It makes for excellent dinner party conversation when you mention that you live on a boat. You will see people’s eyes light up as they imagine the adventures you experience—and the guts it takes to leave ordinary society for a different way of living. While some will imagine you as Bill Gates on his superyacht, others will be envisaging Captain Jack Sparrow on his salty old pirate ship. The reality is somewhere in between.
Choosing to live on a boat isn’t for everyone. But the fact that you’re considering the idea means you might be one of those folks who finds the quirks of a life spent bobbing on the sea, river, or lake charming. There is much to consider, from the type of boat you buy, to where you’ll moor it, plus several matters of lifestyle adjustment.
While sailing the world or choosing a transient lifestyle is one option, living aboard a boat doesn’t have to involve moving every few weeks. Permanent residence moorings and dock slips are widely available, although increasing popularity may have you joining waiting lists in some cities that are as long as an anchor chain. All over the world, from Hong Kong to San Diego, communities of residential boats are gaining popularity as people escape the urban squash. Yet they will be the first to admit that the lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
To start, let’s address the question of whether you can live on a boat legally? Then we’ll take a look at the pros, cons, whys and hows to living on a boat year round.
Can You Legally Live on a Boat?
Let’s zero in on the legalities of living on a boat and where you are legally allowed to reside in the United States. It’s not always clear cut where you can and can’t reside on a boat, and there are many choices ranging from marinas to international waters, from lakes and canals to coastal anchorages.
The short answer is yes, it is perfectly legal to live on your boat, but not in every location listed above. Additionally, most residential boating destinations will come with some restrictions, from how long you can stay in one place, to how much you need to pay. It’s also worth noting that you will need to tell your insurance company if you live on your boat and it will likely change your policy. Living on your boat and not declaring it might invalidate your policy.
Can You Live on a Boat in a Marina?
Marinas are probably the No. 1 choice when it comes to residential moorings. They offer shelter, safety, security, camaraderie, a sense of community, easy access, plus facilities such as electricity, water and WiFi. In the United States, it is legal to live on a boat in a marina so long as you declare it to the marina and follow their guidelines. Each marina will have a registration process, and you will likely pay more than those who are simply storing their boats there. Having said that, not every marina allows residential moorings, and there are often long waiting lists for them, especially in urban areas where rent prices are very high.
Can You Live on a Boat in the Ocean?
The answer to this question is an unhelpful “sometimes.” There are instances when it is perfectly legal, others where it isn’t, and still others where it is legal but with restrictions. You can live on your boat in international waters (which start 24 miles off the coast) for as long as you like, so long as you abide by international maritime laws, as well as those of your flagged country. In addition, it is possible to legally anchor in contiguous zones, which are defined as 12 to 24 nautical miles away from a country’s coastline, so long as the laws of that country are adhered to. But living in international waters isn’t an easy thing to do, so what happens if you’d rather just anchor offshore a few hundred feet from dry land?
Theoretically you can live on your boat that is anchored in coastal locations. However, it’s not always clear cut and it’s important that you do your research on your local area and state laws. You must make sure your boat isn’t in any shipping lanes, or in a private harbor. Additionally it is unlikely you’ll be able to anchor in city waters for more than 30 days in any 180 and must register each time with the harbormaster. You’ll need access to a marina from time to time to get provisions and do maintenance, and when anchored there must be someone at watch at all times. So while this is technically legal in some locations, it isn’t an easy or safe way of living on a boat. Moving up and down a stretch of coastline and using safe harbors, river mouths or bays would be a simpler and safer option and raise less objections.
Can You Live on a Boat in a Lake?
One of the most idyllic yet complicated locations for living on a boat is in a lake. Across the United States, the complications are due to the many state statutes, local ordinances, and private rules for where and who can live aboard their boat. The first thing you must do if you’re considering the option is to find out who owns the marina or stretch of lakeside you wish to live on and seek permission. For the most part, however, state governing bodies say that you must reside within a marina for health and safety reasons, so it is unlikely you’ll be able to live on your boat on a lake other than in a designated marinas.
The Pros of Living on a Boat
A relaxed lifestyle
In an era when modern life is getting faster-paced, more demanding, and more stressful, slowing down and savoring life can be hard. Unless you’re on a boat. The sense of freedom, and embracing of nature are just the beginning. It’s impossible to be a big-time shopper, as there simply isn’t room to store anything surplus beyond what’s absolutely required. Cooking becomes simplified, clothing is whittled down to necessities, and trinkets become a thing of the past. Life on the water is casual, laid-back, and independent.
