Living on a Seattle houseboat or floating home is a perfect fit for those who love being on or near the water! It provides the opportunity for a strong sense of community and a way to beat the dreaded Seattle freeze. The houseboat lifestyle provides a sense of adventure that is seldom found living in a condo or single-family home in Seattle. If you’re looking for the quintessential Seattle lifestyle experience, look no further! Buying a floating home requires expert advice.
Before buying a floating home or houseboat, you should know the answer to these questions:
What is the difference between a houseboat (FOWR) and a floating home in Seattle?
In Seattle, people tend to use the word “houseboat” to refer to any property that floats. However, there are meaningful and important differences between Floating on-Water Residences (FOWR; what we call true “houseboats”), Floating Homes, and other rare types such as registered barges, vessels with dwelling units (VDUs), and liveaboards. By far, the two largest groups in Seattle are floating homes and houseboats (Floating on Water Residences). There are many small differences between the two, but the major differences are:
Floating Homes in Seattle are found in designated floating home docks, whereas Seattle houseboats (FOWR) are found in recreational marinas alongside powerboats and sailboats. This means that living on a recreational marina feels distinctly different from living on a floating home dock. Neither is better than the other – it is a matter of personal preference.
In Seattle, most houseboats (FOWR) are found in rental slips, whereas most floating homes are found in a condo or co-op owned slips. In other words, buying a floating home almost always entails also buying its slip. This is one of the major reasons floating homes cost more than houseboats.
Seattle houseboats can be easily towed to a different slip (with perhaps better views) or to a different marina. On the other hand, a floating home cannot be moved without undertaking a very laborious and expensive process to detach it from the dock. In addition, a neighboring floating home must also be detached to allow one floating home to move because (unlike recreational marinas) floating home docks are not built with water channels wide enough for floating homes to pass.
There are two utilities (electricity and sewer) that work differently on houseboats than on floating homes. Most houseboats in Seattle use a 30-amp electrical connection which is not enough to power a heater, a blower dryer, and a microwave simultaneously. Floating homes usually don’t have this issue. As for the sewer, all Seattle floating homes must be connected to sewer. On the other hand, houseboats have a blackwater holding tank that collects toilet water (just like a powerboat or sailboat). A local pump-out company such as Pumpout Seattle can empty the holding tank once a week or bi-weekly at an estimated $20 per pump-out.
On average, floating homes have double the living space as houseboats.
Due to the above-mentioned differences, the median price of a Seattle floating home is $1M, whereas the median price of a Seattle houseboat is $400K.
How can I tell if it’s a floating home or a houseboat?
Only a handful of Realtors in Seattle could tell a floating home from a houseboat if they saw one listed on the MLS. Here’s what to look for:
Price: In Seattle, almost all houseboats will be priced under $750,000 and almost all floating home will be priced over $750,000.
Location: If it’s in a recreational marina with sailboats and powerboats, it’s a houseboat. Floating homes can only be moored in floating home designated sites.
Geography: Most floating homes in Seattle are found on Eastlake and Portage Bay, whereas most houseboats (FOWRs) are found on Westlake and Northlake (by Gasworks Park).
Size: On average, floating homes have twice the living space (square footage) as houseboats. If it has more than 800 sqft, it’s usually a floating home.
Plaque: Floating home will have a numbered yellow plaque that reads “Floating home No. 123” whereas 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 keep them afloat. On the other hand, most Seattle houseboats float on pontoons or rectangular hulls (sometimes incorrectly called “barges”) made out of fiberglass-over-wood or aluminum/steel.
Look: While deceiving to the untrained eye, Seattle floating homes look like typical single-family homes, whereas houseboats look more like rectangular boats.
Can I drive my Seattle houseboat or floating home?
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 a residence (hence the legal name “Floating On Water RESIDENCE”). Using a Seattle houseboat as a navigable vessels will likely get you in trouble with Harbor Patrol, The Coast Guard, and the City of Seattle may revoke your FOWR plaque. As result, virtually all Seattle houseboats cannot be driven because they either don’t have an engine anymore or the engines do not function due to non-use. 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 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.
How do houseboat and floating home inspections work in Seattle?
Floating home: In additional to a typical home inspector, a floating home buyer would also hire a dive inspector to examine the flotation every few years.
Houseboat: 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 full survey. This involves hiring a Surveyor, a boat towing company, and a boat yard (or a diver if the houseboat cannot be hauled out). The buyer pays for the surveyor and the boat yard haul-out, and the seller pays the towing. Each party pays about $800, depending on the size of the houseboat.
