In this three-part series, Inman News examines floating homes, the lifestyle, the structures themselves, what’s different and what’s the same about living in these peculiar dwellings. The unique lifestyle aboard water-bound homes has been glamorized in Hollywood films and also stigmatized as radical and non-conformist. Today, floating-home communities have emerged as luxurious retreats from crowded cities and bland subdivisions while maintaining a tight-knit, bohemian crew of residents. (See Part 2: The art of the floating home sale and Part 3: Homes subject to raft of risks.)
Flo Hoylman and Jack Sherwood for 22 years enjoyed a spectacular bay view from their home on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Now, the bay is their backyard.
“Looking at the water is different than living in the water,” Sherwood said.
Their home, mounted on a floating concrete barge, rises and falls with the tide. Egrets, herons and seals are among their neighbors. Hoylman and Sherwood purchased a home last year on Richardson Bay, north of San Francisco. And they haven’t missed the life of landlubbers.
The unique lifestyle aboard water-bound homes has been glamorized in such films as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Houseboat.” Once stigmatized as radical and non-conformist, floating-home communities have emerged as luxurious retreats from crowded cities and bland subdivisions while maintaining a tight-knit, bohemian crew of residents.
About 440 homes make up this Sausalito-area floating homes community, and the tradition of living on the water here dates back to the 1890s.
Most of the floating residences look and feel more like a traditional home than a boat, with the same utilities and amenities that homes offer: electricity, gas, plumbing, cable television, Internet access, telephone service.
There are some peculiarities, too, which residents seem to savor. There are dock parties instead of block parties, kayaks and dinghies instead of curbside basketball hoops, and rows of potted plants substitute the tree-lined streets of landlocked suburbia.
Every dock is a unique micro-neighborhood with a hodge-podge of architectural styles and adaptations to a life on water, from dock “6 1/2” to the “Yellow Ferry,” and from “Issaquah” to “South Forty.”
Hoylman and Sherwood’s home is dubbed “Wave Walker” – there is a tradition among floating-home owners in naming their residences, and these house names often follow a nautical theme.
“People say it’s like getting to be on vacation every day,” Hoylman said. And there is a strong sense of community, she added. “When we lived in (San Francisco), we hardly knew our neighbors. We have lived here for a year and we know everyone.”
As Hoylman spoke, a woman stepped through a painted gate and down a wooden walkway to a boat-home, called “Lone Star,” in a neighboring slip. As the woman stepped aboard, the boat-home rocked back and forth. Once a guest house for “Wave Walker,” the “Lone Star” – a converted World War II landing craft – is one of several examples of homes that rest on boat hulls rather than flat barges. And there are a handful of homes built on stilts, called arks, which stand above the bay waters.
While some of the whimsical homes built by artisans during the hippy heyday of the community remain afloat today, building codes are now strictly enforced, said Paul Winward, a floating-home resident for nearly a decade who is also a member of the floating-home community’s tour committee. In October, Winward will serve as a guide for the 21st annual Sausalito Floating Homes Tour that is sponsored by the nonprofit Floating Homes Association that represents owners and residents.
Larry Clinton, a floating-home resident, noted in an account of the area’s history that “a mix of old beatniks and young hippies began to create a community of fanciful homes” in the 1960s, and this crowd followed an earlier wave of shipyard workers who moved there after World War II.
“The Owl,” a wild wooden creation that appears with wooden “horns” at the peak of its roof, is one vestige of that artisan era that lured philosopher Alan Watts, author and illustrator Shel Silverstein and other notables.
Winward said some of that 1960s culture has gone by the wayside as home prices have risen in the community. Floating-home prices tend to track pretty closely with southern Marin County home prices, he said, and Marin County home prices are among the highest in the nation.
In addition to mortgage payments, floating-home owners must also pay a monthly fee to a private organization that maintains the community, Winward said, and this fee ranges from about $500 to $1,000 per month. Leases for the floating-home slips in the community match the duration of the home’s mortgage. At low tide, some of the floating homes rest on mud, and the elevation of homes can vary more than eight feet between high tide and low tide, Winward said.
The parking lots and low-lying areas surrounding the docks have regularly flooded in heavy storms, though there are projects in the works that are intended to reduce flooding in the community
After years of conflict and disputes, park residents worked with public agencies, including the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, last year resolved some outstanding issues related to permitting and improvement projects for the community. One blighted area of the community, a co-op that features an odd assortment of boat-homes, many of which are in various states of disrepair, will be getting a new dock and 24 new boats.
“It is all going to be brought up to code,” Winward said.
One of the homes that will be featured in the October tour has appeared on the “Curb Appeal” television show on the Home & Garden Television cable station, and another home on the tour was featured in an issue of Architectural Digest in the 1990s. The home featured on “Curb Appeal,” which is a modified boat, has rows of portholes on the lower story and an old-fashioned life preserver hangs above the door.
Winward said you couldn’t drag him away from his water-based home. “It’s unique, it’s fun. People live here for only one reason: They love it. It’s a really strong community with very positive energy and that’s the icing on the cake here.”
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