Houseboats are pretty dang cool, so let’s start there. There is something really amazing about having a functioning tiny home on the water and even better when you have made it your own. But, is buying a houseboat a good idea?
Houseboats serve different purposes to different people including a primary residence, a way to explore your lake or waterway, a weekend getaway, a place to party, family time, and potentially as an investment.
Before we made the decision to buy a houseboat we first considered buying an RV, but we realized we wouldn’t get a ton of use out of a giant RV. A houseboat is essentially a floating RV, with water travel restrictions.
Many of the principles are the same, although any electrical and most appliances need to be marine grade for safety reasons.
Your requirements for a houseboat will depend on how you intend to use the boat, budget, size limitations and boating experience.
The insurance and financing of a houseboat may not be as simple as it is with a car, house or even RV. So, in addition to the questions below, I highly recommend you do your homework. When you commit to buying a houseboat, in many ways you are now the owner of a house on the water, and some of the traditional real estate principles apply.
Houseboats do not depreciate in the way that cars do, but they also don’t appreciate in the same way that real estate does. As a separate blog post I will likely get into some of the financial considerations regarding a house boat, but for now let’s get to the general things you may be asking now.
1. What Exactly is a Houseboat?
The definition of a houseboat, as with many things, is up for interpretation. But, according to the dictionary definition, it is a “pleasure craft with a broad beam, a usually shallow draft, and a large superstructure resembling a house.”
In lament terms, it is a wide boat (broad beam ), that sits higher in the water (shallow hull draft) and has something that looks like a house on top. That leaves open a lot of options to answer our question.
I consider a houseboat a vessel that has the ability for someone to live aboard for an extended period of time, whether that’s your intended purpose or not. Traditionally houseboats are pontoon style, but there are also versions with a traditional hull and underwater living quarters as part of the structure.
Normally houseboats are larger boats starting at 20 ft., but ranging to 100 ft. plus, and the costs vary drastically. Similar to cars, there are different makers that serve different markets.
Some houseboats, like the one I bought that you see some before and after pictures of here, were built as rentals. They were simple, and rental companies could interchange parts. Others are geared as an entry level houseboat vessel, and yet others are higher end, often resembling an open sea yacht.
The look of houseboats has been pretty square, which mimics homes that you would see on land. However, designs have gotten more extravagant and creative, whether done individually or for sale, such as this one on Lake Powell.
In many ways the definition of a houseboat is up to interpretation similar to how the interpretation of houses has changed with the creation of tiny homes, container built houses, 3D printed buildings, etc.
The most important thing is to find a boat that works for you and gives you that feeling of excitement when you step aboard.
2. Is Buying a Houseboat like Buying a Car?
Buying a houseboat is a cross between buying traditional real estate, buying a boat, and buying a car. The larger the houseboat purchase, the more it resembles a land or real estate purchase without the property taxes.
My most recent personal experience was with buying my current houseboat, which is a remodeled Myacht houseboat that measures approximately 50 ft. in total length.
I purchased the boat used as-is It was more than 25 years old and needed some significant attention. My search was not easy though because it was just after the onset of the pandemic when the sale of boats and RVs began exploding.
Difficulties Finding One Within Our Budget
Finding options to meet our needs and budget were limited, and there was nothing available for sale that was already on the local water that met our needs.
Locating a house boat in our local marina would have made the transaction much simpler, as we might have even been able to transfer over the slip rental and just take over. However, as seems to be the case for us, the process was not nearly as simple.
We came in contact with a boat broker (much like a real estate agent) that searched their listings and those that we sent them. One thing we learned quickly was that the boat business does not move quickly.
We also learned that the larger the boat, the more limited the options became for insurance companies that were willing to cover the boat (again, do your research).
While the world sped up around the boat business, they couldn’t keep up with getting the listings down once they were sold. Most of the boats we inquired about had been scooped up, which meant our only option was to expand our search further out.
We finally came across our boat that was dry docked near Lake Powell in Page, AZ, and we took the 4 hour drive to go check it out. In purchasing a larger boat after you get an accepted offer, you have done what is called a marine survey.
This includes a hull inspection, testing of the mechanics, and ultimately a report that includes recommended repairs along with an estimated price.
