Living Aboard: Payback Upgrades

October 2014 Janet Groene, with Gordon Groene


As a liveaboard you want comfort, security and the fun of the lifestyle your houseboat provides right now. Even if you plan to keep the boat forever, it’s always wise to keep resale and trade-in value in mind when making additions and upgrades. Whether you are investing time, money or both in “home improvement,” what are the paybacks and perils?

First determine where the payback lies. If you want to run the generator less, you get an immediate return by adding solar panels and/or switching to all-LED lighting. If you spend big for a custom, adjustable mattress, your reward begins the first night.

These additions will probably also enhance the houseboat’s value. Other changes, however, could be of neutral value or could even harm the boat’s appeal to a future buyer. Not everyone wants a restaurant-style kitchen range or a bathroom tiled in royal purple. Today’s fad could be tomorrow’s fizzle. 

Here are some upgrades that might work for your houseboat.

LED Lighting

Kinder Woodcock at IMTRA Corporation, a leading supplier of LEDs for marine use, says, “LEDs are becoming brighter and more efficient every day.”

He points out that light output, lumens per watt, color hue, uniformity, consistency and many other light qualities have zoomed to the forefront of lighting for homes, boats and RVs.

He reveals, “Today with LED fixtures you can expect to have the same total light output (measured in lumens) versus legacy lighting (e.g. halogen) with comparable light quality, but using 75 to 80 percent less power.”

Houseboaters can choose all new fixtures, but a less expensive alternative is to replace just the bulbs. LED bulbs are available on endless sizes and types and are suitable for many existing fixtures including exterior lights. One important difference is that they like a cool atmosphere, so get expert advice before installing them in an enclosed or recessed fixture.

When changing lighting and other conveniences, the latest buzzword is remote control. Consider it for everything from entertainment electronics to the door locks and heating system. Bonus points if controls work with your Smartphone. 

The payback LED lights offer is immediate energy savings including air conditioning, which works less when cooler bulbs are used. There’s also a decorator bonus if you go with new high-tech fixtures and lighting effects.

Solar Panels

Like light bulb replacements, solar panels can be added gradually as the budget allows. As wattage is added, you’ll need to match the inverter and battery bank to the new system. A solar hot water system might also work for you.

The payback on adding solar panels all depends on how much time you spend off the grid and how much value a future buyer places on energy independence.


A houseboat is a complete world with its own electrical and plumbing systems, living essentials and propulsion. The more tankage capacity you have for fuel, fresh water and/or sewage, the longer and farther you can go between fill-ups or pump-outs.

The obvious payback with increasing your tankage is more independence from marinas for longer times, for longer distances.


When it comes to water toys, tastes vary greatly. But most have one thing in common: they require fine-quality, well-installed davits to bring them onboard. This year’s toys may be PWCs for your teenagers, but when the kids leave for college you may prefer a fishing skiff, bass boat or a golf cart for zipping around the marina. Simply put, don’t skimp on davits.

The payback for good davits is also a safety plus for handling the dinghy, life boat or bringing an injured person onboard.

About the Authors

“Living Aboard” is a recurring column that focuses on living on your houseboat. Gordon and Janet Groene lived full-time on the go for ten years and they hold the NMMA Directors Award for boating journalism. Their books include Living Aboard and Creating Comfort Afloat. Janet posts new galley recipes weekly at




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