Seattle Houseboat Update

Houseboat Regulations Update

Floating On Water Residences, House Barges

& Vessels With Dwelling Units

For the last 4 years, houseboat owners have been struggling to stay afloat in Seattle. Not much news has been published since last summer, so we wanted to provide an update and offer some new information. Please note that the information provided here is NOT official, but rather is representative of our understanding of the current and proposed regulations. We have previously published updates on and

Seattle’s Shoreline Master Plan Update is NOT Final

Seattle has been working to complete the Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) for a long time and has indicated that they expect this to be completed by March of 2015. Until that time, Seattle’s existing SMP (Adopted in 1987) remains in force. How does this relate to houseboats?

1987 SMP is in Effect

The 1987 rules do not specifically call out “houseboats.” Those rules instead refer to Vessels, having steering and propulsion, that are used as dwelling units and to Housebarges, vessels capable of navigation by being towed. The ambiguity of this rule led to numerous Notice Of Violations being issued by Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD – previously known as DCLU) primarily against houseboats. DPD began developing the drafts for the new SMP in 2007, it became apparent that Houseboats were in danger of being eliminated entirely in Seattle Waters. As a result, we (Kevin & Linda Bagley)  formed Lake Union Liveaboard Association (LULA) and began organizing to protect the houseboat community.

SB 6450 Went in Effect June 2014

Over a 5 year period, representatives of LULA participated in City Council meetings, DPD Meetings, and met with Mayors, Legislators, and Senators to try to develop a solution. In June of 2014, Senate Bill 6450 went into effect, protecting “Floating On Water Residences” (FOWR).

A floating on-water residence legally established prior to July 1, 2014, must be considered a conforming use and accommodated through reasonable shoreline master program regulations, permit conditions, or mitigation that will not effectively preclude maintenance, repair, replacement, and remodeling of existing floating on-water residences and their moorages by rendering these actions impracticable.

  • Floating On Water Residences (State Definition) effective July 1, 2014
    • Other than Floating Homes
    • Designed or used primarily as a residence
    • Has detachable utilities
    • Owner/occupant held ownership interest or lease or sublease to use space in a marina since a date prior to July 1, 2014
  • Floating On Water Residences (Seattle Definition) effective SMP Implementation Date
    • Affects any floating dwelling unit (houseboats, housebarge) regardless of steering or propulsion
  • Vessels with Dwelling Units (Seattle Definition) placed in moorage between July 1, 2014 and SMP Implementation Date
    • affects “houseboats” with steering and propulsion
    • Owner/occupant held ownership interest or lease or sublease to use space in a marina since a date ON OR AFTER July 1, 2014 and BEFORE SMP Implementation Date
  • Housebarges Vessels without steering and propulsion, capable of navigation by being towed.
    • Pre SMP Implementation Date, continue to be regulated under 1987 SMP
    • post SMP Implementation Date, may continue to be house barges, or may become FOWRs. Owner’s choice.

What is a Floating On Water Residence (FOWR)?

In June of 2014, the State of Washington adopted SB 6450 into law, creating a state definition for a Floating On Water Residence (FOWR).

“floating on-water residence” means any floating structure other than a floating home, as defined under subsection (5) of this section, that: (i) Is designed or used primarily as a residence on the water and has detachable utilities; and (ii) whose owner or primary occupant has held an ownership interest in space in a marina, or has held a lease or sublease to use space in a marina, since a date prior to July 1, 2014.

The City of Seattle has created proposed rules to regulate FOWR’s in Seattle that are expected to go in effect sometime around March of 2015.

The following update is based on communications with the Director of Compliance for DPD , Faith Lumsden;

  • Based on the fact that the new law is NOT yet in effect, the current, existing law is still valid until the new law takes effect (probably around March, 2015). A “Vessel having steering and propulsion” can be brought in under the existing (circa 1990) law and would continue to be legal to be used as a live-aboard vessel. The City is calling these “Vessels With Dwelling Units” The city is proposing to offer a Plaque for these types of vessels.
  • Under the new law, only those “Floating On Water Residences” (FOWR) that have been in Seattle – with a moorage agreement or ownership interest, at a marina, PRIOR to July 1, 2014, would be eligible for the City of Seattle DPD Floating On Water Residence Plaque.
  • A FOWR would NOT be allowed to be brought in after the implementation of the SMP because the new law prohibits its use as a live-aboard vessel.

