Houseboats For Sale

Everything you need to know when buying a houseboat

  1. 7 Questions to ask yourself before you begin your Houseboat search
    1. What should you consider before you even start looking?
  2. 3 Things to Look For in a Houseboat
    1. Improve the value of your purchase with these three features.
  3. 5 Things to Avoid in a Houseboat
    1. Some deals just aren’t worth it. These pitfalls can give you headaches down the road.
  4. Where can you find Houseboats for Sale? 
    1. So you’re ready to search. Where do you start?
  5. Ask the Chatbot anything
    1. While its expertise is in insurance, loans and licensing, its knowledge base is growing.  If your answer was not what you were looking for, send in your email through the chat and you will receive a personalized response.

Houseboats for Sale

This guide is dedicated to making your houseboat buying experience easier and less confusing. We know you are here because you were thinking of taking the plunge into live-aboard life, either as a full-time endeavor or as a vacation getaway. Before you even begin looking at houseboats for sale in your area, you’ll want to answer a few questions to guide your search. And the questions only multiply after that. We’re here to help. This Houseboats for Sale guide will hopefully help your search feel a little less overwhelming. 

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to let us know in the comments box here.

7 Questions to ask yourself before starting to look for a houseboat

1. In what part of the country are you planning on using the boat?

This matters in so many ways. Will you be in freshwater or salt? What type of weather can you expect? Are you in a hurricane zone? Are you far enough north that you need to deal with frozen lakes and rivers?

2. Where are you planning to store the boat?

In a full-service Marina? At a dock or anchored offshore? A full on Yacht Club? What type of amenities does your location provide? And what will you need to get for yourself?

palm trees with houseboat for sale

Sure, it’s lovely, but the electricity can be…inconsistant.

3. What is your budget?  Not just to buy, but going forward.

You know the old adage: “if you can’t afford the insurance, you can’t afford it”. How much will your insurance cost you? How about taxes? If you expect to travel with it, what is its fuel consumption? Try to measure out your predicted costs for a year to determine what you can afford. It’s always worth remembering. The boat isn’t perfect if it costs too much.

4. What are your technical skills, in maintenance, repairs, figuring things out?

Ultimately, this will play a role in your budgeting. You’ll want to set aside money for spare parts, engine filters, cleaning and maintenance supplies. The more you can do yourself, the more you can shave off that budget for labor costs (other than your own, of course). Some fixes just require a mechanic, though, so you’ll want to budget for one every year. If you don’t need it, great! Free money!

5. How do you plan on using this houseboat?

Stationary living, or cruising? If Cruising, are we talking just up the river, or down the Mississippi to the sea? The answer to those questions will change your math substantially.

6. Will you be taking the houseboat out of the water?

If so, for how long? Do you plan to still live in it ashore or do you have somewhere else to stay? Do you have a plan for winter weather?

snow-covered ground with boats

Some winters are tougher on boats than others…

7. How long do you plan on owning this houseboat?

You don’t need to set a fixed number of months or anything. It’s just good to have an idea whether you are planning on using the boat long-term or short-term. Is this a few-month trial period, or are you selling your house and going all-in on a houseboat? Either answer is fine, but different answers will shift your financial and logistical pictures in different ways.

3 Things to look for in a houseboat

The answers to the questions above will determine a lot about what you should look for when trying to find the perfect boat for you. That said, you’ll want to make sure you consider these three (surprisingly important) features in your search.

1. Manufacturer’s Warranties

Sure, a warranty is most relevant for newer houseboats, when the manufacturer still bears some responsibility for their performance. Nevertheless, you’ll find warranties on the equipment aboard a surprisingly large number of older houseboats.

If you’re looking at newer houseboats,nearly everything is fair game. Ideally, you’ll find valid warranties for the hull itself, the engine and often built-in safety systems. Nevertheless, Older boats may still have relevant warranties for their engines, electronics systems, dinghies/tenders, and even the boat’s windlass. Generally, of course, these appear when the previous owner has installed new equipment. Very few 1980s boats are still buzzing around with 1980’s electronics.

Whether your boat is old or new, these manufacturer warranties, whenever available, can be extremely valuable. They can save you thousands in repair and replacement fees if you need them. As a cautionary note, make sure you read the terms of any warranty before you rely on it. Some warranties, particularly on electronics, expire when the original owner sells the vessel.

