Houseboats Guide

Plenty of people are familiar with houseboats; generations of families have fond memories spending their Summer vacations aboard one of these types of vessels. For some of us, it’s even where the boating bug first took hold. Generally speaking, houseboats are large vessels built with the majority of their emphasis placed on creature comforts, amenities and living space and less on their efficiency as a boat.

A Houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle WA
A Houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle WA. Photo: Waqcku at English Wikipedia [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

What Defines A Houseboat?

Unlike typical boats or larger yachts, houseboats are designed primarily for use as homes on the water, rather than as a mode of transportation. Houseboats can have varied propulsion systems depending on their size, but by definition a houseboat has a motor, or multiple motors. You will find them with either inboard, sterndrive or outboard power on smaller models. If a vessel doesn’t have an engine and drive system, it’s generally considered a floating house and not a houseboat.

House boat in Kollam
Houseboat in Kollam Back water. Photo by Ayan Mukherjee licensed under Creative Commons.

Houseboat Construction

Hull designs and materials of houseboats can also vary widely. They can be steel, aluminum or fiberglass, V hull, catamaran, trimaran or pontoons or flat bottoms. Because of their weight, most houseboats are displacement hulls, but some houseboats can and do get on plane. Those are usually the trailerable models.

Today’s houseboats run the gamut from smaller, single-engine models you can tow on a trailer to ocean-going vessels that more closely resemble yachts, and everything in between. A houseboat is usually characterized by a full galley and dining accommodations, sleeping quarters for four or more, and one, two, three or even more decks. They are, of course, live-aboard boats.

Different Style Houseboats
Today’s houseboats run the gamut from large to small and everything in between.

These days, water slides, granite countertops, wood-trimmed salons, grand staircases, ceiling fans, outdoor verandas, flybridges and luxurious berths are not only possible on a modern houseboat, but almost commonplace. So if you’re looking at new houseboats, your options are limited only by your imagination and your budget. The market for new houseboats has a lot more to offer than you might think, with many options to consider when shopping for the best houseboat for you and your family.

Types of Houseboats

Luxury houseboats get the lion’s share of the attention, and for good reason. They’re glorious to look at, breathtaking to board. Houseboat manufacturers such as Bravada and Axiom build some of the most opulent houseboats you’ll ever see.

Cumberland HB 2010 Houseboat
A Houseboat on Lake Cumberland. Photo by Sealle from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons.

For more affordable houseboats, such as those that are trailerable and smaller pontoon-style houseboats, look for offerings from Aqua Lodge, Catamaran Cruisers, Nomad and Travelwave.

Renting A Houseboat To Test Out The Lifestyle

Now, before you head over to your nearest houseboat builder and sign on the bottom line, you owe it to yourself to do some research before purchasing, and the best way to do that is by first renting a houseboat. There are houseboat rentals available across the country. Odds are good there’s one within a day’s drive of where you live. Figure at least $1,000 a day for a rental houseboat.

You don’t even need to spend weeks aboard. Most of the houseboat rental companies will rent them for as little as three days — or more if you really want to. You can use that experience to help determine what you like and what you don’t like.

If you’re not in the market for 2019 houseboats — you know, new models — you can use houseboat rental agencies as a source for used houseboats. Of course, used doesn’t mean they’ll be cheap. Cheap houseboats are rare, and if you do find an inexpensive houseboat, it will either be small, or in need of so many repairs and maintenance that it won’t really be cheap in the long run.

You can find used houseboats online priced anywhere from $5,000 — caveat emptor on something like that — to $1.5 million, and the only thing that keeps something like that from being a floating house is the two outboards bolted onto it.

This 2002 Gibson 44 Houseboat includes one master stateroom with head and one lower cabin with two berth.
This 2002 Gibson 44 Houseboat includes one master stateroom with head and one lower cabin with two berth.

Purchasing A Houseboat

Purchase price will vary depending on what size houseboat you’re looking for. Houseboats range in size from 20-some feet all the way up to 90-plus feet, so it’s hard to come up with an average price of a new houseboat, but figure around a $750,000 for the really high-end stuff, around $250,000 for midrange models and on down for the value leaders in the industry. You can spend more for new models or less for used, which already have accumulated some measure of depreciation.

Bear in mind, you can live aboard a houseboat year-round, so their prices reflect that. They cost as much as homes, if not more.

