Barnhill Marina is a colorful community of 42 houses bobbing peacefully on the Oakland Estuary in Alameda across from Jack London Square. To be clear, these aren’t houseboats — these are floating dockside houses that have no motors and aren’t designed to go anywhere.
Angela Mcintyre just came back from a cruise, but for her, the end of vacation doesn’t mean the end of the life aquatic.
“It’s lovely being at sea, but it’s lovelier coming home to this,” she said.
Mcintyre lives in a floating home in Barnhill Marina, a colorful community of 42 houses bobbing peacefully on the Oakland Estuary in Alameda across from Jack London Square. To be clear, these aren’t houseboats — these are floating dockside houses that have no motors and aren’t designed to go anywhere. They’re built atop concrete hulls and can only be towed if the owner decides to change location.
Mcintyre has lived in her cheery yellow-with-blue-and-red trim three-story home since 1989, when she and her late husband were empty nesters looking for a change in lifestyle. They remodeled the house and raised it another story, adding a basement so close to sea level the waves nearly lap at the bottom of the windowsill. Walk up the dock to her house, and you’ll be greeted by a burgeoning lemon tree or a duck taking a comfortable nap in the sun. You might not even make it inside her house once you walk up the stairs, because the patio furniture on the deck overlooking the water looks so inviting. Mcintyre sleeps on the top floor, with big windows filtering in tremendous amounts of sunlight and, of course, breathtaking views of the water.
“People ask, ‘Why do you want to live in a floating home?’ Well, I have this that I look at every day,” said Mcintyre, gesturing toward the water. “Every which way that I look, I’m happy with whatever I see.”
Floating houses aren’t for everyone, though. Married couple Brent Noorda and Amy Newman came close to putting in an offer for a Barnhill floating home that recently went on the market, but ultimately decided against it. They had some concerns: How do you get a pizza delivered? Or, more seriously, the dock fees you’re required to pay, which have the potential to increase over time.
“Even though you own the home, you don’t own where it is. So you really rent at the dock,” said Noorda.
Dock fees didn’t seem a big concern to Mcintyre, as it’s a small price to pay compared to the fact that floating homes often sell for quite a bit less than land homes in the Bay Area’s pricey current market. Recently, a three-story floating home in the community sold for $775,000 — a price that for a similar-sized home on land would be near-impossible to find. She compared the fees to the costs of living in a homeowners association. Dock fees pay for upkeep of the docks, the greenbelt area, and common areas.
Another concern Noorda and Newman had sounds more dramatic: You need to turn off the water before you leave the house or you’re at risk of it sinking.
Anne McKereghan, a real estate agent who used to live in an Alameda floating home, is quick to reassure potential floating home residents of the rarity of such a disaster. It’s no more likely a pipe will burst in a floating house than a land home, so it’s only a precaution — just the consequences of a flooded home on the water are a bit more dire.
“The one thing people are surprised with is that they really don’t take much more care than a regular house,” she said. It’s just a matter of being aware and respectful of the water you’re sitting on.
For example, you might come face to face with a waterfowl taking a snooze in your potted plant when you’re trying to water it. Your patio furniture might blow away in the wind if you’re not careful — it gets quite windy out there on the water. And you might have to think extra carefully about where to place your heavy furniture.
“You need to think in terms of where are you going to put your grand piano,” said Mcintyre. “Or you are probably going to be tilting.” The gentle bob of the house on a calm day is almost undetectable, so it’s easy to forget you’re on the water — but the house does move, so it’s not for the easily seasick, either.
But the close-knit, eclectic community is part of what keeps longtime residents hooked. Artists, working professionals, and retired people all cohabitate in a little oasis of zany-colored, kitschily-decorated mini-Victorians. Some are big kayakers, sailors, and paddle boarders — others, like Mcintyre, just enjoy observing the water.
The community is “very close in proximity, but also very close in the other sense,” she explained. The first floating homes in the Barnhill Marina were built in the ’60s, and many residents have lived here for over 20 years.
Barnhill Marina is not the only one of these floating home neighborhoods in the area. Sausalito is the region’s floating home capital with over 400 of them, and there are 13 in the Berkeley Marina. But these hidden gems are destined to stay rare. The San Francisco Bay Conservation Development Commission, which regulates and protects the water, defines house boats and floating homes as “land fill.” Therefore, there’s a cap on how many of these homes can occupy the water — a cap which has already been reached.
For the lucky few who have managed to snag a floating home, the tradeoffs of choosing the water over a firmly rooted foundation seem negligible. Adding a little longer of a stretch between your parking lot and your front doorstep is a pretty small sacrifice for both a more affordable cost of living and dazzling views fit for a cruise ship.
“You can be very close to nature, but you’re right in town,” said McKereghan wistfully. She no longer lives in a floating home, but admitted she’d move back in a heartbeat. “I’m terribly biased, but I don’t think there are any cons.”