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This is where I really belong!

September 18, 2014

If Eric and I have a hard time finishing our projects, maybe it’s because I keep finding other things to do. Like when I read about the Seattle Floating Home Tour, I had to buy tickets. I’ve always been fascinated by living on the water—not just at the water’s edge, but ON IT. What are floating homes? You remember Sleepless in Seattle? Well, here’s the actual house where it was filmed.

Sleepless in Seattle house

About a century ago Seattle had thousands of “houseboats,” which were cheap shacks built on floats. The city tried to get rid of them, and it wasn’t until the owners organized in the 70s to save their communities that the houses gained respect. Now there are about 500, and believe me, they are shacks no longer. Gone are the days when, as Eric says, if you couldn’t afford an apartment, you rented a houseboat. The Sleepless in Seattle house recently sold for $2 million. (When Eric told me he lived aboard in his college days, I was so impressed, I knew he had to be the guy for me.)

Technically, houseboats have motors and can travel. These are floating homes, which are houses built on floating platforms. They’re not motorized, and they can be towed only if they’ve been unhooked from city utilities (yes, they’re all on the sewer system). But locals usually call them houseboats anyway, and everyone knows what we mean.

The houses are clustered in communities, circled in red on the map, on the east and west shores of Lake Union, and the west shore of Portage Bay near the University of Washington (click the map to enlarge).

map of Seattle showing houseboat locations

We started our tour on the west side of the lake, at a century-old bungalow that crouched like a troll under the spectacular filigree of the Aurora Ave. Bridge.

bungalow under big bridge

brown bungalow under bridge

Out of the eight homes we toured, this was my favorite. It felt like a miniature version of our house, but instead of a city lot, this one has the whole city for a backyard. I told the artist who lives here that Eric and I would be moving in. “Great!” she said, “I’ve got a guest room!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her she’d have to move out. This really should be MY living room. And MY kitchen (although it’s a little cramped).

troll house living room

troll house kitchen

And above all, MY studio! With a view like this, how could anyone fail to be creative? Eric and I would have to figure out a schedule because it’s a one-artist garret room.

troll house studio

The infrastructure on these old docks isn’t pretty, but it’s … interesting … part of the ambience.

electric and telephone lines

We hopped on one of Seattle’s fleet of electric boats, hired for the tour, for a trip across the lake. (That’s how I took the waterside photo of the Sleepless house.) We hadn’t been on any kind of boat for a long time, so our two sunny crossings were a treat.

electric boat with canopy

Lake Union is a jumpin’ place on a hot summer day. The water is thick with kayakers and paddleboarders, and boats making their way from Lake Washington through the Montlake Cut, Lake Union, and the Hiram Chittenden Locks to Puget Sound. Every few minutes a float plane headed to or from the San Juan Islands or Victoria, B.C., has to find room to take off or land. It’s a lively scene!

boat traffic on Lake Union

float plane over lake

While the west shore seems private, quiet, and low key, we found the east shore of the lake has a different vibe. Here, the houses tend to be grander and the whole community feels unabashedly on display and part of the party on the lake. How’d you like to have this view? Yes, you’d have to put up with strangers paddling past your door, checkin’ out your style. If I lived with this much style, I wouldn’t mind.

view of Seattle from houseboat

Houses are crowded cheek by jowl down both sides of each dock. It’s definitely not a lifestyle for someone who doesn’t like being close—really close—to one’s neighbors. Just as on boats, every inch of space is used. Container gardens fill in for absent yards. Residents bedeck their decks with flowers and greenery.

typical dock with plantings

dock with plants

Must be nice to tie your speedboat right up to your house!

houses side-by-side

Floating homes come in all shapes and styles, from 1970s hippie pads …

rustic houseboat

… to Venetian palazzos.

small Venetian palace

We went from the charming bungalow under the bridge to this sleek model.

house with red door

modern sleek interior

And then to this remarkable home with an exoskeleton staircase and a large putting green on the roof. Not a bad interior staircase, either. Love the porthole windows!

outdoor spiral staircase

interior of exoskeleton staircase house

Nice view from the upper deck!

view of rooftops

view from upper deck

Not all the homes are jaw-droppers. Some humble ones still float next to the mini-mansions. These are probably more like the one Eric lived in the 70s. But everyone enjoys life on the lake and having a boat or two in their front yard.

humble floating homes

We were asked not to take photos in several of the homes. I can appreciate that … I think the owners were very brave to let the public come traipsing through their personal spaces. No rooms were off-limits. If you gave us a storage unit, a professional housekeeper, and a year, we might be able to get our house in shape to put it on public display.

