Highs and Lows of Living on a Houseboat
By Catherine Sherman
Boards creak under my sandals as I walk down the narrow dock. It's a calm, summer night -- downtown Seattle lit by the warm glow of the setting sun; colorful homes rocking gently side to side. Mary LaBissoniere looks up and waves from her kitchen window, letting me know I've arrived at slip 52. Brightly painted in purple and gold, the 1980s houseboat is playful yet unassuming. Potted plants and a doormat indicate LaBissoniere and her fiance, Eric Rothlisberger, have settled into their new rental, one of 34 house barges grandfathered in by the city.
"There was a napkin on our moving van when we got here welcoming us to the neighborhood," Rothlisberger recalls. In February, the couple downsized from a spacious two-bedroom in Fremont to 760 square feet on Lake Union, taking eight garbage bags to Goodwill during the move.
Instead of using the front entrance, I lunge off the dock onto a ladder leading to a skinny side door. Catching my balance, I glance down to make sure my camera is still connected to my wrist.
"You drop stuff in the water," Rothlisberger warns. "I've lost my cellphone twice. One time, I was walking down the dock and whipped it into the water. I've also dropped barbecue tongs, and our neighbors dropped an entire bottle of wine."
Living in a houseboat, I quickly learn, has its perks and its quirks. Ducking my head as I step inside, my eyes scan a small living space, not sure where to land. Vintage appliances, hanging teacups and a red Kitchen Aid pay homage to Grandma's kitchen, while a string of Christmas lights, purple cabinets and a compost bin create an off-beat, Seattle vibe. I point to an odd-looking switch by the oven, but before I ask, Rothlisberger is down on his hands and knees, reaching in with a match.
"Our oven uses propane," LaBissoniere explains while her fiance is on all-fours. "We have to buy the tanks and make sure the pilot light is on." They also pay $18 a week to get their toilet waste pumped, and use a community "cabana" to do laundry on land. It's all part of being a "live-aboard," they say. "We love it," Rothlisberger says. "The views are incredible, and there's so much natural light."
The surrounding wildlife -- whether it's a beaver floating by or an otter climbing on the deck -- is also a major selling point. Rothlisberger (pictured above and in the slideshow below) is outside casting a line at the mention of the word "fishing." He hasn't caught one yet, but the Friday Harbor, Wash., native is determined.
Emma, the cat, also seems right at home. "She hid for a week or two, but she likes it now," LaBissoniere says. She and Rothlisberger also had to adjust. "We had sea legs for a month," he chimes in, remembering their first big storm. "We rocked a lot, and stuff started coming off the walls."
It's also twice as expensive to fix or remodel anything on a floating home, the couple explain. If the exterior of the boat needs to be worked on, it has to be taken out of the water. And every four to five years, the bottom has to be cleaned to make any necessary repairs. "There is a lot of upkeep if you are a floating-home owner," Rothlisberger says. But he and LaBissoniere would rent a houseboat any day, recalling the Fourth of July, when they watched the Space Needle fireworks from their rooftop deck.
Seattle floating home and houseboat real estate agent Rick Miner agrees. "It's the water gene," he says. "If you have the gene, you just take to the water. It's a special experience."
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