Living ON the Water

Published For The Corridor

Food And Water, Long Island Obsessions

Depending on the size of the house, and the location you can expect to pay upwards of $1,000,000.00 for a traditional waterfront home on Long Island...and taxes generally hover around 5 figures. Your homeowner’s insurance is likely to be almost as much as your taxes and there’s a good chance that if you have a basement, it’s probably wet. But...the sounds of the gulls and the boats and the incoming tide-- sunrise, sunset, the scent of the sea. The very reasons we live on an island are most obvious on the water.

A little pricey for most of us, unless you choose to live on a boat. A houseboat pays only dock space, which might run as much $1000 a month, and the cost of the boat/houseboat/ barge itself. So what can it cost? $100,000.00 will get you a lot of very nice boat. Where they are allowed, houseboats provide the Island’s only affordable waterfront housing. They can cost anywhere from $50,000 to about $200,000, and can feature the same amenities an on-shore building does-- like central air, fireplaces and hot tubs. But you can’t get a mortgage, and you can’t get insurance, making a houseboat an “iffy” investment.

Your options are a boat with an engine, a boat without an engine, or a house built on a barge. There are no laws mandating the safety or sea-worthiness of house boats. These can be extravagant affairs or little more than a hut nailed to a raft. While houseboats cost less than most house trailers, and certainly less than a traditional on-land house, owners have the additional costs of sewage pump-out (for those who have the conscience to use them and not dumpdirectly into the water, which many, unfortunately, do...) and dock fees that can range from about $650 to $1000 a month or more additionally, since marina taxes have catapulted in the past couple of years, the marina owners are understandably passing the increase on to their tenants, the houseboat owners. One marina owner now charges his tenants an extra $2,500.00 a year to cover his $30,000.00 tax increase, which is in addition to the the existing property tax for his business. Still, those costs do not compare to the $20,000.00 and up tax nut for on-shore waterfront homes.

Not everyone is a fan of on water living. One Marina owner who declined to be identified said “It’s romantic until winter, when the wind starts to blow, and the boat is rocking and throws you out of your bunk and you get seasick from it. You can’t get insurance, nobody will insure a houseboat, so you have an uninsured investment, and while you think “boat people” don’t pay taxes, the docking fee includes the marina’s taxes. New York state marine fees have doubled over the past year. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Over the years housing developers have eyed the shoreline with big plans to build luxury condos where houseboats now bob serenely. Some see the potential development as a “beautification” project, and others see it as a plan to destroy the houseboat community.

The owners say that since there are very few remaining marinas on Long Island that will accommodate houseboats, and some municipalities ban them outright, their floating homes will be worthless. It isn’t like that all over, however. In Portland, Seattle and Vancouver these communities are considered assets, and the individual houseboats can easily sell for over a million. Remember “Sleepless in Seattle”?

During the late 1970’s and early 1980s, a couple of Patchogue boat builders constructed small, multilevel homes on barges that could be towed to moorings. In those days, the established Shore communities in Freeport, Wantagh and Seaford, and on the North Shore around Glen Cove and Port Washington welcomed the houseboats.

Gus Hald, a retired LIRR Engineer, lived on his first boat from 1977 until he and his wife Kathy, who appeared on the scene in 1983, built their own on-land house on a canal in Copiague, three years ago. Of course their private dock is home to the Princess Kathy an absolutely gorgeous 46 foot OverSeas Yacht’s trawler furnished to the nine’s inside and spit-shine spiffy outside. “If I had this boat before I built the house, I might not have built the house,” Gus said. I asked Kathy what it was like to live on a boat full-time. “It was a little cramped, it was different,” she said. “I grew up in a house in Merrick, so the boat was a lot of fun.” Gus was in his early 20’s when he bought the boat. “I’ll never understand people who don’t know the Island. They might have a nice house in Hicksville but they have no clue of the joys on the water.”

Some realtors believe that the days of houseboats on canals and in marinas are coming to an end. High taxes, back-breaking work and stringent permit restrictions for marinas seeking to expand are reasons that marina owners often cite for considering a residential developer’s offer of millions to develop scarce waterfront property. Gavin Pike, a Laffey sales associate thinks otherwise. While showing me around Manorhaven Village he explained that the most recent attempt to develop the area died. “It isn’t ever going to happen,” he said. “This community is grandfathered, and while there won’t be any new boats coming in, the ones that are here aren’t going anywhere.”

Of course the economics speak eloquently. Recreational boaters have expendable income and spend a good portion of it on their passion. In 2003, the most recent year statistics are available, they spent $2.4 Billion in NY State and $162 million in the New York City and Long Island area on gas, food, lodging, launching fees and other boating-trip-related expenses, Sea Grant reports. They spent an additional $907 million in other expenses, including annual fees for marinas and yacht clubs, the report said. It is up to the individual marina owner to decide whether or not they want to focus on the recreational boater, or the security of having a portion of their space filled off-season. The old real-estate axiom rings true on the water as well, ‘location, location, location. If it’s a prime and scenic boating location marina owners aren’t interested in providing year-round services for the houseboats. There are enough pleasure boaters around to adequately support them. Some marinas are in less appealing locations or in industrial areas. The water view might be the same, but the street view or the neighborhood is considered less attractive.

Special thanks to Gavin Pike, Associate Broker for his contribution to this article. He can be reached at GPike@Laffey.com.

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