Welcome to the very unique community of floating home, house boat, and house barge owners. You're probably thinking about making the big jump to a major lifestyle change of urban lake living or remote floating cabin solitude. It's a terrific opportunity to live literally right on the water, with all the amenities, beauty, excitement, sights, and sounds of waterfront living.
What is it like to live in a floating home?
That question has as many answers as there are owners. For some it is peaceful listening to the lapping waves, while others enjoy the continual excitement at their window of sailboat races, boat traffic, floatplanes, and 4th of July fireworks parties.
Since they are so unique, the communities tend to be close knit and friendly, with everyone in it together. Neighbors tend to be helpful and watch out for each other.
People like the relative simplicity of just maintaining their boat, and not maintaining a yard or huge house. Easy access to downtown, nightlife, shopping, major roads, and interesting urban communities can be a draw, or being able to moor your getaway home in a private, remote location can be the other extreme.
Is living in a floating home for everyone?
It's not for anyone looking for the "usual". There are trade-offs to consider, and the majority of people who look into floating homes never end up buying one because they really still seek the amenities of a standard house. Here are some of the frequent items that many people realize after further thought about matching their actual lifestyle with their new home:
- No yard to walk around, garden, play, and have gatherings. However, you generally have a sunny side and/or upper deck, and of course there are frequently community spaces right nearby; plus no yard maintenance at all!
- No garage or separate storage in most cases.
- You may be very close to your neighbors in a marina (but there are no shared walls, and house boat / floating home communities are well known for their friendliness).
- House boats and house barges are small compared to houses; for "regular" size house living space you must move up to the larger and more expensive true floating homes.
- These homes will rock back and forth a little in the waves.
What is the difference between a floating home, house boat, and house barge?
Floating homes are the larger and more expensive homes that you see generally on top of separate flotation and which have the appearance of a regular (though smaller) landward home. They are subject to the same construction codes that apply to land based homes, and are connected directly to water and sewer hook-ups.
House boats are actually registered similar to boats, should have motors, incur sales tax to the buyer upon sale, and get their insurance from boat insurers. They are not regulated by regular construction codes, but they must meet US Coast Guard standards and must be registered with federal, state, and county agencies.
House barges generally look very similar to house boats to many people. They are taxed and titled differently, plus they can sometimes be more difficult to finance and get insured. They do not have the same boat-like requirements as house boats do.
None of these are considered to be real estate in a technical sense since they are not affixed to the ground (although condo dock communities may have landward portions of the common areas).
For this document, I am using the term "floating home" in its general sense throughout and am usually including house boats and house barges in my general answers unless specified otherwise.
It's important to know that most floating home loans frequently require 30% down, charge about 2% higher annual interest rate than regular home loans on average, and generally have 25 year or less amortization periods (instead of the unusual 30 year amortization period for regular houses, thereby making monthly payments more expensive in comparison). A full marine survey and haul-out inspection are usually required and paid at the buyer's expense. House barges can be difficult to get financing due to the small size of their market and difficulty in obtaining insurance. There are only a handful of lenders that provide any kind of floating home loans, so your bank or usual lender most likely will not be able to assist you on these but marine lenders and niche loan programs at some banks can assist you in finding the right financing options.
Insurance is generally obtained through marine insurance companies, and they can cost about double what insurance would cost for regular land-based homes of the same valuation. House barges are very difficult to obtain insurance, although there are some possibilities available.
Dock fees? Owned versus leased moorage?
"Dock fees" vary widely based on many different things. Owned moorage through a condominium or co-op arrangement can have lower monthly fees than leased moorage, and the valuation of the associated floating home is higher with owned moorage.
As an example around
Most communities include water and garbage. You are responsible for paying your own electricity and phone bills. Cable may or may not be available depending upon location (for those areas without cable, people usually install small satellite dishes).
Most house boats and barges have marine pump action toilets that flow into septic holding tanks ("black water"). There are services that will come by and pump out the tanks on a regular basis for about $50/month. "Gray water" from showers and sinks is frequently pumped over the side into the lake, meaning that it is very important to be good stewards of your home's environment with the chemicals, detergents, and items that go down the drains; regulations on this have been tightening up over the past few years however for understandable water quality reasons.
The more expensive floating homes are generally hooked up to sewer lines with pumps.
Maintenance on the water can be higher than most expect. Ask any boat owner. The effects of water and weather need to be continually and proactively guarded against to protect your investment. Newer or retrofitted floating homes tend to use more vinyl windows, fiberglass, impermeable surfaces, and such that require much less maintenance than classic wood products. Soot and pollution in the air from traffic and the city needs to be scrubbed off of surfaces regularly, too.
Some communities have permit parking and others have first come first served public parking. Parking tends to be limited around many communities for large parties, although guests always figure out a way to get to your floating home since they want to come and visit so much.
Can they be added on to or structurally modified?
Most floating homes can be modified and added on to, like a regular house, subject to current building and marine codes. However, unlike a regular house, the size of the footprint and the upper height limits are much more restrictive. Modification of the size of the underlying hull or footprint can be problematic, but changing the structure on top can generally be done within the limitations of the home's permit, community, and insurance restrictions.
Expanding the footprint of a floating home is rarely done, since that would entail significant changes to the hull or flotation and may exceed space limitations of the slip. It is more popular to add separate floating personal docks to the side of floating homes, space permitting. Some communities allow a home to fill a slip space plus also have a percentage overhang (such as 15%, for example) for the boat to "stick out" or to tie up a small personal watercraft.
Increasing the height of the home is frequently limited by structural concerns, seaworthiness (to not make it too top heavy), and community height limits (so as to protect views of neighboring homes). Many people who have homes that are already two stories at the maximum allowable height limits will add an open deck on the upper roof to increase outdoor area, entertaining/relaxing/dining space, and maximize views all around; restrictions regarding this - if any - need to be checked with the specific community.
Can they be rented out?
Many times you can rent the homes, and they can provide a good return on investment. Some owners rent them out full time, while others do short term rentals, primarily during the high demand summer months. Ability to have renters depends upon the individual community and it also may require community or board approval plus include certain restrictions (such as no dogs at some locations).
Appreciation and marketability?
Floating homes have appreciated over the years as the lure of waterfront living in urban areas has attracted many people to the lifestyle. However, appreciation rates can come and go in spurts over time, and there is significantly more variability than with traditional housing. Some floating homes sell quickly while others may sit on the market for years. Although there are many people who think they are interested in floating homes, it still takes a while to find the right match with the fewer people who actually buy the unique lifestyle. The best selling season for them of course tends to be in the spring and summer.
House boats, house barges, and floating homes offer a great opportunity for unique and beautiful waterfront living. If you can live with the idiosyncrasies, you'll love the view-filled rooms, gently rocking evenings, and hosting friends and guests.
Please Note: All information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only. Each floating home, house boat, and house barge has its own unique situation and circumstances.