Remember falling madly and passionately in love for the first time, seeing your new love through rose tinted glasses, overlooking every minor flaw, dreaming of warm summer days together and starry nights of ecstasy? It’s not any different with real-estate.
As we sat in the old wicker chairs on the front deck of the floating home, we could already see warm sunny days spent kayaking, swimming and fishing from our own dock. We could imagine clear summer nights watching satellites track across the constellations. We were in love, so we called Cheryl Johnson, the real-estate agent listing the property. Remember your mother insisting you take time to really get to know your new love? Cheryl sounded like both of our mothers.
Her opening words were, “You need to do your due diligence first if you are serious about making an offer.”
“What do you mean?” we innocently asked.
It seems that buying a floating home is a lot different from purchasing a house firmly rooted on a piece of ground. The “home” in question here is not a house. It is considered a “boat”, and is registered with the State Marine Board.
A boat requires moorage. That means docks, ramps, pilings, and access to water and power. To have a moorage in Oregon, you must also own the land adjacent to it. In our case, we were purchasing a very small bit (just a sliver actually) of muddy riverbank held tentatively in place by overgrown hydrangea bushes. The real-estate listing promised 200’+ of river front. Our tape measure told a different story. The only way 200+ feet might be possible was if we measured from somewhere inside our upstream neighbor’s floating home to the front door of the neighbor on the downstream side. We couldn’t find any boundary stakes, so Cheryl led us over to the county surveyor’s office.
Paul is a man after my own heart. “The maps are all online,” he said, “but I prefer paper.” After rifling through a filing cabinet in the corner, he produced a very large and very detailed map that clearly showed our property with just 150’ of frontage, the last and narrowest 20’ of which we apparently shared with the neighbor. He found several other survey maps showing our properties clearly overlapped, and both properties had been surveyed by the same surveyor! Paul allowed that it was all “a bit confusing.” We both clearly “owned” the same ground. But, as he pointed out, it was only a small triangle and it would be 2’ underwater at high tide. His only advice was “Get a lawyer, or live with it.” We decided we could live with it. A very damp 75 square feet didn’t seem worth getting worked up about.
In Oregon, you cannot own the water the home floats on. It must be leased from the Submerged Lands office in the Department of State Lands. Nothing is done in government without copious amounts of paperwork. But Cheryl suggested we call Blake in the Submerged Lands office. He helpfully shared copies of previous leases and aerial photographs of the river showing the leased water-rights, and answered our countless questions. He also pointed out that we were going to need a sewage treatment plan and permit to be in full compliance.
Boats aren’t allowed to dump raw sewage, or even grey water, into Federal and State waters. Small boats get by with holding tanks that can be pumped out at most fuel docks. That wasn’t going to be an option for us. The property was too close to the water and wasn’t large enough for a septic system. The only answer was an Oregon State approved sewage treatment system. That explained the small shed with the constant humming sound next to the road. Long story short, Tiffany in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) walked us through the permitting process, the required testing process, and the operator’s licensing requirements. Then she happily took a large chunk of our dwindling cash reserves to cover the transfer fees. Without being too graphic, we pump our raw sewage into one end of the system, and draw clean drinkable water out the other end. And no, I’m not going to try it when I’m thirsty.
When a home is being purchased, it is normal to have an inspection done. If you are buying a boat, it is called a survey. I called my old business partner and good friend Alison Mazon to do the survey. She found the house to be structurally sound, but it didn’t take long for her to discover the original 1935 wiring had more than a few places where the mice had chewed through the cloth insulation to bare wires. The previous owner had replaced all of the outlets with GFCI types (like the ones in your kitchen and bathroom) and called it a “partial re-wiring upgrade”. Alison found none of them worked because there was no grounding system. She also noted several dry rotted stringers that had allowed the house to settle about 3 inches at the downstream end. Cheryl suggested we call Tim at Columbia Dock Works to do an inspection under the house.
This house floats on top of nine old-growth cedar logs, each is 4’ or more in diameter. They were harvested in the early 1930’s but were considered too small back then to be worth milling. A dozen large 8”x10” creosoted stringers cross the logs every 4’. On top of these are smaller 4”x6” joists that support the flooring. To inspect the dry-rotted stringers and the rest of the structure under the house required on of Tim’s workers to wiggle between each stringer and sound them with a hammer and ice pick to detect interior rot. It also required chasing out the family of river otters that were living happily down there. It wasn’t a fun job.
All of the above took the better part of four weeks to orchestrate. Through it all Cheryl stuck with us, always ready to help us find the right person in the right office that could answer our questions and lead us through all the hoops that needed jumping through. Finally, on the 25th of October, we closed on the property – with just one more surprise. The owner was unable to sell the second house that was moored on the property before the closing date, so it was being included in the deal at no additional cost. The reality is there are many good reasons that he couldn’t sell it (or give it away). As it was, it took 2 ½ hours to read, initial or sign all 62 pages of closing documents.
So now the houses, the sliver of land, the docks and pilings, the sewage treatment system, and the family of river otters are all ours. The rose-colored glasses are off. We think we know about all the flaws. And, we are still dreaming of warm summer days and starry nights of ecstasy. Now the fun can begin. As I type this, five rotten stringers have been pulled out and replaced, as have about 12 of the joists. The house floats level (or almost so), and I’ve been spending my days pulling and replacing all the wiring. But these are all stories for another time.