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 Sound Community Bank, the only houseboat lender.
Are houseboats and floating homes good investments?
Yes. Since 2014, houseboats and floating homes have appreciated at a faster rate than properties on land and they are poised to appreciate at an even faster rate in the coming years. This is due to a fixed supply and an increasing demand. As of 2014, no more new houseboats or floating homes are allowed in Seattle, yet the city is growing very rapidly with buyers willing to pay a premium to live on the water, in the heart of the city.
What is the maintenance like on a houseboat or floating home?
People tend to think that Seattle houseboats and floating homes are as expensive to maintain as powerboats and sailboats. That’s because boaters usually budget 10% of the value of the boat for annual maintenance. However, houseboats and floating homes in Seattle are unlike powerboats or sailboats in that they (usually) 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. However, the part that keeps them floating should be inspected regularly:
Floating homes: Floating homeowners in Seattle should have a dive inspection completed every few years to examine the underwater flotation. Other maintenance items will be the same as a comparable home on land.
Houseboat: It is recommended that houseboats be towed to a boatyard and hauled-out for inspection every 3-7 years, depending on the material of the hull. Those houseboats that cannot be hauled out (due to their type of hull) should have a dive inspection.
Will I get seasick from living on a houseboat or floating home in Seattle?
I have never heard of a person feeling seasick after spending time on a floating home or houseboat in Seattle. Seasickness is typical when you’re out at sea with waves several feet high. In Seattle, however, all floating homes and houseboats are found in a small body of water in the heart of the city called Lake Union. In this small lake, there are no waves, swells, currents, or tides . You may feel some rocking on some houseboats and floating homes and that’s usually due to the wakes created by passing boats that don’t honor the 7 knot/hour speed limit. You may also feel some rocking due to those few strong windstorms Seattle experiences during the Winter.
A few people who have not spent time on boats and haven’t gotten their “sea legs” might feel a little disoriented after being on a floating home or houseboat after 10 minutes. However, the rocking on houseboats and floating homes in Seattle is so mild that even those who suffer from severe sea sickness get used to it after a few days. After a few weeks, they usually feel no different being onboard than being on land. I am always saddened by clients who didn’t give the lifestyle a chance because they incorrectly assumed that they would forever feel that slight disorientation they felt during their first few minutes on the houseboat or floating home.
Houseboats do tend to rock more than floating homes because floating homes usually have a much larger footprint and weight so they are more resilient against the wakes created by passing boats.
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 are 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.
What does the “plaque” mean?
Houseboats: The Floating on Water Residence (FOWR) plaque gives houseboats permission to stay in the City of Seattle. It does not grant full-time live-aboard status (the marina does).
Floating homes: Likewise, the Floating Home plaque was given to those floating homes that were allowed to stay in the City of Seattle.
How many houseboats and floating homes are there?
There is a fixed amount of about 250 houseboats and about 500 floating homes on Lake Union (and connecting waterways such as Portage Bay and the canal towards the Ballard Locks). In a future blog article, I will provide a map showing all of the marinas and docks where floating homes and houseboats are moored in Seattle.
How do taxes work for houseboats and floating homes in Seattle?
Seattle houseboats and floating home owners pay Personal Property Tax instead of Property Tax. If they also own the slip in which the houseboat or floating home is moored, then they also pay a Property Tax (or Land Tax) because slips are Real Property.
If you just bought a houseboat, you will likely not have to pay Personal Property taxes at all during your first year. That’s because, before 2017, many houseboats were bought and sold as vessels and were registered with the Department of Licensing. But now they are bought and sold as Personal Property. The county usually does not send a bill during the first year if the houseboat was just converted from a vessel to personal property as part of the purchasing process.
What else should I inquire about?
Other questions to ask your Realtor when buying a floating home or houseboat in Seattle:
Does the marina/dock allow pets? (Spoiler: many don’t)
Can I Airbnb the houseboat or floating home?
Does the marina/dock allow rentals?
What kind of hull or flotation does the houseboat or floating home have?
When as the last time it was surveyed or had a dive inspection?
Is there space to moor a small boat/kayak next to the floating home or houseboat?
Does it have a mailbox?
Can I receive packages?
What is the culture of the dock/marina?
What is the management/HOA like?
How does closing and escrow work?
How do rebuilding/remodel permits work for houseboats and floating homes?
How does title work?
Is the slip rented, condo owned, co-op owned, or subleased/owned by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)?
Avoid that sinking feeling. It is important that you work with a real estate professional who understands the complexities of buying and selling waterfront properties like houseboats and floating homes.