Houseboat Heaven

Stan Barbarich is frequently asked what it is like to live on a houseboat. “Let me say first,” he responds politely, “we prefer the term ‘floating home’ rather than ‘houseboat.’” He goes on to explain that boat implies an open-water craft and that “our homes, most of which weigh hundreds of tons, rarely if ever move.” Barbarich, by the way, is president of Sausalito’s Floating Homes Association.

All told, Marin County’s thriving floating community consists of more than 450 homes, about three quarters of whose owners belong to the Floating Homes Association. Local water living is as old as California, dating back to the 1850s, when tidelands could be purchased and held in private ownership. (The only other significant West Coast floating home communities are in Seattle and Portland.) As a result, residents of Sausalito’s five fully permitted floating home marinas—Commodore, Kappas Marina, Yellow Ferry Harbor, Waldo Point Harbor and Varda Landing—have 20-year leases and make monthly payments to various entities, one of which involves the government of Greece. Monthly amounts range from $600 to $900, depending on location. (Actually, most of Sausalito’s floating homes are in unincorporated county land, not within city limits.)

“That’s probably the only downside to living in a floating home,” says Barbarich, who lives with wife Sonja on Liberty Dock in the Waldo Point Marina. “You don’t own the mud that’s beneath your home.” Most floating homes sit on cast reinforced concrete hulls that, in many cases, form the lower level of the house. “There are a few Styrofoam floats and even fewer of the old wooden or steel hulls,” says Barbarich, “but lending and insuring restrictions have pretty much led to their demise.”

Amy Pertschuk and husband Chris Krueger have lived on Liberty Dock for almost ten years. After their five-year-old twins, Nicholas and Mia, were born, they chose to remain in their floating home “so our children would be close to nature and natural surroundings,” Pertschuk says. Indeed. Tied up to the family’s two-bedroom, two-bath two-story home are a Whaler and a pair of kayaks. “When the herring are running, like they are now,” says Pertschuk, “our so-called ‘front yard’ comes alive with ducks, pelicans, herons and egrets.”

Young families, however, are more the exception here than the rule. The estimated average age in the community is 48, and around 15 to 20 percent of the residents are retired. “Many artists with studios at home or a nearby waterfront location live here,” says Michele Affronte, a realty agent with Prudential California who’s lived on the water for more than 15 years. Several of Sausalito’s water dwellers are travelers who can easily rent out their homes when they’re away.

Prices of floating homes vary considerably. Affronte has listings from $295,000 for a “cozy” one-bedroom, one-bath to $745,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath with “Ralph Lauren–inspired interior design.” An expected offering she’s excited about has three bedrooms, two baths, approximately 2,500 square feet, and a “nice location with views in every direction.” Affronte holds the record for the highest floating home sale ever: $1,090,000. “That was last summer,” she says. “It had four bedrooms, three baths, a deepwater location, views of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco, hardwood floors, and a stone fireplace—oh, and the kitchen had marble counters, a Viking range and a Sub-Zero refrigerator.”

So if you think you know what life in a floating home is really like, think again.