What’s the Real Cost of Living on a Boat? | Art by Jonan Everett

Jonan Everett

What’s the Real Cost of Living on a Boat?

•  6 minute read

Living on a tiny boat may sound charming or like a grand adventure, but make no mistake: This lifestyle doesn't come cheap.

Living on a boat may sound like an adventure, but have no illusions — it doesn’t come cheap. Electricity, dockage, and the never-ending maintenance all cost a pretty penny.

I should know. I’m a single woman who has been living on a boat for a few years now. Why? My half-a-million dollars in student debt have made simple living a necessity. That’s right, $500,000. I’ll tell you that story another time, but here I want to tell you what I learned about the cost of living on a boat.

Like many financial decisions in life, it seems straightforward until you live it and find out the hidden costs that you didn’t anticipate.

 

What Goes Into the Cost of Living on a Boat?

There’s constant maintenance when you live on a boat. For example, you have to paint the bottom of the boat to discourage barnacles and have it cleaned regularly because barnacles still find a way to cover anything submerged. Then there’s having the boat waxed and various other tasks. All are charged for by the foot, so the bigger the boat, the bigger the bill.

In April, I chose a month-to-month lease at my marina, hoping to eventually head south during the cold months. But that didn’t work out.

I recently switched back to an annual lease for my slip. Instead of paying $711.75 per month at the $18.25-per-foot month-to-month rate, I now pay $1,325 per quarter ($441.67 per month). On the downside, I’m locked into the lease for a year, losing any flexibility.

And that’s not “rent.” It’s the cost to park the boat you already own, which may have cost $2,500 for a dilapidated 27-foot Hunter to several hundred thousand dollars for a larger boat.

The Cost of Buying a Boat

We got some of the numbers on boat buying from the experts at Boats.com.

  • The average new boat loan today costs over $200,000, so there’s been an uptick in larger loans. That said, smaller loans are also getting attention, since national and local banks, financial services firms, and credit unions have returned to marine lending after the recession.
  • Most boat loans are for 15 or 20 years, and often there is no penalty for pre-payment. Longer terms mean lower payments, but also more total interest paid. It’s possible to get a three-month reprieve from payments after the initial purchase with a 90-day deferred loan, which may (very slightly) increase monthly payments for the loan duration.
  • Having gone through the boat-buying process before is a plus. Lenders know that experienced boaters understand the requirements of marine lending, as well as the ongoing costs of boat ownership, and are less likely to overcommit when choosing a vessel.
  • Financing is not for just the price of the boat. Hard or tangible assets can often be rolled into a boat loan. These may include electronics, anchoring packages, bottom paint, and extended service plans. That said, the labor to install the electronics, apply the bottom paint, and perform commissioning tasks for new boats can’t be financed.
Boats under $10,000 that aren’t wrecks in need of another $20,000 in repairs are rare. Finding those hidden gems requires a lot of boating knowledge and a lot of time to go shopping and wait for just the right thing to come along. Having a camper with leaks sucks, but having a boat with leaks can mean you come home and your home is on the bottom of the bay.

One of the big benefits of being at this particular marina is that electricity is included in my rate. At my old marina, I was paying $500 per month, plus electricity, which can become very costly when running air conditioning or heat. I had some painful $200 monthly electricity bills in the winter at my old marina.

I’ve also learned that boats aren’t well insulated. Even though the space is small, the heat or air conditioning has to run constantly. Once, when it was a sweltering 90 degrees inside the boat and I couldn’t sleep, I started waxing nostalgic for the wintertime, when my sheets would literally freeze to the hull!

It may seem like an inexpensive lifestyle on the surface — my own small floating apartment for less than $500 a month in rent. But nothing comes cheap with a boat.

 

Dealing With Repairs

When the boat needs repairs (which is often), I can’t just run out to Home Depot for parts. The marine environment is harsh, and everything seems to corrode or attract mold. Marine equipment is always significantly more costly than the regular household version — even if the only difference is that the manufacturer stuck the word “marine” on the label.

Repairs that would cost $5 for a house will somehow cost $20 for your boat. Repairmen regularly charge $95 per hour. So if you can’t fix it yourself, you better have a sizable bankroll. A water pump will probably cost $200, plus labor that costs at least $75, every two years. The new battery bank I had installed cost over $1,000, but should have a 10-year life.

