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Originally published Friday, July 30, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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The liveaboard life: small space, small price

Living in a marina can be an affordable, peaceful and challenging alternative to having a house.

Special to The Seattle Times

Cost of living aboard

AT SHILSOLE MARINA, monthly costs for living on a boat vary depending on size of the slip and the boat. Here are typical costs of living on a $100,000 boat in a 42-foot slip:

Monthly moorage fee: $542 (taxes included).

Monthly mortgage: $530.

Insurance: $91 per month.

Monthly liveaboard fee: $56 included in moorage.

Pump-out sewage: $28-44 per service with outside company and occurs usually twice per month. Shilshole offers free pump-out service to those who are willing to take their boat to the station.

Haul out: Every one to two years must have boat hauled out of the water to paint the hull, which can run $1,100 for paint and $1,000 for hauling, pressure wash and preparation.

Source: Washington Liveaboard Association

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If you want to know what it's like to live on a boat, put everything you own into your living room, close all the doors and try to live in a space that small.

"Everything is 'Tetrisized' into place," explains Thor Radford, 41, who bought a 36-foot sailboat with his wife, Carrie, 38, last November.

But unlike the computer game, Tetris, it's far more challenging to fit all the pieces together in real life.

The Seattle couple's T-shirts are rolled and stuffed into a cupboard the size of a bread box.

Their refrigerator is the size of a picnic cooler and there isn't a freezer.

Any unused space becomes a creative opportunity for storage in the 200-square foot cabin they share with two preteen children.

But the Radfords wouldn't trade this life for anything, especially after having rented what they called an "anonymous" Lake Forest Park house with no sense of community. Their moorage, at the Fremont Tugboat Co., provides a breathtaking view of the mountains and sunsets on Lake Union and gives them shorter commutes.

For such a busy lake, it can be surprisingly peaceful with only the sounds of the water hitting the dock.

And within five minutes, they can be cruising on the water. The small space also comes with a small price tag. It's about $900 per month for expenses including moorage, liveaboard fees and a boat mortgage.

How to make it work

"Personality is the biggest thing," says Carrie Radford.

You must be able to share close quarters with others. Yes, they do bump into each other as they move around the boat and, no, it doesn't usually bother them.

You should be able to have very little stuff, she says. Each person in the family has one 32-gallon bin for storage outside the boat and that's it.

It has been a "freeing experience" not to have to take care of so many things anymore, says Carrie Radford.

Buy or rent a slip?

A limited number of Seattle-area marinas allow boaters to live on board, typically around 10 percent of total moorage, according to Ned Porges, real-estate broker with Century 21 North Homes Realty.

After selling Seattle boat slips for more than 20 years, he knows how tough it can be for boat owners to find a slip with liveaboard status.

Typically, there are only about 10 to 12 slips available to buy at any one time, says Porges.

Many liveaboards find moorage without owning the slip, but this can also be a challenge.

The wait for a slip at Shilshole Marina in Seattle, one of the largest liveaboard communities on the West Coast with 300 liveaboard moorage spaces for rent, can vary from two months to two years depending on the size of the slip.

Porges recommends getting financing and a liveaboard slip arranged before buying a boat.

Buying and maintaining

Many liveaboards are initially drawn to the lifestyle because it seems a cheaper alternative to living in a home, but buying the wrong boat can put you in a deeper financial hole or the bottom of a lake.

If the goal is to be able to take off and cruise at a moment's notice, a sailboat (which can be powered with diesel that gets a half mile to the gallon) is a much-better option in terms of mileage than a powerboat that gets one mile to the gallon, says Thor Radford.

"It's easy to find a boat, but harder to find one that speaks to you that you can call home," says Michael Humpston, president of the Washington Liveaboard Association. "So plan to spend some time looking."

Like buying a house, it could be a total rebuild or something that just needs a coat of paint.

Boat financing is typically harder than financing a home and a larger down payment will be needed, but can be worked out just like a 30-year mortgage on a house, says Humpston.

Hiring a marine surveyor, equivalent to a home appraiser, is necessary and can cost a few hundred dollars but save thousands.

The liveaboard life span

There is always something that needs to be fixed, and winter can be rough, especially when you have to traverse an icy dock to the showers, says Thor Radford.

Toilets are the first thing to break and usually must be pumped out for a fee.

But Radford feels these are minor things overall.

"Most of the time people end up having to leave for health or physical reasons when they can no longer get around," says Humpston, who has lived at Shilshole Marina since 1999 and likes being part of the community.

All sorts of people live on boats, from doctors to truck drivers to classical musicians.

"Once you've been out here, you can see how nice it is," he says, "I don't plan to leave."

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