What's It Really Like To Live In A Houseboat?

No longer the stuff of hippie myth, houseboats have grown up along with their owners. Could they be the right answer for you?

Houseboat Sweet Houseboat In Sausalito

Photo by: Zillow According to the locals, the dock is more than just a sidewalk - it's a meeting-ground where neighbors commune. 

People in Marin County are consistently amused by the way outsiders – say, journalists originally from Brooklyn – see their everyday life as some kind of fantasy world. But, I mean, really: People live on houseboats here. In fact, the charming town of Sausalito, a ferry ride away from the financial district of San Francisco, is built around a community of "floating houses" where the living is easier than you might expect. Living on a boat, where you have to worry about septic systems, pirates and sea sickness? That would kind of stink. But living on a houseboat? That actually has quite a few charms.

The Sausalito houseboat community started when World War II ended, turning a bustling shipbuilding site into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Richardson Bay was full of building scraps that could be cobbled together into rent-free living. Over time, the outlaw-riffraff who populated it gave way to hippies, artists and free-thinkers of various stripes (and is the site where Otis Redding wrote "Dock of the Bay"). 

With the '70s came the taming hand of gentrification: The city council called in the Coast Guard and the police to bring the homes up to code, hook them up to the local sewer lines and institute slip fees, basically HOA fees for using a piece of waterfront. Not that it was easy: Those times are referred to as "The Houseboat Wars," and were immortalized in the short film "Last Free Ride." But peace soon reigned, and these days, the Sausalito houseboats are less about wild orgies and more about wildlife.

Rachelle Dorris, a Realtor who specializes in houseboats, has lived on one for more than 30 years, and cites the community of like-minded souls as a chief attraction. "If you go to Europe for a month and leave your key with a neighbor, they're gonna come in and check on the place," she says. "There are planned parties, sometimes as often as every month, plus spontaneous get-togethers. Yet at the same time, there's a real respect for privacy, with every kind of lifestyle sharing the same dock. It's a great cross-section of the community, but in a more relaxed community than a lot of places you can live.

At this point, the days of funky, free living are long gone; houseboats currently for sale in Sausalito range from $500,000 to $1,200,000, plus slip fees – on average about $900 per month, which includes garbage, water and city sewage services. Houseboats are powered by electricity, which means you won't be flushing or showering during a power outage, but other than that, it doesn't sound any rougher than living in a weekend cottage. And you can live in newer houseboats in Berkeley, on the Marina or even within San Francisco, in the newly revamped Mission Bay.

You do, however, become much more connected to the land – or the sea, really. "Right now, with the Supermoon, we've got very high and very low tides," says Dorris. "This morning, when I woke up, I could feel the tide was out because the boat was still. It was sitting on the mud. And that gives the birds a chance to peck around: I had herons and egrets standing around my backyard." She typically closes out a crabby day with a kayak paddle or an idle float. There's certainly no lawn to mow. It does sound downright ... groovy.


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