How to Build a Houseboat: Time, Plans and Cost

Published Categorized as Living On A Boat

Building a houseboat or floating home is an endeavor that primarily appeals to those looking to create something truly unique—a one-of-a-kind floating residence or a custom-built trailerable houseboat—or to those aspiring to experience houseboat living in an affordable way. If you’re drawn to the idea of constructing your own floating abode, this guide will provide insights into the expected time and budget required for such a project. Additionally, it will direct you to resources for houseboat plans and offer an overview of the necessary steps to bring your vision to life.

How to Build a Houseboat: Time, Plans and Cost

Table of Contents

Can You Build a Houseboat?

Yes, you can absolutely do it.

Building a houseboat can be a challenging yet rewarding project. It involves considerable planning, expertise in both boating and construction, and a clear understanding of the legal and safety requirements.

If you’re not experienced in construction and boating, it might be beneficial to consult with professionals or consider buying a pre-built houseboat and customizing it to your needs.

Types of Houseboats You Can Build

The look and functionality of a DIY houseboat can take many forms. 

A shanty boat is a barge or longboat that’s been converted to a single story houseboat. When folks often envision a DIY houseboat, this sort of thing springs to mind. But if you build your houseboat, the choice of outcome is entirely up to you. 

Floating homes are often custom-built, be it by contractors or DIYers. These are not designed to travel, instead converting a marina slip into a living accommodation. It’s the nautical equivalent of the tiny home trend, although floating homes have been around a lot longer. 

Navigable houseboats can also be custom-built. In fact, many houseboat manufacturers are in the business of building one-off custom boats to meet their clients’ needs. But they have access to fabrication facilities on a scale that no DIYer can dream to match, so the houseboats you can build on your own will be smaller and simpler than a professionally built one. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be just as seaworthy or comfortable.

How to Build a Houseboat – The Basic Steps

There are many ways to build a boat, so let’s look at the pieces of your houseboat and how you want to design it. Only then can you get an idea of what the project entails and how much it might cost in money and labor. 

Building the houseboat will consist of two steps: building the hull and building the house. For both steps, it’s possible to bypass a lot of work by looking for prefabricated components. Building the entire thing from scratch is possible and likely the cheapest option, but it’s also the most time intensive. Let’s look at all of the options. 

Step 1: Build the Boat Hull Part

If you build a house from the ground up, you’ve got to build a houseboat from the water up. The most fundamental question to ask is, how will your home float? 

There are four basic techniques used for building your hull.  

  1. Use or repurpose a traditional pontoon boat 
  2. Use or repurpose a barge hull
  3. Build your own stitch-and-glue wooden hull, usually barge or catamaran-style
  4. Build a hull out of prefabricated floats and a frame, usually, polyethylene floats used for docks or fishing structures.

The hull is vital if you want a navigable houseboat. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a stationary float home, then you will have more options. If it just floats, you can use a variety of materials, and the shape isn’t all that important. It’s worth noting, however, that even float homes need to be able to be safely towed to new locations.

How to Build a Houseboat on Pontoons

If you want a small, navigable houseboat with the option to trailer it, a pontoon boat is a good starting point. Aluminum pontoon boats basically last forever, or at least far longer than their plywood decks and vinyl upholstery do. That means a quick search of Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist will turn up some bargains–pontoon boats that need A LOT of work to get going again. But don’t worry, all you need are the floats and the frame!

The only limit with this plan is the size of the floats you can find. You’ll be limited to the original specs for the pontoon boat. If you’re planning a small structure, this will likely be more than adequate. 

Building a Houseboat on a Barge

Bigger houseboat builds will do better on a barge hull. A barge is a large, flat-bottomed boat used to transport goods. Commercial barges are usually large and towed or pushed by powerful tug boats. Smaller barges are used as platforms for salvage operations or dock, pier, or seawall construction. Most barges are made of steel or aluminum.

The sort of barge that would make a good houseboat would be smaller, limited by the size of most marina slips. Your best bet is to keep it under 14 feet wide and usually under 60 feet long. 

