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Chicken wire and flooded rooms

IN the old days, says Dick Wagner, ``houseboats were traded by a handshake at the end of a wild party.'' No more.

Today, many of the floating homes that fringe the east shore of Seattle's Lake Union are likely to go for $100,000 and up. All of them are hooked to city sewers and other utilities, some have two stories, and their inhabitants range from retirees on tight, fixed incomes to young professionals looking for a trendy, literally on-the-water address.

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People come to houseboating in a variety of ways. Mr. Wagner migrated to Seattle from the East Coast in 1959, fresh out of architecture school. The city's setting, particularly its inseparability from the water, fascinated him. He recalls ``prawling'' around the miles of waterfront here. Among the ``unique things'' he found was the houseboat colony, three times as large in the late '50s as its current 450 dwellings. That seemed the essence of Seattle living, and he has called a houseboat home ever since, except for a brief stint on land while his floating residence was being reconditioned.

``We brought up our kids on a houseboat, my wife and I, and we knew we were breaking a pattern,'' says Wagner, chuckling. For many couples, the arrival of children has meant departure from the houseboat. But after a search of the shore that ended with the recognition that ``nothing on land had the same qualities,'' the Wagners decided ``the kids would adapt to our life style.'' They put up chicken wire around the perimeter of the boat and got ready to ``play it by ear.'' Still, the kids occasionally fell in, admits Wagner.

Watchfulness was called for, as well as very early swimming lessons. Wagner recalls summer evenings sitting in the living room with his wife. A huge ``splash!'' would interrupt their conversation. ``The kids are on the roof again,'' they'd calmly conclude.

Beth Means and her husband, Ken, chose waterborneliving for the most pragmatic of reasons -- it was very affordable. Their vintage 1930 boat already had some 40 years of service behind it, and, like any old house, it harbored some surprises. ``When we moved in, the house began to sink,'' says Mrs. Means with a hearty laugh. ``We'd lived there about a month when we opened the living room door and a big wave poured in.'' Eventually, they had to replace all the old ``stringers,'' the timbers that the floor rests on, as well as the floor itself.

Still, it's a remarkably durable craft, says Means. Her houseboat, like most of the older ones on Lake Union's docks, was built from logs (for flotation) and other lumber scavenged from the lake itself and nearby environs. The materials were minimal, but the workmanship was good, since many of the men were experienced shipbuilders. The dwellings they fashioned looked like a ship's cabin plunked down on a raft.

The Meanses' neighbor, Mary Schroeder, moved into a new, dual-story houseboat with her two daughters a few years ago. ``I fell in love with it,'' she says. Finding adequate space for her family hasn't been easy, she admits. They were used to a large house on land. But they've made do, and theirs is a very comfortable houseboat indeed. If it weren't for an occasional gentle swell off the lake and the lapping of water, you'd think you were in a well-furnished condominium.

But modern, two-story houseboats have their idiosyncrasies, too. ``The tall ones act like a giant sail,'' laughs Means. She and Mrs. Schroeder launch into a quick account of the four times the Schroeders' home came loose from its mooring in heavy weather.

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Such vicissitudes aside, few committed houseboaters would opt for life ashore. Mary Schroeder says nothing can match the feeling of peacefulness that comes as you watch a sailboat out your living room window. For Beth Means, it's the feeling of close-knit community, like a ``semi-tribe.''

Houseboating has been a distinctive feature of this city's life since the turn of the century. For decades, explains Wagner, the houseboat colonies were generally viewed as ``a seedy place where lots of things happened.'' Officially, they were illegal. Zoning ordinances reserved the lake's shore for commercial and industrial development. The city, however, usually chose to blink at the infraction, though moves were frequently afoot to ``boot them out,'' says Wagner, a houseboater for two and a half decades now.

In the early '60s, in fact, a large number of houseboats -- particularly those with flagrant zoning violations -- were cleared out as Seattle readied itself for the 1962 World's Fair. Toward the end of that decade, sewer lines were extended to the moorages, which brought another thinning in the number of houseboats. Houseboaters tied to docks whose owners refused to hook them up to the sewers were forced to leave, says Wagner.

In recent years houseboat owners won a court battle to gain protection against arbitrary evictions. Symptomatic of a new, more affluent era for waterborne living, home-improvement loans have become readily available from banks -- something unheard of in the past. Life afloat is ``more secure now by 1,000 percent than ever before,'' exclaims Wagner. But ``constant vigilance'' is needed to hold on to these gains, he adds.

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