In real estate terms, the survey is a combo of an inspection and appraisal, and is completed for the benefit of the buyers, insurance company, and mortgage company/lender if there is one.
We personally chose to pay cash to limit the potential issues related to financing that could arise in an already difficult situation.
Our next hurdle was arranging transportation for our 14 ft. wide, 50-55 ft. long boat, which requires permits, an escort, and is limited on the roadways it can travel (FYI: moving a boat is expensive, so I wouldn’t even consider buying a used boat from anything more than a few hours away unless you already have those costs priced in).
Upon closing on the boat, our movers were able to transport the boat down to our lake near Phoenix (we had several headaches related to getting the boat tags, paying sales tax, etc., but I won’t bore you with that right now).
So, in short, no, buying a houseboat is not quite like buying a car, but it isn’t quite like buying much of anything else either. For some it is a once in a life time experience, but for many, once you’re hooked your first time won’t be your last time.
3. How Much does a Houseboat Cost?
This is a very difficult question because it costs as much as you want it to cost. If you are buying a boat to live on that doesn’t need to run but needs to have other functions, you can find some that cost around $30K.
If you want something that runs without having all of the bells and whistles, then you are talking $50K plus most likely.
To give you a point of comparison, by the time we purchased the boat, paid sales tax, shipped the boat, remodeled the inside, and added what we wanted including furniture up top, we had spent around $120,000-$130,000 total on the boat.
However, I have no doubt that I could easily sell it for that or more, especially to someone that wants to keep it where it is.
How we Landed on our Price Range
There were a few factors that made us choose the boat we did. These included the price, insurance implications, difficulty of driving, slips available in the marina, and our ability to make it meet our needs.
If we had wanted to finance a purchase (mortgage), we could have purchased a 65 or 75 ft. 10 yr old houseboat for in the $200,000 range. The plus side to this is that we would’ve had a nice boat with ten year old finishes.
However, our thought process was that if we were going to want to make updates anyway, why spend twice as much just to spend more money once we got the boat?
If you have grander plans, buying a new houseboat might make sense where you’ll pay anywhere from $250,000 to $1.5 million depending on your specifications.
As I mentioned, there are a variety of houseboat manufacturers that gear their type of construction to clientele with different needs and budgets. If you elect to buy a houseboat new, you will need some patience, as most manufacturers are backed up with orders a year out or more.
If you are itching to get on the water, then you may want to consider a totally different way to buy a houseboat…
4. What is a Houseboat Share?
This was a very unique concept for me until I started really digging into our search and I kept seeing these big beautiful boats listed for a fraction of the price that these things seemed to be worth.
Because I was seeing quite a few of these houseboat listings, I knew that it couldn’t be an owner error for this many boats. As I dug into the listings and did research, I realized that many people choose to be a houseboat buyer as a fractional share.
This is a great option for someone with a specific budget, limited time to use a houseboat, or simply no wish to deal with all of the other aspects of owning a floating home.
In your mind you may be thinking, wait is this a timeshare on the water? It does have similarities but you have ownership in a Limited Liability Company that owns the boat, so you truly and effectively own the houseboat (or at least a 5th, 10th, or 20th).
Typically you have assigned times in the year so that it is easy to plan your life around your scheduled houseboat vacation.
The LLC that owns the boat will likely have a contract with the home marina the boat is docked in to perform maintenance, cleaning in between owners, and miscellaneous service that needs to be done.
Unlike when you own your own boat and pay for these expenses yourself, all the owners share these expenses. Similar to an HOA, there is usually a board that manages the funds for the boat.
And should you choose to sell your share of the houseboat, you have the rights reserved to be able to do that and pass on the fun to the people after you. To be clear though, this is not the path that we chose because it didn’t make sense for our family houseboat needs.
5. Can you Remodel a Houseboat?
The simple answer, yes you can remodel a houseboat, and a lot of the simple work you can even do yourself. You can change the appliances, counters, floors, and even the cabinets, but there are definitely limitations.
The individual parts of a houseboat are engineered so that all the systems work together. On a boat of any type, weight and weight distribution are very serious matters.