You can try to find an old work barge on sites like Boat Trader, or you might find a builder who could weld one up for you. If you did have it custom-made to your specifications, you could incorporate it into your overall houseboat design to include tanks and systems for the boat. 

barge hull DIY houseboats

Building a Stitch-and-Glue Hull for a Houseboat

This is certainly the most time-consuming option, but it’s the one that offers the most creative control. 

Stitch-and-glue is a modern boatbuilding technique that uses plywood sheets instead of hardwood planks. The plywood is cut into frames, and large panels are “stitched” to the frame to hold it and bend it to shape. The panels are then “glued” to the frame using epoxy. 

Even marine-grade plywood isn’t supposed to be submerged, so the entire surface is covered with thin sheets of fiberglass mat and epoxy resin to make the vessel watertight.

You can build any vessel using this technique. The simpler builds tend to be boxier than more complex ones since they use fewer plywood sheets to complete the job. But some stitch-and-glue builds are beautiful. The result is a robust and sturdy seaworthy vessel. 

The key to a successful stitch-and-glue build is to find the right set of plans. Several websites offer them, and plans for all manners of vessels can be found. Here are a few websites that have plans and kits available for sale. 

Building a Platform on Floats

Another creative houseboat base option is building a raft-style frame on floats. Large plastic floats are widely available to build floating docks and fishing structures. They can be pieced together to form pontoons under a sturdy frame, and you can build them to suit any size floating home. This isn’t the best option for a navigable boat, but it could work for a slow-moving outboard vessel. 

Here’s a video example from an Australian company that offers floats and welded platforms to build your floating home.

Step 2: Build the House Part

Once you’ve figured out the hull, the house should be pretty easy. Like the hull, you can build your house from scratch or find a prefabricated solution.

Build Your Own Wood-Frame Structure

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is building your own house or cabin from scratch. There’s no real challenge to this other than the time involved. 

Remember that you’ll want to build to high-quality standards since the structure will move around a bit. If you’re building a navigable vessel, you’ll want to research marine building standards and consider exactly the type of structure you want to take. Then, just like you can find plans and kits for the hull, you can find similar examples of how to build the house. 

Use a Prefabricated Building

Once you have a stable hull, you could repurpose any structure to put on the craft. The goal is comfortable living accommodations. Ideally, the structure will also be extremely well-insulated and built to withstand the stresses that come from life afloat.

For stationary floating homes, finding prefab tiny houses that could be mounted on your hull is relatively easy. There are thousands of designs and layouts to choose from, and they’re designed to be both comfortable to live in and aesthetically beautiful. So finding one that fits on your hull shouldn’t be difficult. As a bonus, many THOWs (tiny homes on wheels) are designed to be self-contained and moved around, making them ideal for placement on a barge hull. 

On that same note, you could use a cabin, RV, or any other prefab structure that you could permanently mount on the hull. 

Boat-Like Systems for Your Cheap DIY Houseboat

The more “boat-like” it is, the better its longevity and the more likely you could get insurance.

Little things matter. For example, boats have their own wiring and electrical standards (check out my post for boat wiring basics for beginners) completely different from houses. All wires should be stranded copper cabling, which withstands vibrations better than solid conductors. Wire runs should be supported so that they don’t move around or chafe, which can cause potential fire hazards in the future. And to prevent corrosion, the wire must be tinned, and all connectors must be crimped and sealed with heat shrink, not soldered or connected by screws or wire nuts, as you might find in a land house. 

Similar differences apply to plumbing and gas installations. Blackwater (sewage) cannot ever be leaked from the system, so the house will have to have an RV-style holding tank that gets pumped out by the marina. A few houseboat communities have full-time sewer hookups, but it’s rare in the boating world. Many houseboat owners get around this by installing marine composting toilets

Freshwater may come from the dock. In some areas, grey water might be discharged. On inland lakes, you likely need to hold it for pump-out, just like the blackwater. 