In addition to asking about price, people always ask, “What are the best houseboats?” which is difficult to answer. The best built houseboat in the world that doesn’t meet your needs or expectations satisfies no one. The best houseboat is the one you fall in love with. Like a house, when you find the right one, you know it. So when you’re ready to buy a houseboat, shop around carefully and don’t rush into it without learning about all the different models and brands on the market today.

A 105' used 2008 Fantasy Houseboat for sale on Boat Trader with 4 staterooms and 2 master suites.
A 105′ used 2008 Fantasy Houseboat for sale on Boat Trader w/4 staterooms.

Financing A Houseboat

Because houseboats can be very expensive, you may need to finance your purchase. Banks will look at the usual indicators of your financial wherewithal: liquidity, debt-to-income ratio and net worth.

“Obviously, if you’re applying, you have to be able to show that you have the money to make the down payment, but also pay for the expenses of owning a boat, whether that’s insurance, slip fees, fuel, all those things that go into boat ownership,” said David Mann, membership program manager for Boat U.S., a boat owners association that connects lenders with buyers, among other services.

Your net worth is critical as you get into more high-dollar loan amounts. Banks want to make sure your net worth will equal the loan amount. So, if you’re looking for $250,000 loan, you have $250,000 or higher net worth.

You calculate your debt-to-income ratio, divide your monthly debt payments by your monthly income. Most lenders want your debt-to-income ratio to be around 40 or 45 percent including payment on the boat you want to own.

Houseboat Ownership

Owning a houseboat requires acknowledging that in 99 percent of all cases, boats are a depreciating asset. That really disqualifies them as an asset, but IRS still sees property that can be converted to liquidity as an asset.

If you have a conventional home on terra firma, and the houseboat is financed, you can file a form 1098 with the IRS to deduct the interest you pay, because the boat qualifies as a second home, according to American Institute of CPAs.

If you can find a way to demonstrate to the IRS that you use the boat for business purposes, there are also other tax advantages such as depreciation and deductions for maintenance.

You don’t pay property taxes on house boat, unless you own a deeded slip, so you need to take advantage of all the tax breaks you can.

Living Aboard A Houseboat

It’s important remember that not all marinas allow live-aboards on houseboats, so before you decide to live permanently on a houseboat, it is wise to first find a place to put it.

Important considerations are family. How close you can keep it to your circle of friends and relatives? Fresh water or saltwater? Saltwater is a harsher environment, but it’s less likely to freeze like fresh water, which brings climate into the discussion. If you insist on freshwater, you’ll either need to keep it down South or invest in deicing bubblers that don’t let water freeze around the hull of our boat — and on a 75-foot houseboat, that could mean a several bubblers.

Popular locations around the United States include: Sausalito, Calif.; Union Lake, Seattle; Tomahawk Island, Portland; Austin, Texas, San Diego, Calif.; Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.; Chickamauga Lake, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lake Cumberland, Ky.;

Expenses Of Owning A Houseboat

It can be expensive to live on a houseboat, but of course it varies with the size and location of your boat and where you keep it. A 75-foot houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., is going to be pricier than a 50-footer in Chickamauga, Tenn.

There’s a pretty good marina directory here: https://www.all-about-houseboats.com/houseboat-marina-directory.html#around-world

Fixed expenses you can expect are, of course, the “mortgage,” and insurance, which can cost up to $200 a month, ballparking it. Slip rental fees vary, but a good example is a 24-foot by 90-foot slip at Safe Harbor Beaver Creek Marina in Monticello, Ky., costs nearly $8,300 a year, and they prefer to be paid in advance. Three of the major houseboat manufacturers — Thoroughbred, Stardust and Sumerset —are located in Monticello.

Slip rental fees most often include freshwater hookup, but other utilities like shore power, pump outs, cable and trash service are additional. There’s about another $400 a month.

In terms of hidden costs, the older the boat, the more there are. You might not have budgeted any money when a bilge pump or a rudder seal goes out, but you’re not going to be a position to defer that maintenance like you might on a regular house or a boat that’s stored on land. Also remember haul-out and bottom-painting fees, which run into thousands of dollars on houseboats. Figure $15 to $20 per foot just to haul it out, and houseboats are so large, not every marina can do it. Factory-fresh houseboats come with warranties, so there is some peace of mind by going new.

Conclusion

The nostalgia we have for houseboats belies the enormity of the task of buying one. In some ways, it’s as involved as buying a home. In other ways, because they are boats, the process is even more involved. Take your time and immerse yourself in the process because you’re going to live with this purchase — literally and figuratively — for a long time to come.

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