The houseboat is what you make of it, and the possibilities are endless. That's good or bad, depending on whether you've addressed these key issues regarding your houseboating future.
Do you know where you can get a slip? In some parts of the country, dockage isn't available at any price and, in other spots, it is priced out of sight. Make sure you know the whole story about the marina's rules, costs and so on. Some marinas, for example, require you to remove your boat during a hurricane warning. Some require that you carry a large liability limit in case your boat catches fire and damages other boats. The marina's location may also dictate your controlling height, width, length or depth.
To The Limit
Some lakes have horsepower limits. Even if you choose the largest houseboat, you may have to settle for a small kicker. Know your waterway's discharge requirements, so you'll buy a houseboat that is equipped for suitable pump-out or sewage treatment. Also check the size restriction for houseboats on the body of water you plan to keep your boat on. Some lakes may surprise you by their restrictions.
Have an idea of what facilities are available on the waters you'll use. In some regions, you can't find a diesel station or a holding tank pump-out for miles around. If you plan long periods of boondocking, plan for the right sized tank that you'll need to supply fresh water for your family for a week or two, and blackwater and graywater tanks to match.
The Tall & Short Of It
Does the river or lake where you will use the boat have controlling heights (usually dictated by bridges) or depths? In some waterways, water levels vary so greatly by seasons, droughts, snow melt, tides, water management, mosquito control and other factors, a houseboat that is too deep may not be floatable all year.
If you are buying a trailerable houseboat, know where you'll keep it. Your homeowner association may not let you park it on your own property. If you'll be using a storage lot, know the costs (insurance extra?) and rules (can you get the boat out at 4 a.m. to go fishing?). If you'll store it in your garage, know the maximum height and width, including the trailer that can be accommodated.
Every brochure tells you how many a boat will sleep, but consider how many the boat will actually accommodate. People don't just sleep. They use the bathroom, eat at the dining table, stow their gear and must find daytime storage for all the pillows and bed linen used on the dinette and sofa bed each night. Look not just at how many couples can be bedded, but where singles will sleep and where small fry can be safely bunked.
Purchase With Purpose
There's little point in devoting money and space to a luxurious bathroom with tub, spa and Nautilus equipment if you'll spend most of your time at resort marinas that have all this and more. On the other hand, you'll need at least one and a half baths, preferably two or more, if you'll do a lot of boondocking with a full house.
Have a heart-to-heart with your spouse and family to make sure you are all on the same wavelength. The cook may see the houseboat as a great place to entertain, envisioning a grand galley, spacious deck and snazzy guest quarters, while you picture it as a getaway where you'll do nothing but fish or read. Or, your spouse may see the houseboat as an escape from household drudgery and plan on docking at swank, waterfront restaurants for dinner each night. If you see yourself enjoying candlelight dinners on deck and breakfast in bed, and your spouse ends up working even harder on the boat than at home, you'll soon be dead in the water.
Sold On Safety
Your children may not want to be packed off on cruises unless they can take a friend or two with them. If you have very small children, you may have to do a selling job on your spouse about how safe houseboating can be. Communicate, and wrangle it all out ahead of time.
Do The Math
Cost has to be addressed at some point. Call a lending agency and supply some ballpark figures to get an idea of what monthly payments would be for a houseboat priced at whatever you think your dream boat will be. Make discreet inquiries to learn if you can qualify for a loan of that size. Then call an insurance agency, describe your imaginary boat, and get a rough estimate of yearly costs. (Whether or not you want insurance, the lender and/or the marina will most-likely require it.) The agent will probably want to know where you'll use the boat, whether it's diesel or gasoline, the hull material and other details.
Uncover The Costs
Add in a monthly cushion for maintenance. Even if you'll do all routine maintenance yourself, there will be yearly hauling, replacements, spares and the cost of work you'll have to hire someone to work on specialty items such as engines and electronics. If you're buying a new boat, you'll also have hefty bill for all the new gear you'll have to add: the required safety equipment, charts and guidebooks, canvas covers and enclosures, anchors, lines, bed linens, galley furnishings, etc. Even without adding the goodies you'll want eventually (dinghy, PWC, davits, more electronics, satellite TV, solar, outriggers, deck furniture, etc.) you will probably run up a pretty good bill. Don't get in over your head with the boat payment alone. That is just part of the cost of boat ownership.
Warranties are the bugaboos of houseboat ownership. Early in the bargaining process, know exactly what guarantees you have, and who will honor them. It's likely you'll have a shipload of separate warranties for everything from the radios to the refrigerator in addition to the hull and superstructure, engines, head and so on. The biggest problems occur when a boat owner is whipsawed between a supplier and a boat manufacturer, with the toilet manufacturer blaming the plumber who installed it and the boat manufacturer bouncing you back to the company that built the head.
Know, too, where the warranties will be honored. If an accessory has to be removed from the boat and shipped to China, the warranty loses its luster. It goes without saying that you bear much of the burden, too, so read owner manuals thoroughly so you don't void a warranty by using the wrong oil, hooking up the polarity backwards or waiting too long to grease the wildcat. Here's where it pays to buy from a manufacturer or dealer who has a sterling reputation, one who will do everything possible to deliver a great houseboat and go to bat for you if something goes wrong.