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House barge with stunning, airy remodel listed for $375K

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The vessel was transformed from a boring, dilapidated barge to a thoughtfully designed home

DIWAS Photography

Houseboats (and barges) are a gorgeous, iconic part of the Seattle landscape, but they can have a lot of pitfalls, like damaged hulls, cramped interiors, and other cut corners. When current owners Matthew and Nancy Mihlon bought this house barge docked just across the Ship Canal from Ballard, it was kind of a mess: It wasn’t weatherproof, it had a disintegrating hull, it didn’t get a lot of light inside, it had incredibly low ceilings, and it hadn’t really been updated since it was built in 1985.

While they were living on the boat, they made some practical improvements, like adding a bigger blackwater tank and a skylight. But it was after they moved out of it in 2016 that they realized the need to bring this home up to its potential. Using secondhand and salvaged materials when possible, the Mihlons built out the home to make better—and beautiful—use of the small space, while remodeling the home for more long-term survival.

While the Mihlons say they’re most proud the “many improvements to the bones and systems”—better insulation, a mini-split system, LED lighting, casement windows—it’s the aesthetic improvements that really shine in photos. Both were largely completed by Matt over the course of two and a half years, with the occasional help from a friend or professional, using the knowledge from eight years living on the boat to inform what improvements had to be made.

“If we had launched into the big remodel right after moving in, we might have done more harm than good,” said the Mihlons, “and we definitely wouldn’t have come up with the fabulous floorplan and thoughtful storage that we have now.”

What used to be a cramped lower level with laminate floors and Formica finishes has been transformed into an airy, timber-forward space. Skylights and a cathedral ceiling at the entrance create a more welcoming design. A live-edge maple countertop acquired on Craigslist—plus a stone sink and chalkboard slate cabinet fronts, both made from materials from Ballard Reuse—add more warmth and personality to the kitchen. More built-in storage makes more efficient use of the square footage.

A previously underutilized upstairs room had a low, rotten ceiling. “When I tore out the painted wood paneling on the inside, I could see that the plywood sheathing was significantly rotten, so I took the whole roof and structure off,” explained Matt. “While it was off, I fell in love with the view to the sky.”

Matt added a cedar-frame ceiling with 360-degree clerestory windows with a yellow cedar eave below to shed water away.

Some of the most stunning improvements are also practical, drastically improving the quality of life in a 500-square-foot home. The bathroom—previously about five square feet with a pump toilet and a corner shower, has been remodeled to add a pebble floor, a walnut slab vanity with a ceramic sink (both from Craigslist), more storage, and an unfinished cedar soaking tub that the Mihlons say “smells divine” when it’s in use.

The bedroom has an especially innovative design, with a bed that can be stowed on the ceiling for more room to move around—and to access additional storage.

The bed lifts into the ceiling to allow for more space in the bedroom.

A covered low deck adds a yard-like feeling to the front entry, or the dock shares a small sitting area on land.

While the Mihlons are proud of their labor of love, it probably didn’t break even: “Our beautiful results came at a significant cost ... A particular property can only profitably absorb a certain amount of gorgeous custom work and thorough repairs. We overshot that mark by a mile.”

“I did what made sense at every turn, and have a tendency to pick at things that aren’t right,” Matt told us. “It was an improvisational process driven by functional considerations from having lived there for 8 years and aesthetic considerations in the moment.”

The improved boat is on the market for $375,000, not including slip rent.