How Houseboats Work

Two houseboats docked at Lake Union in Seattle, Wash. See more pictures of home design.
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The weather forecast predicted a comfortably warm day, so you decide to wake up early and enjoy as much of the weekend as possible. With a yawn and a stretch, you rise up around seven and begin your daily activities. After you take a refreshing shower, brush your teeth and complete your morning exercises, a pot of coffee and a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon are just enough to invigorate you. Stepping outside into the fresh air, you exit your home onto the starboard side, walk forward and admire from the bow the rising sun -- you are, of course, emerging from your very own houseboat.

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Human civilization has always thrived close to the water. Entire societies typically crowd along major rivers, which provide easy access to travel and trade. And there is no doubt that most people love the sea -- just visit a beach during the spring and summer seasons and you'll see our deep connection to the water.

But if life at a beach house just isn't close enough to the water, a houseboat can get you even further off land and into a different lifestyle. Houseboat ownership is a relatively small sector of the housing market. Of the 12.7 million boats registered in the United States in 2006, about 6.9% are registered for commercial use [source: Center for Competitive Analysis]. Compared to the more than 126 million households on land, houseboating isn't the most common way to live.

Living onboard a houseboat is much different from living in a city or suburb, and the people who live in them -- commonly referred to as "liveaboards" -- must make certain sacrifices and lifestyle changes to make living above water work. From the sleek and expensive to the small and modest, houseboats offer to some a romantic lifestyle right on top of the water.

But what exactly is a houseboat? What makes it different from other vessels like yachts or pontoons? What about the rules and regulations of houseboating -- are they any different from other kinds of boats? And just how does a bathroom work on a houseboat? To learn about houseboats, set sail (or lazily float, or however you wish to enjoy this maritime article) to the next page.

Characteristics of a Houseboat

A non-cruising houseboat along the inner waters of the Amsterdam canal, with the Netherlands' capital in the background.
A non-cruising houseboat along the inner waters of the Amsterdam canal, with the Netherlands' capital in the background.
Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

So what makes a houseboat a houseboat? Although everyone might have their own definition of what a houseboat is, it's exactly what it sounds like -- a house someone may own or rent that floats on water. It can be as simple as a small hut placed on top of a raft, or as lavish and intricate as a million-dollar home. Houseboats can be built brand-new by a manufacturer, or people can buy them used from someone wishing to part with their houseboat. The most ambitious liveaboards will go the distance and construct a houseboat entirely on their own.

There are two basic categories of houseboats:

  • Non-cruising houseboats - These houseboats aren't meant for traveling out to sea and have very limited mobility (or none at all). They may have a small engine or a sail, but most of the time they are moored, anchored or tied up to a slip, or a designated spot, in a marina or dock. A non-cruising houseboat is the most common kind of floating home.
  • Cruising, or "bluewater," houseboats - If a person wants to use his home for excursions, this type of houseboat is equipped for moving about on the water. Cruising houseboats will definitely have an engine or sails, so they'll rely much more on fuel for mobility.

If you were to look into purchasing a houseboat but haven't spent too much time onboard boats, you might have trouble understanding the terminology used to describe a houseboat's specifications. A houseboat is like any other floating vessel and uses much of the same nautical lingo as a yacht or a submarine does.

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­These are the structural terms used to describe the parts of a houseboat: ­

  • Bow - The front of the boat (which usually comes to a V-shape)
  • Stern - The back of the boat
  • Forward - Moving toward the bow
  • Aft - Moving toward the stern
  • Port - If you're facing the front of the boat, the left side of the boat
  • Starboard - If you're facing the front of the boat, the right side of the boat
  • Amidships - The middle of the boat
  • Beam - The widest part of the boat
  • Draft - The depth of the boat

There are also several measurements important to liveaboards and marinas. The length of the boat is the hull length -- the space in which you can physically walk around. This number helps houseboat owners know how much living space they'll have inside their boat. The length overall (LOA), on the other hand, is the length of the entire boat, from the very back of the stern to the tip of the bow. This is important to someone running a marina, since it lets him know how much space the boat will take up at the dock. The draft of the boat, or how deep it goes, is important to know so the bottom doesn't scrape on rocks and cause any damage to the home.

For a look at the practical, day-to-day parts on a houseboat, see the next page.

Day-to-day Living on Houseboats

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Although the purpose of a houseboat is similar to any other shelter on land -- to provide us with a place to live and sleep and store our food and belongings -- living aboard is a much different experience. At their most basic level, common houseboats offer modest living space even when compared to apartment-sized dwellings. Unless they are state-of-the-art and very expensive, they won't have many of the same conveniences that houses on land do, such as several stories or lots of storage space.

Just as there are different names certain sections of a houseboat, there are also different names for the rooms. Here are the basic areas in a houseboat:

  • Berth - the bed. If the bed is located at the bow of the boat, where the shape of the structure usually makes a "V" shape, the bed is called a V-berth.
  • Stateroom - the bedroom
  • Galley - the kitchen
  • Head - the bathroom
  • Cabin - a place where passengers can meet. A living room is also known as the salon.
  • Cockpit - the place where the boat is steered, also known as the bridge. The helm is the specific steering station.
  • Nav station - the place where navigation equipment is located, necessary for bluewater houseboats. This is where the boat's radio, charts and GPS will be.

