Welcome to our Open House Podcast where we explore various homes and neighborhoods and give you an insider’s look into how people live within their home. We recently focused our attention to a unique type of home that we see from our office windows every day. Today we’d like to welcome you to an open house tour of houseboats and floating homes. Click on the audio file below to listen to our podcast, or simply read the transcript below.
This podcast production was written, produced, and edited by Brockton Gates, Porch.com.
Anne: “Hello and welcome to the Open House Podcast brought to you by Porch.com, the Home Improvement Network. I’m Anne Reagan, Editor in Chief at Porch.com and we’re going to give you an insider’s look into unique homes and neighborhoods in the US. We’ll explore architectural styles and talk to the people who live in them as well as the people who influence them like architects, builders and real estate professionals.
Today we have a unique story to share with you about a particular type of home that you simply won’t find in many cities. Fortunately for us in Seattle, where Porch.com is headquartered, we get to see this type of home every day. Today we are giving you an Open House tour of houseboats and floating homes on Seattle’s iconic Lake Union.
At one point Seattle had over 2,000 floating residences. Today you’ll only find about a third of that number. You may have seen Seattle’s most famous floating residence in the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.
So what do today’s houseboats and floating homes look like? There is no one style that defines these homes aside from the fact that they all have extraordinary character. Colorful exterior paint, flat roofs filled with outdoor furniture and party lights…there is an inherent personality to these homes that sadly we just don’t see in traditional neighborhoods.
We wanted to know what’s it like to live in a home that floats on water? What does it mean to be surrounded by nature while simultaneously living smack dab in the middle of a bustling city? How are these communities and neighborhoods different from the rest of the city and suburbs?
Jane: “My name is Jane, and I live in a floating home in Seattle.”
Anne: This is Jane, a Seattle transplant who’s been living in a 2 story floating home on the eastern bank Lake Union for 2 years.
Jane: “ Umm.. Well I’ve only lived in Seattle for about 4 years. So after a few years I thought well, I should probably move, maybe I should buy a place. What can I afford or what do I want? I always wanted to be near the water. And whenever it’s nice here I always try and run to the beaches or parks and by the time you get there there’s no parking or it’s raining. And so I wanted something that I could go to my roof deck and enjoy the sun for the 15 minutes it’s out and come back down and it would be fine.”
Anne: When we visited Jane’s floating home, we couldn’t help but be overtaken by the charm of the floating community. Instead of sidewalks there is a network of old wooden docks connecting each home. Where you might expect a garage or carport, there are small sailboats docked conveniently in built in slips on the side of the home. The residents can literally step out of their house and onto a sailboat or other vessel and be on the lake or on their way to the San Juan Islands in no time. Each home is unique in it’s own way.
Jane: “When you’re looking for one it’s about finding the right floor plan. There are so many different shapes that they all come in… this one is really just like a house but some of them are like a loft, I guess they’d be more like a loft apartment.”
Anne: I was expecting a boat or crammed compact space. Instead I saw a charming kitchen, a relaxing living area, and a spacious two story home with an expansive rooftop deck. I wanted to know more about the process was like to find and buy one of these homes.
Anne: “Was it a different process to get approval for a bank or home loan do they rate these home differently?”
Jane: “Ya you cant get a mortgage because you don’t have a deed, you don’t have any land. When I was looking into it I talked to HR Block and they were basically like you are just like a trailer park, but a really nice one! You don’t own the land, we all own the dock because it’s a co-op, but essentially I don’t own the dirt under me.”
Kevin/Linda: “I’m Kevin Bagely, I’m Linda Bagely, and we sell house boats and floating homes.”
Anne: To dig deeper into what it’s like to be in the market for a floating home I met with Kevin and Linda Bagely of Special Agents Realty, two of just a handful of real estate agents that sell floating properties in Seattle.
Kevin and Linda made the transition from selling traditional real estate to floating properties after buying their own house boat: a 3 story, 1300sq foot dual stern paddle-wheeler that’s docked in a small community of other vessels less than fifty-yards from their office on the western shore of Lake Union. According Linda, purchasing this property wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
Linda: “We were actually looking for a waterfront property for a client on the lake. They wanted a houseboat or wanted to be on the water. So we had seen on other listing on the market here in Seattle marina. Kevin and I fell in love with it and closed two weeks later. We discovered houseboat then. We knew nothing about the licensing we knew nothing about how to even buy it We made a lot of mistakes buying the houseboat, not knowing what we were doing and none of the brokers selling them or very few knew what to do with them either.”
Anne: One thing I learned very quickly is that houseboats and floating homes are two very different properties.
Kevin: “The biggest difference between floating homes and house boats, which is a very common question we get asked, you can picture a house boat as something that can be easily moved from one marina to another. That may involve towing or you may be able to get in and pilot it yourselves if has sufficient steering and navigation. Whereas a floating home is designed to be permanently located and not easily moved once it’s put into place. Rarely once a floating home goes into place does it ever get moved.”
Anne: Kevin explained that if you ask boat lenders for money they are hesitant, because they aren’t really boats. And in the eyes of the home lenders, these aren’t traditional homes either.
