Living aboard a houseboat poses unique challenges. That said, simple measures can make living on a houseboat as safe (or safer) than living in a traditional house.
Houseboats can be very safe, as long as you live on a well-designed and well-built vessel that's in good condition. Additionally, having the right safety equipment onboard (such as fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors) can further increase the safety of your houseboat.
In this article, we'll discuss the safety of living aboard a houseboat and whether or not it's safer than other living arrangements. Additionally, we'll go over houseboat safety considerations and how to choose a safe houseboat. We'll also cover several ways to make living on a houseboat safer.
The information contained in this article was sourced from experts familiar with houseboat construction in-home safety. We also used home and marine inspection guides along with government data on boat safety.
What Makes a Houseboat Safe?
Houseboats, like any other kind of boat, have qualities that both increase and decrease their safety. Some of these qualities, such as condition and safety equipment, are similar to those of traditional houses. But others, such as flotation and hull design elements, are unique to boats. Here are some of the most important safety considerations for houseboats.
Age is one of the most easily discernible houseboat safety factors. An old boat can be very safe, but older vessels are generally more deteriorated than newer vessels.
Additionally, older houseboats usually lack modern fire suppression systems and may contain hazardous materials that have since been banned. Thankfully, houseboats can be retrofitted just like traditional houses and 'brought up to code' as they say.
Safe Building Materials
Another factor to consider is building materials. As with traditional houses, some building materials are safer than others. Older houseboats sometimes contain toxic materials. These materials often become more hazardous in confined and poorly ventilated spaces. Depending on the age of your houseboat, you may encounter materials such as asbestos, PCBs, and lead-based paint.
Additionally, toxic fire retardants may have been used in upholstery and other furnishings. This problem is of greater concern on a houseboat, as boats tend to seal up tighter houses. Most of these materials were not used after the 1970s, so newer houseboats are a safer proposition.
In most cases, the physical condition of your houseboat supersedes all other qualities. A houseboat in poor condition is an alarmingly hazardous place to live. Dilapidated boats are prone to everything from mold infestation to sinking.
That said, a sixty-year-old houseboat that's in excellent condition is likely a safer place to live than a slightly run-down suburban home. Interestingly, neglected houseboats can often be brought back to good condition easier and cheaper than traditional homes.
Making a safety assessment is complicated, especially with boats. Before going any further, it's important to consider what type of houseboat you're interested in living aboard. Some vessels, such as shanty-style 'barge builds,' are constructed shoddily and generally less safe than production houseboats.
But in some cases, home builders spare no expense and construct higher-quality houseboats than the leading manufacturers. A careful inspection of both production and home-built houseboats can give you peace of mind when it comes to safety.
They say location is key, and this is especially true when it comes to houseboats. Living on a houseboat in an area with mild weather and tying up at a well-maintained marina can be very safe. But tying up to a dilapidated dock in a run-down industrial channel is never smart and increases the risk of your houseboat breaking away and drifting.
Additionally, areas that are prone to hurricanes can make houseboat living much more nerve-wracking. Choosing the right location for your houseboat is key to living a safe marine lifestyle.
Safety equipment is required aboard boats, and it's especially important to find the right supplies for a live-aboard houseboat. Adding just a few inexpensive pieces of safety equipment can dramatically improve the safety of your lifestyle.
In addition to the standard Coast Guard requirements, here are a few additional safety items you can bring aboard your houseboat.
- Additional fire extinguishers
- Smoke detectors
- Carbon monoxide alarms
- Circuit breakers
- Fireproof furniture
- Throwable life rings
- Emergency exit windows
- Emergency lighting
In some areas, these items are required in regular homes and should be installed in houseboats as well. The majority of this common safety equipment costs less than $100 to acquire, making them both affordable and easy.
Are Houseboats Safer than Houses?
Houseboats can be just as safe as houses and potentially safer depending on condition and location. In many cases, houseboats are framed stronger than land-based houses, as they are subject to the stresses associated with rolling and pitching in the water.
Additionally, much of the safety equipment legally required on houseboats is often missing from traditional homes. This puts houseboat residents in a better position to fight fires than the average homeowner.
But if you take regular maintenance out of the picture, the tables can turn it quickly and make your houseboat a very unsafe place to live. Houseboat owners can't wait years to repair a cracked foundation, as a houseboat's 'foundation' usually keeps it afloat. Your houseboat will stay safe as long as you keep it in good condition.
Are Houseboats Safer than Sailboats?
People often wonder if houseboats are safer than sailboats for living aboard. There isn't a simple answer to this question, so we'll break down a couple of safety considerations.
For one, houseboats tend to be safer for people when it comes to mobility. Spaces aboard a houseboat are generally less cramped and confined than on a sailboat, which reduces the risk of tripping or falling down narrow ladders. Additionally, it's easier to get out of a houseboat in the event of an emergency such as a fire or flooding.
Statistically speaking, houseboats are much less likely to sink than sailboats. This is primarily because houseboats usually don't go anywhere, and thus they have fewer opportunities the crash into stuff or capsize. If you're tied up to the dock all the time, living on a houseboat, it's likely safer than living on a sailboat.
When it comes to 'actually going places,' sailboats are a significantly safer and smarter option. This is because sailboats are designed to move around, whereas most houseboats simply float and only move when absolutely necessary. If you plan on going out to sea, a sailboat of (almost) any kind is certainly safer.
How to Make Your Houseboat Safer
So, how do you make life on a houseboat safer? The easiest way to improve the safety of your houseboat is to install some of the safety equipment we mentioned above. That includes spare fire extinguishers, flotation devices, and anything required to make falling in the waterless likely.
Additionally, you can make your houseboat safer by performing regular maintenance and equipment checks. Make sure your bilge pumps are operational and keep your wiring in good condition.
Replace worn equipment (such as expired fire extinguishers and smoke detector batteries) whenever necessary. Make sure you're docked in a good location with responsible neighbors who you can count on to mention if they notice any boat trouble.
About THE AUTHOR
I have a deep love of houseboating and the life-changing experiences houseboating has brought into my life. I’ve been going to Lake Powell on our family’s houseboat for over 30 years and have made many great memories, first as a child and now as a parent. My family has a passion for helping others have similar fun, safe experiences on their houseboat.Read More About Brian Samson