 

The Day-to-Day Cost of Living on a Boat

If you’re at a marina without laundry, you need factor in all the quarters, time, and effort to go to the laundromat. If there are no showers or inadequate ones (common), add your monthly gym membership (mine is $85 per month).

And then there’s the cost of basic care for your floating home. Bottom painting for a boat in the 35- to 40-foot range goes for about $19 to $27 per foot. This should be done every one to three years. Add to that the cost to haul the boat out of the water, easily another $750 to $1,000.

Then there’s detailing, which generally means power-washing and waxing the exterior, ranges from $12 to $20 per foot. And polishing stainless steel costs about $10 per foot. Having brightwork (teak rails, doors, etc.) varnished? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, so either do it yourself or leave it to grey. Interior detailing (i.e., housekeepers cleaning the interior) costs around $20 per foot.

Bottom cleaning (which means a diver comes and scrapes barnacles off the bottom and propeller to reduce drag and fuel inefficiency and to increase the life of a bottom paint job) costs about $2 to $3 per foot, but some divers may have a $100 minimum. You should do this three to four times a year. I only did it once because I couldn’t afford to do it more often.

If you race your boat, you’d need to have it done monthly at a minimum, but racers have money. Of course, there are all the maintenance issues anyone would have with owning a home — repairing or replacing things that break, etc.

If you’re lucky, couponing and cash-back sites like Ebates and Groupon might help you cut costs slightly.

 

Why I Live on a Boat

Ninety-nine percent of liveaboards seem to have an engineering background and are adept at repairs. I’m the other one percent — an artsy hippie chick who owns a lot of tools, but only knows how to use a handful of them. Unless

I can dramatically enhance my financial situation, I’m going to have to dramatically enhance my handyman skills!

You may wonder why I chose to live on a boat in the first place. Aside from the complications and expenses, my bad credit means that I have to live in a cash and debit card world, period.

While I can use my debit card for online purchases, reservations, and general expenses, my checking account is all I have. As a result, I have added risks to worry about if someone uses my debit card number fraudulently. This has happened twice in as many months, wiping out the entire balance in my only bank account each time. Not having access to a traditional credit card in today’s world is a huge challenge.

 

Transportation Challenges

One of my other big challenges this past year has been not having a car. I bought an old beater that turned out to be a money pit, so I had to give it up.

Although I’m an attorney by trade, I’m not admitted to practice law in the state where I now live, so I’m limited in what legal work I can find. And there are many more attorneys than there is work to go around.

I’m usually on assignment as a temp, never knowing from day to day how long a project will last.

It’s a two-hour commute each way to get to my current job. I walk a mile to catch a commuter bus, then ride into the city for $5 each way. Being able to drive to the train would add gas and parking expenses of about $10 per day. But it would save me an hour or more in total commute time.

Being on a boat means that I can’t store a year’s supply of anything — space is always at a premium.

I usually borrow a car from a dock-mate every couple of weeks to make large grocery runs. Sometimes I walk to the liquor store with my dog and carry purchases home in a backpack. And sometimes I pay the higher prices at the fancy farmer’s market because it’s within walking distance. Getting to the larger, more affordable farmer’s market would take a couple of bus transfers.

Right now, I’m bracing myself to deal with the cold.

 

Is Living on a Boat Worth It?

Just keeping a boat in decent shape is at least a part-time job, so folks need to understand that everything in their life will take a little longer. There’s constant work to do, and it’s not a savings over living ashore.

It offers flexibility to move on short notice if you aren’t stuck in an annual slip lease, the ability to travel the world less expensively (if by sail), and a lower entry level for homeownership than buying a regular house or piece of land. But it is not for the faint of heart, the physically unfit, or the financially destitute.

Would I do it again? Yes, but only on a tugboat or trawler, and never with a dog. Maybe — maybe — with a boat cat that started aboard from kittenhood to have great sea legs. If one isn’t already a boater, I would never, ever recommend they try to move aboard. Those folks are just a hazard to themselves and everyone else on the dock because if they start a boat fire or tie their lines wrong, it can quickly cause catastrophic damage for others.

While living on a boat is challenging, it also has its charms. Would I be living on the water if I wasn’t trying to manage my massive student debt? Read my next story to find out.

*Author’s name has been changed to protect privacy.

Additional reporting by Emma Finnerty.