Then there are the big boat systems, like the motor. The simplest option for a houseboat is one or two outboards, which are reliable and come in any power option you’d like. But they are expensive! A new 100-horsepower engine will set you back about $10,000. 

Heating and cooling are likewise complicated. Propane is the boat standard to install–tanks are easy to refill, and appliances are readily available. Many owners also have wood stoves for heating and cooking. 

Here’s a look at a beautiful DIY two story houseboat in British Columbia. This gorgeous home has all the right features and looks super comfortable. The video does a great job describing the thought that went into making each system work. 

Is it Better to Buy a Used Houseboat or Build Your Own Houseboat?

Build a Houseboat If:

  • You want the project/process of building the boat itself – the journey being as important as the destination
  • You have the time and interest to dedicate to a long DIY project
  • You are willing to potentially sacrifice living/enjoying boat life during the years spent building
  • You want full customization over layout, materials, systems, etc.

Buy a Houseboat If:

  • Your priority is getting on the water sooner to start enjoying life aboard
  • You don’t have or don’t want to dedicate the time to build a boat yourself
  • The cost savings of DIY are unlikely to be substantial once materials, tools, equipment, etc. are factored in
  • You would rather spend money upfront than spread payments out over years of building
  • You value reliability and want to avoid first-build learning curve issues

In my experience with boats, there’s no such thing as a cheap one. The appeal of a DIY project is the project itself. You do it because you want to, and you don’t mind doing it for free. 

Don’t discredit the opportunity cost of the DIY boat. To build the boat, you’re giving up your time to do so. That time could be spent doing something else, like enjoying your boat and living your life on the water. Here’s an example of what I mean.

You could:

  • Spend $15,000 per year building out a DIY houseboat over four years, working 40 hours per week doing so, or,
  • Spend $60,000 purchasing a used houseboat today and spend the next four years sipping mai-tais and margaritas (or doing whatever else you’d rather be doing than building a boat).

Many will see the appeal of Option A. You can pay for the parts along the way instead of one lump sum. You might have a much nicer custom home in the end. There are plenty of pluses to building a boat. In the end, it’s much like building a home or cabin from scratch–is that something that appeals to you? If so, a houseboat build isn’t much different. 

When it comes to the actual costs (the $15,000 per year number above was made up and completely arbitrary, by the way), it does not follow that you will save all that much money building a DIY houseboat. You’ll still need to purchase raw materials, equipment, and tools. For example, materials costs are high if you’re building using epoxy or fiberglass. In most cases, you’ll also need a motor and appliances for the vessel, all of which are expensive to purchase. While some things can be readily found at hardware stores, marine-specific things are harder to come by and more expensive. 

Typical Costs to be Aware of

Some of these might not be immediately obvious:

1. Design and Plans

  • Professional Fees: If you hire an architect or marine engineer, costs can range significantly based on complexity and reputation.
  • Plans Purchase: Pre-designed plans can also be a cost-effective option, with prices varying widely.

2. Hull Construction or Purchase

  • New Hull: Building or buying a new hull is often the largest expense. Costs vary by material (fiberglass, steel, aluminum) and size.
  • Pre-existing Platform: Using a pontoon, barge, or old boat hull can save money but might require refurbishment.

3. Materials for Construction

  • Framework: Wood, metal, or composite materials for the structure.
  • Insulation: Essential for comfort, especially if living aboard.
  • Interior and Exterior Finishes: Costs can vary greatly depending on the quality and aesthetics desired.

4. Utilities Installation

  • Plumbing: Freshwater, greywater, and blackwater systems.
  • Electrical: Wiring, solar panels, batteries, and generators.
  • Heating/Cooling: Depending on the climate, this could be a significant cost.

5. Engines and Navigation Equipment

  • If you plan to move the houseboat, a reliable engine and navigation equipment are essential. Costs depend on the size and type of engine.

6. Safety Equipment

  • Life jackets, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and possibly a life raft. Compliance with local safety regulations is crucial.

7. Furniture and Appliances

  • The cost for outfitting the living space can vary widely based on new vs. used, size, and quality.

