My contractor Kenny recently mentioned the fact that he could have built me a new home from scratch faster and cheaper than what my little place will require. There are several reasons why that wasn’t an appealing option to me…
To begin with, one of the things that initially drew me to floating homes is the diversity of quirky architecture you find in the Seattle, Portland, and Sausalito communities that sprung up in the 1960’s onward.
Many of the first floating housers were colorful, anti-mainstream characters and you saw this reflected in the homes they created for themselves. Unfortunately, many of these same people were working with extremely limited funds and cobbled together living spaces that were neither durable nor anywhere near land-based building codes. Forty years later, many of these early homes have been torn down for scrap or carted off to landfills.
While my little cottage isn’t likely to appear on a National Trust registry anytime soon, part of its appeal to me was that I could invest my housing dollars into resuscitating one of the increasingly scarce survivors from early American floating home history.
Purchasing my home also allowed me to give new life to existing resources. Not all of the materials that were in the home at the time I purchased it are salvageable, but I’m reusing whatever I can. For example, we were able to rotate most of the large logs in the float, buying another 20 years or so of use rather than chopping down more large trees. I’m trying to ensure that when I replace materials it’s with more energy-efficient and earth-friendly options. I’m also donating materials that might be reuseable by someone else such as the propane stove.
I also liked a lot of the space-saving ideas and lines that were in my little home. I doubt I would have been as creative if I’d had someone draft a place from scratch. Instead, I’m building upon a history of prior homeowners’ innovations and ideas. I like that my home comes with its own prior history. My relationship with my new home is sort of like a midlife marriage. We’re both having to figure out how to adapt to one another’s quirks.
Perhaps the most important factor in my decision to salvage this house, however, was the realization that if I decided to build a new place from scratch, very few of the marina owners or floating home communities with homeowner associations would allow me to build anything under around 2000 square feet. I’m serious about my desire to downsize and didn’t want anything even close to that.
Similar to what you see on land, charming, small floating homes are being torn down and replaced with floating McMansions everywhere you turn. These new houses use every last inch of their slip space and tower two, and even three, stories above the water. Some even go so far as to rent or buy two adjoining slip spaces so they can expand even further. I wouldn’t want anything that big as my regular home but many of these houses are vacation homes. (Who the hell needs a 3,000+ square foot vacation home they use only a few time a year??)
No doubt part of what is feeding in to this phenomenon is the fact that floating home communities are usually situated in highly desirable locations as far as real estate goes. (I mean, you can’t get anymore waterfront, can you?) In addition, because floating homes are viewed as a form of personal property rather than real estate, property taxes are considerably less per square foot than what it would be for the same house on dry land.
Also, floating home slip spaces are now a finite commodity with increasingly rising value. Most cities in the U.S. have passed laws restricting any further expansion on the water. And, as these communities become not only accepted but increasingly trendy with the mainstream (thank you Sleepless in Seattle), real estate developers have sniffed the potential of a profit and started to move into the picture.
A perfect example of this phenomena is the marina next to mine. A real estate developer (responsible for the Anthem community in AZ) and a real estate agent went in on buying the marina that was in need of some TLC. Over the course of a few years the small, older floating homes were all “relocated” (translation: evicted). They are now selling off the slip spaces for $130,000+ a pop—but only to people who have submitted blueprints for homes that are approved by the new owners of the marina. And, as one of the two owners made clear to me, nothing is going to pass that isn’t 3,000+ square feet in size and $300,000+ to build. Apartment Therapy and The Oregonian both recently did stories on this community, if you’re curious.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re beautiful homes with sweeping views of the Columbia River. They’re driving the value of any home within eyesight of their community, including mine, increasingly upwards, even in these rocky times for real estate. But the whole project just gives me the creepy crawlies. I would far rather see the eclectic mix of styles, colors, and sizes you find in historic floating home communities than these homogenized neighborhoods of floating McMansions. Moreover, I have to wonder if my developer neighbor next door looks over into my marina and views it as the next “decrepit shantytown” he’d like to take over. (As his marina was described in The Oregonian piece.) Milk jug planking on the ramps or not, I’m not thrilled at what they’re up to.
I had dreamed of escaping the housing nightmare you see on land but it has followed me to the water. It looks like I may have to settle for the hope that my little home, rebuilt and restored to last another 30+ years, can serve as one, small outpost against the rising tide American real estate rapacity.