What Is a Houseboat, Really?

What you need to know about Seattle's quirkiest type of home.

By Sarah Anne Lloyd June 17, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Today, it’s hard to imagine Seattle’s iconic Lake Union landscape without houseboats and floating homes bobbing in the vicinity of Gas Works Park and the Fremont Bridge. Aquatic residences exist somewhere between mini-ship and art installation, with very few alike. But few Seattleites know the intricacies of these unique dwellings—and what their residents had to go through to stay afloat.

The Shore of Yore

Houseboats have threaded through Seattle’s residential fabric since at least the 1880s: Before shoreline development and regulatory shifts corralled them into Lake Union, they dotted Seattle’s waterways from the Duwamish River to Elliott Bay. Early on some were trendy vacation homes for the wealthy, but most served as affordable housing for laborers, struggling families, and off-grid types, especially during the Great Depression.

For decades, scrappy residents fought zoning laws, lake pollution, and landbound neighborhood associations to protect their homes. Along the way, these outsider communities became a refuge for dreamers and weirdos, attracting artists and craftspeople who put unique spins on their dwellings. The Sleepless in Seattle floating home cemented them as must-see tourist attractions in the early 1990s.

The Sleepless house on Lake Union.

Houseboats continue to drift in zoning and legal gray areas, with the 2010s bringing new crackdowns on what is and isn’t allowed on the water. But hundreds of people still call Lake Union home today.

Ripple Effect

Terry Pettus Park, a one-acre plot along the shore in Eastlake, was named for a local journalist, labor activist, and houseboat resident. He’s celebrated for leading a major Lake Union cleanup and saving its houseboat communities.

Get Away

Contrary to what you might see on Airbnb, short-term houseboat rentals violate Seattle’s shoreline code.

Neighbor Nomenclature

  • In city planning terms, a “floating-on-water residence.”
  • Typically smaller.
  • Handles utilities and waste more like an RV, with all the attendant chores and limitations—and some of the mobility.
Floating Home
  • A single-family house on a floating foundation that’s moored or anchored.
  • Typically bigger.
  • Connected to municipal utilities like water and sewer. There’s a reason they tend to be a little spendier.

Moorage 101

Owning a houseboat doesn’t mean owning its water-adjacent real estate. Moorage slips, or designated spots on the dock, can be rented, owned cooperatively, or owned condo-style. Floating-home residents often own their slips; their abodes are hard to move elsewhere. Houseboats can be tugged from dock to dock, but not all marinas allow full-time residents. Those that do charge an added “liveaboard fee” on top of slip rent.

House Flippers

A floating home inspection requires a diver to inspect the buoyant foundation.

Other Aquatic Residences

A house barge has no means of propulsion. And if you’re just looking at a standard boat “designed for navigation,” that’s a VDU, or vessel with dwelling unit.

Water Home Registrations

As of April 2021.

11 VDUs
27 House barges
215 Floating-on-water residences (houseboats)
507 Floating homes
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