2. New Engines

With the exception of the hull (and sometimes without the exception of the hull), the engine is likely to be the most expensive component of any vessel you consider. While most houseboats have not had a brand new engine installed recently, you might find a surprising number of them that have.  This typically happens when previous owners refit their boats for a major journey. Sometimes, however, owners simply do it in an effort to reduce costs (long term, presumably), or to overcome the defects/struggles of an old engine.

old, rusty engine

And sometimes the engine makes the decision for you…

Granted, a new engine on an older boat doesn’t guarantee you anything. Nevertheless, they are often an indication of the effort that the previous owner put in to maintaining their vessel. New engines cost real money. They represent a substantive attempt to improve the boat’s performance as opposed to, say refinishing the deck. Sure, a refinished deck is great, and isn’t totally divorced from performance, but on the scale of renovations, it’s not in the same league. It is generally relatively cheap (at least, compared to a new engine), and might be used to mask more structural issues.

All that said, do not forget to have your inspector fully examine the engine itself. Putting an engine into an unfinished boat is a heck of a lot easier than installing an engine in one that’s been around for 20 years, so you want to make sure they did it right. The inspector should be able to see how engine was installed and confirm that it is the right engine for the boat. In addition, an inspector should  double-check to ensure that the boat is not an insurance boat (taken by the insurance company after they pay the owner for a total loss and refurbished).

3. Bimini / Dodger

One of the smaller things that we recommend people consider are the age and condition of bimini’s, dodgers, and other cloth or clear plastic enclosing devices. Now, it’s true that you don’t want to place too much stock in a boat’s cosmetic features. At the end of the day, the bimini alone shouldn’t make or break your purchasing decision. Even so, We recommend keeping the dodger in mind when you’re looking at potential vessels. Biminis get extremely expensive, extremely quickly, especially if they’re any good.

We only bring this up out of personal experience. When we purchased our first boat, we lucked into a relatively new set. We knew our dodger was great, but it was not until several months later that we realized how expensive they would have been to replace. It also took about that long to fully acknowledge how grateful we were to have them on board.

If you see a new set, confirm the quality and the manufacturer before accepting the value that the owner assesses. However, as biminis are expensive and take a long time for production and shipment. As a result, do not ignore the value that they can have if they are high-quality. On the other hand, if the dodger is noticeably old or low-quality, we recommend being vocal about them. It can be a quick way to knock several thousand dollars in value from the seller’s initial price.

covered pontoon boat

If it says: “Full Length Bimini!” then it might just be a pontoon boat.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Upgrades that you never wanted

One of the most common ways new boat buyers get burned is when they place value on upgrades they would not have done themselves. Many boat owners make upgrades because it makes their lives personally easier. When it comes time to sell, they want to get that investment back in the boat price. But just because an upgrade was relevant to the seller doesn’t make it relevant to you.

Let’s say the previous owners installed a watermaker because they did a lot of long-distance cruising. Such a system can cost from $700 at the very low end, all the way up to $20,000 or more. It’s understandable that the sellers might want to bump the price of their boat commensurately. However, if you plan on keeping your boat in a marina, hooked up to a freshwater source, do you really want to pay a premium for gear you don’t use? Sellers often have a hard time forgetting that their expensive upgrades are not worth nearly what they paid for them in the resale market.

There’s no easy fix here, but buyers should be clear with the seller/broker from the start that certain upgrades hold little to no value to them. Some sellers will refuse to come down in price, holding out for someone who’s willing to pay more. Let them. As with all boat purchases, a willingness to walk away is crucial. You’ll be spending enough money anyway. Don’t let someone overcharge you for irrelevant “upgrades”.

50s pink houseboat for sale

Do you really need that 3rd-floor swimming pool?

Too many Previous Owners

We don’t have a specific number in mind here, but you should be wary of vessels that have passed through too many hands. For boats under than 10 years old, that likely means more than 3 previous owners. For boats over 10 years old, any number 4 or above should prompt additional questions and screening. Each additional owner required a learning curve to develop habits around storing, maintaining, and properly using the vessel. During that time, small mistakes can degrade the overall functionality of the boat.

In addition, a high turnover rate can indicate that several owners quickly realized that they’d made a mistake in buying the vessel. That doesn’t inherently reflect poorly on the vessel. Plenty of folks just aren’t ready for boat ownership, or don’t realize how much energy and money they require for upkeep. Nevertheless, it should throw up red flags and prompt you to take a good, hard look at the boat. Make sure your surveyor/inspector knows too so s/he can take extra care during the survey. The last thing you want is to own the boat for 3 months and suddenly realize why so many people sold it.

