Don and Jennifer Severance

October 2013 Houseboater of the Week Katie Burke

It can be a little overwhelming to walk into your office first thing Monday morning and see a nice little envelope clearly labeled Severance Pay lying on your desk. You can imagine the relief that comes with realizing it's a CD containing pictures of a beautifully remodeled houseboat instead of a pink slip and a place in the unemployment line.

It's an extremely nice boat at that. Severance Pay is a 44-foot, 1984 Sumerset houseboat owned by Don and Jennifer Severance of Orlando, Fla. They dock at Holly Bluff Marina, which is located on the St. Johns River in DeLand, Fla.

The couple remodeled the dilapidated houseboat into a work of glory, but that wasn't their original intent.

"We have rented houseboats several times and owned pontoon boats since we got married in 1996," says Don. "We were thinking of buying a houseboat when we retired, which was still a few years away."

"But no one is guaranteed a retirement," adds Jennifer. "We decided not to wait because you never know what the future will bring and we wanted to enjoy the boat while we were still able."

So one day in 2010 the couple started by going online and seeing what was available at the marina. But when they arrived to see the boats in person, they were underwhelmed and didn't see anything that was appealing to them.

"Our broker, Steve, showed us around that day," says Jennifer. "When we didn't see anything we liked, he almost hesitantly told us he had one more but it was a fixer-upper."

"We weren't even considering a fixer-upper," adds Don. "We both work full-time and it would be too much of a project to take on."

Destiny had a different plan though. When they stepped onto the boat, they realized it was more than a decaying boat; it was meant to be their next home away from home.  

"I approached Don and said, `You know, my brother's work has slowed down a bit and he could help us remodel this boat,'" says Jennifer.

The couple made an offer the same day.

"We didn't go back and forth too much," says Don. "We felt like it was a fair price so, pending a survey, we bought the boat for the asking price."

Now that the couple owned the boat, they needed to come up with a plan.

"The boat had started out as a rental in Kentucky and when Rick and Judy Armstrong moved to Florida, they brought the boat with them to be used as a rental here," says Jennifer. "They then sold it to a retired couple who lived aboard for many years and, when they couldn't use it anymore, Holly Bluff bought it back. We happened onto it the very next day." 

Partly because of the location, but more so because of the amazing staff, they knew they wanted to keep their boat at Holly Bluff Marina. 

"Rick and Judy own the marina and they have been so helpful and welcoming," says Jennifer. "We love it here and we would never consider moving. In fact, when we retire, we are planning on moving to DeLand to be closer to the marina."

 "The boat cabin had extensive water damage," adds Don. "The guy who owned it just took a drill and made a hole wherever he thought necessary with no rhyme or reason."

Fortunately, the survey showed the hull was in very good condition.  The couple called Jennifer's brother, Charles Minnich, a fine woodworker from Tennessee.

"My neighbor across the street only comes to her house three times a year. She was very generous and let Charles, his wife, Judi, and their dogs stay there while he did the work. It allowed us to make Charles an offer he couldn't refuse," says Jennifer. "That was part of the reason we knew this boat was meant to be."

Don began stripping down the boat right away, while Charles headed down to the Sunshine state. Then they got to work designing Don and Jennifer's dream boat.

"When you start over from scratch the options are endless. You get to decide how to lay out all the components efficiently so that you get the maximum use of space available," said Charles. "I was free to offer suggestions or design elements."

He came down for six weeks and in that time, he was able to put wood on the walls, redo the ceiling and rough-in the floor plan, while Don worked weekends on the hidden improvements-plumbing, electrical, etc. Charles also took exact measurements of the boat.  

"I wanted this project to turn out well so I worked hard to make everything look good and fit nicely. That just takes a little more time," he says. "When I work for someone who appreciates my work it inspires me to do my best.  Don and Jennifer wanted things done right and were prepared to wait rather than rush"

From there, he headed home to Tennessee to work in his shop, which is already set up with necessary tools. He built everything, including all of the doors, and then went back to Florida for another six weeks to do the installation.

"Woodworking is what I do, but this was my first houseboat and it was challenging yet fun," says Charles. "You can leave your level at home when you're working on a houseboat."

"Charles listened to us on what we wanted," says Don. "We didn't have to look over his shoulder to make sure he was doing things right."

In the end, the entire boat was completely repaired and remodeled into the perfect houseboat.

"We love our boat so much," says Jennifer. "There's not a time when we go out on it where we don't look at each other and say `I love this boat.'"

There have been some engine issues along the way. In the beginning, there were some problems with the outdrive shaft because it wasn't properly engaged, which caused it to wear out. But now that all of that has been fixed, the couple is spending time thoroughly enjoying their boat. Their maiden voyage was on Labor Day 2011.

"We love leaving behind the hustle and bustle," says Jennifer. "In 10 minutes, we have changed our view and are surrounded in peace and quiet."

"This boat was designed specifically for us so it's perfect for us," adds Don. "We love it and we love taking people out for day cruises."

Remodeling a boat can be tricky and costly. But with the help of Charles, the couple took on a project that was out of their realm and brought a boat back to life. 
"Honestly this was a perfect storm that brought this all together. The economy, an understanding wife, generous hosts and oh yeah, my sister and brother-in-law bought a houseboat that needed a lot of attention," says Charles. "I hope this story inspires others to rescue houseboats in need of repair."
Of course, as with most renovation projects, there was some compromising involved. Jennifer had hoped for a king-size bed in the state room.

"We tried and tried but we could only get a queen mattress to fit," says Jennifer with a smile. "I settled because a queen is much better than a full."

Don and Jennifer agree that if, at the end of the day you own a houseboat where the only thing you would change is the size of your mattress, you have created something to be proud of. None of which would have been possible if it weren't for a random encounter with a near-ruined houseboat and a very able, willing brother.

  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!