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A floating life away from the maddening crowd

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A community of houseboats in Sausalito, California. Houseboats can be a more affordable way to live near a city centre.

New York

WHEN Aislyn Greene and Jeannie Cruz decided to buy a home last summer in the San Francisco area, they knew the suburbs wouldn't be right for them. But they also quickly realised that living in a city centre in the kind of home they wanted was way out of their budget.

"We were depressed and demoralised," said Ms Greene, an editor at Afar magazine in her late 30s. "We needed to do something fun."

Ms Cruz, a sonographer in her mid-40s, had noticed a community of houseboats in Sausalito during one of her sailing lessons.

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And that led the couple, on a lark, to tour a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,000 square foot house on the West Pier, where they fell in love with the beamed-roof living room and the light and views in every direction.

"I never thought I would be living in a floating home," Ms Greene said. "But we both had a strong feeling we wanted to go for this house." They moved in last November.

Across the US, many others are also turning to houseboats as a way to live in the heart of cities without breaking the bank. While some live in houses that sit on concrete hulls, others choose smaller sailboats or yachts.

The relatively low cost of buying a boat and low docking fees can help reduce monthly housing costs, and boat owners say added bonuses include stunning views and vibrant social communities.

But living on the water has its challenges. Not only do you have to empty the septic tank, you also have relatively little living space. And bad weather can make you feel like you need to find shelter elsewhere.

Ms Greene and Ms Cruz paid US$645,000 for their home in Sausalito. They had to draw a little from their Roth IRA accounts and get help from family members to buy it. But to them, it was worth it.

While they have not officially christened their new home yet, its working name is The Love Boat Has Docked.

The Sausalito floating home community has 11 docks lined with houses of varying sizes: Some are as small as 400 sq ft and relatively affordable, while others are valued at more than US$1 million, with names like Unlimited Joy and Fairy Tale.

The community is so serene that geese and otters also call it home. And yet it's only a 30-minute ferry ride to San Francisco, and downtown Sausalito is a 10-minute drive away. There is an ice cream shop, an organic grocery store, a seafood restaurant and a quaint cafe - all within walking distance.

"I love the peace and calm that comes from living on the water," Ms Greene said. "It's truly soothing. No matter what is going on in our lives or the world, I feel my shoulders loosen when I look out the windows and see the water, or when I come home from work and walk down the docks."

This is particularly true at night, she said, as there is little ambient light, apart from the light that comes from the homes, and it feels almost as if they are camping.

At first, Ms Greene said, she noticed the motion during windy weather or when the tide was rising, but now it hardly registers: Her floating home feels just like any home built on land.

The couple's house is attached by enormous brackets to pilings driven into the bay, so technically they are permanently docked, although the structure can be towed out if major repairs are needed.

The couple pays for a berth lease, which includes water, garbage and sewage service, as well as maintenance of the docks and the ramp and pier that lead to their home.

More conventional boats used as homes can cost much less or much more, depending on scale.

"It could range anywhere from US$1,500 to US$15 million," said Chris Mitchell, who lives on a houseboat in Jersey City.

The cost of docking a boat differs depending on where it is. In New York City, for example, a lease is based on a boat's length and varies by season. In the winter, it can range from US$70 to US$90 a foot in some marinas, and in summer it can go up to between US$250 and US$320 a foot.

Kevin Wright, 44, a film producer in Chicago, used to get seasick, but that did not stop him and his wife, Colette Gabriel, 38, who runs a camera rental company, from moving permanently onto a yacht five years ago.

They owned a single-family house in the city that desperately needed an upgrade. They did not have the money to do the work properly, nor could they afford a nicer home. And becoming renters, and spending US$2,000 a month on an apartment, they felt, would be a waste of money.

"One night we were drunk at a bar and said, 'Let's just move to the water,'" Mr Wright said.

