Keep the house, or sell it?

One of the biggest decisions for many gonna-go cruisers is what to do about their home on land. Do you keep it? Do you sell it? How do you decide?

Jamie, Siobhan, and Mairen in front of our home on Bainbridge Island; 2004

My friend Nica has been cruising twice: before kids, then sabbatical with kids. She and her husband Jeremy are preparing to take off for a third time…in the same Calypso, their Bristol Channel Cutter. Having recently backed home sale plans up by a year (anyone looking for a sweet place near Charlottesville, VA?), home sales and cruising speckle our conversations.

Our pre-cruising intention was always to sell. When we made our five- year plan to go cruising, one of the first steps we took was to call our real estate agent. Goal: move from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, where we’d save money (public schools vs private tuition) while living close to our boat and the water…in a house that was purchased with resale value specifically in mind. The proceeds would fund our adventures; when the sabbatical cruise ended, we’d just start over. There might be time living aboard before buying another house; we might sell Totem for a down payment.

That blew up, because 2008 – our departure year – turned out to be a terrible year to sell. Hello, financial crisis and real estate crash! Our mortgage was under water; using savings to close the gap would have erased our cruising fund. We left without selling, and 12 years later still rent out a beautiful home back in Washington.

Dolphins changing course to check out the dinghy interlopers: priceless

Reasons to sell

Selling was supposed to be the basis of our cruising kitty: money to take us for years across the big blue. We owned Totem already, but for some, selling a home provides cash to buy The Boat. Having heard about what a nightmare it can be to deal with renters from afar as a property owner, shedding that stress seemed smart.

The biggest reasons not to sell weren’t issues for us. Losing our foothold in the property market was a fine tradeoff for magical years as a family; it is recoverable.

What if you don’t sell?

Keeping a house, as we did, has a few distinct benefits. If the property holds family or sentimental value, it may not be an option on the table. There’s the comfort of knowing t’s there, waiting, to fall back on if cruising life doesn’t line up with how it was painted in your dreams.

Heirloom furniture or collections may be more readily stored in a garage or attic or room.

I can’t remember most of the things we stored any more: our treasures are different now.

A home can mean a financial boost, too; we know a number of cruisers who support themselves with rental income. In our case, we lost money in the rent/mortgage equation for years; it’s still largely a net-zero from a cash flow standpoint.

Where we truly lucked out is with a trusted friend to acts on our behalf when there’s turnover or an issue we can’t readily manage from afar; the cost of a property manager would have been hard to add. We’re fortunate to have a really wonderful family in the home now, but there have been a few who… well, I suppose the karmic wheel will turn for them later. My biggest angst with them is the burden it added to our friend, who helps us from the kindness of her heart.

Last night’s sunset, looking towards Loreto; Pablo in silhouette

The impossible question

There’s no right answer, because every situation and every set of priorities are different. Back to my friend Nica: she and her husband Jeremy are selling their house with clear-eyed plans. An experienced cruiser, she breaks down how she’d approach the decision.

What you cannot know before leaving is how cruising will change you. It does: this seems an intractable truth. In our case, it also means the house on Bainbridge that was so perfect for busy family years is no longer our home. Although it vibrates with treasured memories, but we’ve changed, and  despite the fact the island it sits on remains a homeplace the property isn’t where we’d choose live again. 

The greatest asset in retaining a house at this point is just that: the asset. As life afloat has gone from “a few years sabbatical’ to “as long as we can” (twelve years and counting), that value appreciates. We did not expect to be long-termers! Real estate values may cycle a few more times before cashing in becomes important, but absent much savings – the property is a kind of bank account for Someday.

Scoping bighorn sheep on the beach

Current view

For now, that Someday feels very far away. And for now, cruising carries on in our interim normal. About a week ago, I commented that the stay-at-home directive here in Mexico felt at times like a heavy weight, so many weeks in and so many weeks to go. A reader replied to remind me: “…you are living your life in a deliberate fashion, a life and lifestyle you chose, worked for, and maintain because it’s what you really want.” It’s true. Some by effort, much by luck, all by focus.

Sheep in the shadows: spotted from the dinghy yesterday afternoon.