I know it is confusing, but there are 5 ways of living on the water in Seattle, four of which will be eligible to apply to receive a City of Seattle Plaque. For the purposes of clarification, I have created 4 Seattle Specific Definitions. These definitions apply to vessels moored in Seattle waters.  The 5th classification will NOT receive, nor be eligible for a plaque, but is allowed to be used as a liveaboard in Seattle Waters.

NOTE: If your Floating On Water Residence is NOT located within the city of Seattle, you are still a Floating On Water Residence, however, you are not eligible for a Seattle plaque, and will not be allowed in Seattle as a liveaboard vessel after the implementation of the Seattle Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) expected sometime in March, 2015.

Seattle Specific Definitions (See Chart Below):

  1. Floating On Water Residence (FOWR) – A vessel (with or without propulsion) that was designed primarily as a residence and was legally moored in a marina in Seattle waters PRIOR to July 1, 2014.
  2. Vessel with Dwelling Unit – Vessels that have steering and propulsion, which may be designed primarily as a residence, but are navigable, and obtained legal moorage in Seattle waters BETWEEN July 1, 2014 and the SMP Implementation Date (Estimated March of 2015).
  3. House Barge – Vessels primarily designed as residences, lacking steering and propulsion, but capable of navigation by being towed.
  4. Floating Home –  a single-family dwelling (NOT A VESSEL) constructed on a float that is moored, anchored, or otherwise secured in waters. Floating homes are required to be located in approved “floating home moorages”
  5. Liveaboard Recreational Vessels – Vessels, designed primarily as Recreational Vessels (Excluding Houseboats) as described in the new SMP regulations (Estimated March of 2015).


Seattle Floating On Water Residence (FOWR) Vessel with Dwelling Unit House Barge Floating Home
Moored legally in Seattle prior to July 1, 2014. Moored legally in Seattle between July 1, 2014 and date of SMP implementation. Was not in Seattle prior to July 1, 2014. Has been continuously moored and used for residential purposes within the City of Seattle since June 1990. A single-family dwelling constructed on a float that is moored, anchored, or otherwise secured in Seattle waters.
Designed primarily as a residence. May or may not have steering and propulsion. May be designed primarily as a residence, however must have steering and propulsion. Designed and used for navigation but lacks a means of self-propulsion and steering equipment or capability (for example, it is designed and used for navigation by towing) Floating homes are required to be located in approved “floating home moorages”
Includes houseboats Includes houseboats with steering and propulsion. After SMP Implementation, may be converted to a Floating On Water Residence, at owner’s option.. Must have direct connections to sewer and water utilities.
No new Floating On Water Residences allowed in Seattle after July 1, 2014. No new Vessels with Dwelling Units in Seattle Waters AFTER SMP implementation date. No new house barges are permitted. Subject to building codes and other specific restrictions
Meets CITY and STATE definition of Floating On Water Residence. May be legal outside of Seattle Waters, depending on local SMP regulations. There are currently 34 authorized house barges in Seattle Waters.
May be replaced. Has remodeling restrictions – Height, footprint, and square footage. May not be replaced after SMP implementation Can be expanded. Has the same restrictions as a FOWR.


Post-SMP Implementation
Is legally moored in Seattle
Designed primarily as a recreational vessel.
Excludes houseboats.
Allowed both before and after July 1, 2014 and after SMP Implementation
Does not meet CITY or STATE definition of Floating On Water Residence. These are Recreational Vessels.
No Replacement or Remodeling restrictions.

Houseboats on the Multiple Listing Update

While Floating Homes and Moorage are able to be listed on the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS), Houseboats listings were removed from the NWMLS in March of 2013. Although houseboats had been listed on the NWMLS for decades, they were removed because most houseboats are vessels and selling a vessel requires a Vessel Dealer License. Most Real Estate Brokers are not licensed Vessel Dealers. For some time, Special Agents Houseboats has been the only licensed Vessel Dealer specializing in Houseboat sales and has listed houseboats for sale on,, and on We understand that this limits the market for the sale of a Houseboat and makes it difficult for people not familiar with our company to locate houseboats for sale.

 We have been working with the Department of Licensing to allow Floating On Water Residences to be sold by licensed Real Estate Brokers, which would then allow them to once again be listed on the NWMLS. To do this, the Real Estate and Vessel Dealer Licensing laws must be changed. The Real Estate Commission formed a task group comprised of interested stakeholders and commission members and crafted a draft of the proposed law changes. Bob Mitchell, Executive Projects Director for the Government Affairs committee of the Washington Realtors Association has taken the reigns to get this submitted to the legislature for the coming session. With little or no opposition, we expect this to be passed easily and to have bipartisan support.

