Tag Archives: Seattle Floating Home Tour

Floating on Portage Bay

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that Eric and I enjoy home design tours. We’ve done bungalow tours, modern home tours, and two years ago, a floating homes tour. Ever since then, I’ve eagerly looked forward to the next time we could come aboard Seattle’s iconic floating homes. I thought that because I’d already blogged about this tour, I’d skip writing about it this time … but it was such a lovely day and such an eclectic collection of homes, I can’t help myself.

The tour was sponsored by the Seattle Floating Homes Association. This year, we were asked not to take photos inside any of the homes, which I can understand. Still, I managed to sneak a couple, and I’ve borrowed a few from The Seattle Times. This post will be more of a look at the floating home community and lifestyle rather than interiors.

A row of floating homes on Seattle's Portage Bay

Seattle’s floating homes [photo: Eric Shellgren]

The neighborhood

While 2014’s tour featured homes on Lake Union, this year’s tour focused on the Portage Bay community. Portage Bay is a small, partially manmade lake between large Lake Washington to the east and Lake Union to the west. It’s part of a water passage from fresh water Lake Washington, through the Montlake Cut, Portage Bay, Lake Union, the ship canal, and the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks to salt water Puget Sound. With all the boat traffic, the view is never boring. The University of Washington and the Seattle Yacht Club are just across the bay.

Map of Seattle showing Portage Bay

This is the view from many of the homes: the UW on the left, the Seattle Yacht Club on the right, with the Montlake Cut and bridge in the middle. Not bad.

Montlake Cut seen from Portage Bay, Seattle

The Montlake Cut and bridge

You can rent these little battery-powered boats from The Electric Boat Company in Lake Union. They were all over the place! Why have we never done this?

Blue electric boat among lilypads

A fun way to see the sights

The floating homes

The homes are incredibly eclectic. Anything goes as far as architecture. Apparently there are few covenants here limiting the imaginations of homeowners and designers. No boring rows of cookie-cutter, neutral-hued houses. That’s one reason floating home communities appeal to me. Everyone is free to express their own sense of style. (Although I did hear from a volunteer that her dock voted to outlaw vinyl siding.)

Each dock, which serves several homes, may operate as a co-op, or like a condo. For instance, homeowners might own the mud beneath their homes (but not the water, of course), while a homeowners association owns and maintains the dock and common areas.

Three floating homes on Portage Bay, Seattle

Every home has its own character.

Floating homes of many shapes and colors in Portage Bay, Seattle

Architectural diversity

Most homes come with boat moorage. What fun it would be to have a classic runabout like this tied up right outside your door!

Runabout boat with mahogony decking

Nice car!

Each home is numbered as a member of Seattle’s floating home community. This little red bungalow was full of Scandinavian art and décor.

Red floating home with white trim

Little red bungalow [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

Red siding and white window trim, with two small metal numbered tags

Floating home No. 447

side deck on red and white floating home

Side yard

Nearby was a small, new A-frame cabin. This house was nicely designed, but absolutely everything in it was gray or white, even the artwork. It felt cold inside. Oh, for some color!

Small, gray A-frame cabin floating home

We’re all taking pics of each other

A-frame floating home interior

The only color is outside [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

A-frame floating home interior

But it would be nice to sleep under glass [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

On the other hand, we toured a modern box that screamed with color—so much that I wouldn’t be able to stay inside for very long. I didn’t feel relaxed with the hard edges and all the color bombarding me … and I like color.

Modern floating home with galvanized metal siding and bright trim

An interesting multimedia exterior [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

Bright colored modern kitchen in floating home

Zowie! Who needs coffee! [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

Colorful modern living room with huge windows in floating home

That view [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

I do love modern homes, but for the floating variety, I’m always drawn to the oldies.

I can see us living in this white bungalow with the red roof … and the matching white boat with red Bimini that the owner is inching into his slip.

White bungalow floating home with red roof and picket fence

You can have a white picket fence without a yard

I liked the casement windows in the house with the red umbrella. Many homeowners left their doors and windows open that day so that we looky-loos could peep into houses that weren’t on the tour.

