Houseboat ownership can be easy and rewarding. But it does pose a few unique challenges, at least when compared to conventional homeownership.
Houseboats require the same maintenance as regular homes, plus additional attention to marine components. Houseboats, both new and used, also cost less than traditional homes. But unlike other boats, houseboats have unique docking requirements.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about owning a houseboat. This includes the difference between houseboats and recreational boats, along with a comparison to traditional homeownership. We'll also cover costs, maintenance requirements, docking, and other important houseboat ownership information.
The information contained in this article was sourced from houseboat experts and manufacturers to ensure accuracy. We also sourced statistics on homeownership from government data bureaus.
Are Houseboats Powerboats?
The short answer is 'usually not,' as houseboats are closer to barges than boats. This is because the majority of houseboats don't have any self-contained propulsion or steering systems.
Of course, there are exceptions, and some houseboats are designed for limited fair-weather cruising. But the vast majority of houseboats are designed to be towed, pushed, or lowered into place and tied up for extended periods of time.
Can you Live on a Houseboat?
Yes, it's absolutely possible to live full-time on a houseboat, and many people do. Not only is it possible, but it's also affordable and legal in most places. Living on the house but it's a great way to save money on bills and enjoy a waterfront lifestyle for a fraction of the price.
You can also live part-time on a houseboat or use it as a vacation home. Houseboats are designed to float safely for a very long time, and they require less hull maintenance than powerboats or sailboats. As a result, many people leave a houseboat in the water for seasonal use without much trouble.
Are Houseboats Safe?
Houseboats are extremely safe, primarily due to the fact that they spent most of their time tied up in protected waters. The safety of a houseboat depends on a variety of factors, including design, condition, maintenance, and location.
Houseboats, with the exception of the most derelict and poorly kept examples, rarely sink or experienced major safety issues. The primary concerns when living aboard a houseboat are emergency flotation (which is required on boats) and carbon monoxide, which is also a concern in traditional suburban homes.
Types of Houseboats
There are four common types of houseboats that you can divide into two categories: floating homes and leisure houseboats. Floating homes are essentially just wooden houses built on some sort of floating foundation, whereas leisure houseboats are usually small fiberglass boats with basic steering and propulsion.
Here at the main types of houseboats, their pros and cons, along with how they differ.
The floating house is a general term for traditional houses built on some sort of floating platform. Typically, the foundation is a frame built atop a hollow platform made up of sealed compartments. Sometimes, foundation boards are laid across pontoons. In some cases, floating materials such as foam are used because solid floatation material can't be punctured and sink.
Floating houses offer the greatest level of comfort and familiarity for traditional homeowners. After all, it's just a house that floats, that it boasts spacious accommodations and a very home-like feel. The primary disadvantage to this type of houseboat is that it's difficult to move and requires more structural maintenance than more simple designs.
No, must be towed by tugs.
- Attractive appearance
- Familiar to homeowners
- Many custom designs available
- Initial cost is usually high
- Increased maintenance
- No seakeeping abilities; must be moved with care
A leisure houseboat is a true boat in every sense of the word. These vessels are usually small and constructed with marine-grade fiberglass. Leisure houseboats often include engine inboard outboard and some steering methods, such as a tiller or a helm.
Leisure houseboats are typically the only self-maneuverable houseboats available. They don't offer the same level of comfort as the larger house-style houseboats, but they can be moved under their own power when necessary. Leisure houseboats are ideal for cruising protected waters, rivers, and lakes.
Yes, with inboard or outboard power.
- Easiest to move
- More seaworthy than most houseboat designs
- Inexpensive to purchase
- Cramped 'boat-like accommodations
- More marine maintenance required
- Not ideal for extended cruising
Canal-style houseboats are the oldest and most unique variety. These vessels originated along the canals of Europe in the nineteenth century, as merchants often lived aboard their working canal boats. The key characteristic of canal-style houseboats is their long and slender shape and narrow passageways.
Canal-style houseboats come in a wide range of sizes and styles. The most common traditional style is long and extremely slender, as it's designed to fit through the narrow canals of the UK. Some Canal-style houseboats are much more spacious, and others have dedicated propulsion and steering.
Sometimes, but usually not.