Everyone's needs are different, but the above rooms are the kinds you'll find in most dwellings, whether they're on land or above the water. The navigation station and equipment are necessary additions to cruising houseboats since they move about the water and their owners need to chart positions and be ready for emergencies.

But how can something like a kitchen or a toilet work when the house is floating on water? Non-cruising houseboats are similar to houses on land in this respect -- they're simply hooked up to a direct source of water and sewage treatment. Known as a "water hookup," an external hose brings in "city water," or water from any fresh-water system, directly onto the boat. A separate sewage line will suck sewage directly from the boat's head away from its location in the same fashion a regular house would experience.

If the houseboat is of the cruising variety, additions usually need to be made -- a water tank for drinking, showering and washing, and a separate sewage tank, or holding tank, for waste. A head can either be electric, of the same type you normally see in a regular house, or manual, which usually requires pumping a handle to flush. There are many options available for disposing of waste aboard a cruiser -- some systems can treat waste and are allowed to pump it off of the boat, while some heads incinerate sewage into ash and can legally dispose of it into the water.

Electricity can be provided in several ways. Non-cruising houseboats hook up directly to shore power provided by marinas. Cruising houseboats might use generators or rechargeable batteries. If they use batteries, one needs to be available for the engine, while an additional one will be used for any other source of power. Many boaters will have amperage and volt readers to monitor the amount of power available during trips -- running water, refrigeration, flushing electric toilets or watching satellite television will use power, and being stranded without electricity in the middle of the sea could cause problems.

To read about the physics of staying afloat on a houseboat, read the next page.

Keeping a Houseboat Afloat

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The most important matter of traveling on a boat is, of course, staying afloat. Tipping over or sinking puts us in danger of drowning, and it's even more important for a houseboat owner because that boat is home. Fortunately, all types of boats are designed to keep that from happening. But how does a boat stay afloat, much less an entire home?

The key principle that keeps boats floating is what's called buoyancy. If you pushed down on a boat while it was in the water, it would sink a little bit. Once you stopped pushing, however, the boat would bounce back up a little, almost as if something lifted it, before it settled back into the water again. In fact, the water is actually pushing up against the boat, just as the boat is exerting a force downward.

When the pressure of a body of water is equal to the weight of an object, that object will remain buoyant and float on the water. If the object is too heavy or dense, it will sink below the waterline. People typically build houseboats out of either fiberglass or wood, because they're light and will float easily.

That's how a boat stays afloat, but the way in which it stays upright is a different matter. Of course, unlike the land, you have to account for waves in the water, which will move a boat around significantly.

A boat has two centers: a center of gravity and a center of buoyancy. The center of gravity is the force that pulls the boat down toward the water, while the center of buoyancy is the force that pushes back on the boat. A regular sailboat has a center of gravity that's lower than its center of buoyancy, which helps keep the boat upright. That may not be the case in a houseboat, which may rest upon a raft -- the center of gravity is therefore higher than the center of buoyancy.

Good houseboats, or any boat for that matter, are built with low, heavy centers of gravity to keep them stable and prevent them from moving around too often.
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If the boat tips to the right, its center of buoyancy shifts to the right also -- the water is pushing up on the boat's right side instead of its middle. It's almost as if the water is trying to lift the boat out of the water, and the farther out the water pushes, the more likely it seems the boat will tip.

As you can see in the diagram, the center of gravity and the center of buoyancy intersect at what's called the metacenter. The lower that intersection is, the closer the boat is to tipping over. Once the metacenter points below its center of gravity, the boat will tip over. Fortunately, this only happens in the case of extreme weather, where large waves can be produced by strong winds that could easily tip over a houseboat -- you wouldn't find marinas located in areas that experience such weather.

Another force, called the righting moment, also keeps a houseboat upright by forcing its weight down. You can even express the righting moment mathematically -- it's simply the weight of the center of gravity times the distance between the two centers. If a boat weighing 15,000 pounds shifted its center of buoyancy out three feet, the force applied by the righting moment would be 45,000 pounds per foot, an impressive amount of power. The farther away the center of buoyancy swings from the center of gravity, the harder the righting moment works.

To learn about houseboat maintenance and the rules and regulations you can expect aboard one, see the next page.

Houseboat Maintenance, Rules and Regulations

Near a wooden houseboat, children play on their own, much tinier houseboat. Both would need maintenance.
Near a wooden houseboat, children play on their own, much tinier houseboat. Both would need maintenance.
Loomis Dean/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

As we mentioned on the previous page, houseboats are generally constructed with one of two materials: fiberglass or wood. (Manufacturers build with metal like steel and aluminum, too, but such materials are less common on houseboats because they tend to rust.) There are advantages to both, but most houseboat buyers look for boats built with fiberglass. Fiberglass is often a popular material in airplanes and sports cars because it's light and strong at the same time. It's great for boats because it doesn't require much maintenance. It's also much easier to get a fiberglass boat financed and insured because of the low risk of damage.