View of neighboring floating homes from a roof top deck

Checking out the neighbors from a rooftop deck

Look at the interesting curve of this home’s ridgeline.

Red barn-like floating home with curved ridgeline

A complex curve

An impressive collection of Southwest and Native American art and artifacts crowded this Bohemian home. Wouldn’t you like to grab a book and a cup of tea and sink into that chair on a rainy day?

Old floating home with Southwest art collection

A cozy cottage

Our favorite home this tour was a cabin that looked small on the outside but lived big on the inside. I was impressed with the spacious kitchen and quirky details like vintage industrial sliding doors (the bedroom door’s glass window said “Employment Bureau”). And of course, the original pine beams.


Prime end-of-dock location

Cabin living room and kitchen

From the deck, looking toward kitchen

Cabin living room with pine beams and red couch

Original pine beams define the living room [Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

I looked up some floating real estate and was dismayed that the cheapest I could find for sale was over $500,000 (two years ago it was $399,000) … not our price point as we approach retirement. All the homes aren’t tour-worthy. We saw several that are begging for some TLC.  With Seattle home prices soaring, it’s likely that even these fixers are out-of-range. Besides, I doubt any dock would allow as many pets as we have.

Floating home with tarp on roof

Can you hear this house crying out for us to renovate it?

A run-down flotaing home at the end of the dock

Location, location, location (and a blue tarp)

Some people have walk-in closets bigger than this barge, but a little imagination could make it into a cute getaway.

Small yellow barge home under University Bridge, Seattle

Think of the bridge noise as surf.

The bridges

At the north end of Portage Bay, two bridges dominate the landscape: The massive Interstate 5 freeway, known as the Ship Canal Bridge, and the smaller, green University Bridge. As you approach the bridges, the volume ramps up considerably. Yet, this traffic noise doesn’t deter people from living near them. It’s just part of living at the lake.

Floating home and sailboat near two large bridges

A man waters his garden near the bridges

Small blue bungalow with red roof next to University Bridge

You could almost leap from the bridge onto the roof

The University Bridge performed for us several times. A long and short toot from a sailboat signals the bridge to open. The bridge operator toots back, the vehicle barriers come down, and the bridge gapes open to allow the sailboat to pass … many times per day. As part of the Floating Homes Tour, we even had the opportunity to visit the bridge tower.

Seattle's University Bridge goes up


University Bridge open for a sailboat

A sailboat passes through

Ivar’s Salmon House, the restaurant with the red umbrellas (just right of center) is where Eric took me for my birthday earlier this summer. Our table overlooked the ship canal—my favorite Seattle view.

West view toward Lake Union for University Bridge

Looking west toward the Ship Canal Bridge and Lake Union

University Bridge green-painted iron detail

University Bridge detail

The gardens

Container gardening is the only way to go when you’re in a floating home. This resident has a magnificent bonsai garden.

Bonsai garden on floating home deck

A miniature forest surrounds this home

Bonsai cedar trees

A tiny, magical cedar grove

Container plants on a floating home deck

Bonsai with a view

Sedums growing in large clam shell

That was a big clam

Speaking of containers, this cheery purple house is surrounded by them.

Purple floating home with colorful planters on the deck

Not afraid of color [photo: Joshua Lewis, The Seattle Times]

Larger homes have larger garden space. The first home we visited featured built-in planters and mature ornamental trees at its spacious end-of-dock location. Two impressive new homes shared this dock, with ample room between them—a different feeling than the crowded docks up the road … and a different price tag.

Woman walks down a dock next to floating home

Pretending I live there

This lucky little guy does live there.

Turtle sunning himself on a log with lilypads

Another sunny Sunday on Portage Bay

Common areas on shore are often made into community gardens. Here, a weeping willow and a hydrangea shelter a garden bench.

A bench sits beneath a weeping willow tree in a community garden

A private shore garden

Or, maybe just an endless staircase. Imagine hauling your belongings in and out here. At least gravity would be in your favor coming home from the grocery store.

A long staircase climbs an ivy-covered hill


Thanks to the Seattle Floating Home Association homeowners for inviting us aboard, and for fueling my floating home fantasies for another two years. We’ll be back again in 2018!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it





This is where I really belong!

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