Send us your questions and we will respond! ([email protected])

Floating On Water Residences: Q&A

Q: Does my Floating On Water Residence require a plaque?
A: After the SMP Implementation, you will have a period of time to apply for and obtain your FOWR plaque. You will be required to have a plaque or be a Recreational Vessel as described in the new SMP regulations.

Q: Can I bring in a new Floating On Water Residence?
A: Until the new SMP has been implemented, Vessels, having steering and propulsion with Dwelling Units may be brought into Seattle Waters after July 1, 2014 and BEFORE the new SMP Implementation. These vessels will be categorized as Vessels with Dwelling Units. The process for applying for a Vessel with Dwelling Unit is not yet known.

Q: What value to me is the plaque?
A: The plaque provides security, assuring your FOWR can be maintained, remodeled, and replaced. FOWR’s are protected from NEW regulations which might preclude these rights.

Q: Can I sell my plaque?
A: No. You can sell your houseboat and your plaque will go with it, or you can remove your houseboat from the Seattle SMP area and replace the existing foot print with a new structure

Q: Can I expand my FOWR?
A: Yes.  Seattle FOWR’s may be expanded up to 120 square feet (with height and footprint constraints) without any new requirements. Expansion beyond 120 square feet require containment and disposal of gray water.

Q: When are the new regulations effective?
A: Although the regulations may not take effect until after July 1, 2014, your FLOWR must have been “legally established prior to July 1, 2014”

Q: Does my FLOWR need to have engines?
A: No, Engines are NOT required. This proposal by DPD has been eliminated.

Q: I heard proposals requiring Sail Area to Length Ratios, Freeboard Requirements, Symmetrical mooring cleats, fore and aft boarding stations, visibility requirements. Do these still apply?
A: No. These proposals by DPD have been eliminated.

Q: I heard I would be required to drive my vessel on a 1 mile round trip, hire a naval architect, and have my vessel certified. Does this still apply?
A: No. These proposals by DPD have been eliminated. No performance test is required.

Q: Can I repair, remodel, or replace my FLOWR?
A: Yes, with some restrictions. Repair is allowed, but there are some restrictions as to what can be done in a marina (max 25% of vessel at a time). An expansion of up to 120 sq. ft. is allowed provided it does not exceed the height restrictions. You can add Deck railings (36” max) and stairs. If expansion over the life of the vessel exceeds 120 sq. ft., gray water containment and disposal are required.

Q: Can I expand the size of my footprint?
A: No, with the single exception of a one time changes for stability as certified by a naval architect. NOTE: If you utilize the stability expansion, you cannot expand in any direction after the stability expansion.

Q: What are the height restrictions?
A: If your current height is 18 ft. or less, you cannot increase the height above 18 ft. If your current height is between 18 and 21 you cannot increase your height. If your height is 21 ft or more, you cannot create an expansion exceeding 21 ft.

Q: Does my FLOWR have to be USED as a place of residence prior to July 1, 2014
A: The regulations indicate that ”For the purpose of this chapter, a structure will be considered designed or used primarily as a residence if it contains a dwelling unit.” Per this statement, if your FLOWR contains a dwelling unit, it will meet the requirement of being USED as a place of residence.

Q: How do I register my FLOWR?
A: The exact process and fee amount has not yet been established. We anticipate that you will have to submit dimensions of your vessel, pictures, and some evidence that you were moored in Seattle waters, held a lease or ownership in a marina, were designed or used as a dwelling unit prior to July 1, 2014, and have detachable utilities.

Q: After I apply and pay my fee, will I receive something that indicates compliance?
A: Yes. After DPD verifies your FLOWR, you will receive a numbered plaque that is to be displayed on your FLOWR on the pier or landward side or side most used for access.

Q: I’m not sure if my vessel is a FLOWR. Should I submit for verification?
A: We are recommending that you submit for verification if you are unsure. Once verified, your FLOWR will then be secure and protected.

Q: If I get my FLOWR plaque, can the city make new regulations that will jeopardize my houseboat?
A: No. Once you have your plaque, you are officially verified as a “Floating On Water Residence” which is governed by Washington State Senate Bill SB-6450.

Q: Can I keep my FOWR on private property?
A: No, the regulation requires that the owner or primary occupant has held an ownership interest in space in a marina, or has held a lease or sublease to use space in a marina.


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