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Venice, American-style

(Page 2 of 2)

Ms. Callahan, who conducts tours for Discover Houseboating, says modern houseboaters are in sync with Seattle's environmental ethic. "They share the area's great respect for the beauty of the outdoors," she says. "We don't appreciate floating beer cans."

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Nothing goes overboard, except accidentially. As with virtually all houseboaters, she's had possessions disappear into the drink, such as a bicycle blown off her deck by a severe wind.

Houseboats are connected umbilically to land by flexible water and electric lines that run underneath the docks. This makes them different from self-propelled house barges, the RVs of the waterways. Houseboats don't travel unless ripped from their moorings by a storm.

Gentrification hits the docks

Houseboats have definitely gone upscale in recent decades.

Whereas a houseboat slip might have cost $50,000 a dozen or more years ago, the price is closer to $150,000 today, and this is only the cost to own the aqueous property. The total package, house included, often runs much higher.

The average price of 11 homes Mr. Gottlieb was selling last week was $500,000.

"The people who lived here used to be more working class and I'm working class," Mrs. Nelson observes. "It was more fun then."

Still, on the whole, she doesn't mind the gentrification and calls the people in her co-op "very steady and very nice."

Most people seem to enjoy the opportunities for casual, daily interaction that shared docks and waterways afford. "It's not like communities in which you drive into your garage and walk into your house," says Tanya Seligman. "It's a small community, so people tend to get along."

From the land, the houseboats are shielded by trees and bushes and are not that visible. Residents park their cars and collect their mail at street-level gateways, which lead down a flight of wooden steps to the docks below.

The general public doesn't wander here. But with none of the lawns that separate surburbanites, houseboat owners tend to see each other regularly outside.

"We had some concerns about privacy because things are so close and open," Elizabeth Shaw says. "We can look right across the channel at our neighbors, but that just hasn't been a problem."

The diversity of ages and incomes is one of the appeals for the Shaws. They like the mix that even includes children next door. This is not generally a families-type place, though. It's populated by singles, young couples, empty-nesters, and retirees.

Space is clearly at a premium. The typical houseboat is about 800 square feet, with many of the two-story dwellings at about 2,000 square feet.

There's a tendency for newcomers to want to expand and remake old interiors. To protect against impulsive decisions, some co-ops don't allow major remodeling in the first year of ownership. "It's one of the rules of our dock," Mrs. Shaw says.

Without it, McFarland says, "people will move in and push out their walls so they don't have any deck. A year or two later they say, 'Gee, I wish I had some deck.' "

Less of a party atmosphere

The atmosphere is peaceful, quieter than it used to be in the 1970s, when it was a singles haven and "everybody was so wild and nutty," says McFarland.

Today, things are generally sedate. About the only wildlife are the ducks, beavers, geese, otters, and muskrats that inhabit the lake waters.

The lake is sometimes so calm, Mrs. Shaw says, you can forget your house is floating. Whenever she and her husband take land trips, though, they are reminded that they miss the water. "It's so nice to look out everyday and see it," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society