- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas

Three months ago, Jeff Walker and his cats, Razz and Tazz, traded in their two-bedroom North Austin apartment for a floating neighborhood a seaworthy subdivision.

Mr. Walker and his two felines now share a $250,000, four-bedroom houseboat on Lake Travis, complete with a 450-gallon hot tub, central air and heat and three stereo systems.

Mr. Walker, who owns a medical imaging business, originally bought the houseboat to entertain clients.

"I found out it was so much fun that I just decided to live out here," he said. "And I have a much bigger swimming pool now."

With the robust economy, houseboat sales are soaring from $25,000 entry-level used boats to high-end models in the mid-six figures.

"The economy has a direct impact on the houseboat industry," said Steve Smede, editor of Houseboat Magazine, who has seen subscriptions to his publications double during the past five years. "People have money to spend, and they're buying nicer things."

Sales at Harborside Boats and Yachts, one of the largest brokers of houseboats in the Austin area, have risen 10 percent to 15 percent a year for the past four years, fueled largely by the high-tech boom.

"Every time there's an IPO or a stock split, there's a flurry of activity," said Al Marweg, owner of Harborside, which has sold 63 new houseboats over the years. "Sales have increased dramatically over the last few years."

According to local boat dealers, the only factor limiting houseboat sales is a shortage of available slips, thanks to a moratorium placed on new slips by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

"Price isn't the issue parking is the issue," said Grant Eriksen, owner of Eriksen Marina in Austin, which sells Sumerset houseboats that can cost up to half a million dollars.

Although houseboats didn't always appreciate in value, that has changed recently. Because of the hot economy, demand for houseboats nationwide is at an all-time high and houseboat manufacturers are working at capacity. Most have long waiting lists for new boats, driving up the value of existing houseboats. And with the limited availability of marina space in the Austin area, used houseboats with a slip sell for a premium.

"Over the past two years, the houseboats we have on the lake have gained value," Mr. Eriksen said, adding that he recently sold a 2-year-old houseboat for $20,000 more than it sold for less than a year ago. The sale was dependent on the slip.

There are approximately 120,000 houseboats in North America and Europe and production has grown threefold since 1990, according to Houseboat Magazine.

Harborside has been selling 10 to 12 new boats a year, priced from $160,000 to $450,000.

Just as homes seem to get more grandiose each year, houseboats get larger and fancier.

"Everybody wants something a little bigger, a little nicer," Mr. Marweg said.

Boats these days are outfitted with fireplaces and Italian marble, crystal chandeliers and dumbwaiters, wine coolers and saunas.

A growing number of buyers are opting for custom-made boats.

"It's very much like building a custom home," Mr. Eriksen said.

When customers buy a boat from Eriksen Marina, they are flown out to Sumerset's Kentucky manufacturing plant to pick out the materials from the carpeting and cabinets to appliances and window treatments. They spend a day with a staff interior decorator and can even design their own floor plan.

Mr. Eriksen said some of his customers, who include techies and Wall Street speculators, are opting for such high-dollar doodads as Subzero refrigerators, flat-screen TVs and Bose home theater systems.

"It's not like a travel trailer on pontoons," Mr. Marweg said of the new-generation houseboat. "It's like building your own high-dollar condominium on the lake. Anything you can get in a home is adaptable for a boat."

And the boats seem to grow by the day as wide as 22 feet, in some cases, Mr. Smede said. Some are pushing 100 feet and longer.

"One I saw had more square footage than my two-story house," Mr. Smede said.

What's one of the best things about living on her houseboat?

"There are no property taxes," said Deborah Reid, who lives in a three-bedroom, three-bathroom houseboat that she helped design.

Taxes aside, having a houseboat isn't cheap in most cases. In addition to the price of the boat and fuel and maintenance expenses, it costs $10 to $14 a foot per month to dock a boat on Lake Travis.

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