These residents keep afloat in Toronto's hot housing market — by living on a boat

1 / 5

These residents keep afloat in Toronto's hot housing market — by living on a boat

These residents keep afloat in Toronto's hot housing market — by living on a boat

By day, Alys Esmond sells real estate in Canada's hottest housing market.

By night, she retreats to a 40-foot boat on Toronto's shoreline, where she eats dinner with her partner and adult son, plays with her 100-pound German shepherd, and climbs into her queen-sized bed — all in the belly of her ship.

Esmond is a liveaboard, one of about a dozen docked year-round in Marina Quay West, located just a couple of blocks from the foot of the CN Tower. She says she knows it's an odd lifestyle, but has no plans to move. 

"People need to live somewhere," she laughs.

For Esmond, who owns property in Toronto but can't stand the thought of living in a house or condo full time, moving into the boat's 400-square-foot, two-bedroom cabin was a no-brainer.

"You always have the feeling of being outside. And you can't beat the view," she says.

Esmond likes that she can walk everywhere from the centrally located marina and still come home to a tight-knit community, where the next boat may be docked only a few feet away.

Boaters look out for each other's safety in the intimacy of the docks, she says. "There are so many situations where a sharp-eyed neighbour can be the difference between 'oops' and a disaster."

And while the moorage fees plus hydro cost her $1,500 a month, it's still less than what she'd be paying for one of the condos across the street.

Rejecting a mortgage

The rising cost of real estate seems like a never-ending narrative in many Canadian cities.

The average selling price of a home in Toronto hit $916,567 in March — a jump of 33.2 per cent over the previous year. Across the country, that number now sits at $548,517.

James Kinnear knows that real estate story intimately. He once owned property but says he felt shackled by his mortgage.

Kinnear looked at tiny homes as a way to climb out of debt, but gradually fell in love with a friend's liveaboard boat. So two years ago, he bought one of his own for $60,000.

"It was in total disrepair," he says.

Kinnear sunk another $30,000 into fixing it up. Soon, the 36-foot sailboat was consuming his life.

"I had to learn to captain it," he recalls, noting that was on top of installing air conditioning and a working rudder. Never mind that the engine blew the first time he turned it on.

But Kinnear says he's "still feeling chuffed" about the purchase. The profit from selling his house in Niagara-on-the-Lake helped pay for the boat, and odd jobs in restaurants cover both the moorage fee and gas for the diesel generator that powers his furnace.

All in, it's more affordable than renting, he says, especially in the summer, when moorage fees go down. Kinnear says he pays an average of $830 a month to dock his floating home.

If not for the boat, Kinnear says he doesn't think he could afford to stay in Toronto.

His daughter Brodie had the same problem. It's partly why she's decided to move to Ottawa, where she can rent a two-bedroom apartment for $1,200.

That's about half the price of a two-bedroom rental condo found near Toronto's waterfront.

Meanwhile, an office worker at Marina Quay West says they've been getting "numerous calls [from] people looking for a cheap place to live" due to Toronto's housing prices.

Boat life not all glamour

Although he's happy to have found his sea legs, Kinnear warns against making the jump to boat-based living just for the sake of saving on rent.

"It's a compromise," he says. "When you sign up, they actually try to talk you out of it. Most people wouldn't be happy doing this. You have to give away all your possessions, for starters."

Esmond agrees. She says she's seen couples move into the marina, thinking they'd save money. It sometimes doesn't end well.

"People break up over it," she says, adding that she's even seen fist fights break out.

"It's not easy," Esmond says, reeling off the litany of chores and challenges faced by marina residents.

Come winter, liveaboards need to install agitators around their dock space, which bubble the water to prevent ice from forming and damaging their boats. Sometimes, they can't fend off the freeze, and ice can crack the hull or cause breakers to short-circuit, leading to seasonal repair bills.

Septic tanks need to be emptied as often as once a week, which sometimes means wrangling a wastewater vacuum in sub-zero weather.

And each boat only gets so much electricity. Each season, Esmond says, at least one power cord in the marina bursts into flames from overloading.

Showering with minimal water, enduring frozen pipes and dealing with frequent power outages make life on the water a crushing reality for some.

But those who stick it out wouldn't have it any other way, says Esmond.

"For us, it's worth it."