Is living aboard a boat really a reasonable alternative to buying a home?

Californians are fighting high prices of living in The Golden State and some believe life on a boat is a viable answer — The Log examines the reality of liveaboards, the rewards and nightmares.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — There is no denying the liveaboard culture can be an appealing one for a large number of people, boaters and non-boaters alike. With the housing crisis in California, many have also been scrambling to find alternative housing solutions – one such being embracing living on a boat instead of fleeing the state to search for a more humble abode.

But what are the economics of living on a boat? Is it really cheaper than purchasing a house at the California average housing cost? With housing prices rising so rapidly, especially in the scenic coastal communities of California, it’s no wonder that home buyers and renters are looking for solutions to the ever-growing dilemma.

Living on a boat, at first glance, might seem like the perfect answer – especially to the non-boater. While there are many positives to choosing to leave life on shore behind, it may not necessarily be the best choice for someone who is not completely committed to the decision and have not done research on the subject first.

Housing Prices in SoCal

According to Zillow, a popular home rental and buyer’s listing website, the median price of homes listed as of print is $532,000 and the median price of homes sold is $486,500. Over the past year, values have gone up 8.3 percent. Rental prices average $2,750. Worse still, these prices are projected to continue rising over the next few years.

California’s housing prices are more than double the median home value in the United States, which is recorded by Zillow as $216,000. Rent is also around $1,690 across the country.

Owning a Boat

Boats are expensive and in some cases, more than the average cost of a home in the United States, especially one that fits the standards eligible to liveaboard status in some marinas.

Now there are certainly incredible tales of great deals on boats (for instance, this writer heard a member of the Classic Yacht Association was able to nab a vintage wooden boat for $1 in Huntington Harbour), but the intense work and refurbishment that goes into the process has been known to empty many a pocketbook.

Maintenance is also an expensive part of owning a boat. Mike Sullivan, a former dockmaster at Chula Vista Marina, stated one of his biggest accomplishments during his career there was establishing a boating concierge service to help maintain boats of tenants that live there. Sullivan also mentioned while older generations typically had the knowledge to fix things, younger generations aren’t always as savvy. He did say, however, younger “engineering types” were accessing YouTube and learning how to re-build boat components.

Finding the Right Boat-Sweet-Boat

In addition to the general maintenance, those seeking to become liveaboards have to think about the kind of boat that would best suit their needs. Most marinas will have rules about the minimum size of a boat to gain liveaboard status: depending on the marina, it may be as small as a 25-footer or it could be larger, maybe 30 or 35 feet. This is all dependent upon the marina.

Today, there are a large variety of trawlers and other boat styles that would make living aboard equivalent to living on a floating condo, but those boats may come with a price.

If purchasing a used boat for a bargain price, be wary that quite a bit of maintenance may need to go into it.

New boats providing the comfort some are seeking could cost more than $100,000, with some newer vessels being well over the median housing price.

Also, the size of the vessel may depend on how many people are living aboard – according to The Chandlery Yacht Sales located in Santa Barbara, 25-foot vessels are preferable for a single person, whereas sizing up might be more comfortable for a family of two or more.

A liveaboard tenant who prefers to remain anonymous – The Log will refer to her as Rita because she would not like to share a “glowing review” of living aboard due to complications at her marina – offered this advice: “If you’re considering buying a boat to live on, save enough money to buy a newer one. When you find the one you want, spend a couple hundred dollars on a good marine surveyor so there are no surprises down the road.”

Rita continued, “After 35 years of living aboard and eight boats later, I finally have a boat that doesn’t need a lot of repairs and doesn’t leak. It’s a way of life I always wanted, but it’s not for everyone. Make sure you and/or your spouse are dedicated to living on a boat because it can be uncomfortable and inconvenient.”

Maintenance is one of the major difficulties in living on a boat, which Rita says has caused her grief over the years.

“Where boat repairs are concerned, the Port of L.A. tariff states that any repair work on any recreational vessel cannot encompass more than 25 percent of the surface of the vessel above the waterline, no hull painting is allowed and no repair/maintenance debris, paint, thinner, varnish or other materials can be discharged into harbor waters. Many marina regulations are even more restrictive.”

When Rita bought her first boat, she chose a 30-foot Owens for $2,000 that was visibly in need of much repair.

