because most houseboats float on a hollow hull constructed out of fiberglass over wood, which requires painting every 3-6 years. This ‘bottom-paint’, as it is commonly called, cannot be done while the houseboat is on the water, so it must be towed to a boatyard where it is hauled out and placed in blocks. Houseboats with hulls constructed out of aluminum do not need to be bottom painted and hence rarely need to be taken to a boatyard. A diver can inspect and replace the sinks on aluminum hulls without moving the houseboat.
Moreover, the type of water matters. All floating homes and houseboats in Seattle are found on freshwater lakes. Unlike the ocean’s saltwater, lake water is quite gentle on floating property. Also, Seattle’s Lake Union and Portage Bay – where all floating homes and houseboats are found – are sheltered from the wind and major storms due to the surrounding geography. In addition, due to the small size of these bodies of water, there is minimal wave action, even in high wind.
Overall, floating Homes require less maintenance than houseboats. In fact, many buyers look to floating homes as a ‘lock-and-leave’ solution or as second homes.
How do inspections work when purchasing a floating home or houseboat in Seattle?
Floating home: In addition to a home inspector – ideally one with experience inspecting floating homes – a floating home buyer would also hire a dive inspector to examine the flotation.
Houseboat: Marine surveyors, not home inspectors – inspect houseboats. If you are buying a Seattle houseboat that has not been surveyed (i.e., inspected) in the last 2-3 years, it is recommended that you do a complete marine survey. For the surveyor to inspect the condition of the hull below the waterline, you’ll also need to hire a boat towing company and a boat yard. The buyer pays for the surveyor and the boat yard haul-out, and the seller pays for the towing. Each party pays about $800, depending on the size of the houseboat. Sometimes, having a diver inspect the hull in its slip is more appropriate, so no haul-out is required.
Are new floating homes or houseboats allowed in Seattle?
No – Seattle is one of the few cities in the world with a cap on the number of floating homes and houseboats. There are about 525 floating homes and 250 ‘houseboats,’ all of which have been grandfathered. To build a new floating home or houseboat, one must be destroyed or moved/sold outside of the City of Seattle.
Do floating homes and houseboats appreciate? Are they easy to sell?
As the City of Seattle grows, there will always be a fixed number of floating homes and houseboats. The fixed supply of Floating homes and houseboats in the face of ever-growing buyer demand for urban waterfront living has led to a rapid increase in the values of these properties in the last ten years. Due to the ownership of the moorage, Floating Homes have appreciated at a faster rate than Houseboats. Moreover, Floating Home living is a lot like living in a home on land, while houseboat living is closer to living on an actual boat. Because of this, floating homes appeal to a broader pool of buyers, and thus, they sell quicker than Houseboats, despite Floating Homes’ higher price tag.
We regularly publish a Market Report on floating homes that can be found on our blog.
How much do floating homes and houseboats cost?
Due to the many differences mentioned in this article, the median price of a floating home in Seattle in 2022 is $1,375,000, while the median price of a Seattle houseboat is $400,000.
Do I pay sales taxes when purchasing a floating home or houseboat, like buying a car or a boat?
No – floating homes and houseboats (FOWR & Barges) are treated as Personal Property with King County, whereas cars and boats are registered with the Department of Licensing (DOL) and are subject to 10.1% sales tax.
Do you know of any floating homes or houseboats for sale that are not publicly listed?
Yes – For one reason or another, owners of floating homes or houseboats that wish to sell do not want to list them or have not yet listed them. We’re quite connected to this small community and so we typically know what’s available off-market and what will be listed for sale soon. Every year we facilitate a few off-market transactions. That said, we encourage sellers to publicly list their properties for sale on the MLS to ensure fairness in the marketplace.
How can I tell if it’s a Floating Home or a Houseboat?
Only a handful of Realtors in the country can differentiate a Seattle floating home from a houseboat, so don’t feel discouraged if you’re having difficulty telling them apart when looking at listings online. You can always ask us, but here’s what to look for:
Price: Almost all floating homes in Seattle will be priced over $1,000,000, while almost all houseboats will be priced under $800,000. There are exceptions, of course. Small Floating Homes in leased slips with limited water views will usually sell for less than $1,000,000, but there are very few of these. There are also exceptions for houseboats. We recently sold a FOWR houseboat with nearly 5,000 sqft of interior space moored in an end-of-dock slip for $3,700,000.