The hull is designed to sit in the water so that your houseboat is stable. The last thing you want is your floating home tipping over in a strong wind. So, throw out any ideas of adding any square footage or another enclosed deck to your houseboat and consider the layout as nearly set in stone.
From there you can take a look at almost anything else you want to change on your houseboat. Be aware that material and labor costs per square foot are greater on a boat due to the size and specs so make sure the benefits of your changes are worth it for you.
How we Remodeled Our Houseboat
Now that we are more clear on the limitations, here is some information about the work we did. When we bought the boat we knew that mechanically it was sound but that there were a lot of things we wanted to do.
We were fortunate enough to find someone at our local marina with years of experience working on boats of all sizes. What started out as an update of the boat ended up being a full facelift.
The electrical systems on the boat were very questionable and multiple systems overlapped. The wiring had to be almost completely redone, and new electrical fixtures installed.
We installed some state of the art battery packs and an inverter that charges the batteries with shore power and switches to batteries upon shore power being unplugged. Our boat had only one marine plug to shore power, but we ended up having a second circuit installed to accommodate the new appliances, a new washer/dryer combo, and small dishwasher.
All the appliances were replaced, and a custom lower cabinet was built to accommodate the new appliances. A brand new AC was installed and the old RV style AC was turned into a skylight.
A new GPS and sonar was installed at the captains chair with new quartz counters behind it in the galley. The entire interior was repainted including cabinets and new blinds were installed to replace the old blinds and new waterproof floors were installed.
Some people may think that all the work was overkill because it didn’t look too bad before, but we love the finished product of “La Senorita.”
Most instances are not going to call for all of those updates to your houseboat, but I just wanted to give you an idea of what can be done if you have the time, vision, budget, and someone to carry it out.
One of the tips I would give you other than to expect higher costs, is that marine equipment takes a lot of time and often has to be special ordered so plan accordingly. Otherwise you are going to have a ripped apart boat and be stuck on land.
6. Can You Use a Houseboat Year Round?
One of the beautiful things about a houseboat is that you aren’t limited to the summer activities that most other boats are. Houseboats are a lot of fun just parked in the slip to hang out and party on. In fact, we just had a very trimmed down version of our Halloween Party on our boat.
They are great platforms to fish from either in the marina or out on the water. They are a great escape from the daily grind for a day trip or overnight adventure. General boating and just putting around are fun regardless of the time of the year. If none of these interest you for the winter months, then you can make it available to your friends and some marinas (check with insurance) may even allow you to rent it on AirBNB.
When you buy a houseboat you open up a world of possibilities and you are only limited by the ways you can think of using your houseboat. If you still have questions for all the uses and you think you may only use it in the summer, then this is a pretty major investment that may not pay off for you.
Or, maybe it makes more sense for you to look at the fractional shares of a houseboat. Floating homes aren’t for everyone, but if you want to get beyond regular boats and join the houseboat community, I think you are going to really enjoy your time.
However, before you jump in head first and mortgage your house to buy a houseboat, feel free to fire off any questions that I haven’t already answered and I will be happy to give you my input (if I have anything valuable left to say :))
Is buying a houseboat a good idea?
If you read the post above and you aren’t scared off and you don’t have to dig yourself into a hole to buy a houseboat or a fractional share of a houseboat then yes it is a very good idea.
The reality of having your own retreat on the water is a very cool experience and something that you get to share with your friends and family.
How much does a houseboat slip cost?
Houseboat slip fees vary but all are based on the size of the slip for your boat, whether it is covered or not, and if utility service is included. I would plan for at least $1,000 per month for a regular sized houseboat at most major lakes.
Is living on a houseboat cheap?
Although this post isn’t geared toward those that live aboard houseboats, yes it is going to be generally cheaper than most other housing options for what you get.
There are certainly less expensive places to live if rental fees are your only concern. However, consider that any place with a water view is normally going to be very expensive or impossible to find, and thus the value is built in.
Where can I buy a new houseboat?
As I mentioned above new houseboats take time, but you can certainly browse the list of manufacturers from above or that are linked in the post.
If you have an idea of your budget some builders will automatically be disqualified because they are either too expensive or lower on the spectrum than what you’re looking for.