A healthier, more active way of life
As our lives become ever more sedentary, and gym memberships vital in keeping us moving, our health can suffer. Exercise is the backbone of wellness, and on a boat you’ll have no choice but to be active. Cleaning and maintenance, the daily upkeep of a boat, is exercise in itself. Add to that walks to the nearest town or simply back and forth to where your car is parked, plus the simple pleasures of walking in nature, swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking, and you’ll find your fitness levels improve rapidly.
A lower cost of living
We often associate living on a boat with wealth and prestige. But the reality is that living on a boat is often more affordable than land-based accommodation. In the world’s big cities, with housing prices skyrocketing, more and more people are taking to the water as a more affordable option. In Vancouver, B.C., for example, a residential mooring (including electricity, parking, internet, laundry and showers) costs between $550 and $850 a month for a 25- to 40-foot boat. Compare that to a minimum of $1100 a month for a small apartment and the savings can be huge. Even adding in the monthly cost of a marine mortgage repayment (see our guide to Financing Your Next Boat) and you may well save money.
A deep sense of community and safety
Boat life attracts a certain type of person, and boating communities become strong and tight-knit. A problem shared is a problem halved is the motto of a water community, and you will not only learn from your neighbors but become close to them. The demographics might be wide—retirees, students, professionals, young familie—but the overall ethos and approach to life remains the same. It is this closeness which often makes living in a boating community oten safer than living on land. Indeed, crime rates are considerably lower in marinas than on housing estates. Strangers are noticed immediately, boats can be left unlocked, and in many marinas CCTV is widespread.
A connection to nature
If the sound of the ducks knocking on your hull in polite request of some bread crusts doesn’t make you smile in the morning, then you might want to rethink life on a boat. Living on the water gets you closer to nature, the music of the birds, the splashing and swaying of the boat in the wind, the patter of rain on the deck over your head. You wimayll share your neighborhood with noisy seals, otters, pelicans and other seabirds, fish for your dinner, and feel the seasons roll around.
The Cons of Living on a Boat
Lack of space
When we talk about a lack of space on a boat, we mean both personal and cupboard soace. Even a fair-sized boat is never going to have as much space as a house, and so storage is always an issue. While some residential communities offer storage lockers, you’ll still find that there is no excess room, and being tidy is the key. You’ll have to get used to small fridges, hanging locker wardrobes, and no personal washing machine. Check out our guide to boat storage ideas for ways to maximize your space
One thing is for certain, make sure you really like the person you choose to live on a boat with, because personal space is at a premium. While it can be a huge bonding experience, you may be asking your loved one to kindly move so you can pass every time you walk from the kitchen to the cabin of your sailboat. There are more spacious residential boats, of course, as houseboats and trawlers offer much more beam and space for their length.
Bad weather, bugs and wildlife
Nature is certainly a bigger part of your life on a boat, and sometimes unwanted visitors can be tough to handle. Insects—everything from spiders to mosquitoes, cockroaches and ants—need to be dealt with swiftly. Likewise, rats and mice like the sanctuary of boats, sometimes bringing with them stray cats, dogs, foxes, and raccoons. Seals and otters might sneak on board looking for an easy dinner, and seabirds certainly will. It’s imperative to be tidy and clean, not leaving any food out.
While listening to the pitter patter of rain can be wonderfully soothing, a thumping great thunderstorm might be less so. Severe rocking means everything needs to be locked safely away, and mooring lines made secure at all times. Cold winters, too, can be difficult, and you need to ensure you have enough fuel to run your heaters.
Other people’s perceptions
Whether from prejudice, envy, or some other misguided pre-conceptions, some people see a boating lifestyle as bohemian, or even liken it to dropping out of society. At that dinner party, you might very well be seen as a salty old seadog with no fixed address. If you live in a residential boating community, you’ll be able to use the marina address, which might be judged when applying for jobs. In addition, bureaucracy—cellphone contracts or voting for example—can be tricky if you don’t have a fixed address. The good news is, most boaters don’t choose this type of living based on what others think, so if you fall into that category you’ll give this consideration a big shrug of the shoulders!
There is no getting away from the fact that boats require on-going maintenance. Rust, mildew, and mold accumulate quickly so it’s imperative to have a maintenance schedule and keep on top of it. Learning to do a lot of the work yourself will save on the cost, but you’ll need enough funds in case something major does goes wrong. Of course, that’s no different than what we sometimes face when a new roof or heating system is needed on a house.
- Living on a Sailboat: Is it Right for You?
- The Best Boats to Live On Full Time
- Life on the Water: Living Aboard a Trawler Boat
- The Best Types of Boat to Live on After Retirement
- Sleeping on a Boat: Tips for Overnight Stays
- Types of Houseboats: Different Home Styles for Living on the Water
This article was most recently updated in June 2023 by John Burnham
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