Liveaboard boats – the best boats to live on
Shopping around, looking at liveaboard boats? While in theory it’s possible to live on just about anything that floats, the best boats to live on will have a few special features. Because there are literally endless boat makes and models (we’ve listed some at the end of this post) we’re going to cover the six types of liveaboard boats and 3 important considerations for evaluating the liveaboard potential of any boat.
Note that in addition to “livability” there are many more things to consider like seaworthiness, sailing performance, offshore capability, etc. For more on buying a boat see our 6-part series on how to buy a boat.
6 types of liveaboard boats
The 6 best liveaboard boats share some common attributes but all vary in what they offer for comfort, size, seaworthiness and cost.
Houseboats (common on lakes) offer headroom and space for comforts like a full-size fridge and kitchen. They’re great for travel in protected waters and some can even be beached on the land.
Tugboats and Trawlers
Tugboats and Trawlers offer the most living space per foot of boat length (i.e. a 35-foot trawler is much roomier than a 35-foot sailboat). The penthouse apartments of boat living, they tend to be light and airy (as much of the living space is above the waterline). They are usually multi-level with living space up top and bedrooms down-below. They can accommodate comforts like big-screen TVs, full-size kitchens, showers and sometimes even bathtubs. They are great for coastal cruising and fishing and in some cases can even cross oceans. Of course, you pay for convenience, so tugs and trawlers cost more per foot than your average sailboat.
Living on a sailboat is a bit like living in a basement apartment. Sailboats often lack fridges, showers or hot water. However, they more than make up for these short-comings in their adventures readiness and affordability. Many affordable sailboats can cross oceans and even sail around the world. They generally cost a lot less to purchase than motor vessels and travel long distances without fuel cost.
Catamaran (double-hulled) sailboats provide many of the comforts of trawlers and tugboats but also come with a price tag. The bridge between the two hulls creates plenty of open airy living space up top with bunks down below in the hulls. You can expect near house-like amenities: kitchen, bathroom, and sometimes even a washer-dryer. However, Catamarans aren’t just expensive to purchase, they also take up twice the space and pay twice the rent and maintenance. On the upside you can sail around the world in a Catamaran and they sail faster downwind than monohull sailboats (though they tend to perform less well upwind).
Floating homes offer the most house-like on-the-water living experience. They are generally permanently moored and can cost as much as land-based houses to purchase.
Evaluating liveaboard boats – What makes them the best boats to live on?
1. Living space vs. cost
If you think your 400 sqft apartment is small, you might be surprised to hear that it’s possible to live in 100 sqft on a boat. Your living space will be determined by your waterline (length), your beam (width), and the shape of your boat. For example, a 35 ft trawler will offer significantly more living space than a 35 ft monhull sailboat because they tend to be beamier (broader) throughout the hull, versus tapered at the bow and stern. When comparing boats by length remember to deduct the length of any overhangs like sugar scoop transoms and bowsprits from the total as they won’t affect your living space.
Of course the more space you have, the more comfortable you’ll be, but this comes at the trade-off of expense. The boat purchase price, monthly moorage, haul-outs, parts, and maintenance will all increase as a function of boat length (not necessarily boat width unless you opt for a catamaran).
Suggested length for liveaboard boats
If your not sure how much space you’ll need, I would suggest looking at:
- 25-35 ft. range if you’re single
- 35-45 ft. for couples
- 40+ ft. for 2 or more people.
With catamarans you can go much smaller (because you’ll have double the living space with two-hulls) but keep in mind many marinas will charge you for two slips. Also, don’t get too hung up on the length, some 35ft boats feel like a 40 ft boat inside, and vice versa. You really have to view a boat to know how your living space is going to feel.