The experiences around us are a constant reminder. The last couple of days, we’ve been watching bighorn sheep wander the littoral. This morning, my excitement at the huffing breaths of dolphins drew our family on deck to revel in the wildlife around us and the beautify of sunrise. The warmth of friendship, a text away…and a few boatlengths away. These lift that weight: we’re so lucky, and so grateful, for where we are now.

Dolphins fishing next to Pulsar as the sun rose behind Isla Carmen this morning


What’s myth? What’s reality? How do cruisers prepare? Taking on the very real question of piracy on our next TOTEM TALKS, scheduled for   Saturday, June 6, at 10:00 am Pacific / 1:00 pm Eastern /  5:00 pm GMT. Advance registration required; your confirmation email includes a link to join on the day.

Totem was scouted by pirates in the South China Sea; and we’ll share that story and a few others. If you’d like to be notified of future TOTEM TALKS, head over to our subscribe page.

Scoping for pirates in the South China Sea, 2013. Photo: Claire Suni

19 Responses

  1. Frantically prepping to sell! 😉 Old house is gonna need some major maintenance before long. Market is strong now, despite COVID; am a bit pessimistic of economic outlook for the next few years. Don’t want the hassle of being a landlord. Immediate cash-out bonus is part of the cruising kitty. We’re smart… we can always rebuild a land life when the time comes… under the overpass next to you guys.

    1. I think it’s a great move for you and your family Josh! The tether is real, otherwise, and you can ALWAYS start over.

  2. Great subject to write on, Behan! I appreciate the insight from both yours and Nica’s perspective. As you know, we’ve decided to “burn our boat” in order to bring our cruising plans to fruition. If we can make it happen without having to sell, great. But there’s a strange burden lifted by embracing the idea of selling it all. I think a large part of that is changing the way we’ve looked at time and money. Time being the finite resource. Money being infinite. We can always make money and acquire new things, including homes. There’s a million ways to make money. And, a blank slate is full of possibility. However, we cannot create more time and call back the lost opportunity to cruise with our young children.

    Thanks Totem! Always appreciate these articles.

    1. I love this comment, Erik: “There’s a strange burden lifted by embracing the idea of selling it all.” The part we’re wrestling with right now is how long that seems to be taking. Once decided, we just want it gone yesterday! Good luck with your cruising plans. Looking forward to seeing you out there!

    2. I love that POV, too. This is a shift that most people don’t have until after they go cruising – you benefit by making the shift before. More common among travelers!

  3. My wife and I lived in Kingston from 1986 to to 1991. I wish we had bought a house in Kitsap County back then! Used to have coffee at Pegasus while waiting on the ferry. A very nice part of the world.

  4. The rental market outlook moving forward is very strong. Baby boomers are no longer the largest segment of the US population. With Millennial’s and GenXer’s now rule the demographics. Saddled with school debt, auto and other loans, they are still renting and will continue into the future…as renters. Many that can qualify for a mtg, are fearful of homeownership, after watching their parents loose their homes in the mortgage crisis. We’ll be keeping our rentals. It will provide cashflow into our later years.

    1. Having rental properties can be a great way to help fund cruising, when you’ve got the numbers right and good management.

  5. There are many god reasons to own real estate, including owning a home as a place to raise a family.

    If the reason is for an investment it is important to analyze it rationally. A residential property in Seattle has likely doubled in market price over the past decade. A very good investment/gamble indeed. On the other hand recent price inflation created a bubble that expanded much faster than wage and salary growth— the best measure of buyer’s ability to pay. The Seattle real estate bubble reached a clear top about a year and a half ago, and has since retracted by 10-15%. Downtown residential and commercial property is vastly overbuilt. Then along came the CORVID19 virus that pricked the globalist economy. Worldwide shipping and air travel are down 90% from a year ago. In the US there are now 40 million new unemployed, a greater percentage than during the Great Depression of 1917. That is the true forecast of the future Seattle housing market. People who own real estate always believe that “it can’t happen here.” But Seattleites need only study a minor event like the Boeing Bust a few decades past to jog their memories.

