“When I bought my 625-square-foot houseboat, I had no idea what I was doing. It was the best decision I ever made”

“When I bought my 625-square-foot houseboat, I had no idea what I was doing. It was the best decision I ever made”

During her first winter, Kate Fincham, a 35-year-old content writer, had to use an axe to smash the ice forming around her new house

Kate Fincham stands in front of her houseboat, on the small front deck

I’ve been around boats all my life. As a teen, I spent a whole academic year on a tall ship as a part of a program called Class Afloat. We started in Vancouver and sailed around the world, ending in Quebec City. It was a foundational experience, and after that, it became very important for me to be near the water whenever I could. After I graduated from Queen’s University, I spent three years working as a stewardess on yachts that sailed around the Caribbean and the east coast of the US.

Related: This man’s floating home is at the centre of a cottage-country feud

By 2020, I’d settled into a more static life in Toronto. I was renting a house near Trinity Bellwoods with three roommates. It was a beautiful space, and with Toronto real estate prices being what they are, I figured I’d be renting apartments in the city for the rest of my life. Then, in the early fall, I stumbled across an article about three houseboats that were for sale in Bluffer’s Park, in Scarborough.

I was shocked—I didn’t know Toronto had any houseboats. On a whim, I got in touch with the realtor for one of them and went down to the marina to view it. I loved the boat immediately. It had high, sloping roofs, and everything was open concept, including the loft bed above the main living area. It stayed afloat using metal pontoons, which is the norm for a houseboat, and it was stationary—no motor—which helped minimize maintenance. All in all, it was about 625 square feet. It was smaller than the rental units I’d been in, but I’d lived on boats before so I wasn’t too worried about the size. But I felt like I was acting impulsively. What do I know about houseboats? I thought. I can’t do this. I left, but not before asking the realtor to contact me if anyone else put in an offer.

The living room in Kate Fincham's houseboat, which has tall ceilings and a Christmas tree

A few weeks later, I heard that someone else was interested in buying the boat. I asked to view it again. As I was walking down the dock, a few of the neighbours popped out to say hello. They were incredibly friendly, and I could tell right away that there was a deep sense of community. Some residents had been living there for 20 years. When I walked onto the boat for a second time, I felt so at home on the water. I’d never felt that way in the city. Even though I didn’t have any experience on a houseboat, my gut told me to go for it. So I bought the boat for $340,000. You can’t get a traditional mortgage for a home on the water, but luckily I was able to get a loan from a family member to cover what I couldn’t pay up front.

I moved in November of 2020. It was surreal and exhilarating to suddenly live right on the water, and I’d taken the plunge at the most challenging time of year: winter was fast approaching. There was definitely a learning curve. In the first few months, my pipes and drain both froze. I had heat tracers attached to the pipes, which help keep track of their temperature, but I unplugged them too early. I also discovered that my drainpipe was too long and ended just above water level. Waves would come by and clog it with ice. I wasn’t able to fix that until the next summer.

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There was also the issue of water freezing around my boat. For some vessels, this isn’t a problem. With floating homes, for example, which generally rest on concrete bases, it’s totally fine for the surrounding water to freeze. But, with a houseboat, you run the risk of the frozen water crushing the metal pontoons that keep you afloat. I already had bubblers, which are underwater fans that move water around to prevent it from freezing. But I didn’t have any practice, so I would turn them off at the wrong times or have them pointing in the wrong directions. More than once, I had to take an axe and break the ice myself. Luckily, I have in-wall heating and a wood-burning stove, which helped me keep the interior of the boat cozy.

The wood burning stove on Fincham's houseboat

I learned so much from my neighbours. There’s a lot of generational knowledge on the dock. Other residents would give me a heads up about what to expect from water levels and temperatures at different times of year. Even in the wintertime, everyone makes a point of getting together on the dock for drinks, and there are regular movie nights and writing circles. There are 52 households that live here full-time, with people ages 30 to 75. It’s a really tight-knit group.

Kate's loft bed, which has a small balcony off of it

Related: Inside Toronto boat owners’ decked-out floating homes

After that first winter, there was a lot less troubleshooting. Ultimately, the place is more house than boat, so there’s not as much maintenance as people may think. I have to take the pontoons out of the water every two years or so, which I can do in the marina. They get checked for rust, sanded down and repainted with marine-grade paint. I also keep an eye out for any rot on the exterior wood. The plumbing is largely the same as in any apartment or house. We have a hose that connects us to the city’s running water. I have a normal toilet, but it’s hooked up to a septic tank that I empty every six weeks through the marina’s connection to the city’s septic system. It’s not a glamorous process, but I’d rather do it myself than hire someone to do it. I like knowing that I can handle everything this lifestyle involves.

Fincham's bathtub, which runs on plumbing that's hooked up to the city

When summer rolled around, it confirmed that this was the best choice I could have made for myself. I started keeping a kayak tethered to my back deck and going out for a sunrise paddle almost every day. I can easily paddle or walk over to Bluffer’s Park to swim or have picnics, and I regularly eat on the deck outside my bedroom. I work hybrid as a content writer, and it’s lovely to have a view of the lake even when I’m at my computer. And when I do go into the office, it’s only an 18-minute train ride to Union.

I’ve done a bit of work on the interior of the boat since moving in, but nothing major. I love to cook, and luckily the kitchen was already super functional even though it’s small. I watched a few YouTube tutorials and redid the backsplash, changed out the sink and added new handles to the cupboards.

The kitchen, which Fincham did some minor renovations on

In terms of cost, I pay a marina fee to keep my spot here plus hydro and insurance. Only certain insurance companies will take on houseboats, and it’s definitely more expensive than it would be on land. I don’t have to pay property taxes, though, which is a bonus. All in all, my mooring fees are about $875 a month. I wouldn’t say it’s an especially cheap way of life, but it’s well worth it.

It’s now been three years since I moved in, and I have no plans to leave. I love my neighbours—including the swans, whom I regularly feed with dried corn that I keep by my window. I get to spend so much time outside, and I’m more attuned to the changing seasons than I’ve ever been. I’ve started Instagram and TikTok accounts to let people know that this kind of lifestyle exists and to answer the many questions people tend to have when I tell them I live on a houseboat. I feel like I stumbled into the best possible way of life. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.