Karen Jenkins Tiny Floating Home - Tiny House Blog

Karen Jenkins Tiny Floating Home

refurbished boat house

Inspiration for Boathouse Comes from Tiny House Movement
by Karen Jenkins

I’d like to tell you that my family and I are fully immersed in the tiny house movement… that we sold our four-bedroom home in the suburbs and have downsized to keep only the necessities to live in a tiny house full-time. But, alas, that is not the case. And so as not to mislead all of you incredibly brave early-adopters of this fascinating movement, I thought I’d be upfront about that right off the bat.

What we have done, however, is to purchase what would be considered a tiny-home that was in major disrepair, and we then relied heavily on the stories, photos and advice from the Tiny-Home Blog for our inspiration. And for that, I thank you. I don’t think anyone (especially my husband) would have thought we could turn a floating 10×22 boathouse into a place that our family of five could actually live comfortably, but with your help we did. I thought I’d share some of our journey.

front of boat house

It started a year or so ago as we’d pull our boat into the marina after a day on the lake. Have you ever boated for more than a couple of hours with three boys, including a baby? The amount of “stuff” I ferried from home to the boat each time was taxing and I longed for one of those cute little floating boathouses that are on many of the lakes in the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir system. The problem is, TVA stopped issuing permits for these structures more than 40 years ago, so you can’t just build a new one. You have to find one for sale with a TVA permit; in our case on Boone Lake it’s called a 4F number. Finding one priced reasonably can be the biggest challenge of all.

loft in boat house

Near the end of the summer we did stumble upon a 40-50 year-old boathouse that was the right price, but it was very small and in very bad shape. Nevertheless, we snatched it up within a week of seeing if for sale. Immediately I begin searching online for ways to fit a family of five in 220 square feet of space. That’s when I found the Tiny-House Blog.

living area in boat house

Part of our challenge was that TVA restricts the height of a boathouse to one-story and we can’t take up any more lake space that we currently use. Searching through homes on the blog I found the inspiration I needed; a loft. It doesn’t qualify as a second story, but seemed like enough space for a separate place to sleep. As I tried to explain my vision for the loft, my husband just wasn’t “getting it.” With a space only 10 feet wide he wondered how, even with a steep pitched roof, you’d have enough headroom. Back to the blog I went to find homes where window dormers were built to extend the space along the walls. We went up four feet, put windows in, and were able to stay within the TVA’s definition of one story.

boat house loft

Thankfully we also have a 4-foot porch that we were able to enclose. Although it only gave us an additional 40 square feet of space, I’ve come to realize that in the world of tiny-homes that’s prime real estate.

We ended up gutting the entire structure, replaced some of studs that had water damage, had the electric and pluming redone, and installed pine tongue and grove boards on the walls and ceilings. Although TVA drains its lakes in the winter, we have a small electric fireplace for heat for those early mornings in the fall and spring, and two window air conditioners for the hot summer days. A small hot water tank sits beneath the sink in the kitchen supplying enough hot water to wash hands, dishes and your hair if you’re quick!

original boat house

The marina supplies our electric and water hook-ups and we went with an incinerator toilet so we don’t have to worry about septic.

The décor is a mix of ideas from houses I’ve seen on the Tiny-House blog, and a mish-mash of Pinterests pins from someone’s much-larger beach house that we could never afford.

front of original boat house

Almost every aspect of our boathouse was taken from a photo or story I’d read on the Tiny-House blog. I’ve been so inspired by the creative ways many of you have maximized your limited space. There’s still improvements I’d like to make, but since it’s finally warm-enough we’ll finish the rest as we take-up residence for the summer.

Thanks again! Karen Jenkins

original kitchen

original bedroom

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Niall - June 25, 2013 Reply

I love the interior, and from the outside it reminds me of the shopped Tumbleweed tiny house on the water.

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you! Tumbleweed was for sure one of my inspirations!

    Patty - October 2, 2014 Reply

    These are called non-navigable houseboats and where numbered in the 1970’s (4-F, G, H or I-000, in upper East Tennessee. Always check before you purchase or renovate to make sure of what you are purchasing and if the renovations are within the regulations.

Peter Hastings - June 25, 2013 Reply

I’m intrigued to see this dwelling described as a boathouse. What is the term in US English for a closed shelter for a boat ? In UK English such a shelter is described as a boathouse. A boat with a house on it is referred to as a houseboat. indeed these two terms are often used to stress the importance of word order in spoken English…
That said – it’s a beautiful and inspirational house. On a boat.

