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How Much Does It Cost to Build a Houseboat? Guide to Houseboat Costs

By Kenny Zhu · March 06, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How Much Does It Cost to Build a Houseboat? Guide to Houseboat Costs

For those of us seeking the appeal of a minimalist life on the water, the cost to build a houseboat will depend as much on how much elbow grease we’re willing to dedicate to the project as it does on the type of materials we decide to use for the job.

A houseboat is a self-propelled vessel with a cabin. There are many styles, giving people wide discretion on how they choose to build their own houseboat.

Let’s break down factors and average costs associated with building a houseboat.

Average Cost of Building a Houseboat

How much does it cost to build a houseboat? Just like the cost to build a house, it depends on size, materials, whether it’s a total DIY job, and more.

The cost of building a single-story 50-foot houseboat is at least $10,000 to $20,000, some sources say. To be clear, this estimate means doing all the work yourself or with the help of friends. A smaller, basic houseboat may cost less than that to build.

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Labor costs for professionals like electricians or plumbers will increase your expenses substantially. So understand that you’ll be trading time and know-how for savings.

There are also houseboat kits and plans for sale. Charmingly, some are advertised as DIY pontoon tiny houses.

By contrast, you can choose to purchase a serviceable preowned houseboat that needs some renovations. Used houseboats can go for anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over $1 million for luxury craft that border on liveaboard yachts. Shiver me timbers!

Here’s a rough estimate of the cost of building a houseboat vs. buying a used one.

Building From Scratch Cost Preowned Houseboat Cost
$10,000 and up for 50 feet $20,000 and up

Regardless of whether you’re planning to handle the build yourself or you intend to refurbish a used houseboat, you may need financing. How to pay for it? Not with a traditional mortgage. Options include a boat loan and a personal loan.

Homeowners with sufficient home equity may be able to launch their houseboat plans with a home equity line of credit (HELOC), home equity loan, or cash-out refinance.

Recommended: How to Find a Contractor

Factors That Affect the Cost of a Houseboat

Houseboat living has caught on with some retirees, who want to downsize home-wise.

It also could be a choice for minimalists and millennial homebuyers who think outside the box.

Not everyone, of course, will want to be a full-time liveaboard. Some water lovers will be OK with a basic houseboat for cruising and recreation, one that is maybe trailerable. Those are factors that will affect the cost of your preferred houseboat.

Here are factors to consider.

Size

The size of your houseboat will have a major impact on the cost of materials you’ll need. Are you planning to build a single-story or double-decker houseboat? Will this be something that would fit on a standard 50-foot pontoon base, or will you need something more robust to keep it afloat?

Taking the high-end estimate of $20,000 to build a basic 50-foot houseboat, that comes out to roughly $400 per square foot, assuming you don’t hire anyone to help with construction.

Bear in mind that these figures are a very rough estimate that was calculated across a broad average of houseboats.

Design

The design of your houseboat will have a large effect on your options when it comes to layout, maneuverability, and aesthetics.

Before you begin construction, you’ll need to decide on what type of hull best suits your houseboat. Aluminum pontoons are popular.

Catamaran cruisers are maneuverable and may be cheaper to build, but they often compromise on space. These designs are easily outfitted with motors and may be best suited for owners who intend to take them out occasionally.

Those looking for larger accommodations may prefer a type of house called a floating home, which is actually different from a houseboat. It often has a concrete hull and is meant to stay in one place, permanently attached to utilities. The price, though, will usually be much higher than that of a houseboat.

A few sailors may opt to build a yacht, which offers the ideal combination of maneuverability and living space. You’ll have to have a hefty check at the ready or prepare to borrow a boatload if you’re considering this option.

Materials

The most common materials used to build boats intended for habitation are aluminum and fiberglass, but in some cases steel and wood can be construction materials of choice.

A standard pontoon base can cost between $3,000 and $10,000.

The cost of interior finishes largely depends on your personal tastes. They can be affordable if you’re fine with a no-frills setup but can tack skyward for more luxurious tastes and larger vessels. Stainless steel appliances and granite countertops cost money, regardless of whether they go in a house or a houseboat.

Will you want a staircase and flybridge? Budget accordingly.

Location and Water Depth

The environment you intend to keep your houseboat in will affect how much you’ll have to pay to make it seaworthy.

The price of an inboard motor may start around $8,000, and a middle-of-the road outboard may be $15,000 and up. Depending on how large your vessel is, you may need to pay for a larger motor with more horsepower.

Federal regulations governing recreational craft prohibit the majority of houseboats from sailing in deep ocean waters. However, cruises along the shoreline, or in a lake or river, are acceptable options for capable houseboats.

Weather

Whether you decide to launch or keep your houseboat in freshwater or saltwater and local weather patterns will affect houseboat maintenance.

Saltwater is a tougher environment but has a lower freezing temperature than freshwater, which means that you likely won’t have to worry about ice forming in the water.

By contrast, if your houseboat will primarily be in freshwater, you may have to deal with ice. As water freezes into ice, it expands, which can damage your hull or rudder.

Permits and Regulations

Any recreational vessel must meet federal safety requirements and possibly abide by state regulations.

Average Cost of Living on a Houseboat Year-Round

The average cost of living on a houseboat is $11,500 per year, some sources say. This breaks down to around $1,000 per month. Some frugal houseboat enthusiasts report living on as little as $6,000 per year.

Most of these costs encompass mooring fees, utilities, and insurance, but you’ll also need to budget for repairs and applicable local fees. Some houseboat communities have a homeowners association that allows all residents to distribute community expenses like maintenance of the docks.

Does a houseboat cost less than a home sitting on terra firma? Generally, yes. You can build a houseboat for far less than a comparably sized single-family home. As a future liveaboard, though, you might want to compare moorage and other fees to the costs of maintaining a traditional home.

The IRS says a boat with cooking, sleeping, and toilet facilities can be a main or second home, so interest paid on a loan for your houseboat could be included in the mortgage interest deduction if you itemize.

The Takeaway

How much does it cost to build a houseboat? The cost could start at $10,000 for a DIY build and depends largely on size and materials. Hiring skilled labor will add to that substantially. An alternative to building a houseboat is buying a used one and making it your own.

How to pay for these nautical visions? One way, for qualified homeowners, is a HELOC brokered by SoFi.

Borrow what you need, when you need it, and access up to 95%, or $500,000, of your home equity.

Tap your home equity and chart a course toward a houseboat you’ll love.

FAQ

How large can a houseboat be?

Most houseboats range from 20 to over 90 feet in length and 8 to 20 feet in width. In most cases, 40 to 50 feet is the average length for a houseboat to be comfortable as a long-term dwelling.

How long does it take to build a houseboat?

A DIY houseboat project may take 18 months to complete, but the time frame will depend on whether you’re able to work on the houseboat project full time and whether you enlist any help. Remember to factor in time to obtain necessary permits or inspections for your area.

Where can I get financing to build a houseboat?

You may be able to finance your houseboat build through lenders that focus on marine and RV lending. Other options are a personal loan, a HELOC, a home equity loan, and a cash-out refinance.


Photo credit: iStock/MarkHatfield

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