Building A Houseboat: Costs, Time, How To & More


Building A Houseboat

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If you are planning on building a houseboat or are just wondering if it is even possible, then you are in the right place. In this article I will answer some of the most common questions about building a houseboat yourself. 

Building your own houseboat is a very personal decision and for most people it isn’t the right way to go. Buying a houseboat is far easier and much less time consuming. You can often buy a used houseboat that needs some work for around the same price as you can build your own. 

Obviously if you buy a used houseboat you will have to put in some time and money to get it up to your standards but it is far less work than building a houseboat from scratch. 

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Can You Build A Houseboat?

When considering building a houseboat the first obvious question is can you really do it? Building a houseboat isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. It will require many months of planning, many months of building, and many months of waiting to get your new boat approved for sailing. 

If you aren’t ready to spend a year or more for the entire process of building your houseboat then it would be best to not even start building. 

The question “can you build a houseboat?” is not just about whether you can handle the physical or financial aspects but also is it allowed?

If you are building a normal houseboat then you will need to register with the US Coast Guard and following the specific regulations for boat builders. Some of those regulations can be found at the US Coast Guard site.

They also have an email address at the above link where you can contact the Coast Guard with questions or to get approved to build a houseboat. 

As long as you are building a recreational houseboat then you only have to follow the rules set out by the Coast Guard about boat building. If you build a floating house that is designed to be stationary then your build will be subject to local and state laws on building.

 Those regulations can often be much more difficult for a person to abide by than the Coast Guard’s regulations so making a normal recreation boat is the best course of action for most builders.  

How Long Does It Take To Build A Houseboat?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is… it depends. It depends on the size of the houseboat you are building, how many people are working on the boat, and how many hours a day you work on the boat. The time that it would take to build a houseboat depends entirely on you! 

The size of the houseboat is quite a big variable when it comes to the time it takes to build your houseboat. There are many people who build tiny houseboats themselves and get the work done in just a couple of months. If instead you are planning on building a two story houseboat then it will take considerably longer to get it built than just a small single story boat. 

How many people are working on the boat is quite a large variable. You can certainly get together a group of people and work 24/7 and get it built as fast as possible. The issue with that is the faster you go the more mistakes are likely to get made. Working 24/7 often isn’t an option and since you are trying to save money by building your own houseboat you probably won’t want to hire people to build it either. That will most likely leave you with a few friends on a weekend here or there and yourself. Be sure and take that into account when figuring the time it will take you to build your houseboat. 

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The third variable is how much time you can spend building your boat. If you have a full time job and are only able to spend a few hours a day and then your weekends working on the boat it will take you considerably longer to build than if you are working on it full time. 

Assuming you are the average speed at building, are building a normal size houseboat with not too many difficult additions, and have some friends helping you at different times throughout the build I would give yourself 3-6 months for the actual build time. It can take a while to get approval from the Coast Guard so be sure and get the ball rolling on that as soon as you are for sure that building is right for you. 

How Much Does It Cost To Build A Houseboat?

As with any build the cost can vary depending on what materials you choose, if you do all the work yourself, how big of a boat you are building, and more. Most estimates to build a single story houseboat is $10,000-$20,000 but of course that can vary considerably. Some people have reported spending under $5,000 for a tiny houseboat build. 

One of the most expensive parts of your houseboat build will be the base that you are going to build on. Pontoon bases can run from $3,000 up to $10,000+ depending on if you are looking for new or used and what size you are considering. So for an estimate I will go right down the middle and say the base will cost you $6,000. 

The next expense will be building materials. The cost will vary depending on if you use wood, fiberglass, aluminum, or some other material. Most people who have built an average sized houseboat report materials costing $10,000 to $30,000 depending on the finishes chosen and how elaborate the build is. Since I went right down the middle for your base then the same can be done here so the total cost of materials should run you around $20,000. 

The last expenses that I will estimate is the cost of the motor/motors. Since you are building a houseboat from scratch you will have to buy motors so you can move the boat. Motor prices will vary significantly based on the power they have, whether they are used or new, and more. 

An inboard motor will run you $2,000 to $4,000 for a decent sized one while an outboard will run 8-10k brand new. I’ll assume you are going to buy a middle of the road and need it installed (which will add to the cost) so let’s assume $5,000 for the motor. 

Adding up the three estimates above you will spend around $30,000 total to build a houseboat. That cost assumes you don’t need to hire someone to do the plumbing, electrical, or any of the other in depth items. You can certainly see why I would recommend buying a dilapidated houseboat and repairing it rather than building from scratch. $30,000 and a year or more of hard work makes a new boat build quite expensive. 

Are Houseboats Cheaper Than Houses?

If you are talking about the costs of building a houseboat vs building a similar sized house the costs will be quite similar excluding the land purchase. In most places a plot of land will cost you $30,000-$50,000 so a houseboat build will be 30-50k cheaper to build up front. The main difference for the comes into play when you figure the total cost of building a house vs building a houseboat. I will compare similar sizes and situations to help keep it a fair comparison. 