8. Mooring Fees

  • Monthly or annual fees for docking your houseboat can add up, depending on the location.

9. Maintenance and Upkeep

  • Regular maintenance is crucial to preserve the value and functionality of your houseboat.

10. Permits and Inspections

  • Costs associated with obtaining the necessary building and mooring permits, as well as inspection fees.

11. Insurance

  • Insurance costs can vary based on the value of the houseboat and the coverage required.

12. Transportation

  • If building off-site, consider the cost to transport the houseboat to water.

The total cost can range from a few tens of thousands of dollars for a simple, small houseboat built largely through DIY efforts, to several hundred thousand dollars or more for a large, professionally constructed houseboat with high-end finishes and amenities. It’s important to create a detailed budget that includes a contingency fund for unexpected expenses.

How Long Can Building a Houseboat Take?

The time it takes to build a houseboat can vary widely based on several factors. Here’s a rough breakdown of timelines based on different scenarios:

DIY Projects

  • Simple Houseboat: For a basic, small houseboat built by an individual or a team of amateurs, the construction could take anywhere from a few months to a year. This assumes working on the project during weekends or in your spare time.
  • Complex Houseboat: A larger or more complex design, with custom features and higher quality finishes, could take anywhere from 1 to 2 years or more, especially if working on it part-time.

Professional Projects

  • Simple Design: With a professional team working full-time, a simple houseboat could be completed in as little as 3 to 6 months.
  • Custom and Complex Designs: For high-end, custom houseboats with advanced features and luxurious finishes, the construction might take 1 to 2 years, depending on the intricacy of the design and the availability of materials and labor.

Factors Influencing Build Time

  • Design Complexity: More complex designs with custom features take longer to plan and execute.
  • Size: Larger houseboats require more materials, labor, and time to construct.
  • DIY vs. Professional: Professionals can work faster but are more expensive. DIY projects depend on the individuals’ skills, the learning curve, and the time they can commit.
  • Material Availability: Delays in obtaining materials can extend the project timeline.
  • Permits and Regulations: The time it takes to obtain necessary permits and pass inspections can vary and may delay the project.
  • Weather Conditions: Outdoor construction is subject to weather conditions, which can cause delays, especially in regions with long winters or rainy seasons.

Planning and Preparation

A significant amount of time should also be allocated to the planning and design phase before construction begins. This includes time for researching, obtaining permits, designing, and purchasing materials.

It’s important to have a flexible timeline and a contingency plan for delays. Building a houseboat is a significant undertaking, and unexpected challenges often arise, requiring additional time to address.

Important Things to Know Before Building A Houseboat

Before embarking on the journey of building a houseboat, there are several important things to consider to ensure the process is as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Critical points to keep in mind are:

1. Design and Size

  • Understand Your Needs: Consider how you plan to use the houseboat (e.g., full-time living, vacation home, rental) to determine the size and amenities you need.
  • Plan for Space: Space is at a premium on any boat. Efficient use of space is crucial, including storage, living areas, and functionality.

2. Budget

  • Initial Costs: Have a clear budget for not only the construction but also for outfitting the houseboat with necessary appliances, furniture, and safety equipment.
  • Unexpected Expenses: Always include a buffer in your budget for unforeseen costs. Construction projects often run over budget.

3. Building Location

  • Access to Water: Consider where you will build the houseboat and how you will transport it to the water. Some locations may require the houseboat to be built elsewhere and then moved.
  • Work Space: Ensure you have enough space to build and store materials, tools, and the houseboat itself during construction.
  • Permits and Regulations: Familiarize yourself with local regulations regarding houseboat construction, including permits needed for building and mooring.
  • Inspections: Understand the inspection process to ensure your houseboat meets all safety and environmental standards.

5. Construction Skills and Resources

  • DIY vs. Professional Help: Assess your own skills honestly. You may need to hire professionals for certain tasks like electrical work, plumbing, or custom fabrication.
  • Materials and Tools: Research the best materials for durability and maintenance, and ensure you have access to the necessary tools and equipment.

