Floating homes on the Berkeley Marina offer a ‘unique lifestyle choice’

Zack Canepari’s floating home on the Berkeley Marina. Photo: Zack Canepari

Zack Canepari doesn’t worry about whether he’ll ever be able to afford waterfront property in California. He’s already got a front-and-center view of the bay from his floating home on the Berkeley Marina.

“I wasn’t even really looking,” the professional photographer, who splits his time between the waters by Berkeley and New York City, told Berkeleyside. “I was just seeing what was out there; I just enjoy doing that sometimes. I found a posting on Craigslist… the place was not ready to live in, and I knew it would require a lot of work, but it just had the whole unique lifestyle choice, being out on the water. This was something I could do. I rolled the dice. I won.”

Now, 13 more prospective Marina homeowners have their own chance to roll the dice and win. The City of Berkeley has recently concluded a lottery application process by which owners of vessels that measure between 24 to 62 feet in length are being considered for a slip. Should their application be successful and their boat pass inspection, they will join a small community that considers itself lucky to live where and how they do.

As opposed to Canepari’s floating house – which is a stationary concrete barge with a regular house on top of it, complete with bathrooms and laundry facilities – the current openings are for seafaring boats, which are required to be able to navigate the ocean on their own power.

“I am the newest resident,” Canepari said. “I think the most recent one before me has been there for 10 years. People live there a long time; they tend not to give their (homes) up once they have them. … It’s a really small little community. Everyone there knows how special it is; it’s a real sort of wink-thing happening because we know we’ve got it made. It’s very cool.”

Canepari paid around $500,000 for his home and then spent money doing work on it. He estimates the cost of these type of houseboats to range from $350,000 to $700,000, depending on the type.

The 1,100-berth, full-service Marina at the foot of University Avenue has served the boating public since 1965. There are a total of 110 slips reserved for “live-aboards.” As the city described it in a recent release about the openings: “The Marina offers a variety of berths to local and visiting boaters through transient, long-term, commercial dockage berths and ‘live-aboards,’ the berths being offered now. Live-aboards have access to restrooms and a laundromat.”

There is no fee to apply for one of the Marina slips, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, who said the monthly live-aboard fee is $200 and the monthly slip fees depend on boat size and location. For example, a 40-foot boat at one particular berth would run approximately $517.20 per month.

Compare that total – less than $750 per month – to current rents in Berkeley and the East Bay, and it’s easy to see why the Marina residents are so fond of their living situation.

“Considering what the rental and real estate market is in the Bay Area and all of California, this was a very good value,” said Canepari.

However, he adds that his boat was on the market for a year before he bought it. He believes this could be explained by a lack of knowledge about what is involved in living on the water. “It is … a lifestyle that people think is more complicated than it (actually) is; they may not totally understand it.”

Zack Canepari never thought he’d enjoy waterfront property in California. Then he found his floating home at the Berkeley Marina. Photo: Zack Canepari

“These berths are not floating homes,” said Chakko. “They are slips for boats. Living on a boat is not the same as living in a home; maintenance is far more intensive. Safety concerns are also paramount. Boats sink. You have to understand the risks of boats, be able to identify them and repair them.”

But, he added, experienced boaters will quickly recognize the opportunity.

“We have over 100 acres of open space on our waterfront, not to mention in adjacent McLaughlin Eastshore Park,” he said. “There’s quick access to restaurants and destinations. It’s also close to Berkeley (itself).”

Along with the floating homes, the Berkeley waterfront hosts a diverse mix of businesses, including the Shorebird Park Nature Center, the Berkeley Yacht Club and the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center. A recently launched passenger ferry service to San Francisco operates there daily from Monday through Friday.

Canepari echoed Chakko’s view of how appealing life on the water can be.

“If another houseboat becomes available in the Berkeley Marina, I would recommend to whomever is looking that they jump on it,” he said. “It has been totally safe, it’s clean, it looks nice, I’ve got no complaints. There’s been talk of me no longer living here, but the boat – I’m never going to give it up.”

Now that the lottery for the 13 slips has closed, the city is contacting qualified applicants and scheduling vessel inspections. There should soon be some new residents on Berkeley’s waterfront.