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 1: Waterfront real estate to the extreme and Part 3: Homes subject to raft of risks.)
Realtor Rick Minor lives the busy life of a real estate agent and business owner, yet feels like he’s on vacation everyday. He can be seen escorting prospective home buyers around Seattle’s Lake Union in his motor boat, feeding the ducks that swim by his office or answering reporters’ questions about his unusual real estate niche.
Minor works and lives in a floating home community on Lake Union in Seattle where he’s known as the city’s “Creative Lifestyle Specialist.”
“It’s a very unusual, very special and very unique way of life,” Minor said. “You can see the whole downtown skyline from our houseboat. You can take a kayak down to Chandler’s Cove and walk to downtown Seattle.”
Floating homes stimulate the imagination, with some appearing on the Silver Screen in movies such as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Houseboat.” At one time, the lifestyle was seen as bohemian or non-conformist, but floating homes today are fetching much higher prices and are changing their image to reflect luxurious, custom-made real estate in some parts of the country.
Minor and his wife Joyce have lived in a floating home for nearly 10 years, and they also operate a Coldwell Banker Bain office that is a floating property. Their office mascot, a little yellow rubber duck, has become a local icon in floating and lakefront real estate and serves as the brand for their Web site, DuckIn.com.
Minor said a lot of “empty nesters” in the boomer age-range have moved into floating homes since he’s worked and lived on the water and explains how the community itself has changed and attracted a lot of attention.
“At one time this was a poor neighborhood where bootleggers lived and was sort of a waterfront ghetto-type area with only shanties and shacks,” he said. Today, the floating homes range from about $400,000 to $1.3 million, he said, and the median price is about $513,000.
“There’s been tremendous increased interest. There’s very high demand and very low supply,” he said. Very low indeed, considering there are only about 500 floating homes on the lake. The dwindling supply has cut into sales, with Minor’s floating home sales going from 14 last year to four so far this year.
Not many owners are interested in selling their floating property these days because they are afraid they won’t have the chance to own such a property again, Minor said. That mindset has contributed to a limited inventory, he explained.
Minor also sells waterfront homes as well as homes that are not situated on the lake.
He and others who live in floating homes describe the experience as a lifestyle that’s not fit for everyone. There are trade-offs, such as having to carry groceries a little further than most people and having to live with fewer possessions because many floating homes are smaller than their traditional land counterparts.
“People love the lifestyle so much that they don’t miss their garage or their stuff, or they have a storage locker,” Minor said. “They wouldn’t give this up for anything.”
At one time in the 1950s and ’60s floating homes exemplified a more bohemian lifestyle, he said. But today, the floating home scene is much different. “Now it’s become gentrified and is more a luxury and expensive lifestyle,” he said.
Karen Owings, a Realtor with Oregon First in Portland, Ore., also bills herself as a floating homes specialist and lives in a floating home on a river in Portland.
Owings said she’s helped a range of buyers, but that many of them are Baby Boomers or people who come to Oregon in the summer months to escape the heat of Southern California.
Like Minor, Owings said the floating home lifestyle is “like you’re on vacation everyday.” She described her community as much more close-knit than many neighborhoods and said she and others living in the same moorage – the name given to areas where floating homes are stationed – recently played in a golf tournament together.
“It’s very close-knit here – you get to know your neighbors probably much more than you do on land,” she said. “But by the same token, because we are so close everyone knows that and respects each other’s privacy.”
Buying a floating home in many ways is different from buying a traditional home. Owings noted that the return on investment for a floating house is not as much as it would be for a traditional home under most circumstances. But most buyers are after the lifestyle change.
Loans are also different for floating houses, she said. Most lenders will require at least 20 percent down and there are fewer lenders who will loan money for these types of properties, which are considered personal property rather than real estate.
Loans tend to be for 20 or 25-year terms instead of the standard 15 or 30-year mortgages for most houses, Owings said, and they carry a slightly higher interest rate.
The floating homes Owings sells range in price from $80,000 to $1.2 million.
Floating homes tend to be more customized to individual owners, with no two exactly alike in most moorages. Marc Even is a local builder in the Portland area who specializes in constructing floating homes and built Owings’ house.
“Our customers are pretty much retired…they want a little bit of excitement and don’t want to have to do yard work,” said Even, of Even Construction. “They have an adventurous side and also are in that time of life when they’re ready to take it easy.”
The cost to build a custom floating home is generally $150 a foot and higher, Even said, and most homes are about 28 feet wide and 50 feet long. Buyers also have to pay for the dock and slip, and most often there are additional fees akin to homeowners’ association fees.
Even said slips can cost between $80,000 and $100,000 in his area.
Even has been building floating homes for 10 years and also has built traditional land homes. The differences between the two lie in logistics and style. For example, Even said, there is no level when building a floating home and instead everything is squared off the deck of the home. Then there is the foam that is used to keep the home floating and the wire netting underneath the slip to keep animals out.
Since floating homes are mostly custom jobs, Even said he likes the challenge of each new project and the fun in creating a unique house each time. He pointed to a floating home he is in the process of building right now that is made of curved lines and covered in copper.
Many of the floating homes are built on Even’s building site, which contains floating cranes and barges. Sometimes though, he said, the homes are too big and it’s easier to build them onsite.
Even doesn’t live in a floating home. He said he discovered the niche when he helped his father-in-law build one.
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