And now for something completely different: I just got home from a lovely vacation spent partly in Sausalito, California (North of San Francisco) and partly in Hawaii visiting my son and his fiancee. In Sausalito I stayed with my friend Michele Affronte in her gorgeous floating home. Michele is a real estate agent specializing in floating homes. I realized that every time I mention Sausalito’s floating homes to people, they start asking me a lot of questions that I can’t answer… but Michele can! So I decided to interview her, as well as treat you to some pictures of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been blessed to spend time.
Michele Affronte was Born on Long Island, went to college in upstate NY and Manhattan, then moved to LA in 1978 and lived in Venice Beach. She became a realtor in 1987 in LA. In 1989, after a divorce, she took six months off and traveled 10,000 miles on a motorcycle through Europe with “a wild Hungarian man”. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and this tanked the aerospace industry, effectively eroding Michele’s entire client base in the LA area. So, to find a more stable market to work in, she moved North to the San Francisco Bay Area.
When she arrived, a friend from Berkeley told her, “the only place you will like will be the houseboat community.” Michele looked all over Marin and kept coming back to Sausalito and finally decided that Sausalito was indeed exactly where she wanted to live. She bought the boat named Sidari in 1991. It was very hard to get loans, so she begged the seller to carry the loan.
She paid 20% down and the seller carried the rest for 5 years. She paid him off in 5 years after getting more established in Northern California and qualifying for a new loan.
When the house next door went up for sale she bought it because she didn’t want anyone adding on to it and ruining her view (it was built on a Korean War landing craft – a developer could have replaced with a 2-story houseboat that blocked her view). So she bought it and turned it into a rental.
14 years later that same tenant bought the former Korean War landing craft from her and promised to keep it just the way it was, which so far she has done. Michele eventually bought the floating home she lives in now and kept Sidari as a charming rental property .
The community has changed since 1991 in so many ways. At first there were noisy parties every night. All the anchor-outs (the boats that stayed anchored illegally in the bay) were always back and forth all night – the unwritten code was that you couldn’t say anything about the noise. In 1992-1993 there were enormous storms that would push the anchor-outs into the rocks of Strawberry Point after tearing them away from their moorings. Some sank. The partiers moved away. Slowly but surely it got quieter and quieter. Now it’s very quiet.
When Waldo Point Harbor built the docks, they filled every slip with boats as a way to increase profits. They were supposed to leave waterways and viewing corridors open. The county refused to give them permanent legal status unless they upgraded and added public spaces. In the last few years they added new docks, new gazebos, landscaping, and raised the parking lots 4′. Prior to the upgrades, because of global warming, the old parking lots would flood regularly and residents would not be able to get to their cars. Each dock now also has two electric car chargers. Michele’s initial lease had written on the front, jn large letters, that any time at all the harbor or the county could force her to move her home away, making it hard to sell. Now that has changed. Legislation has been written – The Floating Home Residency Law – which gives floating home owners complete legal rights to stay in the community.
Michele’s favorite thing about living in a floating home is the community. Once you move there, if you wish, 90% of your friends will also be neighbors. You can take part in dinner parties, outings, volunteer events, the floating home tour (1000 tickets are sold each year), or just impromptu gatherings on the dock. The non-profit Floating Home Association Board, of which Michele is a member, puts on the tour, takes magazine and film people around (many movie scenes are filmed there), organizes a party for all homeowners in February, writes legislation, stays involved with county supervisors, and negotiates with the harbors. Favorite things also include the views, the chance to kayak right from the front door, and the ever changing weather. Michele says, and I agree, “It’s really magical”. She feels very safe, people really do watch out for each other.
It was hard for Michele to think of a drawback to living on the water, but finally she hit on walking down the dock in a storm. It’s 1/4 mile to the parking lot. If you forget your car keys it’s a long walk. On the other hand, it’s great exercise. So even the drawback has a silver lining.
The docks have unique “personalities”.
The three deep-water docks at Waldo Point Harbor are considered more bohemian in general: Liberty (most middle of the road), South Forty (most liberal/progressive), and Issaquah (most expensive, “the garden dock”). The deep-water docks are perpendicular to the shore. Anywhere past #20 on the dock, you usually have deep water around your house (closer to shore, at low tide, the houses sit on the floor of the bay in the mud; while this sounds gross, it makes for some wonderful shorebird watching). These have the best views, the prettiest gardens, are the most expensive, and can have boats tied to floats because there’s no concern about the tides leaving the boat in the mud. I learned from experience that it’s a good idea to check the tides before heading out in the kayak. At extremely low tide, even kayaks can get stuck in the mud and you either have to slog home or wait for the tide to turn.
Main Dock is the more family oriented dock. There are lots of kids there.
A Dock is also part of Waldo Point Harbor. The boat yard where the pile driver is stored is there.
Yellow Ferry Harbor is owned by one family and the Yellow Ferry is actually an old ferry from Seattle. This is a very pretty small harbor with just one dock, very upscale, but not in deep water.
Kappas Marina is parallel to the freeway, does not allow dogs, and is a bit more conservative. Kappas homes sit on the mud at low tide more often than Waldo Point homes.