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When building a house you get the land that comes with it which always has some value. Even if the house you built were to be destroyed in a disaster you could still turn around and sell the land for a similar price to what you purchased it for originally. 

So let’s look at a house vs houseboat cost comparison over 10 years. I will assume that both the house and houseboat costs are similar minus the land cost. Obviously that is a big assumption but since house prices and houseboat prices vary greatly depending on location, condition, and the size of the build it’s hard to get entirely accurate. 

House Houseboat

Purchase Price $100,000 $70,000

Property Taxes $1,000 a year $0

Registration $0 $200 a year

Sale Price in 10 years $155,000 $42,000

Total Profit/Loss $45,000 -$30,000

The main difference between the two becomes apparent after you sell each of them. Over long periods homes have an average appreciation of 4-6% yearly. I used a 5% appreciation rate minus commissions on the sale to arrive at the 155k sale price. Boats are estimated to depreciate at a 5% yearly rate so that Is how I got the 42k sale price after 10 years. 

I didn’t include utilities, upkeep, etc. in the above figures because most of them would balance out between the two. You have to pay for electricity with a house but on a boat you have to pay for fuel to run a generator or docking fees to plug in somewhere. Upkeep will probably be similar on both properties as well. 

Speaking on initial costs and monthly costs, building a houseboat and living on it is cheaper but long term building or purchasing a house makes more financial sense. Of course that assumes you live in an area where houses can be purchased for a reasonable price. If you live in California then finding a home for 100k is going to be impossible to do so a houseboat might even make sense long term. 

How Do You Build A Houseboat?

At this point you have decided whether building a houseboat is right for you or not. If it is something that you want to do your next question is probably how to do it! 

The first thing you will need is to find a location with enough room for your build. You won’t be able to build a houseboat in your driveway in most areas of the country and the lack of space could seriously affect your time frame so finding a place in the country or a large empty lot is a must. 

After you have a place to start building you need to get the approval from the Coast Guard to build. You can request approval to build a boat at the following link. While you are waiting on approval you will want to start digging into the regulations on building your houseboat. That information can be found at the above link as well. 

After your boat build is approved the next thing to do if find or build your hull. Some people will build their own houseboat hull but I would recommend buying a pontoon or barge hull to make your build far easier.  

After your base is bought or built you will want to begin the designing process for your boat. This can certainly be done at a different part in the process as you could get the design taken care of before you ever start the planning process. You for sure don’t want to start building until you have a design and plans in place to make sure you know exactly what you are planning on doing. 

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You can find many different houseboat plans online that can be purchased for just a few dollars each. I would find the ones you like best and buy all of them. Once you get them all you can make your final decision. Since most houseboat building plans are inexpensive you can buy a few of them without putting too big of a dent into your budget. 

Once you have your base and plans in place you can begin building! This is of course the most time consuming part as building the actual boat must be done properly and everything put in the right place. This is especially true if you are building a two story houseboat. Getting the first story built properly is vital when you are putting more weight on top. 

If you don’t have the proper licenses or experience to do all the wiring, plumbing, etc. this is the time you would start calling around and finding a contractor to do those important things. If you are going to hire someone, make sure they have the proper licenses as the last thing you need is an electrical fire because you were trying to save some money on an electrician. 

Obviously this is quite a long and involved process. Knowing exactly what materials you need to purchase for your build will add considerable time as you will often go back and forth to the store or have tons of extra materials lying around that you don’t need until later in the build. 

Are There Kits To Build A Houseboat?

A prefab houseboat or even a houseboat kit sounds great and there are many different ones on the market, the main issue with these is the COST! A prefab houseboat is super convenient and can take your boat build time to days or weeks instead of months or years but they cost almost as much as buying a brand new houseboat. 

You probably aren’t building your own houseboat just for the fun of it so spending near the cost of a new houseboat to buy a prefab isn’t a good option for most people. You can buy kits from some other places that are cheaper but the cost is far more than getting a houseboat plan and building it yourself. Ultimately you have to decide what works best for you and whether the time savings is worth giving up some of your cost savings. 

Choosing to build a houseboat is an incredibly personal decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you are leaning towards building one yourself find some other people who have gone through the process themselves and ask them what they experienced during their build. If you are expecting to build your houseboat in a couple months and most people take 18 months that is probably something you should know before you begin your build. 

As I mentioned near the beginning I personally wouldn’t go through the hassle and expense of building a houseboat from scratch. You can buy a damaged or dilapidated houseboat that has good bones and repair it a lot easier and cheaper than building a new one. One of the huge benefits from repairing and rebuilding vs a new build is that you won’t have all of the red tape of a new build as you aren’t changing anything structural. Updating and redoing the entire boat can be done for 5-10k vs 20-30k for a new build of the same size. 

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you all the luck in the world on your boating endeavours! 

Matthew Robbs

I love the outdoors and especially spending time with my family. Whether on a boat or at the beach, my happy place is near the water.

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