After six months of home hunting in California’s crazy-expensive San Francisco Bay Area, software consultant T.J. Houle, 37, closed in May on a charming one-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom house with hardwood floors and waterfront views in Alameda. The best part? It cost about half of what most homes are going for in the area.
“I knew immediately this was the home for me,” says Houle, who was impressed by the home’s abundance of sunlight. “If you’re going to buy a house, it should be something that you love.”
But there was a catch: Her home isn’t just on the waterfront—it’s on the water.
As home prices soar and mortgage rates continue to tick up, some intrepid buyers are forgoing the typical single-family houses and condos built on dry land. Boring. Instead, they’re casting off to live on houseboats, floating homes, or even cruise ships outfitted with permanent residences.
Many of these folks crave a more adventurous lifestyle where they can fall asleep in one port and wake up elsewhere. Others find that the gentle rocking and water views of a floating home contribute to a more peaceful living experience—and the money it saves reduces stress, too.
“Beachfront properties are [among] the most valuable in the world,” says Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute. The San Francisco–based nonprofit organization, founded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel and political economic theorist Patri Friedman, is exploring the feasibility of building a society on water. “Creating your own real estate [on water] can be cheaper than buying homes on a beach.”
Houle says she wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Alameda, a tiny island on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, if she hadn’t bought a floating home. She paid $425,000 in a market where the median home closing price is $910,000, according to realtor.com® data.
“I had never thought [a floating home] was an option for me,” she says. But “the house is gorgeous.”
Bobbing along on a floating home
As land becomes ever scarcer and pricier in big cities, more developers are considering constructing villas and condominium communities in city harbors, canals, and lakes, particularly along the East Coast. Being close to shore makes it easier to connect the developments to the power and sewer systems on land.
“We see more requests for floating homes and floating developments in cities where the price per space is high and there’s a lack of space,” says Koen Olthuis, principal and founder of Waterstudio, an architecture firm based in The Hague, Netherlands. He’s seen interest in New York City, Miami, and Washington, DC.
And it’s about more than just killer views. Space on the water is cheaper than on land. Olthuis estimates the cost to build a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, floating house starting at about $120,000.
Paradoxically, floating homes may also be safer during smaller storms than houses built on land. That’s because they’re designed to bob up and down to accommodate flooding. This is unlike homes built on land, which are stationary and unable to adjust their orientation to avoid an inundation of water.
But that’s for smaller storms. If a big one hits, well, there’s going to be some real damage both on water and land.
And despite generally lower prices, buying a floating home can be more challenging than a regular one. Very few lenders will provide mortgages for homes on water, so buyers often must shop around for willing credit unions, which typically require higher down payments and offer higher interest rates.
Plus, buyers also need to fork over fees to keep their homes at marinas. Houle, for example, spends $550 a month for her spot at the Barnhill Marina in Alameda. That slip fee covers her trash collection, water, access to the sewage system, parking, and security. Her electricity is included in the payment, although it is separately metered.
“Where else could you find such a lovely environment?” McIntyre asks. “These days nothing really is cheaper.”
‘Liveaboards’: Life on a boat
For those who want to go out to sea instead of just living on it, or can’t afford a floating home, living on a boat is another option. These seafaring folks—and their mobile homes—are called “liveaboards.”
Erica, 35, and Scott Magdalein, 33, spend about half the year on their 37-foot-long, two-bedroom, one-bath houseboat with their three kids: two boys, aged 4 and 6, and an infant daughter. The houseboat also has a kitchen, eating nook, and couch.
They split their time between their houseboat and their three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that sits on 3 acres along St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL. In 2016, they lived in a marina in St. Augustine, FL, for six months and then headed to the Bahamas for another six moths. They returned in July of last year when Erica learned she was pregnant. (Erica is a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the children, and Scott owns a software company.)
“We knew we wanted to travel, but we couldn’t afford to fly to those exotic destinations and rent hotel rooms,” says Erica. So “we decided to purchase a boat. It’s cheaper living … and gave us the means to travel where we wanted to go.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easier lifestyle.
“You really have to track the weather and the tides, and you really have to know your surroundings and your consumption,” she says. But in return, “you have this vast, open space of water, and there’s no traffic, no timetable. You’re not one house on top of the other.”
Other folks do it more out of necessity. In 2011, college student Chris Mullen purchased a 30-foot-long sailboat with a bathroom and kitchen for $17,000—and moved right in.
“The original idea was that I was going to buy a boat, learn how to work on it, and eventually sail it back to California, where I grew up. [But] I kept getting degrees,” says Mullen, now 39, who is working on his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. “It was a means to an end. Once the boat was paid off, it was $200 a month in rent.”
Mullen spent five years on the boat, first in Bowleys Marina in Middle River, MD, and then in the Anchorage Marina in Baltimore. The worst part was the storms. He worried that if he accidentally fell into the water, there wouldn’t be anyone to help him.
Mullen eventually got engaged, and later he and his wife moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. But he still has the sailboat.
“When a storm comes through, it’s nice to be able to lie down on a bed and just go to sleep,” he says.
A perpetual luxury cruise
Those who want to see the world while taking in ocean breezes and saltwater air but don’t want to worry about pumping the sewage out of their vessels might consider living on a cruise ship. Not vacationing—living.
The World, which touts itself as the largest private, residential ship on the globe at 644 feet, has 165 homes on board, ranging from studios to two-bedroom units each with its own veranda.
To be clear: These units don’t come cheap. They reportedly start at $3 million, and residents must have a net worth of at least $10 million, according to CNN. They also must be invited by a current World resident and go through a comprehensive vetting process. (Ship officials declined realtor.com’s interview request.)
Since its founding in 2002, the luxe ship has visited more than 900 ports in over 140 countries, with residents helping to determine where the ship goes. High-end perks abound.
Folks whose bank account balances are a bit more modest can still become “frequent floaters.” Storylines, one of the latest residential cruise ships, began leasing its 309 condos starting at $155,000 each in January. The ship will embark on its maiden voyage in February 2020 and is slated to travel to about 100 countries in every continent but Antarctica over a three-year period. (The ship will continue traveling after that period.) Folks can join the voyage at any port of their choosing and have input on where the ship travels.
“The major client base is that group of people who have done well over their lifetimes,” says Shannon Lee, co-founder of Storylines. They’re typically empty nesters between the ages of 40 and 55 with a net worth of $2 million to $5 million. There has been substantial interest from clients who want to work remotely—with an ocean view.
“It really is the ultimate holiday lifestyle where you get to bring the holiday with you,” Lee says.