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Lake Union from above

Excerpted with author's permission from Jim Stacey's Seattle Homes, Real Estate Around the Sound. Washington Professional Publications, Bellevue, WA, 1998.

They actually float?

It must have seemed perfectly natural in those decades before the word depression was spelled with a capital "D". There were acres and acres of water, cedar logs were equally abundant, and there were few laws to worry about. So, you just assenbled a raft, built a shack on it, and left it to your grandchildren to sell for a half million dollars. The perfectly natural order of things in Seattle.

Of course, with as many as two thousand of those H-2-Omes lining the shores of Lake Union over a half century ago, we were soon on our way to creating the world's largest cesspool. In other words, it was just a matter of time until restrictions became common and substantial changes took place.

Today, although the number of floating homes is slightly under 500 (with no change in sight), it is still the largest fresh-water gathering to be found within an city's limits, at least in North America. And we who canoe are glad to say that all of them are now connected to the city sewer. The only exceptions to the "connected to the city sewer" homes would be the 30 or so legal barge homes which do allow "gray water" to flow into the lake (there are many more not-so-legal barges). These are the only structures that are truly "houseboats" which can be driven hither and yon. Of course, there are also "live aboard" power and sailboats by the hundreds, but they do not fit into a discussion of real estate.

row of houseboats

The floating homes that we will focus on are permanently moored, for all practical purposes. That is what they all have in common. What will differ is the form of ownership, of which there are three.

The least expensive way to buy into the floating community, "non-owned moorage," presents the greatest risk, as you might expect, since the owner of the structure does not own the land beneath the surface of the water, and must always live with the possibility of eviction. At one time that land may have actually been above the water line, owned by a family that has held on to the land for many years and rents it today, lot by lot, to the different home owners.

The rental agreement can be month-to-month or a long term lease. The month-to-month lots come under the only rent control in the city (and possibly the state), with increases being tied to the Consumer Price Index (utilities and taxes excepted).

duck's eye view

Monthly rents are presently between $300 and $550, which, of course, would be inaddition to mortgage payments on the struucture itself. Prior to the enactment of the Equity Ordinance, there were horror stories of tenant-owners being evicted from their moorage, with no place to move the home, making the structure practically worthless overnight.

Today, there is still some risk of eviction, but, as attorney Phil Miller says, he can't think of a single case in the last ten years. On the other hand, there have indeed been some classic clashes, one of which ended with the structure's owner selling such to the landlord. Yes, the landlord named the price. One must not be late with the rent.

Even though there is a legitimate risk where a "docklord" exists, even the cheapest of these floating homes will bring over $100,000, even though you may be looking at only 600 square feet, which, the last I heard, didn't require a long look.

The most common form of ownership is a co-operative arrangement. A group of home owners will buy the land (yes, the bottom of the lake) and then share in the costs. This arrangement can mean that these properties will sell for at least $100,000 more than those with rented lots.

The most expensive form of ownership will typically be the "fee simple" condominium, such as you will see at Roanoke Reef, the area due east of Gas Works Park. I have in front of me the specs on one of these, a two story home with over 2,000 square feet (complete with "basement" and nearby two car garage). The price: $800,000. The annual property tax is almost $7,000, and the homeowners' dues adds another $2,000 (total monthly cost: $750 plus, say $5,400 each month on the mortgage). The dues include water, garbage, maintenance of common areas, and insurance (but do see the remarks on insurance later in this chapter).

Sales figures from NWMLS for recent years indicate that fewer than seven percent of the homes are sold in a year, i.e. about 30. Loans are strictly of a portfolio nature, which means that the buyer should anticipate a minimum of 25% down. The amortization period is 25 years, and since few banks are interested in this market, the interest rates may not be as competitive as one would hope. For comparison, a 30 year loan on a $100,000 loan at 8% would require a principal and interest payment of $734, whereas the cabin-on-cedar's payments would probably range from $840 to $875.

View from Lake Union
    Some of the most common questions:
  1. Are they humid? No more than any other place in Seattle
  2. Do the logs ever rot? May you live that long.
  3. Can you have a washer-dryer or disposal? If you can afford them.
  4. Do they rock a great deal? Passing boats are not allowed to create wakes, and Seattle's Irish are equally subdued.
  5. Are the interest payments tax deductible? As long as we don't have a flat tax.
  6. Can you swim in the lake? You can, but you won't once you read in Seattle Survival Guide (chapter 17) what's in the water, and I ain't talkin about Nessie.

Other than the expense and financing, are there any other drawbacks? Yes, parking...unless you can afford the most expensive situations, and even then there may not be any for guests. And you can find yourself carrying groceries a long ways on those wet docks. Of course, it is only a matter of time until you fall off a dock. You may also get pecked to death by the geese who think they own everything in sight. The chances of expanding the typical structure are virtually nil. Plumbers charge a great deal more if they have to wear a wet suit. You may have to use a trash compactor to store your clothes. And youi will have to endure a steady stream of envious gawkers. I'm the one in the yellow canoe with the Nikon.

But, at Christmas, when the Annual Christmas Ship parade goes by, or later when warm weather prevails and baby ducks are everywhere, or at any time that you find your home gently rocking with the rhythms of nature, you may feel that you have chosen one of the best housing options to come along since we left the caves. And you will feel all the better finding yourself among so many neighbors who are of the same opinion.

Call Rick Miner (206) 940-1180
Or toll free (888) 207-1466
for an appointment


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Contact Rick Miner:

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