“I could see the boat needed a lot of work, but it was far more extensive than I realized — it was a wreck,” Rita said. “I spent the first winter sleeping under a tarp inside the boat; the marina would not allow tarps outside. I knew nothing about boat repairs, but tenants in the marina began to come around who ‘claimed’ they did, so I started hiring them.”

Unfortunately, this trust led Rita to go through several costly repairs that ended with results like her boat’s cabin collapsing. Rita’s tale of caution is also a reminder for those seeking to liveaboard that finding a trustworthy, affordable mechanic to work on a vessel can also be difficult to secure.

Gaining Liveaboard Status

For those interested in living aboard, The Log recommends contacting the marina or harbor to find out individual rules and to learn more about the application process.

Applying for liveaboard status will be different at every marina. Some are municipally owned while others are private for-profit operations. Municipally owned harbors will typically have a much smaller limit or percentage of tenants who can apply to be liveaboard depending on the desirability of the area. Waiting lists to acquire a slip are typically long as well.

Also, one of the important things to know when considering if a liveaboard could be right for you or your family is while you own the boat you do not own the boat slip. Essentially, the slip is being rented from the marina, which means at times there will be an increase in slip rental fees or there is a possibility for eviction such as recent happenings in San Pedro — also a costly issue. Whereas equity is gained from owning a property, boat values may depreciate over time.

With the slip payments, a boat payment (if you do not own the boat outright), maintenance cost and so on, there is a probability that living on a boat could near the median rental prices in Southern California. By no means is living aboard a cheap or easy option.

Rita, who lives aboard in the Los Angeles area, said, “Finding a liveaboard slip can be difficult. In the Port of L.A., it is limited to 5 percent of the number of slips. If a marine has 200 slips, only 10 slips are permitted to be liveaboards, and only for security purposes.”

Marina Politics & Inconveniences

In California’s political climate with multiple waterfront projects, marina evictions, sneakaboards, water quality and other issues that you can find covered in The Log, even with that ocean view, it’s not always smooth sailing.

Though most boating folks do have a sense of community, there are matters of living with people that don’t disappear. Rita told The Log her marina in The Port of L.A. area has been trying to cut down on liveaboards; they have a problem with sneakaboards, or vessel owners who are unauthorized to live on their boats, but still do. With the difficulties that have taken place, she does not believe she can paint a perfect portrait of the liveaboard lifestyle in her marina at the moment.

Among some of the other inconveniences also mentioned by Rita when it comes to living aboard a vessel:

  • Emptying waste waters from showers and toilets require using a pump-out station – it is illegal to discharge raw sewage into any harbor waters.
  • Neighbors are 2 feet away.
  • Even large vessels have limited living and storage space – simple living is a necessity while calling a boat home.
  • Marine atmospheres are corrosive to automobiles as well and most marinas do not have covered or garage parking.

The Big Questions

The majority of this article may have sounded like nay-saying and dissuading boaters from seeking liveaboard status, but for those who have done their research, living on a boat may be exactly the lifestyle he or she is seeking. The Log has covered individuals who would never turn back to land living and also those who have run into problems.

Questions that may need asking are: Is this the lifestyle for me? Can I afford the maintenance of my boat? Will I be able to work aboard or get to work from the marina I’ve chosen? Is the marina I desire to live at currently offering liveaboard slips? How long will I reasonably have to wait to become an authorized liveaboard? Is my boat big enough to live on? Will my family be comfortable aboard? Will we be prepared if something happens to our boat such as a large repair cost or irreparable damage?

For those looking for a quick fix to solve the problem of expensive rent, living on a boat might add to problems instead of being the answer. Ocean lovers, on the other hand, with knowledge of boating (or interest in developing knowledge) and a desire to be a part of a tight-knit community – with patience and a willingness to be open-minded throughout the process of seeking liveaboard status – could find this a rewarding adventure.

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2 thoughts on “Is living aboard a boat really a reasonable alternative to buying a home?

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  • July 27, 2018 at 1:39 pm
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    This is an incredible lifestyle – quirky, fun, individual and often less expensive. I love every part of live on the water, getting rocked to sleep, etc. Boiling this down to purely an economic decision misses the point – it is like comparing the cost of two vehicles and deciding that one is simply not worth it because it is more expensive and harder to maintain. If that were the case, no one would ever buy an Audi. 🙂

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