    Lisa - June 25, 2013 Reply

    In the western US it’s referred to as a houseboat. A boat house is an enclosed shelter on the water used for storing boats.

    steve - June 26, 2013 Reply

    In the Pacific Northwest, i.e. Portland, Or.

    Boathouse: A structure on the water used to store a boat.

    Houseboat: A home on the water that can move under it’s own power.

    Floating Home: A house the water that is built on a raft or barge and can only be moved with assistance like that of a tug boat.

      Gamby - June 29, 2013 Reply

      These definitions would also be correct in New England

    Anonymous - July 7, 2013 Reply


    Boathouse: a floating house.

    Boathouse or maybe boat garage: a place to store your boat. Can be floating or on the shore.

    Houseboat: a squarish house-like boat with a motor.

    Recently I’ve noticed what appears to be a new boathouse in my area. It has an outboard motor stuck off the back…so perhaps they could technically call it a houseboat and get around the regulations against building new or repair costing more than 1/2 the value of the thing! Around here you can only inherit existing ones, they can’t be sold.

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Who knows Peter? That’s what I’ve always heard it called here. I’m not from the South, but they sure do call somethings by strange names sometimes around here! My husband however is a full-fledged Southerner.

    Wolfe - November 4, 2014 Reply

    Oddly. . .I’ve heard these things called a ‘flouse’. Floating house, I presume. They do not have motors and need to be towed to be moved.

    Gale - October 10, 2016 Reply

    They are actually called Floating Homes. I live in one in the Portland, Oregon area.

Liz - June 25, 2013 Reply

I’ve lived on both coasts and never heard of a houseboat referred to as a boathouse! I think it must be a southern thing.

Michael - June 25, 2013 Reply

Its not a Southern Thing. I live in the south and have never heard a houseboat referred to a s a boathouse. Those are two entirely different things. What the author refers to as a boathouse, is considered a houseboat here in the south… and everywhere else I have lived for that matter.

    Michael - June 25, 2013 Reply

    With that said, it is gorgeous!!!

    Lisa - June 29, 2013 Reply

    I agree with Michael. I live in Florida just outside of Tampa Bay. I have only ever heard of “boathouse” as a place to store boats, and a “houseboat” as a particular type of powered living boat. “Floating house” is something new and I’ve only ever heard or seen the term here on Tiny House. The only problem with all three is finding affordable places to have them. I’ve also seen English and Belgian channel boathouses. These are another very particular type of floating structure that is self powered (but if I ever went to England, I’d want to live in one.)

Jackie - June 25, 2013 Reply

Beautiful job! Extending the loft space with the window dormers — just fabulous! I am inspired! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you Jackie. The space is really livable. We now have a twin mattress and a full mattress up there and there’s still room that you don’t feel confined. Plenty of headroom for when you raise up out of bed. My 3 year old can still walk around up there but found that jumping on the bed results in a bump on the head, lol!

Nila - June 25, 2013 Reply

Congratulations, Karen! It is a fabulous place! I hope your family uses it for years in good health. Thank you for taking the time out of having fun on the water to share it with us!

Some are confused about the houseboat vs boat house term. Where I’m from, a house boat is a floating house with a motor and you drive it around the lake and sleep, cook, bathe, and live in it. They “eat” lots of gas. Karen’s little boat house is stable on a dock. No matter how much beer you drink, you ain’t goin’ nowhere unless you fall off the dock! Fisherman used them to sleep in and fish all night long. They stored their fishing boats, if they owned one, up on the dock, too.

I love this tiny house concept. It’s so fascinating and I love it most because its green and there is no HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION!

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    No HOA but we still pay a dock fee to the marina every year that covers our rent for the space and water. But no yearly taxes either!
    In our cove, we don’t float year-round, but there are areas of the lake where you could live year-round… might be an idea for retirement!

alice h - June 26, 2013 Reply

That’s a heck of a before and after. Wow!

Peter - June 26, 2013 Reply

I think that i saw this on an episode of renovation realities…Can anyone confirm that, seems weird but i remember the cabinet by the sink not being level….looks great, wish i was there.

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    We were on renovation realities! We had fun and managed not to argue while filming… can’t say we didn’t have a spat or two when the cameras weren’t rolling though! Just like I said on the show- we put some trim at the top of those cabinets and you can’t even tell it was crooked! I put a little wood putty in the crack in the front and painted over it.

SIMONE HALE - June 26, 2013 Reply


    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you, Simone!

mick - June 26, 2013 Reply

Very nice looking structure. Wonder what is being used for the hull(s)?? I find this us usually the most important and most difficult thing to build when it comes to small houseboats. Any comments appreciated.

