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Is Living on a Boat Right For You? The Pros, Cons and Legalities of Life on the Water

It makes for excellent dinner party conversation when you announce that you live on a boat. You will see people’s eye 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. Just the fact that you’re considering it however, means that you might be one of those folks who find 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 lifestyle considerations to take into account. 

Whilst 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 are widely available, even though the increasing popularity means waiting lists in some cities 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.

So can you live on a boat legally? Let’s take a look at the pros, cons, why’s and hows to living on a boat year round.

Can you Legally Live on a Boat?

Let’s start first with 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 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 all the locations 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 number one choice when it comes to residential moorings. They offer shelter, safety and security, camaraderie and a sense of community, easy access, as well as facilities such as electricity, water and internet WiFi. It is perfectly legal to live on a boat in a marina in the United States so long as you declare it to the marina and follow their guidelines. Each marina will have a registration process, and you’re likely to pay a different amount to those who are simply storing their boats there. Having said that, not all marinas allow residential moorings and there are often long waiting lists for them, especially in urban areas where rent prices are very high. 

living on a marina


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 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 are 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 whilst 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 there are 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 it 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, most 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 in a lake outside of designated marinas. 

living on a canal boat


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 materialistic, as there simply isn’t room to store anything surplus to absolute requirement. Cooking becomes simplified, clothing whittled down to necessities, and trinkets 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 ultimately 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 longer walks to the nearest town, or even to where your car is parked, as well as the pure joys of walking in nature, swimming, snorkeling and kayaking, and you’ll find your fitness levels improve in no time. 


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, for example, a residential mooring (including electricity, parking, internet, laundry and showers) costs around $550 a month. 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 easily save money. 


A Deep Sense of Community and Safety: 

Boat life attracts a certain type of person, and together boating communities are 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 families – but the overall ethos and approach to life remains the same. It is this closeness which makes living in a boating community often 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 birds and splashing, the swaying of the boat in the wind, the patter of rain in a thunderstorm. You will share your neighborhood with noisy seals, otters and seabirds, fish for your dinner, and feel the seasons roll round and the world change. 


The cons of living on a boat

A Lack of Space: 

When we talk about a lack of space on a boat, we mean both personal and cupboard. Even a fair sized boat is never going to have as much space as a house, and so storage will always be 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 clever 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 hugely bonding experience, you will 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 to consider however, and houseboats, trawlers, and barges 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, 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, clean and not leave food out. 

While listening to the pitter patter of rain on the boat 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 heaters. 


Other People’s Perceptions: 

Whether from prejudice, envy or some other misguided pre-conceptions, some people see an alternative way of life as bohemian, or of 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 may be judged when applying for jobs for example. Otherwise, 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 does goes wrong. 


If you’re considering a life on the water, then check out Rightboat’s huge selection of houseboats, barges, canal boats, narrow boats and liveaboard boat to find the perfect choice for you and your family. 


Written By: Samantha Wilson

Samantha Wilson has spent her entire life on and around boats, from tiny sailing dinghies all the way up to superyachts. She writes for many boating and yachting publications, top charter agencies, and some of the largest travel businesses in the industry, combining her knowledge and passion of boating, travel and writing to create topical, useful and engaging content.

More from: Samantha Wilson

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