2. Performance vs. everyday comfort
The second big trade-off you will face with liveaboard boats is performance vs. comfort. Generally speaking, beamier more furnished boats are heavy and slow. Also, while taller boats with large pilot houses offer more headroom, light, and a second level, they also have more windage which can be a pain when maneuvering around the docks. The best boats to live on will hopefully strike a balance and I know many liveaboards who contentedly cruise and occasionally race their liveaboards sailboats. I also know people who haven’t taken their boat off the dock in years, and prefer to just use their boat as a floating home, often owning a second boat for racing/cruising. If you don’t plan on sailing your liveaboard boat more than a couple of times a year I would suggest buying a comfortable trawler as you’ll have a far more comfortable living space year round and can charter a sailboat for the one or two weekends that you sail every year.
Layout specifications largely come down to personal preference, however here are some things to consider as you view potential liveaboard boats.
Many liveaboards prefer a center cockpit, aft cabin layout. The aft cabin affords a standard sized bed and a private bedroom that is separated from the other living spaces. A good option if you despise v-berths or are a morning person living with a night-owl.
Another nice feature is a cabin with a pullman berth (these can be in the bow), which provides a standard sized bed in which you can sit up and read.
Salon (living room dining room)
Some salon designs can be quite awkward, for example a drop leaf table in the center of the salon can be hard to walk around.
Some designs and layouts afford more natural lighting than others. Pay attention to the position and number of hatches and port lights if you want to avoid feeling like you live in a basement apartment. Trawlers in general tend to offer brighter and airier living spaces.
If you’re, tall you may find you have to do a bit of research as many sailboats have limited headroom.
If you’re planning on cooking while under way, an L-shaped galley is preferred so that you can wedge yourself in during rough conditions. Other nice-to-haves include double sinks, refrigeration, and dedicated counter space. Also, if you plan on running a propane stove, check to see if you have space for a large (50lbs+) propane tank in the gas locker. Some older boats will only fit a 5lb tank and while you can work around this, it’s a pain to change and refill your propane tanks every couple of weeks.
The cockpit (boot room and deck)
Having a cockpit that is protected from the elements will expand your living area considerably. Know that a good canvas dodger and bimini starts at $5,000, so it’s a huge bonus to find a boat with good canvas work. If you live in a cold rainy area, I would strongly suggest a canvas bridge and a full enclosure (if you can afford it). This can be a great place for leaving boots and jackets. As an alternative you can always tarp your boat, but this can be noisy and you’ll have to pay closer attention to high winds in your area.
The more storage the better! Many newer boats are more spacious and streamlined at the cost of storage space. Older boats, in general, seem to be more practical in this regard. If you can’t fit everything on your boat, you can look into dock boxes, using a spare cabin for storage, or renting a storage unit.
The head (bathroom)
A single head is all that’s necessary for a couple living aboard, though larger boats often offer two heads (nice for families). Showers are a luxury and many boats don’t have showers at all. This is less of a problem than you might think because most liveaboard marinas have shower blocks. In fact, many liveaboard residents don’t even use their boat showers because of the moisture it creates below deck, the water draw on their tanks, and the energy required to heat the water (this may involve running the engine). Instead many just opt to use the marina facilities. Whether you shower aboard or not, look for boats that have good water capacity. Though it is possible to hook up on-demand water in some marinas, most owners of liveaboard boats opt to just refill their tanks every week.
All liveaboard boats are a compromise, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find a boat that meets all of your requirements. It’s best to have a short list of non-negotiable features and focus there (for us it was a pullman berth, 2nd cabin, and storage). Save some of your budget for upgrades as you’ll undoubtedly want to make changes once you move in.
If you’re looking for more information on living on a boat be sure to check out our articles:
(WIP) List of liveaboard sailboats
Below is a work-in-progress list of sailboats that would make good potential liveaboard candidates, based on what we’ve either seen or been recommended. If you have recommendations you’d like to add a boat to this list, let us know in the comments below.
|Catalina 27, 30, 309|
|Halberg Rassey 53|
|Irwin Center Cockpit 41|
|Kaiser Gale Force 34|
|Morgan OI 33|
|Southern Cross 35|
|Vancouver 27, 32|
|Westsail 32, 39, 42|