6. Safety and Navigation

  • Safety Equipment: Plan for all necessary safety equipment, including life jackets, fire extinguishers, and navigation lights.
  • Navigability: If you intend to move your houseboat, consider its design for navigability, including the engine, rudder, and hull shape.

7. Mooring and Maintenance

  • Mooring Location: Secure a spot to moor your houseboat. This can be challenging in some areas due to limited availability or high costs.
  • Ongoing Maintenance: Be prepared for regular maintenance to keep the houseboat in good condition, including dealing with rust, leaks, and engine upkeep.

8. Resale Value

  • Consider the Future: Think about the resale value of your houseboat. Custom designs may appeal to you but could be harder to sell in the future.

9. Lifestyle Adjustments

  • Living on Water: If you plan to live aboard, consider the adjustments you’ll need to make for a lifestyle on the water, including dealing with motion, limited space, and proximity to neighbors.

10. Environmental Considerations

  • Impact on Ecosystems: Be mindful of the environmental impact of your houseboat, including waste management and energy use. Consider eco-friendly options like solar power and composting toilets.

Pros and Cons of Commercial Houseboats vs DIY

AspectBuilding a HouseboatBuying a Houseboat
ProsCustomization: Tailor every aspect to your specific needs and preferences.
Satisfaction: The personal fulfillment of creating something yourself.
Potential Cost Savings: Depending on choices, building can be less expensive than buying a pre-built boat, especially if you can do much of the work yourself.
Newness: Everything is new, with potentially lower maintenance costs initially.
Convenience: Immediately available without the wait of building.
Known Quantities: Ability to inspect and know exactly what you’re getting before purchase.
Resale Value: Established market value.
Less Risk: Avoid the potential for construction delays or issues with self-built projects.
ConsTime Consuming: Building can take a significant amount of time, especially if balancing with other commitments.
Potential for Higher Costs: Without proper management, costs can exceed initial budgets.
Skill Requirements: Requires a broad set of skills, or the expense of hiring professionals.
Risk of Underestimation: Potential to underestimate the complexity or costs involved.
Compromises: May have to compromise on features, layout, or design.
Maintenance and History: Pre-owned houseboats may come with wear and tear or hidden maintenance issues.
Depreciation: Like all vehicles, houseboats can depreciate once purchased.
Less Personal: Lacks the personal touch or satisfaction that comes from building something yourself.

Putting It All Together for a Lifetime on the Water

As you can see, your choices of building houseboat parts will dictate the overall time and total cost it takes to build. As with a land home, if you enjoy projects and have a vision of a truly unique floating home, the adventure of the build is just part of the journey.

If, however, you’re just looking for a cheap way to live on the water, then chances are you’d be better off buying a used houseboat and calling it home. 

If you haven’t seen my recommendations for best starter boats, check out my post: Best Boat for Beginners.

Build Your Own Houseboat FAQs

Can I build my own houseboat?

Yes, many people build their houseboats. You can download plans online or build them from existing components like a pontoon boat or barge hull and a prefabricated tiny home. 

Is living on a houseboat cheaper than a house?

The cost comparison between houseboat and house dwelling is difficult to analyze. Your living expenses (utilities, groceries, transportation, etc.) won’t change much. The biggest difference is that you must pay docking fees to moor your boat, which can be quite expensive in some areas. In addition, if you travel in your boat, you’ll also have fuel and maintenance costs.

Can you live permanently on a houseboat?

Yes, many people live permanently on board boats of all kinds. However, it depends on the city and marina regulations where you are located. Many areas make it difficult or downright illegal to “liveaboard.” 

What are the drawbacks to living on a houseboat?

The drawbacks to living on any boat depend on the boat type and where you live. In many ways, it’s not unlike living in a tiny house or small apartment. However, you’ll often find that you have more limited resources (electricity, water, sewer, and garbage pickup). Also, even at docks, the boat moves a little. That increases wear and tear on the house and appliances but also might make some people a little seasick. Finally, you are more exposed to the weather in a houseboat than in a land structure. 

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.

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