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Life on the water: Inside Seattle's floating homes community

25 years after "Sleepless in Seattle," an influx of techies has made the floating homes on Seattle's Lake Union both larger and more expensive.

Posted: Dec 22, 2018 12:13 PM
Updated: Dec 22, 2018 12:45 PM

Living on the water is not for everyone. There's no garage for your car. Your home will be 10 feet from your neighbors. You'll need to carry groceries as much as a quarter-mile down a long dock. And you may rock a bit as traffic moves past your house.

But the views are great. And the close-knit communities and sense of adventure also appeal to many residents.

"I fell in love with the community," says Michele Affronte, a real estate agent in Sausalito, California, who lives on a floating home in Richardson Bay. "You buy a floating home for the nature, adventure and community."

Unlike houseboats, which have their own motors and can be moved to different ports, floating homes are residences built on top of a buoyant base that are permanently anchored in one location. Inside, residents enjoy all the comforts of land dwellers: municipal utilities, cable television and broadband computer connections.

Affronte left Manhattan Beach in Southern California more than 20 years ago, looking for something scenic.

"I bought my first floating home in Sausalito in 1991," she said. "I thought I'd refinish it and move back to land. But 27 years later, I still live on a floating home."

She loves to hop in her motor boat most evenings after work and go into the bay where she has a full view of San Francisco, the harbor and the seals. The views, the proximity to adventure and the impromptu cocktails and check-ins from her eclectic group of neighbors make her community, what she calls, "the furthest thing from suburbia."

Growing demand, short supply

The finite supply (there are only 480 floating homes on Richardson Bay) and the steadily growing demand mean that prices for floating homes in this area have been climbing by nearly 20% a year over the past five years, Affronte says.

Floating homes were once a respite for people looking for affordable housing. Seattle's first floating homes were built to house loggers. In Sausalito, people who were left homeless from the earthquake and fire of 1906 found refuge in floating homes. In the 1960's, artists began moving into them. But many of these cooperative communities on the water are now upscale retreats, some of them commanding multi-million-dollar prices.

Some floating homes have roof deck hot tubs, wine cellars, even elevators. A current listing for a floating home in Sausalito that is essentially a tear-down is priced at $450,000. The listings go all the way up to a 1,725-square-foot two-bed, three-bath floating home near the end of the dock that was listed for just under $1.6 million.

In July, Affronte sold the highest priced floating home in the community for $2.8 million. It has a roof deck hot tub, a gourmet kitchen and, situated at the end of the dock, unobstructed views of the bay, Mount Tamalpais, Tiburon and the Bay Bridge.

In Seattle's floating home community, the shift to larger, slicker and more expensive homes is happening as well.

Joyce Miner has lived in a floating home with her husband Rick since 1997. The two are brokers who own a real estate partnership specializing in floating homes and Miner says she's noticed that the bigger, more modern floating homes are replacing the older, quirkier ones of decades past.

"That's kind of what everything was — old and funky — which, I tend to really like. But to each his own," she said. "With the tech people moving in, the prices just started going up, because we have a very limited amount of homes."

While some owners tack on vertical additions, others opt to completely build a new house and move it into the same berth. To "move" a home so that a newly built one can replace it, all homes on the dock need to be disconnected from power, sewer, gas and water and pulled out into the larger body of water. The new home is pulled in and all the homes are hooked up again.

In Seattle, there are only about 500 homes on Lake Union and Portage Bay. Tensions are inevitable when larger, two-storied homes are rebuilt or moved in to replace an older home, blocking other homes' views.

Wine-bottle diplomacy

When conflicts come up within these communities, communication becomes critical.

"It's very communal living," says Maureen Crist, who, together with her husband Barry, downsized to a floating home earlier this year. "Communication is really important. Down here they call it 'wine diplomacy.' If you have a problem, if someone's making noise, if something's bothering you, rather than complaining to anybody else, grab a bottle of wine and go knock on their door, and sit down and talk it out."

As new buyers, the Crists had to meet with the board of homeowners for the dock.

"They said after all these years, the two biggest problems they have are pets and remodels," Maureen Crist says. "So we show up with an 80-pound dog and we don't fit in our sleeping space. We're like, 'We're here!'"

But there was no deterring the Crists once they saw what is now their home, affectionately called the Hobbit House. While some people moving into floating homes want a bigger, slicker version, the Crists were looking for something cozier and more authentic.

"I walked in and said, 'I have to live here,'" says Maureen Crist. "I love that feeling of coming through that crazy door, and then looking out and seeing the water, and seeing the other houses, and I liked the scale of the space. It felt super cozy."

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