Life on a Houseboat Is Mostly Ups, Few Downs

Life on a houseboat has its ups and downs—literally. 

“You have a connection to the elements because you’re going up and down with the tides twice a day,” said Ginny Stearns, who lives on a houseboat on Mission Creek with her husband, Bob Isaacson, and their daughter, Mei Li Isaacson. 

Ginny Stearns makes tea in her houseboat kitchen.

Stearns became a houseboat resident when she married Isaacson. Their 1,700-square foot houseboat is one of only 20 allowed in the city, per regulations through the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. They all were grandfathered in after a move from Islais Creek in 1960, and the owners have leases from the Port of San Francisco through 2055. 

Houseboats on Mission Creek with a view north toward Mission Bay condos.

Isaacson bought his first houseboat 35 years ago for $16,800 and replaced it with the current custom-built one. The family’s cost of living is “extremely affordable” because they’ve been there so long, Stearns said, and only pay property tax, berth rent and utilities (they're connected to city services). But now, Stearns said, some of the bigger houseboats are worth more than a million—if anyone is up for selling, which is rare.

The Stearns-Isaacson family's living room.

That’s probably because the pluses of houseboat life far outweigh the minuses, according to Stearns. The floating neighborhood south of Caltrain is surrounded by bulky condos and offices on the land on either side, but remains a bucolic oasis with birds, sea life and serene water views right outside the door.

Houseboats on Mission Creek with a view east toward AT&T Park.

That connection to nature is one of the main reasons to live on a houseboat, Stearns says: “The creek itself is full of all sorts of critters—ducks, cormorants, egrets. Our herons are one of our biggest treasures.” And they see sea lions, seals and bat rays. 

Though they feel the wind, Stearns said, it’s usually not bad, and the house is moored in concrete, so they don’t feel the extreme rocking and rolling of being on a boat. It’s actually safer in case of an earthquake, too, because it moves a little. As for the disadvantages, she can only count one: “I do miss having a real garden with soil,” she said, but she makes up for it by getting involved at nearby Huffaker Park. 

Ginny Stearns with her container garden on her family's houseboat.

Stearns stressed that another one of her favorite aspects of living on a houseboat is the close-knit community. In addition to the usual executive board, the democratically run neighborhood association, the Mission Creek Harbor Association, has a harbormaster and "secretary of state" who advocates for the community’s interests, such as improving the park and nearby street parking. “People who have had the hardest time living here are people who have a hard time socially,” she said. Participation is key in such a small neighborhood.

A skylight in the Stearns-Isaacson family's houseboat.

Security is no different than anywhere else, Stearns said, because a locked gate keeps out most interlopers. But occasionally a car window is broken or a bike is stolen. “Pesky stuff,” she says.

“Living on the water is special to me,” Bob Isaacson said. “If you live on land, you have the illusion that things are permanent. If you live down here, you don’t have that illusion. It’s always rocking a little bit.”

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Life on a houseboat is mostly ups few downs