Meet The NC Couple Who Live On A Floating House On A Lake

Meet Sarah Spiro and Brandon Jones who live in a floating cabin on Lake Fontana, NC. 

  • Where are you guys from and how did you meet?

I (Sarah Spiro) am from Sylva, North Carolina (45 mins west of Asheville). Brandon is originally from south Georgia, but grew up moving somewhere new almost every year. We met indirectly through our respective workplaces. Brandon runs Fontana Marina, which happens to be where the National Park Service is, which I work for as a Forestry Technician. I keep their boats for the boat-in-only areas of the park’s backcountry. I was in the marina getting ready to head out on the park boat for work, when Brandon and I struck up conversation and wound up planning a date on the lake for the following week. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Spiro

Our first date is actually both a really funny and horrific story! Brandon took me out on the lake after work one evening to try my hand at wakesurfing (like wakeboarding, but on a surfboard which has no foot bindings). I was doing great, until a bad wipeout led to a freak accident where the nose of the board shot directly into my face. The board split my lip open, broke my nose, and threw in a concussion while it was at it! It was so scary and embarrassing, especially on a first date with a guy I didn’t really know! But Brandon handled it like a pro; he gave me first aid, drove me to the hospital, waited for 5 hours on the curb outside the E.R. while they stitched my lip up, and then joked when he dropped me off at home about having to take a raincheck on our first kiss. And the rest is history!

  • What made you decide to build this house?

We both had been getting increasingly frustrated with the amount of money coming out of our paychecks every month for rent, utilities, etc. We had been discussing “going tiny” for some time, mainly as a means to save money for other priorities, as well as in the spirit of sustainability. Since Brandon manages the marina that this floating cabin was in, he caught wind of it when the previous owner was considering selling. We are both avid boaters, “Lake Rats” as they say, so when we got the chance to combine our dream of going tiny with our lake-loving lifestyle…. It was a no-brainer! 

Photo Credit: Sarah Spiro

On Lake Fontana, which is owned by TVA, the regulations are such that you’re no longer allowed to build a new floating cabin. There are only a certain number allowed on the lake, and that number was reached long ago. So you have to buy an existing build, and either renovate it or tear it off the lake to put a new one in its place. The structure we originally bought was nowhere near move-in ready, and we knew it was going to be a big project to make it even remotely comfortable. But the foundation (docks and floats) was in good condition, so we decided to renovate the existing structure instead of throwing the whole thing away and starting from zero. 

  • Why the current location?

Logistically, it made sense for us. Before we moved onto the lake, we only lived about 15 minutes down the road. Brandon works right next door at our harbor’s marina (Fontana Marina), and I’m still able to keep my commute to just under an hour to get to my duty station in the National Park, which borders the lake. Logistics aside, obviously this location is also just the dreamiest and most pristine hidden gem! It never gets old looking out at crystal clear water and undeveloped mountains in every direction.

Photo Credit: Sarah Spiro
  • What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?

Probably the logistics of having to boat in and out every time we come or go from the house. That can get annoying in day-to-day life, for example, if we forget something in the car, or anytime it’s raining. But above all, it definitely added an extra layer of difficulty and time to the building process. You can imagine the number of trips it took on a standard pontoon to haul all the materials, equipment, trash, etc. that we had to bring in and take away from the house during a full renovation. And once we boated into the ramp where our truck is parked, we still had to make another trip from there to the dump and back. That was pretty exhausting. But it’s safe to say it’s all been worth it now!

  • What do you love most about it?

We both agree the peacefulness out here takes the cake. The peace and quiet, the slow way of life, the sunshine and the water… It’s all been so good for both our mental and physical health. We also love how this way of life makes us respect and appreciate all the luxuries we tend to take for granted living on land, because simple things like electricity or having a shower aren’t necessarily a given on most houseboats.

  • Any suggestions for people wanting to live in a home like this or thinking about building one?

First off – just do it!! It will probably never be convenient, but you’ll only regret it if you don’t.  Just make it work. It will be beyond worth the compromises you have to make! 

And secondly, if you do want to build or renovate – do it right the first time so you don’t have to keep doing it. This is not a situation where you can get away with cutting corners. Water eats away at everything (especially saltwater if you’re on the coast), and the wind has a much longer fetch to pick up speed over water than it does on land. We regularly get 30+ MPH winds, and occasionally gusts up to 55mph. Not to mention all the wake from other boaters that will test the integrity of every joint! Make sure your build is tried and true, strong and sturdy, and you’ll save money in the long run when you don’t have to constantly replace things that rot, blow away, or break loose!

Photo Credit: Sarah Spiro
  • Total cost and living expenses?

We bought the original structure for about $23k, and put roughly that same amount into the renovation. We replaced everything except the roof and docks.

Living expenses are amazingly cheap. We pay $2,500 a year as a mooring fee (“rent” basically) to keep the spot that we are anchored in. That also includes a city water line running to the house underwater from the marina, and weekly pump-outs for our septic. We have solar, so we have no electric costs except a gallon of gasoline every now and again to run a generator