AMSTERDAM — When Karen Bosma first moved her boat to the Borneokade, northeast of Amsterdam’s bustling city center, in 1999, the neighborhood was barely more than a cluster of commercial docks and underused warehouses.
“It was for poor people — a lot of artists lived on boats,” she said, sitting in her neat, cozy living room just below the waterline.
In the quarter century since, Ms. Bosma, a 62-year-old social worker, and her husband have raised two sons on the Distel, a 1912 82-foot freighter, which — stripped of its engine, fuel tanks and cargo hold — is one of Amsterdam’s iconic houseboats, with a seagoing hull, wheelhouse and curtained windows.
Three boats down lies the B18, an elegant 131-foot, two-and-a-half-story floating mansion (with more than 3,000 square feet of interior space) that shows just how perfectly the soul of a luxury yacht combines with open-space living and elegant living quarters.
“It has to be a ship on the outside and a house on the inside,” said Gijs Haverkate, 53, who created the vessel and lives on it with his family.
In the Dutch capital, houseboats have gone upmarket. The new owners are wealthy and discerning, interested in new designs, upgraded comfort and sustainability.
Mr. Haverkate, a designer by trade, hopes his boat will inspire others to build on the water. He runs UrbanShips, a company that builds customized houseboats designed to look like ships.
After years of serving as a relatively cheap place to live in an expensive city, Amsterdam’s houseboats — or rather the spaces they float — have become popular and expensive, with prices increasing 30 to 40 percent over the last five years alone, according to Jon Kok, one the city’s best known houseboat real estate agents.
The whale’s share of the price increase comes from the value of the berth, not the ship.
A typical Amsterdam canal berth might be worth close to a half-million dollars, depending on its location and how big a ship it will allow; some of the older, unrenovated ships in those berths might be worth only $20,000 (building a new ship, of course, is much more expensive).
But in this gentrification debate, the cost of new berths is less important than the architecture of the ship — and whether they ever served as actual commercial ships.
Once populated by converted working boats, the canal now holds an increasing number of floating houses designed to look like oceangoing vessels but with hardly any of the working features of a real boat.
The trend brings both advantages and disadvantages. For one, the new houses can be much better insulated than the chilly metal-hulled boats that used to line the canals. New construction also allows for a more efficient use of space and more sustainable use of energy.
“I think it’s the way things must go now — it’s just that not everyone sees it that way,” Jochem Bakker said. As a board member of Amsterdam’s main houseboat association, the Woonbootvereniging Amsterdam, Mr. Bakker, 43, is at the center of a community in flux.
“Just don’t call that a boat,” said Ms. Bosma, the owner of the Distel about the B18. “The windows are far too big, the roof is too square. That thing has never moved on its own.”
But Ms. Bosma admits that the change will be hard to stop.
“It’s changing very fast. The guy over here thinks I’m the old hippie, and those neighbors think I’m the yuppie,” said Juul Steyn, 42, who has lived on his boat, a converted concrete-hulled World War II munitions boat, for six years. Mr. Steyn runs BookaHouseboat.com, a specialized website through which many Amsterdamers rent part of their boats.
Bob van Wely’s 115-foot houseboat, the AM 58, is a study in what is possible when a working boat is completely redesigned to house a modern family.
The AM 58 (Dutch working boats were named after their home ports, although houseboats do not officially need to carry names) is fully redesigned from an old working fishing trawler.
To make maximum use of the pier space accorded to him, he and a boatbuilder extended the original hull 30 feet. He then went about completely redoing the old boat, taking out anything that wouldn’t have a function in a modern home.
Mr. van Wely, who is an architect, converted the wheelhouse to an office and the cargo hold to a spacious living room that holds a baby grand piano. The covered bow (where fishermen once fixed their nets in inclement weather) is now a guest room.
The heat on board is produced by a heat pump and solar panels. A big stove in the kitchen area keeps the rooms cozy in the winter and heats water, which in turn heats the floor. Because he can prove that the heating system uses minimal energy, he has received a special energy credit from the city of Amsterdam.
“Even in winter, it is nice and warm,” said Mr. van Wely, 57, who moved into his boat with his partner and their four children last year.
“You can still live in the city,’’ he said, “but you don’t feel so cramped.” Since launching his houseboat in 2017, he has started professionally specializing in houseboats.
Like other new arrivals on the canals, Mr. van Wely owned a house in Amsterdam before moving onto the water. He found the houseboat — with its space, views and water access — to be slightly more affordable than a house, even if it is much more complicated to finance, purchase and customize.
Boats already on the canals have a license to permanently dock that is sold with the boat. A new boat can be moved in only if someone with an existing boat decides to upgrade, transferring the “water deed” to the new boat and scrapping the old boat or selling it for use outside of Amsterdam’s canal system.
Complications arise because of dizzying arrays of city rules governing size, style and even underwater design, which have changed over the years and are different from canal to canal. Also, the sole Dutch bank that finances houseboats provides money only for the physical boat, not for its space in the water.
A key problem is the limited space on Amsterdam’s canals. There are about 10,000 houseboats in the Netherlands, Mr. Bakker said, with about a quarter of those on Amsterdam’s canals. Waiting for a new spot — without buying a boat that ensures one — can take years.
Many houseboat owners use private financing, he said.
Sander Rutten and his wife almost went broke rebuilding the 112-foot Coaster Mado, which carried wood and salt in and out of Scandinavia after it was built in 1932. But the wharf that was in charge of the rebuilding (the Coaster Mado was completely revamped last year) went bankrupt and Mr. Rutten, who is an expert in heating systems, had to lead the renovations, together with a young shipbuilder.
The result is a beautiful, fully functional family home that happens to look like an old freighter. An open-plan eating and living area can be opened to merge onto the deck. The bedrooms are spacious and light.
The couple’s three children can either play PlayStation games in the luminous below-deck living room (there is optical fiber internet on many of Amsterdam’s houseboats) or dive off the sides of the boat, depending on the weather. The old mast serves as an attachment for a swing.
Despite the hardship and the fears that the project would never be realized, Mr. Rutten says he has no regrets.
“Look at this view,” he said. “How can you beat this?”
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