Living on the water

The residence of Gary and Linda Oman is a contemporary wooden house in the Pacific Northwest style. An upstairs loft has two bedrooms and a bath. But best of all, the living room has large picture windows looking out on the water -- at very close range.

The Omans, with their daughter Heidi, live in a houseboat. For more than 11 years they have been members in good standing of the floating home community on Seattle's Lake Union.

There are obvious advantages to houseboat life -- all the things you can't do in a backyard pool.Everybody has some sort of a craft -- a kayak, sailboat, motorboat, canoe, or dinghy. The Omans enjoy windsurfing, Canoeing, and swimming off their deck.

Yet the physical use of the water just skims the surface of their involvement with the lake. There are subtler advantages too.

"WE are always aware of the lake, whether it is from the houseboat moving, or from the light patterns all over the house made by the reflections of the water, " says Mrs. Oman.

The Omans feel fortunate to have their floating home. Houseboats are scarce, with just 440 in the Seattle metropolitan area with a population of over a half million. Located on Lake Union and its Portage Bay arm, some of the homes are as much as a half century old and are worth $30,000 to $40,000. They look similar to bungalows built at the same time on land. More modern houseboats carry a price tag of close to $250,000.

The sense of neighborhood is strong in the houseboat community. It's impossible to get from the floating home to the street without seeing a neighbor and saying hello. During the 1960s, the community banded together to save the houseboats from extinction. Because the houseboats were not hooked up to a sewer system, the city government wanted to tear down the existing homes and ban any new ones. The lobbying efforts of the community resulted in a sewage hookup and new ordinances and codes to control building and ensure the future of the community.

Seattle houseboaters are not Bohemian adventurers, but the switch from shore to water for a family can alter many aspects of life.

Since space is at a premium, it must be used efficiently.

"Your sense of values as far as possessions go change," says Mr. Oman, who recalls three Goodwill trucks hauling away the accumulation of their early marriage years when they moved to their 1,000-square-foot home. Both parents teach and the whole family travels during the summer. To prepare for summer renters, they still discard things annually.

The simplest purchase is weighed in terms of usefulness and value, so the Omans believe when they do acquire an item, it means more to them. When they were considering buying bicycles, the family had to weigh the projected use vs. the storage problem.

Moving into a houseboat presents a few problems regular homeowners do not face. Furniture must be balanced so the floor does not tip. No large-scale entertaining can be done. The close proximity of everyone must be tolerated. And houseboat families must keep in mind that what moves the water outside can cause water to move inside as well.

"You learn not to fill up the bathtub too full," says Mr. Oman.

The family enjoys the animal life that teems in the Lake Union area. Ducks, geese, and raccoons all live on or near their dock, and an occasional muskrat is seen. The nearby University of Washington Arboretum, which includes some canoe "paths," also supports wildlife.

The Omans watch each spring and summer as ducklings hatch.One female duck is particularly fond of the family's tomato garden as a nesting spot, and she digs up the plants when she is ready to lay her six or seven eggs. One spring a goose family nested in a neighbor's planter.

"When the female and male were both there, I'd have to fight my way past with a broom," says Mrs. Oman.

The Omans are a gardening family, and living over the water has advantages for green thumbs. There are no coiled hoses and sprinklers in storage, and there is no need to till the earth each spring. The Omans grow enough tomatoes, despite the mother duck, to supply them through the summer. They eat fresh carrots, zucchini, squash, strawberries, and peas from their deck garden. Mrs. Oman has a flourishing herb garden at the entrance. But the family has drawn the line at orchards; both a fig tree and a peach tree were knocked off the deck and into the deep.

Indoors, the light reflected from the lake enables the Omans to grow tropical plants such as coffee, banana, plumeria, coconut palms, and citrus fruits in the not-so-tropical northerly latitude.

Life in the winter is much different on the water than living on shore. The city's climate is cool rather than cold, but during rare freezes, the Omans say it is nice to look out the front window and see seagulls walking by.Those same freezing spells can be one of the few disadvantages of houseboat living. The docks can ice up.

"One of the neighbors came out of his front door and slid into the lake -- suit, briefcase, and all," says Mrs. Oman.

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