- Rich historical significance
- Wide range of available lengths and widths
- It fits well in narrow channels
- Often spacious
- Strong design with minimal required maintenance
- Easy to custom-build
- Narrow spaces
- It May cost more to dock at marinas that charge based on length overall (LOA)
The term 'pontoon houseboat' simply describes a houseboat that floats on pontoons. These pontoons resemble torpedoes and usually consist of stainless steel or aluminum tubes that run across the length of the vessel underneath the foundation.
Pontoon houseboats can be produced in a wide variety of styles, including the floating home or sea shanty configuration. Pontoon houseboats can usually sit in the water longer without maintenance, as pontoons are stronger than most other types of flotation.
No, must be towed by tugs.
- Stable design
- Strong floatation
- Less maintenance
- Greater design options
- Costlier than other houseboat types
- Difficult to move
Mooring a Houseboat
Mooring (or docking) a houseboat is generally more complex than mooring a sailboat or a powerboat. Houseboats are typically less seaworthy than recreational craft and thus can't be moored in every marina.
Busy shipping channels, coastal moorings, and anywhere with frequent foul weather is essentially out of the question. This is why houseboats are often found moored alongside piers in calm channels, underneath bridges, and in other protected areas.
Living aboard a houseboat can be significantly less expensive than renting an apartment or living in a house. However, maintenance and docking costs add up fast, so it's important to budget effectively. Here are the most common costs associated with owning a houseboat, along with estimates and comparisons to typical suburban homes.
The average cost of a houseboat in the United States is around $50,000. This is the average based on an analysis of both new and used houseboats. Prices vary widely throughout the market, starting as low as $1,000 and sometimes exceeding $250,000 total.
For comparison, the average price of a suburban home is around $270,000. Here’s more information about the costs associated with houseboat ownership.
Depreciation doesn't directly deplete your bank account, though it's still an important boat ownership cost consideration. Houseboats 'depreciate like rocks,' especially when purchased new. Traditional wisdom asserts that homeownership is an investment—but don't expect that to be the case with a houseboat.
Docking is the single largest revolving expense of houseboat ownership. You'll need to find a suitable marina to tie up in, and this will cost anywhere between $100 and $1,500 per month. Location is key, and prices rise rapidly in major metro areas.
Many houseboat owners make arrangements with the city or local waterfront property owners, which save money and provide long-term security. This is an excellent route to take as long as you factor in utilities.
In the long run, maintaining a houseboat often costs less than a suburban home. This is due primarily to size and build quality, as smaller houseboats must be constructed using higher quality materials.
The scope of required structural maintenance will vary based on the size, type, and age of your houseboat. Maintenance for larger 'barge house' type vessels will likely be comparable to a small suburban home, whereas fiberglass houseboat maintenance will probably follow the same schedule as an average-sized sailboat.
As a general rule, boat owners can expect to pay about 1 to 10% of the vessel's value in annual maintenance costs. There's a good chance you'll pay less, though it's better to overestimate maintenance costs than underestimate them.
Houseboat insurance is one of the lowest annual boat ownership costs. Boat insurance (for small recreational craft) in general is inexpensive and rarely costs more than $500-1,000 annually.
Utilities are often included with monthly mooring costs, regardless of how much power or water you use. Flat-rate utilities are also common, costing anywhere from $50 to $300 per month. Some marinas charge for utilities based on vessel size or displacement, though this practice has recently fallen out of favor.
Houseboat owners famously escape property taxes in most places, which is a major financial benefit of this alternative lifestyle. This is especially true in states with lower (or no) income taxes, as governments typically make up for lost revenue with high property taxes.
Some localities levy a tax or fee against liveaboards of all types. This usually comes in the form of an annual or bi-annual 'liveaboard permit' and a small fee. Liveaboard fees are uncommon, and they rarely set you back more than a few hundred dollars.
Moving a Houseboat
The time, labor, and expense usually involved with moving a houseboat make it impractical to do more than once or twice per year. It's comparable to moving a double-wide mobile home, as it usually requires a tow and careful maneuvering.
Some houseboats, such as small fiberglass vessels popularized in the 1970s, are navigable on their own. These vessels, while more camped than stick-built vessels, often include a rudder and function like a traditional boat.
Houses built on barges or pontoons require the most care when moving, as these floating buildings can't be steered or propelled without a tugboat. They can also be damaged in rough weather, so owners must take special care when transporting them.
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