Kevin: “We do have lenders that will loan on them, but there is usually a hefty down payment, 30 percent down is not unusual, and if you are buying a house boat you’re also paying sales tax like you’re buying a car. Sales tax is 9.5% percent so the time you’re done that’s 40% of the purchase price to get into a houseboat. It takes a unique buyer but that hasn’t stopped them. They come out in droves and we are really low on inventory so give us a call!”
Anne: Just how much does it cost to buy a houseboat or floating home? Well, first, there is a very limited quantity. Currently in Seattle, there are only about 500 registered floating homes, 170 houseboats, and just 33 house barges. Prices for floating homes range from a couple hundred thousand on the low end to over couple million. The iconic floating home that was used to film Sleepless in Seattle sold in September for a reported $2 million. It certainly does take a unique buyer to be able to afford one of these homes. Insurance is expensive too.
Linda: Insurance is pretty hefty for floating homes and houseboats in comparison to house, but they sink.
Anne: Sinking is a real possibility and is something that is definitely in the back of the minds of floating home and houseboat owners. For instance, a typical home inspection for a floating home also involves hiring a professional diver to swim under the house to examine the floatation devices, making sure they are fit to keep the abode above water. On a houseboat, the hull sometimes requires maintenance and – even going as far as hauling it out of the water for things like painting and other repairs.
There are other quirky aspects home maintenance that floating home and houseboat owners need to be aware of. For example, pest problems are a bit different when you live on the water. Kevin explains.
Kevin: “Where you might have a rodent in a house which is typically going to be a rat or a mouse here you it might a beaver or a lake otter <Laughing>.”
Anne: Like most small communities, news of houseboat issues, repairs or incidents travels fast across the water. Jane, who we spoke to earlier in the podcast, was also having her own battles with Mother Nature. When we visited her home, it was evident that she was in the midst of a repair on the wall in the upper left corner of the dining room.
Jane: “So one day I came home from work and I had holes in my ceiling and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And then one day my boyfriend was here and it was during the day and he was like, I think you have a woodpecker pecking at your wall. The we figured out it was in my wall and then it was a whole slew everybody is so afraid to work on your house like you can’t get people to work on it because technically you are working above water. And secondly, all the environmental impacts that people are afraid they don’t want to get fined for anything so they shy away from it… so it was just really difficult.”
Anne: There are all kinds of hidden challenges when working on these types of homes that really requires someone that is familiar with the intricacies of these properties. Sure, you might be able call a regular professional to repair your stove or clean your carpets, but what if you want the exterior or your house painted? You can’t exactly lean a ladder up against the wall when you don’t have a solid surface to rest the legs.
Anne: “Are there professionals here in Seattle that you have found actually do work on floating homes?”
Jane: “Yes there are you kind of hear about them word of mouth. Really anybody can work on it but there are certain things you want people to be more knowledgeable in. Because you cant use a level anywhere in my house <laughing> so it’s kind of like that, you’re always a little cautious because sometimes you will see people and you’re like no you really can’t use that.”
Anne: “It takes someone that’s been around the block a little bit.”
Anne: Like a tight-knit farming community or rural outpost, people living in a floating community rely upon their neighbors heavily, both for day-to-day tasks like helping dock their boat or checking on the bilge pump, to other issues like who do you know that can paint the exterior? Word of mouth recommendations and neighborly reliance is expected.
Josh: “Im Josh Mcphearson with McPhearson Marine, and I work on house boats and floating homes.”
Anne: Josh has been working on houseboats and floating homes for three years, originally working on powerboats and sailboats. He says that he gets a lot of referral work from Linda and Kevin, in part because of the unusually strong community built around this lifestyle.
Josh: “One of the interesting things about the houseboat community is that people that choose to live house boats want a different lifestyle. They are half way between living in a normal home and completely off the grid. They want to be a little bit away from everything, they want a little more privacy, they want a little more community. These days a lot of people don’t know their neighbors, but they do. And they don’t just know their neighbors they spend time with them. They will hang out on each other’s houseboats, they help each other too.”
Anne: The feeling of camaraderie amongst floating homeowners was something that continually come up with everyone we spoke to. You can’t help but relate it to a tight-knit neighborhood, where you know everyone and everyone knows you.
Jane: “It’s definitely a really close-knit community. I’m so close to all my neighbors physically that you cant help but be emotionally close to them. It’s so nice, whenever you are out everyone is always looking after everyone’s stuff. It’s a very safe feeling.”
Anne: “You see that when people have boats in a dock.”
Jane: “It’s kind of like coming into a really small neighborhood where we want to make sure you’re ok.”
Anne: When it comes to floating communities, I learned that there is a lot more than meets the eye. Living on the water comes with it’s fair share of inconveniences and expenses, but the incredible sense of community and closeness, knowing you can rely upon your neighbor, is a great reward. And maybe all that extra work needed to keep your home afloat creates a passionate homeowner that are truly invested in their community. And hey, if you don’t like your community, I guess you can always cut the ropes and set sail for another.
Anne: That’s our show for today, thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, at the Open House Podcast share this podcast with your friends. And be sure to read our article on Porch with more information about houseboats and floating in Seattle. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, and follow Porch on twitter @PorchDotCom.
Top image credit: Kristine Donovick Interior Design