    Bubble owners have two choices: Sell and cash out any equity value that isn’t the property of the One Bank, or leverage it to the gills and then Jingle Mail it when the inevitable occurs. Or build a sailboat like I did in Eugene Oregon during the Regan Depression,

  6. I am not sure you have covered all the benefits of keeping your home, especially in these Covid times, but even during better times. We kept our home in Northern California and it appreciated probably more than 50% in the 6 years we have been cruising. After the first two years of renting it at way more than our costs of owning it, I had to come back to the States during Mexican hurricane season, when I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the boat anyway, to have a hip replaced. We let the lease run out on our home and we moved back in. Recovering at home was far better than if we had stayed with family or friends or rented a cheap apartment. And every year cruising, we are always in a hurricane or cyclone season somewhere, and it is wonderful to lay up the boat, come back home, provision, take care of any medical issues, visit with family, and return to our boat refreshed for a new sailing season. And now with Covid preventing us from returning to our boat in Tonga, we are reminded of the beautiful location on a river in rural Northern California where our home is, and we are extremely grateful for having “a place to come home to” and safely enjoy while waiting out the Covid storm.

    1. Hi Cindy
      Measuring the prospects of the future by the golden snowflakes that fell from the sky in the past can be deceiving— see my sob story about the Regan Depression!

      At least it lead to a path of becoming rich and famous as a boat builder. (Not)!

  7. Love this post! And following your adventures. 🙂 Long story short, we learned quickly that we just weren’t 100% comfortable with everything we have being on our boat. So we sold the boat, bought a house, and are planning for the next boat now that we have a home base to come back to. Just so happens that our journey brought us to Poulsbo, and our business is real estate. If we could be of help to you, please do reach out. I’m quite good at finding excellent tenants, and really prefer to do the time consuming stuff (marketing, screening, move-in checklist) and hand off the ongoing management to someone else (friend, family member, etc.). Saves the owners from that property management fee! Otherwise, safe and happy cruising! Take care out there, and I’ll be watching for your future posts. Maybe run into the Totem crew on the BI ferry someday, too. 😉

  8. “GOD reasons”: LOL Subconscious typo?

    During the Regan Depression Eugene went from being voted the most desirable small city in the nation to having 25% of houses for sale with no buyers. Mortgage interest rates were 16% if available at all. The only way to get rid of a house in that era was to walk into the banker’s office, slam the keys down on his desk, load the wife, kids & dogs into the Chevy, and drive to Texas in hopes of finding a job in the oil fields. I sold my house for $1,000 net cash after putting in tens of thousands in upgrades, and that only because I found a private buyer and avoided having to pay a real estate commission. That is what the real world can look like.

  9. Very good read. It is an issue that is always on my mind, particularly because I own a flat in a nice neighborhood in Mexico City, which is at the same time mid in the high risk earthquake zone, has seen some cartel related violence of late, and now Covid… thanks for sharing your take on this.

  10. Keeping real estate in the US while cruising makes more sense than ever.
    Coronavirus has turned international cruising into a nightmare. Closures and quarantines will relax but may flip again in an instant. Be smart and keep your home in the US as a safe harbour while the rest of the world is upside down. Rent your home and dont be greedy. 3rd world countries do not deal with these crises like the US and their rules often make no sense. Knowing you can come home is the best insurance. If possible. maintain flexibility to leave your vessel and come home when needed.

  11. Hindsight would have been great! We never expected to be long-termers either, like you, our 3-5 year sabbatical changed us and we don’t want to go ‘back’. We sold our house to buy our boat and put many things in storage. Now, I wish we got rid of it all before we left !

  12. like the folks in the lead article we are on our third lap , this time as older cruisers with adult (mostly) at home and still some attachment to our careers. So far commuter cruising has worked for us. We have MKondoed our stuff down to a less amount of “stuff” all fitting in bins, we can move in and out of our house in one day. We have successfully rented our home on Bainbridge to two lovely families for each season, Jan-June and returned to the great PNW summer. We are able to cover mortgage and house expense with the rental and the house has done fine ( it is just a HOUSE after all ). We so far love this life as it seems we can carry on for longer across the world, keeping our home life intact as well. Of course now……

  13. We sold our house in spring of 2018, moved on the boat in summer of 2018 and sold both cars less than a month before we cut the docklines in November of 2019. For some reason, selling our cars was probably worse for both of us than selling the house. For my wife, selling her car signified a (invisible) loss of independence, something that took getting used to for both of us. I think we needed to both realize that we were not camping, the boat is our home now. With nothing to come home to (like a safety net), we took on the cruiser lifestyle whatever it brought us. Wow, with COVID within the first 8 months of cruising, it’s like a miracle that we left the US and are able to isolate in safety on our boat.

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