Former Insurance, Fire-Damaged or Otherwise-Damaged boats

Formerly damaged boats can seem like great deals at first glance. If you are a boat mechanic and/or shipwright, then it might well be. Even if you are, however, you should have extensive experience in rebuilding the hull material, and you shouldn’t count on insuring the vessel. Otherwise, we really can’t recommend buying a formerly damaged boats, regardless of the price. These vessels are likely to have additional issues with major systems, including electronics,  engine function, and structural safety. You’ll rarely find formerly damaged boats that have had all their guts replaced, and even then, worrying about structural issues really isn’t worth it. All things being equal, we typically advise potential buyers to avoid these boats unless there are truly special conditions surrounding your purchase of it.

The Little Things

You can think of these items as “decorations” or “elective items”. They tend to include wine glass-holders, microwaves, ornamental mirrors, fancy soap dispensers, hand carved paper towel dispensers, etc. This is easier said than done. It is surprisingly easy to become attracted to the small amenities on board and focus less on the fundamentals of the vessel itself. A well-maintained interior often stomps out the little voice inside your head that says “but the engine leaks coolant and the prop looks like it came off of the Titanic.” While not all sellers are unscrupulous, it is not uncommon for some sellers to dress up their interior in order to “add value”. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can spruce up the interior of a poorly-kept vessel.

In the end, the decision is up to you, so we recommend you base it on the larger, more crucial systems (engine, hull, rigging, etc.). Customizing the interior to your specifications will be far cheaper (and more fun) than replacing a worn-out engine 6 months down the line. It’s a boat, so nothing will be cheap, precisely, but you’ll be happier in the long run if you focus on the big-ticket items, and let the decor be the cherry on top.

colorful houseboat.

Though admittedly, some designs are tough to replicate.

Large, old boats that are in the water all year round

Another mistake that many new buyers make is purchasing big, old boats. A couple key things attract buyers to these boats:

1. Price

It’s a great deal! It’s hard to look at a 50-foot boat that you could never afford new, and know that it’s squarely within your price range. Just the thought can be intoxicating.

2. Space

It’s already a struggle to consider moving onto a boat. You’re looking at getting rid of a majority of your earthly possessions and cramming everything that’s left into a space the size of your bedroom. A big, old boat at least allows you some breathing room. We’ve literally been there, and it’s really hard to check down to a 31-foot vessel that costs the same, but is 10-15 years newer.

Of course, these boats exhibit several problems for owners, and you’ll want to know a few things before pulling the trigger on them.

So, what should I be considering?

1. Cost

While these boats may appear cheap relative to their size, large boats are much more expensive and difficult to store at marinas. Marinas often charge by the foot, so the more feet your boat is, the pricier the slip. In addition, many marinas do not have large numbers of slips for big boats. As a result, they tend to charge a premium for them, as they assume owners of larger boats have money to burn. Many locations bump their per-foot charge by a dollar or more for bigger boats.

2. Water Damage

Big, old boats can cost enormous amount to maintain and keep seaworthy. This is obviously less of a factor if you plan to remain perpetually at the dock. Even so, you should still consider the risks that an older boat with a waterlogged hull may pose. Older boats up North face this problem to a lesser extent. Boaters across the Northern Midwest need to pull their boats out of the water at least 6 months out of the year when all the water turns to ice. Those breaks every year can keep a hull sound for far longer. In addition, boats on lakes and rivers suffer far less than equivalent saltwater boats. Saltwater is shockingly caustic, and if a boat sits in saltwater for years on end, it will take a toll on the hull’s structural integrity. Water damage varies, depending on your hull material:

  1. When a fiberglass boat becomes waterlogged, the water has actually entered the fiberglass itself and is structurally weakening your potential home.
  2. On metal hulled vessels, older boats pose a greater chance of electrolysis issues, especially at the joints between different metals.
  3. Wood boats have a whole host of other potential issues if they have not regularly removed, dried, and repainted.

3. Insurance

Insurers are always wary of old boats. They consider them risky, and insurers hate risk. Their main concerns are that older boats may have structural damage, stress fractures, or some other crippling issue that isn’t immediately obvious. Most companies have a set age, and refuse to insure boats that breach it. Other insurers do provide insurance to older vessels, but charge a great deal more in premiums. They figure you don’t have anywhere else to go (and are often correct), and set their premiums high to mitigate their own risk.

