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Floating homes offer 'affordable' option in San Francisco area

| Saturday, July 4, 2015, 1:45 p.m.
John Curley looks out from the balcony of his floating home at the Barnhill Marina on June 2, 2015, in Alameda, Calif. There are more than 40 floating homes at the marina, which was founded in the mid-1960s.
John Curley looks out from the balcony of his floating home at the Barnhill Marina on June 2, 2015, in Alameda, Calif. There are more than 40 floating homes at the marina, which was founded in the mid-1960s.

BERKELEY, Calif. — John Dinwiddie and Diane Brown own a house with twin engines.

It began its life as a Delta barge, later became a floating hot dog and beer stand, and finally a marina fuel dock, before being converted to use as a house — yes, an actual house, albeit one that's tethered to a slip at the Berkeley Marina.

“Here are the engines,” Dinwiddie says, throwing open a trap door in his living room floor. The house bobs ever so slightly in the water as Dinwiddie, a lifelong boatman, shows off the vintage engines in the narrow crawl space. “They haven't turned over in 30 years.”

The floating home — which cost $250,000, with bedroom, kitchen and swanky bath — sits atop what is essentially a floating box made of concrete and fiberglass. The whole setup may strike some as “kind of cuckoo,” Brown jokes. But it makes solid sense for her and the hundreds of other homeowners who live, often affordably, in dockside floating homes like this one or aboard their powerboats or sailboats in marinas throughout the Bay Area.

The sense of peace and quiet, of occupying vast spaces at the edge of the mad city, is priceless, they say. And in many cases, it is lighter on the wallet than the land-based equivalent.

In a region where the median home price is more than $700,000 and the typical rental of a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley or Oakland tops $3,000, a floating home payment and slip fee of about $2,000 sounds reasonable, if not dreamy.

Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, is the region's capital of aquatic living, with more than 400 floating homes, many palatial. But tucked throughout the East Bay are a couple dozen marinas catering to a variety of lifestyles and fostering a sense of community that harks back to another era. Their amphibious residents share a deep-seated love of the water, of course, as well as a penchant for DIY living — and views of the glittering bay and miles of sky, views typically associated with multimillion-dollar penthouses.

Dinwiddie, who makes his living as a harbormaster at an yacht club, and Brown, a hospital facilities manager who lived on her sailboat for a year in the Sea of Cortez, make monthly payments of $1,330 on their 600-square-foot floating home, along with a monthly slip fee of $660. “It's not exactly cheap,” Dinwiddie says, likening the place — which he and his wife have torn apart for renovations — to a studio apartment. “But we don't need a lot of room. We're not much for sitting.”

Oh, the sunsets

In fact, they plan to sell the house in two or three years and sail to the South Pacific in their 38-foot sailboat.

It's the life aquatic.

“Everyone's trying to get back to their original water memories,” says Krista Lettko, office manager at the Emery Cove Yacht Harbor in Emeryville, north of Oakland, where she lives aboard the Ondine, her 40-foot Nova Sportfisher powerboat. She is 26, grew up sailing with her family and has lived on boats off and on since college, even though “a lot of things are so unglamorous. I'll spend Friday nights in my engine room, or figuring out where the leak is coming from in the bilge.”

But, oh, the sunsets.

She and boyfriend Astor Kuiperi, a kite-surfing instructor from Aruba, where Lettko used to live, enjoy them from their back deck. They pamper a small herb garden and arrange a bouquet of sunflowers on the patio table. Often, the couple will pop into their backyard — the water — and paddle over for a glass of wine with Lettko's sister Kelsey, who lives on her own powerboat, two docks away in the same marina.

Water envy

Envious of her lifestyle, friends scramble to stay with Lettko on the 500-square-foot boat, which she bought for $50,000. It has a master stateroom with a comfy queen bed, a guest berth with bunk beds, a spacious cabin gleaming with teak, a small but well-appointed kitchen and a temperamental toilet — aka “head” — which she is proud of repairing on her own.

Her monthly costs are about $1,900 — $1,200 boat payment, $400 berthing fee, $250 liveaboard fee and about $50 for electricity. “I'm paying the same thing as my friends who live in apartments in San Francisco,” she notes, “and I'll own my own boat in a few years.”

One recent morning, Lettko and her boss — harbormaster Diane Isley, born in a boatyard in Indiana — showed a visitor through the marina.

It is a “dockominium,” offering an unusual condo-like arrangement to the owners and renters of its 430 slips. About 10 percent of the slips are allotted to “liveaboards,” the folks who live, cook, sleep and even raise kids aboard their boats.


It's a 20-minute drive from Emery Cove to Barnhill Marina, a hidden oasis on the Oakland Estuary, across from the city's Jack London Square neighborhood. Built in the mid-1960s, Barnhill is its own neighborhood of 42 floating homes: squat or tall, resembling dollhouses or gingerbread Victorians, all unique and many boldly colored, with front doors opening onto creaking, gently rocking dock-ways alongside which are parked sailboats, kayaks and powerboats. Outside one front door in this bohemian enclave is a sign that reads “H2OUSE.”

John Curley moved here nearly two years ago. From the rooftop deck of his two-story home, he can look across the water to the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Oakland Tribune Tower. The neighborhood's silence is broken only by the sound of a distant train whistle. What a setting: “Living around here is like being an expatriate and never having to leave the country,” he says.

He got a steal on the house and pays about $450 a month for berthing fees. He leads “a sustainable life” in the charmingly ramshackle residence, painted a shade of turquoise that matches the trim of his Donzi speedboat. “I can go to Sausalito for lunch in my boat and be there in 20 minutes, and there's no traffic.”

Formerly the deputy managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Curley took a buyout in 2007.

He works as a wedding photographer. Prospective clients come over for a glass of wine, sit for three or four hours and don't want to leave.

Curley understands. He gets up early to watch the sunrise: “I wake up and I feel like I'm on vacation. Every day, the estuary looks different, the sky looks different. It's the new life. It's the life afloat.”

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