Pass the Olives

Jumbled Opinions on Living, Democracy, and Making Things

Houseboats and Floating Cohousing

When researching the Tiny House villages I tripped over some references to houseboats and the communities that form around marinas. Some have lived in a houseboat community for years.

Floating, mobile communities

I was struck a number of years ago by the stories of friends who were living on their sailboat. They had sold their condo and taken off for parts to be determined. My own idea of living on a boat is that you would be always on the move. Just come into a harbor for supplies or repairs. Or a dinner of something that wasn’t fish. Lonely. And quiet.

Instead, I heard their stories of continuing relationships with boat people who had become friends. They would arrange to rendezvous at “the next” port or one across the ocean. Or arrange to stay in the same marina for months at a time. They all knew each other—something I like about cohousing—and shared their news from one port to another. They gave packages to each other to deliver or return to this or that person. And they not only spent a lot of time docked at a marina, but the marinas are also more than a dock.

The common house on land

The marinas have a marine shop, certainly, but they may also have a clubhouse, a pool, workout room, real showers, laundries, cafes, and parks with playgrounds and picnic benches. Marinas may have lending libraries of books and movies that can be checked out at one marina and returned to others. The “slip fee” for tying up your boat includes water, electric, cable, WIFI, pump outs, bicycle use, and a shuttle into town.

The marinas charge a fee for the slip. Slips come in various sizes and may be rented on a transient or long term basis. It can take many years to find a slip at a popular marina with many long term residents. In some towns, the marina provides a shorter commute to work.

Founded on the Washington Channel in 1977 and nestled at the intersection of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, Gangplank Marina is a laid-back community of about 150 boat-dwellers who care less about your professional pedigree than about the beer you’re bringing to happy hour. In Washington, D.C., a stone’s throw from the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, there’s an oasis from the high-power, high-stress world of politicians, lobbyists and lawyers. People arrived at Gangplank, widely noted as the largest liveaboard community on the East Coast, via different paths — in search of cheaper rent, through a party invite or a newspaper ad. And for many of them, the community felt like coming home.

We know nearly all our neighbors and spend huge amounts of quality time with them. Instead of having made it in life, this community enables one to experience life.”

“Everybody hangs out across generations, and it doesn’t matter if I’m 40 and we’re hanging out with someone who is 60,” says Simon.

“By the time the fire [was put] out, the community had completely rallied around me,” he remembers. “They had gone out, got me clothes, toothpaste, food for the next couple of days. They had made arrangements for me to stay aboard a boat so I had a place to live.”

The marina operates a lot like a floating trailer park

for him, as for many of us, home is more about the folks we call neighbors than the physical place we live.

“If it wasn’t for the camaraderie of the Gangplank people,” Thiel said, “I would have left D.C. 20 years ago.”

  • Less expensive. Although there is still upkeep of the boat, the cost of maintaining a houseboat is far less than regular home maintenance. It’s estimated to cost about $6,000 a year to live on a houseboat. That’s far less than a year’s rent or mortgage payments. Granted, the living space is smaller at an average of 500 square feet, depending on the size of the boat.
  • Plentiful activities. Seniors who have retired on a houseboat often comment about the number of activities. Besides spending time out on the water, many socialize at the marina with fellow boaters. There seems to always be something around to do and someone to talk to.
  • Small used boats cost $50,000 for about 300-500 SF of living space. Insurance and docking fees are the largest expenses.

Building a boat dock ranges from $3,000 to $20,000 with an average of $11,000. Prefabricated piers run as low as 1,000 and permanent quality, $50,75,000.The average pier is $100 a linear foot

though some boats are older, a houseboat can predictably last 30-40 years and will devaluate differently from a house. A house is always worth as much as the land. On a boat, you don’t own the water or the slip.

wash and wax the exterior, clean the bottom, Storage unit on land. Marina slip rental and “live aboard fee”. If you move, the boat goes with you.


docking fees, 12050 linear foot. prime locations, $120-240 a linear foot per year.

My friends went off on the boat initially because they wanted a boat and didn’t see the sense of maintaining their condo when they preferred to be on the boat. In the end, living on the boat was less expensive.

The boaters are like neighbors who party together when they are docked together. The tone of the community of boats all docked at a marina is like neighbors. And it is relaxed. People are friends even if they have never seen each other before. Boat people share something fundamental that forms an assumed bond. Like cohousing. Everyone is used to living in a similar culture with a particular lifestyle.

If you have stories or know more about living on a boat, please leave the information in the comments. I think houseboats, in particular, have possibilities for low-cost homes in cohousing.


“Near D.C.’s Corridors Of Power, A Channel Of Laid-Back Houseboat Life” by Becky Harlan. NPR Picture Show. 11 August 2019.

The Essentials of Living Aboard a Boat: The Definitive Guide to Living Aboard by Mark Nicholas. Updated and revised in 2005 and still the most popular in the field. Noted especially for the attention to calculating costs. The website is comprehensive and also recommended. The  FAQs page covers essential topics and includes a link to a spreadsheet for calculating costs.

The site includes six videos of interviews on basic information, choosing a boat, choosing a marina, and the costs. The video on costs uses demonstrates use of the spreadsheet

Categories: Stories: Personal & Community

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