Friday Links … | The Pretense of Knowledge - June 28, 2013 Reply

[…] I kind want a tiny houseboat […]

Steve - June 29, 2013 Reply

Awsomeness, yowsa

Lisa - June 29, 2013 Reply

PS: This floating house is awesome.

Craig - June 29, 2013 Reply

Who cares what it’s called? It’s still gorgeous and it meets their needs.

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Exactly. Thanks so much!

George - June 29, 2013 Reply

Very interesting. Being on the water with constant moisture, you might want to use polystyrene foam composite construction methods instead of wood. Polystyrene will not rot or mold and the life of the structure will be increased. https://medium.com/climate-change-is-unstoppable/9df97dff393c

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thanks George, I’ll check that out. Many of the materials that I wanted to use (b/c of price) were ruled out because of the moisture issues.

Jodyrae - June 29, 2013 Reply

I love living on the water. I have a 52’X15′ house boat. About 750 sq. feet. It is very comfortable for me and my husband. I can’t imagine raising kids in this space but it is great for us. We live in a marina on the island of Key West. our litle house has withstood several hurricanes includung the worst of “Wilma”.

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Sounds beautiful! We don’t “live” here full time. It’s close enough to our main home that we can come in the evenings and weekends. I have to keep on top of the clutter of course, but it’s manageable!

What do your interests say about you? | Julia Bushue - June 29, 2013 Reply

[…] credits: Top photo, left to right: Lynn Boughton, Karen Jenkins, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Bottom photo: Houzz.com, Fulcrum Structural […]

Mary Hixson - June 29, 2013 Reply

This is awesome what you accomplished with research, hard work and your creativity. It is beautiful and I’m sure will bring lots of happy times for your family. I especially like all the light wood and raised roof and windows….makes it all so light and bright and clean looking. Enjoy your home !

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you! Someone mentioned that they would have put more windows on the sides, but we are so close to our neighbors, that’s not much of a view. The best view is out the front… looking at the lake. So that’s why we made the front all windows!

Tony - July 7, 2013 Reply

house boat, boat house, boat storage area, floating home…… who gives a darn. I say kudos to folks using the tiny house movement to convert a small space into somewhere for their family to enjoy the summers. Go tiny house blog !

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Tony! I agree… what’s in a name?

Vicki Shumaker - July 12, 2013 Reply

Here in the Pacific Northwest we call them float houses. We have a lot of them. Yours is beautiful. I love that you made your own design and garnered ideas from so many sources. the loft is brilliant. Good job

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you!

pamsky - July 15, 2013 Reply

Looks like Fontana Lake to me. 🙂

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    We are very similar to North Carlina’s Fontana Lake- right over the mountain actually.
    I know they have some floating homes there as well, but I think more remote? We are just minutes from town where we are.

Phil - July 22, 2013 Reply

First of all,let me say I love this tiny house. So cool! We live in Louisville and sometimes make it to Lake Cumberland, between Ky and Tn, and really love the houseboats on that lake. I have never seen a small ‘home built’ house like this on that lake and it facinates me. That being said, I checked the TVA Authority guidelines for boathouses, http://www.tva.gov/river/26apermits/standards/residen_docks.htm, and they define a boat house, or boathouse as being for storage of boating items, and specifically says boathouses ‘shall not contain living space or sleeping areas.’ Just wondering how you got around this limitation. I’d love to build a (slightly larger) or renovate one like this one.


    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Phil, look under TVA’s rules for non-navigational houseboat, that’s technically what the TVA calls these. I know Norris Lake was having some trouble with people building more without the proper permits. Someone tried that here on Boone Lake and the TVA made them get rid of it…
    Here, the TVA does a good job of keeping track of who has a permit and who does not and making sure you abide by their rules.

      Marc Salava - March 24, 2016 Reply

      Sorry to drag up this article from a few years ago…

      I am a fellow floating home owner. I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the TVA proposing to require the removal of all floating houses from TVA waters. We have formed an opposition group to attempt to remove the sunset provision from the proposal.

      That said, I am interested in a particular comment you made: ” I know Norris Lake was having some trouble with people building more without the proper permits. Someone tried that here on Boone Lake and the TVA made them get rid of it…”

      Can you give me more insight into the last portion? I’m specifically interested in finding any documentation or personal stories about the TVA stepping in and stopping construction on a floating home.