4. Resale

Experienced prospective buyers know these boats can be headaches, and don’t want to risk buying them. As a result, your resale market will be smaller, andyou’re unlikely to be able to sell it for anything close to your purchase price. Now, we want to be careful about focusing too much on resale value. In general, you should not think of your boat as an investment. No matter what boat you buy, you’re unlikely to get your money back when you resell it. That’s just part of buying a boat. Nevertheless, an old boat won’t do you any favors.

rickety timber houseboat

Especially if it looks like the big bad wolf might turn up and blow it into matchsticks.

Where can you find houseboats for sale?

  • Craigslist
    • It’s a great place to buy secondhand stuff, and that can include boats. You obviously want to be careful about buying a boat off of Craigslist. I’ve bought an Ikea coffee table on Craigslist and found myself disappointed. Now blow that up to something the size and importance of a houseboat. Always err on the side of caution. Schedule a survey for sure. Hell, schedule two surveys to get two opinions. If the seller objects to the survey, walk away, no matter the price, it isn’t worth it.
  • Boat Trader
    • An online resource to find boats for sale all over the country. Most of the boats you’ll see on Boat Trader are put up by brokerages, but individuals can post their own boats too. Whether you’re looking to buy or sell, you can do either through Boat Trader. Obviously, the boats they offer are only as good as the people posting, but Boat Trader’s position as the largest online source for boats means you at least have a lot of choices. As always, schedule a survey and sea trial before buying.
    • Boat Trader also has a nifty blog that answers a ot of common questions around boat buying. If you’re looking for more advice, check it out.
  • Buy A Boat. Net
    • A houseboat-specific website where you can buy, sell, or learn about houseboats. The boats on offer have expanded to include pontoon boats, cruisers, runabouts and PWCs, but their focus is still very much on houseboats. As with Boat Trader, Buy a Boat has listings from individuals and brokerages. No matter what boat you choose, we always recommend a survey and sea trial before you finalize the paperwork.
  • Yacht World
    • As the name suggests, Yacht World has fewer “houseboats” per se, and more “yachts”, whether sailing or motor. Who knows, though? You may prefer to live aboard a boat that’s a little more seaworthy than your average houseboat. if that’s the case, it is definitely worth checking out Yacht World. Like most other sites, you’ll find boats from individuals and brokers (mostly brokers) at Yacht World. We hate to keep belaboring the point, but make sure you get a full survey and sea trial with any boat before you buy it.
big yacht

Like a houseboat, but way more expensive.

  • Local Marinas
    • If you live near water, head on down to your local marina and check out the vessels there. People need to store their boats somewhere, even when they’re for sale. You’ll often see boats with brokerage information prominently displayed. This can be a nice way to feel more connected to the boat buying process. After a few hours online, all boats start to look the same, and distinctions become less clear. When you look at a vessel in person, all the broker jargon starts to fade. you can see what amenities you like, and which you don’t. You can get an honest feel for the instrumentation, it’s age and quality. It may also help you feel more passionate and excited if the search is wearing you down. If you have an easier time shopping offline, this method is for you.

What to do Next

If you’re a regular visitor to Agent Water, you know that we offer consulting services and a whole host of other tools for our members. Our monthly plans offer three tiers of support, from the free basic plan, all the way up to Gold level service. These plans give you access to experts, who can answer any question you may have, from the mundane to the vital. Our experts are dedicated to helping you solve your problems rather than pushing a particular brand. For more information or to join click the box above.

A new feature we are rolling out this spring is a series of focused webinars.  These webinars are free for all paid members, but are available to non-members for a price of $25 per event. We are hosting a one hour webinar on May 1st, at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time. In it, we will review the houseboat buying process whole hog. We’ll start at the very beginning, from the decision to move aboard, all the way through storage and upgrades. For more information,  or to sign up, click the box above

Finally, in response to requests from our members, we have begun offering customized consulting to help boat owners tackle more in-depth problems and questions. These hour-long sessions are optimized to make the best possible use of your time. We have our users fill out a form before the call to maximize conversation-time and the ability for our team to follow up with effectively. Typically, these conversations result in a detailed follow-up on areas where the member wanted more information. While our experts are able to answer most user-questions live, some questions always necessitate a little research. In such cases, we forward along responses afterwards. We do not charge for the time it takes to compile such follow-ups.

We are currently running a special! If you join either of our paid membership levels before May 1st you will receive one hour of Consulting, completely free! For more information, or to sign up, click the box above.

Consulting Support

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Webinar Learning

Discover the questions you should be asking, the qualities you want in a good houseboat, and pitfalls to avoid.