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A Lesson on Waterfront Living

Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to seattle@curbed.com

Even though Seattle is surrounded by water, waterfront property is hard to come by. If you’re making the dolla’ dolla’ bills, the average $2.4 million list price for waterfront homes on the western front of Lake Washington shouldn’t scare you away. But if you’re jonesing to live close to the water and aren’t ready to part with your organs or your first born, here’s a new option.

Enter floating homes and houseboats – a cost-effective way to snag some prime waterfront property.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Forget the image of you shivering on a cot a leaky rowboat with only a kerosene lamp and your moth-eaten blanket and copy of Tom Sawyer to keep you warm at night. Think instead of the kind of floating homes Tom Hanks rocked on in Sleepless in Seattle – the spacious, 2,075-square-foot, four bedroom, two bathroom that are literally on the water.

Here’s the deal with floating homes. They’re essentially regular houses that include the usual utilities (water – obviously – sewage, electricity) built atop a sturdy raft-like structure that is moored to a dock, so there’s no sailing away in this bad boy. (And instead of worrying about mowing your moss-riddled front yard come this spring, you can just kick back with a brewski and stare out at Lake Union.

Floating homes in the Seattle area range in size from 800 to 5,000 square feet. On average, they go for $600,000 to $900,000 – a steal considering you’re getting the same (if not better) viewing perks of waterfront property as you would shelling out $2 million.

Because floating homes are considered personal property, loans can be hard to come by. And if you do find a lender willing to finance your loan, expect to pay 20% down and rates that are one to 1.5 points higher than on conventional loans for homes on land. But come tax season, you’ll praise semantics: your taxes will be less than a comparable land home because the government can’t tax you for the land that your house is “built” on when you’re floating on the water, so you’re only taxed for the physical structure of your house on the water.

Some of the extra costs that may accrue are similar to those that you would find in living in a condo. Floating home residents have to pay “moorage fees”, most of which will go towards paying your water, sewer, and garbage bills. Some have to dish out additional homeowner dues to have people maintain the appearance of the docks and the surrounding area.

Houseboats tend to be even less expensive options for Seattleites who want to snag a piece of prime waterfront property. Though they tend to be smaller, houseboats cost significantly less per square foot and new one bedroom, one baths can be bought for as little as $150,000 to $200,000.

Most of the taxes and mooring fees are the same as floating homes. But the main difference between a houseboat and a floating home is the fact that a houseboat can move. Not just rock back and forth with the waves, but actually be driven somewhere, anywhere else. So if you get restless in one spot, fear not: you can literally change your scenery by picking up and moving your entire house from Lake Union to, say, West Seattle.

So it’s time to think outside the box. If you already have your sprawling mansion hugging the water with your private helipad right outside your window, kudos to you, bro. But for everyone else, don’t keep yourself up at night concocting elaborate bank heists so you can scrounge together a few million bucks. By living on a floating home or houseboat, you can score some prime water(front) property without breaking the bank and have a piece of the good life on the water while hearing the lapping waves of Lake Washington lull you to bed every night. A win-win for everyone.