We returned to the west side of the lake by late afternoon, just in time to see one last house. (The tour comprised 12 homes; we had time to see eight.) Our last visit was to another oldie, moored near the shore and facing a peaceful lagoon that years ago was filled with small rental sailboats, but now falls in the shadow of the mighty Aurora Bridge.

the old boathouse sign over dock

houseboat from 1900

peaceful lagoon

It’s been almost two weeks since we did the tour, but these floating homes are still floating in my daydreams … somewhere under the bridge.

Aurora Bridge

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From → Travel

18 Comments
  1. Africadayz permalink

    What an absolutely fascinating post! Another reason to put a Seattle visit on my bucket list. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Jacqui, glad you enjoyed it! Hope you can come to Seattle someday–we’re only half a world away! 🙂

  2. D’Arcy,
    What a fun excursion. Was the tour to benefit a charitable cause of some kind? I can’t imagine having a steady stream of visitors touring my house for the fun of it. I love the idea of living on the water and used to imagine living on a boat. I later heard that there are issues with mildew and such, but if I ever succeed in paring down all of my stuff, maybe I could squeeze into one of the smaller, charming floating houses. What perfect weather you had for this event.
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    Karen

    • Hi Karen! The tour benefits the Floating Home Association. Because these houses have heat and insulation, unlike a boat, I bet they have fewer problems with dampness. However, I’m sure there are downsides, too, as with any house. There are no downsides in my fantasies, though! 🙂

  3. What an amazing tour! Years ago (OMG, probably over 20 years ago…eeks), I used to work on East Lake Ave on Lake Union. I loved it. I’ll have to check out this tour and schedule a trip home to see my Mom around it! Thanks for sharing all of your awesome pictures.
    Kris

    • Hi Kris! The tours happen every other year, so you have lots of time to plan a trip. I’ll definitely go on this tour again and see more homes! Can’t wait … except I’ll be two years older. 😦

  4. Thanks for the tour. These are awesome. Robert Fulghum lived on a houseboat in Seattle, and I loved reading his stories about the experience. I would love to try it.

    • Thanks for the tip–I will have to look up his stories. I can’t get these homes out of my mind. But could we possibly afford one on the cusp of retirement? Probably not … but I can dream… and buy Lotto tickets!

  5. Africadayz permalink

    Reblogged this on home-in-the-making and commented:
    I’ve always wanted to visit Seattle and after seeing this fascinating post, I now know why. My bucket list seems to be getting longer and longer…

  6. Here in Sydney we are excited about the idea of kayaking to work. It is possible for some. But at the home end there is always a drive. It seems not for you, though!

    • The ability to kayak to work is actually a selling point for these homes. And it works, as long as your workplace is also on the lake!

  7. Between your words and pictures, you painted a remarkable way to live… I need to hear Eric’s houseboat stories sometime, I am sure they are quite interesting 🙂

  8. Yeah, if only I’d known him then! We didn’t have any houseboats over in the Palouse!

  9. Absolutely amazing! I can definitely see you living this way! Not sure about all the kitties though…..

  10. I think the kitties would love it! Some docks are dog and cat friendly, some only cat friendly. Each dock has CC&Rs.

  11. I live in a city where the downtown opens onto a bay — the Chesapeake Bay — all the small boats and houses on the water are well outside the city. Now everything is high rises and penthouses where there were once Arabber stables and warehouses. Your tour was great. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    • Thanks, Jo, It’s sad to see the character of a city homogenized until it looks like everyplace else. Good thing we live near the water–they can’t change that!!

  12. Amazing! Loved all the pictures. Someday I will see this!

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