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California and the West

Home Sweet Houseboat in Sausalito

Bay Area: As Marin County housing prices rise, the living is not only easier but cheaper aboard 400 craft. 'It's a separate world down here,' a resident says.


SAUSALITO, Calif. — With Marin County home prices ever rising, the more than 400 houseboats moored near Sausalito have become popular for reasons that have nothing to do with atmosphere.

Life on the water, exotic and romantic though it may be, has become a prosaic thing--an affordable housing alternative.

Marin County's median home price is $375,000 and climbing, said John Karevoll of ACXIOM-DataQuick Information Systems. It's the hottest real estate market in the nation, he said.

"Houseboats are definitely affordable, particularly when you compare them to land homes," said Howard Myers, a real estate agent who specializes in houseboat sales. "As a result, houseboat prices themselves have gone up a lot recently, but they're still affordable when you compare them to land homes."

Selling prices for houseboats range from $80,000 for a one-bedroom home to more than $700,000 for a spacious multilevel dwelling, Myers said. However, add berthing fees, which average $500 to $600 per month, and bank loans at 10.25% interest--a higher rate than for land homes--and costs climb.

"You could buy $100,000 more on land because of the monthly [berth fee], so a $200,000 houseboat would be a $315,000 land house," Myers said. "But you won't find too many of those in Marin, especially by the water. For a land house by the water, you'd pay $600,000, and for a fixer-upper at that."

But life on the water amounts to more than economic practicality.

The symphony of creaking hulls, groaning ropes and ships' bells, the soft slap of waves on wood pilings, the rhythm of a sea gull's wings--these lie at the heart of life on a Sausalito houseboat.

It's a world where homes rise and fall with each day's tides, where the famous fog sweeps in and muffles the sounds and sights of the mainland.

"Sometimes I think it's Brigadoon--it just vanishes in the fog," said Cyra McFadden, a novelist who bought her first houseboat last year. "It doesn't feel like Sausalito or Mill Valley; it's its own place, a separate world down here."

The floating homes are moored along the shores of Richardson Bay, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Part of the landscape since the 1880s, they have always added to Sausalito's offbeat charm.

Chris Tellis doesn't know anything about living in a land home. He was a child when his parents bought the City of Seattle, a decommissioned ferry, and moved into it. Tellis and his family still live on the boat, known as the Yellow Ferry for its brilliant color, and now run Yellow Ferry Harbor, one of five official houseboat harbors on the bay.

"I'm a houseboat chauvinist," Tellis said. "People think it's really nice when they move in, and when they're there for a month, they love it twice as much."

Many residents keep a sailboat, rowboat or kayak out by the back door and spend time exploring the bay.

"The bay is a kinetic meadow," Tellis said. "As the sky changes, the water changes. There are migrations of coots and mallards, the seals swim in, you see Canadian geese and learn to recognize all the waterfowl. You can't help but become aware of the rhythms of the bay."

And of each owner's sense of style.

Homes are named Sea Way, Swann's Way, The Clam Shell, Lorelei, Olympia, The Grey Goose, Casa de Amor, Wildflower, Absolute Magic. Blue, green, violet and yellow boats float next to elaborate wood-shingled or paneled homes.

Masses of brilliant flowers, potted dwarf fruit trees, window boxes of herbs and the occasional living Christmas tree line the gangplanks.

And always, there is the fragrance and motion of the sea.

Houseboats first appeared in the Bay Area in the late 1800s, said cartoonist Phil Frank, who serves as city historian for the Sausalito Historical Society. Known as arks, about 500 of the floating homes served as vacation getaways for wealthy Bay Area Victorian families.

After the 1906 earthquake and fires, many families who lost their homes moved aboard their arks and stayed, Frank said. By 1910, weary of the upkeep that the wooden hulls required, the owners pulled their boats to land and put them on pilings above the waterline.

After World War II, during which Sausalito became a major shipbuilding town that employed 17,000 workers, there was a surplus of vessels of all types and sizes.

Returning veterans and workers who decided to settle in Sausalito turned the barges, boats, ferries and landing craft into houseboats.

"That's when Sausalito became an art colony," Frank said.

Philosopher Alan Watts, artist Jean Varda and novelist Anne Lamott have lived in the floating home community. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, lives there still.

Today, houseboat owners are more mainstream. The Floating Homeowners Assn. estimated that more than 60% of owners are over 40, and more than half of the households earn more than $60,000 per year.

Gone too are the days when anyone could cobble together something that floats and call it a home.

In 1972, houseboats went legit. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission authorized about 400 floating home berths in the Sausalito area. The houses sit on steel-reinforced concrete barges, fiberglass-coated wooden hulls, surplus landing craft like those used in the invasion of Normandy, and steel boat hulls. Unlike their wooden predecessors, these are nearly maintenance free.

"Before these things can change hands, they must pass a county Building Department inspection," said Larry Clinton, a freelance writer and past president of the Floating Homeowners Assn.

Although most of the area's 400 houseboats obey the commission's regulations, some small marinas not in compliance--totaling about 40 boats--are fighting for their right to stay afloat.

"Oh, that's all tied up in litigation, lawsuits everywhere," Clinton said. "There's no telling when it will ever be resolved."

Slowly, if it follows the pace of houseboat life.

"It's a very peaceful lifestyle," said Clinton.

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