So they bought a 42-foot cabin motor-yacht with 350 sq ft of living space, including a master bedroom, a small guest room, a living room, a kitchen and two bathrooms with showers. "That's one more than we had in our house on land," Mr Wright said.

The yacht cost US$77,000, and they spent another US$25,000 on renovations. They rented a slip in the River City Marina in the South Loop for US$1,200 a month, a fee that includes electricity, water and internet service.

While spending less on housing is certainly a perk, what keeps the couple on the boat is the lifestyle. There are nine houseboats in their marina, and many of the owners are their age. In the summer, they build fires in the firepits on the marina lawn or sit on the deck with cocktails.

On weekends, they sometimes take the boat to Michigan or to other marinas where the city has set aside free parking for boat owners.

Mr Wright said he has gotten used to living on the water, and storms do not usually bother him, as their home is well protected in the marina.

"I only get seasick now when boats drive by too fast and set off waves," he said proudly, something that happens only a couple of times a year.

Many marinas hold social events. Ms Greene and Ms Cruz said they can't wait for summer, when their marina has float-in movies: Someone projects a movie onto the side of their house, and residents head over on boats or other floating objects to watch it.

Pavel Kocourek, 33, a doctoral candidate in economics at New York University, decided to live on a sailboat in a marina on City Island, in the Bronx, to save on living expenses.

He bought his 41-foot boat for US$10,000. It has a living area, a kitchen, a bathroom, four single beds and two double beds.

Now his only expense is renting the slip, which costs less than a conventional mortgage payment on a piece of property. In the past six months, he has paid US$1,400 in total.

"I could live in New York City, but I would have to commute a lot, and I would have to live in a place with no light," he said. "I feel happier since I've been living on a boat."

He relishes the peace and quiet he gets after a long day of work at his office in Greenwich Village. "Most New Yorkers have no idea this place exists," he said. "New York can be so overwhelming, so I like that I can go into the city and have excitement and then come here and have peace."

There are other costs to living on the water. For Mr Kocourek, it's the commute. New York City has few marinas in the East or Hudson Rivers for several reasons - among them, that ferries run so regularly their waves would ruin docked boats. To get home, he takes the subway to the last stop and then boards a bus or walks for 40 minutes.

There is also the space issue. "You can't have much stuff," he said. "If you love shoes, and you have to have 100 pairs of shoes, that isn't going to work for you, because you don't have a place to store them."

Some boat owners see this as a positive, though, because it forces them to live minimally.

And winter can be particularly brutal. In the River City Marina in Chicago, the water sources that boaters use to fill their tanks are turned off to prevent exposed pipes from freezing.

"There is a building next to the marina, and there is a water spigot at that building," Mr Wright said. "Some of the other boaters, when the weather looks decent, we will get out a series of hoses and fill up our tanks."

To conserve water throughout the season, he and his wife often shower at the gym. He also worries about ice and snow. The docks can get slippery during a winter storm, and wind and sleet can also cause damage to the boats if they are not tied up properly.

Another disadvantage is that houseboats don't appreciate the way conventional houses on land do, said Skylar Olsen, the director of economic research at Zillow.

"When we think about home buying as an investment, the investment part generally comes from the increasing value of the land," she said.

"As cities fill up, land with good access to amenities and jobs becomes more scarce, and the value of the home increases. So a houseboat - where you own the house itself, but rent the slip where the house is docked - doesn't make a good long-term investment."

The financial value of a boat often is not enough to be meaningful, said Chris Mitchell, 50, who owns a foreign-currency exchange business and lives on a boat in Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City.

There is a great deal of wear-and-tear on boats, he noted, and older models are generally replaced by shiny new ones: "Boats depreciate. That's all there is to it."

But money isn't everything. Living on the water has other, intangible benefits, such as being very close to nature.

Recently, Ms Greene and Ms Cruz noticed that geese had built a nest on their pier and laid some eggs. "They are our neighbours," Ms Cruz marvelled. "How amazing is that." NYTIMES