Life in a floating home in Portland, OR

Floating houses rest along a calm waterway under a cloudy sky in North Portland.
Amy said most of her neighbors are permanent residents. | Photo by Amy Cox

Imagine waking up every day on the river  — it’s an alluring concept for those of us who are landlubbers. From the lack of a lawn to maintain to the literal waterfront views (and don’t get us started on the earthquake safety), floating houses offer unique perks for those who want something a bit less conventional. But what’s it like to actually live in one? 

We went digging (diving?) for some facts. The first thing we learned was that floating homes are not the same as houseboats — think of the former as a housing unit that is connected to municipal utilities like water and sewer, with HOA dues to maintain the dock + slip. Houseboats, on the other hand, are usually smaller and more like RVs because they have more mobility. 

Multiple floating home communities — aka moorages — exist around the Portland metro area. You’ll see them on the Columbia between Northeast Marine Drive + Hayden Island, further east near McGuire Island, along the Multnomah Channel as it hugs the western side of Sauvie Island, and in Sellwood-Westmoreland. 

Amy Cox has lived in a floating home in the West Hayden Island Moorage for eight years, and generously offered to give PDXtoday an insider’s perspective on everything from upkeep to the havoc Oregon’s state animal can wreak.

Cost of living  

Floating homes are generally more affordable than homes on land. Amy said that’s partly due to conventional loans being more difficult to obtain for floating homes, because there aren’t many lenders willing to take the risk + inspections obviously require someone to get in the water. “It is cheaper, I think, to live here per square footage, but then you do have that maybe added risk of things going wrong with your flotations,” Amy said. 

Construction + maintenance 

Floating houses depend on various means of staying afloat. Amy’s home relies on logs, while others use hollowed concrete or even barge-like bases — and each requires specific care. In Amy’s case, specialists come out about once a year to add huge, Styrofoam-like blocks under her house to increase flotation.

Moving furniture means hiring those specialists to come out immediately afterward to adjust for the change in weight, otherwise, the floating house could list to one side. Another big concern? Snow. Amy said snow that sticks can add hundreds of pounds of weight, so everyone at the moorage works together to brush the snow from each other’s roofs. This past winter, a neighbor’s two-story floating home listed under the pressure, causing furnishings to topple — and some big repairs were in order. 

Looking down a dock with railings toward a series of floating homes with different muted colors.
The West Hayden Island Moorage | Photo by Amy Cox

Pros

Because they’re often fairly small, moorages can be very close-knit. Amy said her moorage has one walkway down the center + two ramps on either side “so you really see everybody and we know each other and help each other out.” 

Other perks to living in a floating home for Amy are the lack of dirt to track in, the easy access to water activities (you can literally jump off your back porch and take a swim), and the constant sense of being in a vacation home where you can listen to the seagulls and leave the city behind. She said it’s also possible to have a floating home towed to a different moorage along the waterway.  

As far as grounds to maintain, well … there aren’t any. Whether container gardening is a good or a bad thing is up to your personal preference. Amy’s home is not lacking for green, though — she has a deck full of plants. 

Also — front row seats for the Christmas Ship Parade

Cons

As far as drawbacks, Amy said having to get on I-5 if she wants to go anywhere can be frustrating, and storage space is sparse since there’s no basement. Her slip includes an enclosed garage, but that’s not a given across the board. 

If you’re thinking, “What about seasickness?” it’s actually not usually a problem for most floating home residents. Unless the wind gets blowing hard, and you’re in a taller unit. 

“There was one time in all my years when I did have to go sit in the parking lot because I thought I was nauseous,” said Amy. “And I was a little seasick, but that only happened once. But it can really move — you can feel the tide come in, usually most every evening, I can feel the tide.” 

There’s a 5 mph no-wake zone around Amy’s moorage, but that doesn’t always deter boaters from speeding past. Amy said her community has air horns they use to alert boaters that are going too fast — because the sloshing can damage their floats

Looking down a slim river with a smooth surface reflecting the partly cloudy sky as it flows past a series of floating homes.
Floating home communities are known as “moorages.” | Photo by Amy Cox

Beavers + Halloween  

If you live in a floating home, then knock on wood that a beaver doesn’t choose to make its home underneath it. One of Amy’s neighbors was the unfortunate host of a family of beavers, and they chewed on the home’s flotations to carve out a nursery

“They drilled a little hole in her house — looking in, you could see it right there, under her feet,” said Amy. “One of the corrections for that is to have lights installed — at great expense — under your house, and they’re on permanently all night and all day.” 

Floating homes aren’t on the top of the list for trick-or-treaters, so take that as you will. Amy said they’ve never had a single costumed kid knock on their door. On that note, kids who are 12 years old and younger are required to wear life vests while outside on the moorage.