Wooden boats have an advantage over fiberglass boats because they're much cheaper. Historically, wood is also the oldest material used for houseboat building, and many people find a wooden boat more attractive for its rustic appeal. But that's about as far as it goes -- finance companies and insurance companies are less willing to work with you because of the wear and tear that comes with wood, and the boats are much harder to maintain. When submerged in water, wood will rot much faster than when it's on land, since fungus spores thrive on the water and will multiply and destroy the wood. Because of this, wooden boats need to be checked often for rot. Boaters can apply marine spar varnish, a protective, waterproof film, or epoxy to reinforce the structure.

Regardless of the material, any houseboat requires a certain amount of maintenance. All houseboats have through-hulls, or holes in the hull, that let outside water into inside systems like toilets, showers and sinks. It's necessary to check these holes for any leaks because extra water let into these systems will flood the interior and cause all sorts of damage.

Rules and Regulations

Although the laws that apply to houseboats vary from state to state and across international borders, you can expect the same kind of maritime rules and regulations placed on any other boat. These include laws against driving while intoxicated on drugs or alcohol, operating an unregistered boat, failing to turn on the necessary boat lights before sunrise or after sunset, littering or dumping waste into the water, cruising into prohibited areas and not having the correct safety gear on board. There are many more, which you can read here. Marinas may also have their own rules.

A house that was stormed by a SWAT team in Miami Beach on reports that Andrew Cunanan, the suspect in the slaying of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, was inside.
Rbert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to the above oversight, the U.S. Coast Guard also has the right to search boats, including houseboats, without probable cause [source: GPO]. This is the opposite of other motor vehicles -- the police can't search your car, for instance, if there isn't probable cause of a crime.

To learn about houseboats around the world, read the next page.

Exotic Houseboats Around the World

Houseboats in Srinigar, India
Houseboats in Srinigar, India
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Depending on where you travel around the world, houseboating will always be a different experience. Some countries mainly attract tourists by renting houseboats to vacationers, while in other cultures people live permanently in houseboats.

In the United States, houseboating is becoming an increasingly popular tourist activity, where people will rent a houseboat for weekends, long weekends or weeklong vacations. Lake Cumberland in Kentucky is considered the birthplace of houseboating in the U.S. [source: Regional Technology Strategies]. Other popular houseboating locations include Lake Powell in Utah, Dale Hollow and Center Hill Lakes in Tennessee, Lake Lanier in Georgia and Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas, Ariz. Other places in the U.S., particularly Lake Union in Seattle, Wash., have prominent houseboating neighborhoods where people live. The 79th Street Boat Basin off the shores of Manhattan in New York City also has a small, permanent community, where dwellers can live for about $500 a month [source: New York Times].

India has the best of both worlds. Many rivers in India have communities where houseboats are a person's primary dwelling, but those same regions may offer houseboat trips and rentals. Dal Lake in Srinagar, located in the Kashmir region of India, is well known for houseboat trips, while dwellings in the state of Kerala are typically moored. Despite the draw for tourism, locals from both areas may live year-round in houseboats.

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is famous for the many houseboats found along its canals. People can either rent houseboats here, or houseboats can serve as a second home or a vacation home for locals. Amsterdam even has the Houseboat Museum, which is an old boat called the "Hendrika Maria." Built in 1914 and renovated into a houseboat in the '60s, it's only a five minute walk from the Anne Frank House. You can see more at the Houseboat Museum's official Web site. Other countries with prevalent houseboating tourism and communities are the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Some houseboat manufacturers are also picking up on green trends, designing special houseboats that have less of an impact on the water and the surrounding environment. One houseboat you can see on Inhabitat is a good example -- situated in the Arctic, it's a prefab home that can be built on-site, and its highly insulated interior reduces the need for heating power. These modern houseboats on Inhabitat, built in Denmark, have solar power and thermal heating from the water and are also built with prefab steel.

For lots more information on boats and all things maritime, cruise over to the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Conder, Russell. "Handmade houseboats." Maine: McGraw-Hill Professional, 1992.
  • Kokkranikal, Jithendran and Alison Morrison. "Entrepreneurship and sustainable tourism: the houseboats of Kerala." Tourism and Hospitality Research. 4.1 (2002): 7-20.
  • Nicolas, Mark. "The essentials of living aboard a boat." California: Paradise Cay Publications, 2005.
  • Rameriez, Anthony. "For perhaps $490 a month, a home on the Hudson River." New York Times. Feb. 19, 2008.
  • "An initial report of the Center for Competitive Analysis." The U.S. Boating and Repairing Industry. July 2000.
  • "NMMA releases latest U.S. boat registrations report." Houseboat Magazine. Feb. 5, 2008.
  • "Staying afloat."