Floating homes on the Columbia River at Class Harbor Moorage in North Portland are a quirky sector of the real estate market.
OREGON BUSINESS PHOTO
Mack Wiebe has always lived near water; he grew up on the edge of the Columbia River, off of Bridgeton Road, and later moved to San Diego. But now he lives on the water, literally, in a floating house near Sauvie Island.
“I grew up on the river. As a youngster I’d go up on the Columbia every morning. It’s very cool to be on the water and live on the water,” Wiebe says. “It’s a very easy lifestyle.” He laughs. “No yard work.”
Floating homes are permanent houses anchored to a floating concrete block or set of logs. They don’t move, except to rise and fall with the tide, or unless the homeowner decides to move and take her house with her. They come with all the comforts — water, telephone, heat, a complete septic system — of a house on land.
There are a few floating homes, or “floats” in other parts of the state, such as Astoria and Newport, but there are 2,366 such houses along the Columbia and Willamette rivers in Portland. When Wiebe was growing up, most of the floating houses in Portland were occupied by fishermen. More recently they’ve become popular with retirees like Wiebe, who is 75, single men and women, young couples, and anyone with an affinity for water. The floating neighborhoods, or “moorages,” are usually serene, quiet, private docks, connected to land by a thin ramp. They’re often gated. The houses have back decks and big windows. Marine birds, beavers, river otters and other wildlife are a common sight. Most float owners have at least one boat tethered in the area that, on land, would be a driveway.
Floating homes make up a quirky sector of the real estate market. Zoning and environmental regulations make it difficult to build new moorages, so supply is relatively fixed. There was also no sub-prime lending boom for floating homes. Banks consider floats “private property,” not real estate, even though homeowners often own the section of river where the house is anchored. This classification means banks keep floating home mortgages on their books, as opposed to bundling them and selling them off, a practice that contributed to the housing market crash. And because the houses are on water, banks assume there is more risk of damage and require a 20% down payment, which reduces the risk of foreclosure as homeowners are better prepared to pay and less likely to abandon the property.
Despite being insulated from the worst of the housing crisis, floating-home prices have been set back by about two years and some have gone into foreclosure, says Portland realtor Jane Betts-Stover, who specializes in floating homes and owns one herself. “You don’t see them being hit as hard as the land houses,” she says. “Some people have gone into bankruptcy or short sales, but not in the waves and the numbers that you see in Oregon City.”
Betts-Stover says soft prices mean it’s a great time to buy, considering that many floating homes are on the market for less than $180,000 with lots of room for improvement. “I think they’re little gold mines. Down the road anybody who’s got a floating home is sitting on a gold mine.”
Wiebe and his wife, Meredith, 72, don’t consider their home a gold mine. “I just enjoy being able to look out each evening and see the water going by our house,” he says.