Living On A Fixer-Upper?

Published in the May 2019 Issue June 2019 Own Janet Groene

You’ve found the bargain of the century, a houseboat you can buy for a song and live on board while giving it the stem-to-stern renovation it requires. As a liveaboard myself, I saw these scenarios many times in many places. Some people turned a buying opportunity into a bonanza. Others lived with sawdust and squalor for months, even years, and then gave up. They had never left the dock.

This isn’t about how to cure dry rot, choose a color scheme or install new plumbing. Before you buy that boat, let’s talk about lessons learned, pro and con, about living on board during an extensive renovation. 


  • You’ll have a place to live, or at least to camp out, while work is being done. If the boat is habitable at all, you’ll save on housing expenses. Best of all, you’re already living on the water.
  • If you bought the boat at the right price, it already has some equity. If things go awry, you can get some or all of your investment back.
  • You can customize the boat to your own requirements for a full-time, year-round home. Take out unneeded bunks. Put in a fitness center, entertainment center, photo studio or orchid conservatory. Design a kitchen you can live with. Enclose the aft deck or flybridge. Turn the cuddy into storage space. Raise the roof. Tear out bulkheads. The sky’s the limit.
  • Most of the materials you need can be purchased at home improvement stores at homeowner prices. At the same time, don’t skimp on costlier marine-quality materials where called for, especially if the houseboat is in brackish or salt water.


  • If you don’t live alone, your partner(s) may not have the same tolerance for the chaos that renovations usually involve.
  • Rule of thumb: renovations almost always take longer and cost more than you plan. Money may be short. It’s likely that loans won’t be available on an older boat. Also, insurance rates will be higher and the boat in its present condition may not be insurable at all.
  • Finding liveaboard berths is getting harder and costlier. Is living aboard permitted at all? If so, are you also permitted to work on the boat? Can you bring in outside workers or must you use only those employed by the marina or boatyard?
  • You’ll need workspace, either on the boat or on the dock.

Things You May Not Know:

  • A survey before buying any boat is essential. It may not be the bargain you expect. A good surveyor welcomes your presence at the survey but don’t push it. Questions are welcome from yourself and perhaps a knowledgeable friend, but this isn’t a social affair. Nor is it a sales negotiation. The surveyor is providing expert information on the condition of the boat, not selling points or repair estimates.
  • Be flexible and available. The surveyor may want to involve other experts such as a marine electrician or diesel mechanic, so scheduling the survey can get complicated. Read the surveyor’s report thoroughly and make sure you understand it.
  • Know where you’ll keep the boat. Finding insurance for an older, damaged or shabby boat can be unaffordable and even impossible to get, yet the marina may require you to have a large liability policy. Some marina contracts also require all boats to leave for safer waters if a storm is approaching. If your boat isn’t drivable you may have to hire a tow.
  • If you plan to keep the houseboat on dry land, living on board becomes more awkward. First, be sure zoning permits it. You’ll have to provide sanitation, ladders for boarding, a heavy-duty cradle and scaffolding. 
  • The first thing to tackle in any boat is leaks, but finding the real source of the leak, and the total damage it has caused, requires a Sherlock Holmes (and sometimes a King Midas bank account).  
  • Working with electrical tools in a water environment has special hazards. So does living in a closed environment where paint, adhesives and other volatiles are used. When applying new materials such as carpeting, wall coverings and paint, get plenty of ventilation.
  • Go to for health-saving information on living with a household renovation. Most of the information applies even more so to houseboats, which are a more tightly enclosed area and are also subject to added hazards from water and humidity.



About The Author

Janet Groene is a professional journalist and a member of Boating Writers International. She and her late husband, Gordon Groene, lived full-time on the go for ten years. “Living Aboard” is a recurring column that focuses on living on your houseboat. Janet’s newest book, The Survival Food Handbook (International Marine Books), is a guide to provisioning and cooking with common supermarket ingredients to carry in your pantry. Janet posts new galley recipes weekly at

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