In North America, houseboat sales are surging. In the UK, nearly three quarters of liveaboard boat owners have never owned a home.
There is an ebb and flow to all things. For every trend that gains momentum, it inevitably swings back the other way, or at least lands somewhere back near the status quo.
As far as boating is concerned, these cycles are quick, even more so than in mainstream culture, to the point that nothing really goes away. In other words, its not uncommon to see something become popular, then fade away, and then resurface again before you even realized it had lost its popularity.
Bellbottoms were a hit in the 70's, but they've only made a lame comeback among millennials at Coachella. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd didn't produce legitimate imitators until decades later when Greta Van Fleet and Tool brought back songs that were long enough to leave you dazed and confused.
But boating is different.
It's a 10-15 year cycle at best, and sometimes the trends that we thought were over, never really left.
Want proof? The V-bottom hull, once it got on plane, never left. It ebbs and flows, sure, but its undercurrent is as strong as another brick in the wall. If it works, it works. Houseboats are another slow-moving example of boating's short wavelength. They had a brief craze in the 70's when brands like Hobo, Sea Camper, River Queen, and Aquahome started trolling down waterways. They never went away, but they never really caught on either.
Then there's living aboard. The dream of many boaters. As recreational boating in North America ballooned post-WWII, things got bigger and better. In fact, that was the whole idea. Bigger is better was the mantra that drove manufacturing of bigger boats, bigger cars, and the idea of spending more on recreation. Living aboard became a possibility to more than just globetrotting millionaires and industrial tycoons. It marked the first time the average person could buy a boat that could replace their home. Many joined the liveaboard movement. More than you think.
Which brings us to now - where the 2008 recession and the current state of affairs has encouraged economic creativity among the average citizen. Houseboats are on a huge upswing, and the reasoning is simple - it's cheaper than purchasing a home, the views are better, and it's an exciting alternative for a new generation of vagabonds. As we discussed in Houseboat Living - The Emerging Alternative to Cottages: "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 enjoy waterfront living and enjoy many of the same perks. It also does away with many of the hassles -- like property taxes, maintenance, and neighbours."
In other words, a new wave of liveaboard boaters are starting to drop anchor.
In the UK, a new study from Promarine Finance published in Marine Industry News found that a staggering 74% of liveaboard owners have never owned a home. 90% of those boaters claimed that the cost of living was a factor.
Those surveyed also cited "rent, energy bills and mental health as reasons for choosing to liveaboard. Respondents say they enjoy the peace and quiet, as well as the freedom that the lifestyle offers."
The survey also found that "42 per cent say they’re happy to live on their new home as it is, 35 per cent are happy to refit or fit out the vessel themselves, and 21 per cent purchased a boat which was already refurbished."
But, let's not automatically assume these liveaboard boaters are nothing but young boaters priced out of the housing market. Here in North America, a significant percentage of new liveaboard owners are ditching home ownership later in life in exchange for a 100% on-water lifestyle.
According to Matt Meilleur, owner of the Village Quay Marina on the shores of the luscious Thousand Islands straddling Ontario and New York, "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."
Meilleur has watched the trend emerge as existing boaters, prospective cottage owners, and youthful adventurers discover the value and rewards of being a liveaboard boater. From his view, “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."
In the UK, there was a 65% increase in the number of finance deals for liveaboard vessels between 2019 and 2021. The Canal & River Trust estimates that the percentage of liveaboard vessels on the water is around 25 per cent – a rise from 15 percent since 2011. That's one in every four boaters.
The numbers are likewise trending that way in North America. Economic pressure, creativity, and a sense of adventure have long been the catalyst for exploring new modes of living. The next time you're strolling down the community dock in a harbour town, take a gander at how many have gotten a little more comfortable than "we're just here for the weekend."
You might see a couple houseboats in the bay, too.