Commodore Marina (“6 1/2”) is the furthest north and is actually in Mill Valley (not Sausalito) and next to the sea planes. There is noise from both the freeway and the sea planes. You cannot get long-term leases there, making it impossible to get a loan (must buy with cash).
The Co-op (the area at the edge of the lagoon containing a group of homes without a dock) is getting moved. They have their own association. Waldo Point Harbor initially allowed boats to moor in this location without proper permits and docks. Part of the agreement with the county was to make this area legal. One new dock has recently been built called Van Damme, and an assortment of the existing homes are being redistributed among the other legal docks. The Buck foundation in Novato, CA, was formed when the Buck family passed on, and all the proceeds go to low income housing. All of the homes that need to be upgraded to be brought up to code are being subsidized by the Buck foundation. All will be designated as low income housing, and can only be sold or rented to low income families.
The total of legal houseboats is 480, not including anchor-outs which are not legal.
Floating homes are built in two parts: the home and the hull. Both are mostly built on land. The hull is a big concrete tub that becomes the foundation. When the hull and the structure are both complete, the builders float the tub to the deepest water at the highest tide. They fill it with water and sink it. Then they float the home on top of the tub and bolt it to the foundation. Then the water is pumped out of the hull and the home pops up. It’s the displacement of the water that makes it float. It only floats at high tide. As the tide goes out most homes will settle on the bay floor until the tide comes back in to pop it back off the ground. They are tied in four places to four pilings. Each berth has its own hookups for gas, water, electric, and public sewer. Garbage is taken to the dumpsters at the end of each dock. Sewage gets pumped out using macerator pumps which are electric. These are in a holding tank. So when the power is off you can’t flush the toilet or run any water at all or there will be sewage overflow into the home. You cannot put anything stringy in the toilet or the garbage disposal because that will get stuck in the motor of the macerator pump causing the holding tank to overflow.
The homes all list when they are empty. To level the home, you put in your furniture first and if it still lists to one side you add weight to the opposite side. This is done with… books, furniture, water, hot tub, sand bags, granite counters, concrete reinforcing bar, among other things. All homes must be 6′ from the stationary dock for earthquake code and have 10′ empty space on each for fire code. Fires are really scary. The fire department has a fire boat which comes immediately. All the neighbors come to help but still sometimes the whole boat is lost. There have been very few fires.
The main docks are stationary with floating finger docks between one or two homes. Each home has a gangway that connects to the finger docks. At low tide, most of the homes sit on the floor of the bay. As the tide rises, eventually the home will “pop” off the floor of the bay and start floating. In heavy winds you might notice a bit of rocking, but most of the time the home feels only slightly unstable. There is a definite difference after the home transitions from on the ground to floating, though. It’s hard to visualize, but the home’s entrance can end up being much higher than the floating finger dock at low tide, because the home will settle on the bay floor way before the tide has completely receded, while the finger dock will keep dropping with the tide. As a result, there almost as many varieties of gangway and/or entrance way as there are homes.
Inside, the homes are all different, from funky charming to slick modern Italian, basically like any house. Somehow people feel more at ease making the house more eclectic because the homeowners themselves tend to be more eclectic . There is lot of art, interesting nooks and crannies, and making the most of the views in all possible ways.
Very rarely do these homes sink. They could sink if you put too many people on board in one spot. If a pipe bursts or a macerator pump overflows for hours (most people put alarms in) it will sink from the inside out. Some that aren’t on concrete hulls and are still built on old styrofoam pontoons, wooden hulls, or old steel WWII ships could have a hull failure.
They float during earthquakes. It’s a very good place to be during an earthquake. The tide goes up and down by about 7 feet, and the combination of stationary dock and floating finger docks is built to accommodate that range. So even a tsunami would have to be really big to cause a problem.
People from all over the world buy floating homes in Sausalito, including many Europeans and all age groups, but there has been an increase of retirees or empty nesters lately, looking for a lifestyle and community to grow old in. There are also some techies, and about 25% are second homes or vacation homes.
The cost for an average 2 bedroom 2 bath is about $800,000. Deep water is more expensive than shallow. In shallow water the same 2 bed/bath is about $650,000. The ones facing Strawberry Point and San Francisco are the most expensive. The full price range in the last few years has been $349,000 for a studio-sized home to $1,750,000 for a luxury full-scale home. Some people buy a very expensive home and then completely gut it (this is happening more and more). Very rarely remodels are floated away to have the work done but most of the remodels are done in the slip. There are special construction companies that are familiar with the floating home codes. The homes have to be engineered properly – balance is important. The average cost of construction is $700-800 per square foot.
There are two lenders that write loans requiring 25% down. Many people pay with cash though.
Property taxes are based on the price of the structure, not the berth. The county makes this assessment. There is also a berth fee charged by the harbor ($800-$1400)/month. The berth fee includes trash, water, parking and sewer. The harbor pays property tax on each berth which is most likely passed on to the homeowner as part of the berth fee.
According to Michele, it is true that the “dock” in the song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding was written on Main dock.
When I asked Michele what her advice was for people wanting to buy/rent a floating home in Sausalito, she said, “contact me!” Here’s the link to do so: Contact Michele!