Marina/Dock: If it’s in a recreational marina with sailboats and powerboats, it’s a houseboat. Floating homes can only be moored in designated floating home sites.
Geography: Most floating homes in Seattle are found on Eastlake and Portage Bay, whereas most houseboats (FOWRs) can be found on Westlake and Northlake (near Gasworks Park).
Size: On average, floating homes have more than twice the living space (square footage) as houseboats. It is usually a floating home if it has more than 800 sqft.
Plaque: Floating homes will have a numbered yellow plaque issued by the city of Seattle that reads “Floating home No. 123”, while houseboats will have a yellow numbered plaque that reads “Floating on Water Residence No. 123”.
How it floats: Most floating homes in Seattle use logs, barrels, or concrete foundations to remain afloat, while most Seattle houseboats float on pontoons or rectangular hulls (sometimes called “barges”) made out of fiberglass-over-wood or aluminum/steel.
How they look: Although they can be deceiving to the untrained eye, Seattle floating homes look like typical single-family homes, while houseboats have a rectangular boat-like appearance.
Can I drive my Seattle Floating home or houseboat?
Floating homes: No. Floating homes cannot be driven because they were never designed to be navigable and are permanently attached to their dock slips. Moreover, floating homes in Seattle are moored in docks where the channels are too narrow for floating homes to leave their slip and pass through without first removing all the other neighboring floating homes.
Houseboats: Not in Seattle. From a regulatory standpoint, captaining your Floating on Water Residence (i.e., “houseboat”) around Seattle is like driving a car on the road without license plates, registration, or insurance. That’s because most Seattle houseboats are classified as residences (hence the legal name “Floating On Water RESIDENCE”). Using a Seattle houseboat as a navigable vessel will likely get you in trouble with Harbor Patrol, The Coast Guard, and the City of Seattle may revoke your FOWR plaque. As a result, virtually all Seattle houseboats cannot be driven because they either don’t have an engine anymore or the motors do not function due to non-use or removal. From a practical standpoint, Seattle houseboats are also extremely hard to maneuver because their stall boxy shape act as a sail that moves the houseboat in whichever direction is wind is blowing. Also, most houseboats in Seattle are built with rectangular hulls, which do not displace water as effectively as the v-shaped hulls of powerboats and sailboats. If you really want to take your houseboat for a spin around Lake Union, I recommend you hire a boat towing company to tow you around.
Can I use my pre-approval to get a mortgage on a floating home or houseboat in Seattle?
Floating homes: No, not unless you have a floating home-specific pre-approval from one of the 7 lenders that does this type of loan. Contact me for a list of Seattle floating home lenders.
Houseboats: No, not unless you have a houseboat-specific pre-approval from one of the 2 local lenders that specialize in Houseboat loans.
Will I get seasick from living on a houseboat or floating home in Seattle?
We have yet to hear of someone who has felt seasick after spending time on a floating home in Seattle. Seasickness is typical in the sea, with waves several feet high. In Seattle, however, all floating homes are found in a small body of water in the heart of the city with little wave action and no swells, currents, or tides. You may feel some momentary minor rocking on some floating homes, usually due to the wakes created by passing boats that don’t honor the 7 knot/hour speed limit. You may also feel some minor rocking due to those few strong windstorms Seattle experiences during the Winter.
The rocking on floating homes in Seattle is so mild that even those who suffer from severe sea sickness are unaffected.
Unlike Floating homes, houseboats do tend to rock more than floating homes because floating homes usually have a much larger footprint, so they are more resilient against the wakes created by passing boats. Houseboats are not only smaller than floating homes, but also narrower, making them more susceptible to side-side rocking.
If your houseboat or floating home is at the end of the dock in Seattle, you will feel the rocking more than if you were moored closer to shore. The brunt of the boat wakes is shouldered by those moored at the end of the dock. That’s a price many will gladly pay to enjoy the views afforded by the end of dock slips.
*There is a 3rd legal class of ‘houseboats’ called Vessels with Dwelling Units (VDUs) of which there are 11 of in the City of Seattle. There are important differences between Vessels with Dwelling Units (VDUs) and Floating on-Water Residences (FOWRs) and Registered Barges. Contact Danny Varona for more info.
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