By: Scott Way
It is not outlandish to say that boating has undergone an accelerated rate of change in the last 18 months. The industry is bustling with new ideas and new products, while a surge in demand drives both forward at flank speed. One of the byproducts of this recreational boom is that boaters, both new and old, are discovering new ways to enjoy the water.
One of the other trends to emerge over the same period has been a spike in real estate sales. There are more buyers than sellers, and the desire to escape the urban core has people looking for more privacy, more nature, and more water. But waterfront property isn't an option for all, so it stands to reason that industrious types would find new ways to enjoy the waterfront experience without the associated pricetag.
One such industry is houseboating. The concept is genius in its simplicity: for a fraction of the cost, boaters, or prospective buyers priced out of the real estate market, can purchase a houseboat at a fraction of the cost of waterfront property and enjoy many of the same perks. It also does away with many of the hassles -- like property taxes, maintenance, and neighbours.
Village Quay Marina sits on the shores of the beautiful St. Lawrence River just outside Gananoque, Ontario. It's in the heart of the 1000 Islands, one of North America's most beloved boating playgrounds. The region includes both Canada and the US with Ontario to the west and New York to the east, and it connects Lake Ontario to the southwest with the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast. Its seemingly endless shoreline is rich with inlets, coves, and immaculate rocky outcrops.
At Village Quay, like many others in the industry, business is booming. Customer needs are changing, too. For every novice boater who comes in looking to buy, an equal number of veteran boaters are looking to trade up, or out, of their current vessel. Not only is boating activity increasing throughout the region, but the real estate market is equally upbeat. It's easy to see why. Many cottages dotting the shoreline bring to mind New York's Hamptons or Ontario's Muskoka cottage paradise. But for every ultramodern mega-cottage, there is also an equal balance of relatively modest single-level family cottages.
That being said, the average price for a cottage property in Canada in 2021 is $502,750, a 15% increase from 2020. In Ontario, that average increased by 17% in the same period. The figures in the US are similar. When you tack on property taxes, maintenance, and cost of living, the reality is purchasing a cottage requires an above-average accumulation of wealth. But the water is for everyone, and those looking to experience waterfront living without the associated costs are discovering a clever alternative: houseboating.
Village Quay Marina is the Canadian dealer for Indiana-based Destination Yachts, a manufacturer of ultramodern houseboats putting a new spin on the conventional wisdom. Their latest is a line they call the Condo Series. The name is apt; inside the boats look like contemporary condominiums with similar layouts, features, and stylings. Once aboard a 'Condo' the sense of being on the water disappears, until you open a bay window to reveal a view far better than the concrete jungle.
Matt Meilleur, the owner at Village Quay, has watched the trend emerge firsthand as boaters and prospective cottage owners discover the value and rewards of houseboating. According to Matt, "people are realizing that it’s fairly inexpensive to live on the water compared to traditional real estate. And one of the ways that they can do this is with a floating condo, which is self-propelled and classified as a vessel, but it serves both purposes. And contrary to traditional houseboating, which people will remember and equate to the older rental house boats that are out there, these are quite different. There’s a lot of square footage of living on the water for the pricepoint."
While the average price of waterfront real estate varies, by any metric the average price of a houseboat is significantly lower. The long term costs are also an attractant, as marina slips and winter storage (if you're in a seasonal climate) are a fraction compared to property taxes, maintenance, and upkeep.
There are other perks, too. If you come from a boating background, you'll instantly appreciate the quieter, more stable ride, not to mention a floorplan and layout far more conducive to living than the cramped quarters of a yacht.
"It’s all one level. That’s the biggest thing," says Meilleur. "The beam is larger. You’re getting into a 16-foot beam and your typical 45 foot cruiser is around 13.5 feet. So your stability in the boat, if you’re living in a floating condo and there’s a good storm going on, you’ll see many of the yachts bouncing around. And you don’t feel anything on a Condo. Obviously the larger, flatter, wider, longer floorplan is better for living. You don’t get woken up at night from waves slapping against the hull like you do on a traditional yacht. All of that stuff. It’s really designed for people to live comfortably on the water."
So who is buying into houseboating? There is an obvious appeal to older boaters looking to stay on the water but don't want, or can't manage, the cramped quarters and incessant stairs of a traditional yacht. There are also new boaters who simply want easy living with a view. According to Meilleur, "there is an increase in the older generation, let’s say 50-plus, buying larger boats so that they can be comfortable. They typically take them out once or twice a year, but they’re using them mainly as floating cottages. But it’s a lot of stairs, a lot of up and down. As soon as you get away from that and go into a floating condo, all of that goes onto one level. It becomes easier for 50+ people, or those who may have issues climbing stairs on a typical 45-foot yacht, where there are stairs to go everywhere, whether it's to go to the helm or to the aft cabin, or the V-berth, or the galley. There’s stairs everywhere. That’s the biggest problem with older people, or with anyone living on a yacht. The beauty of the Condo series is that it eliminates all that. Your floorplan is tailored to your lifestyle at the present time."
"We sold a boat last year to a customer who had a 43-foot yacht, and for all the reasons I mentioned, stairs, storms, all that stuff, they bought a Condo series and a little day boat. So when they have to do riding around the use the dinghy, but they are living on the water. It’s far superior to being in a traditional yacht in that sense."
Then there is perhaps the biggest perk of all: mobility. If you don't like your location, simply raise anchor and move on. There are no hassles like real estate commissions, legal fees, and loading up everything you own into a U-Haul. If you find a marina with the same the at-home atmosphere you desire, they often complete the experience with many of the same facilities and equipment found at a cottage. Village Quay, for example, has a clubhouse and lounge, BBQ pits, a horseshoe pit, and fire pits for members to enjoy.
As the trend continues gaining momentum, expect to see more houseboats occupying slips at your local marina, or partaking in weekend flotillas in your favourite coves. Meilleur and his team at Village Quay see a bright future too: "I have a funny feeling that the more Destination Yachts we bring into Canada, the more awareness will increase. And that will spin off into people saying, ‘Hey, this is really good bang for the buck here.’ So being the only Canadian dealer we’re focused on getting houseboats and floating condos up to this area, and other areas of Canada, but we’re focused on the 1000 Islands because that’s where we are. I think the more people see them up here, the more we’ll be bringing up here."
Unlike some of the supply chain backlogs manufacturers are facing in more traditional classes, Village Quay still has production spots for 2022. According to Meilleur, "As the dealer we pre-book slots about a year out. And that allows people to come in and not have to wait two years for a production slot because they’re already purchased. So there are definitely slots for next year."
Time to experience waterfront living in a new era.