    Barb - June 19, 2014 Reply

    A non-navigable houseboat is the correct term for a living quarter cottage that floats on the TVA water. A boathouse is the garage that floats on the TVA water. In 1978 they quit issuing permits to build them. These permits are called 4F tags. We have one of each and they both are required to have a 4F tag. We have private land, so not in a marina like Karen. These are for sale! I can send pictures and prices. We have upgraded a significant amount over the past 5 years, but we like the charm that these 50-60 year old nostalgic houses have. We are purchasing 2 others that we may sell as we just purchased property that had them with the property, but each would have to be moved at the owners expense. Let me know if interested I will email pictures and $

cindy - August 3, 2013 Reply

Beautiful home,thx for sharing

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    You’re welcome. Everyone on Tiny House Blog who shares is probably helping someone else with ideas for their own home!

Z. Shaarani - August 9, 2013 Reply

Fantastic houseboat/boathouse/whatever. Now I want to build one. Major question — has anyone out there who has built or experimented with flotation pontoons using normal 20foot long PVC pipes? if so, how do you treat it, bind it, calculate the flotation properties, etc, etc. The river near my home is saline so salt protection is a major issue. Can anyone help me out? Thanks. Z

    Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

    Sorry, Z.. none of that is allowed here so I don’t have any advice.
    I do know that the company where we bought our floatation was helpful with figuring out how much flotation we needed for what we estimated the weight of our house to be…
    For example, we knew the the rear of the house would be heavier with the bathroom, kitchen and loft… so we put more floats back there. But it was all a trial and error that did keep my husband up a few nights praying we wouldn’t sink!
    In the end we are only an inch or two lower in the back than the front! He did a great job.

Karen Jenkins - August 13, 2013 Reply

Thanks everyone for the comments. I’m no expert, but around here these are called boathouses. Some do have additional “garages” or lifts where the boats are stored… some do not. When we started looking to buy everyone called it a boathouse, so that’s what we went with. Technically the TVA calls them “Non-navigable Houseboats”. Sorry for any confusion.

Yes, we were on an episode of Renovation Realities. It was a lot of fun and I recommend it for anyone doing a unique renovation project.

Someone asked about the hull. We have encapsulated floats… specifically for docks and structures. I think ours are about 24 inches deep and various widths. Previously the home was floating on large blocks of Styrofoam. Not only had the otters had made a playground of it, but you are no longer allowed to replace current flotation with Styrofoam.

Thanks again for your comments. We really enjoy it!

Amie - August 21, 2013 Reply

Karen – where did you get that brown sofa? I love it, and love what you did with your boathouse! Hope to have one like it someday.

    Karen Jenkins - October 1, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Amie- It’s a futon, and actually we bought it for $30 from a friend! I’d love to put a leather/ pleather sleeper sofa in there b/c when the kids come in wet I’d like them to be able to sit down without worrying about the sofa. But I think they sell similar ones at Walmart.

Nusri J - September 28, 2013 Reply

Really intresting. Request your favor ifpossible to share on how to construct Floating and support pictures. Inspire to built flooting house.

    Karen Jenkins - October 1, 2013 Reply

    Nusri J- if you want to check out our Facebook page- Jenkins Family Boathouse, there is a post where I have some pictures of them replacing the floatation. Basically the structure was built on two very sturdy beams that extend out on both sides. We were able to use 4 jacks to lift up the house and then get underneath to secure the encapsulated floats with large bolts. Different size floats will support various amounts of weight so there is some math involved to make sure your structure and contents will float.

Jeff - December 30, 2013 Reply

That is cool! I’m sure you guys feel like you are on vacation every weekend in the summer. How tall will TVA let you build? You mentioned it had to be one story and I was wondering if there were any issues with it being “top heavy”?

    Karen - April 14, 2014 Reply

    Sorry, I’m just now seeing this Jeff. TVA will not let you build two stories, but usually let you get away with a loft as long as it doesn’t extend past a normal pitched roof height. Although, after ours was approved last year I did hear TVA denied a permit to build a similar lofts as ours. I’m not sure why it was denied….
    I think the “top heavy” concern is right on… perhaps the other structure wasn’t as wide? We have the walkways on both sides that I’m sure helps with the stability.
    Thanks for looking in!

debra - May 12, 2014 Reply

I think we are lake neighbors!!! It’s amazing what you have done to the boathouse!! Very pretty!!!

    Karen - July 1, 2014 Reply

    Thanks, Debra! Where are you located?
    We are in Hidden Cove which is now Serenity Cove.

Margy - May 19, 2015 Reply

Our float cabin is on Powell Lake in Coastal BC. Our lake has had a moratorium on new water leases since 1998, but you can build a new replacement cabin for your lease. We were lucky and found one built in 1998. There are about 200 float cabins scattered around the large lake anchored to shore. We are all off the grid. Living on the water is so wonderful. – Margy

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