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Rental Houseboats Buoy Local Marina

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted Jul 7, 2023
Anthony Lucchino, of Atlantic Houseboats, and Marcia Bittner, property manager with The Cove Riverwalk Villas, stand on a houseboat at Port City Marina in downtown Wilmington. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
On the Cape Fear River, a unique houseboat community has been evolving.

Instead of a dockside neighborhood comprised of roughly equal parts primary homeowners, second homeowners and rental properties, almost all the houseboats in The Strands at Port City Marina are rentals. 
 
“The market dictated the mix,” said Anthony Lucchino, vice president of project management for Atlantic Houseboats and Wilmington real estate investment firm USA InvestCo. “We’re still creating a really nice community for those whose houseboat is a second home. This way more people get to experience our hard work. If more people owned the houseboats, fewer people in the community would get to enjoy them.”

The Strands is the brainchild of Chuck Schoninger, founder and chief operating officer of USA InvestCo. Rather than the typical, cramped houseboat, Schoninger envisioned a planned community made up of spacious, upscale houseboats, Lucchino said. 

Thus, The Strands’ one- and two-bedroom floating homes are moored along a dock at Port City Marina. Each boat is customizable and includes amenities found in upscale homes such as airy, open living areas; crown molding; quartz countertops; stainless steel appliances; king-size beds; and full-size washers and dryers. 

“A lot of people’s perception of a houseboat is not user-friendly,” Lucchino said. “We set out to change that and make our boats very spacious and friendly. Luxury buyers and renters expect a certain level of luxury.”

The Strands’ two-bedroom houseboats run about $400,000 to $500,000, plus the cost of buying or leasing a slip. The total price can be $600,000 to $700,000, Lucchino said. 

The Strands also provides the special touches that turn a development into a neighborhood like added greenery, street signs and a tiny park offering an unobstructed view of the Cape Fear River and Battleship North Carolina.

The Strands luxury houseboat community was apparently a concept whose time had come – all of the houseboats were under contract within six to nine months of the development’s first sale, according to Lucchino. Although it wasn’t in Schoninger’s original plan, most of the houseboats ended up as rentals. Brian Dumont, a real estate investor, bought 33 of the houseboats and planned to turn them into a short-term rental community (now called The Cove Riverwalk Villas). Some of the other buyers wanted the houseboats as rentals or second homes. One couple bought a houseboat to live in.

Development of The Strands got off to a slow start due to the pandemic and the ensuing supply chain issues, but building has ramped up in the past year. 

Twenty-four of the 40 planned houseboats are finished, and Atlantic Houseboats is turning out two boats every month. At this pace, all the boats should be completed by the end of the year, Lucchino said.

Also, the accent pieces for the community, like the greenery on the dock, better signage and the park, were expected to be done soon as of press time June 28. 

The Strands’ upscale houseboats appear to be as attractive to renters as they were to buyers. Marcia Bittner, property manager of The Cove Riverwalk Villas, said her company is already renting its 16 boats that are customer-ready, and they are all usually filled for the weekends. Prices range from $199 to $700 a night, depending on the season, day of the week and special events, such as Fourth of July fireworks or concerts at nearby Live Oak Bank Pavilion.   

In the off-season, Bittner said she expects to see more short- and mid-term rentals, especially from those working in the film industry. She predicts other winter renters will include retirees and people moving to Wilmington who need a place to stay while deciding where to build or for their new homes to be completed. 

To further entice renters to spend their vacations on one of her company’s houseboats in the future, Bittner said she hopes to offer special deals she creates with local businesses. 

“We want to really connect with the community and partner with restaurants, small businesses, Live Nation [the amphitheater’s operator] and the Wilson Center,” she said. 

The Strands owes its success to multiple factors. First, the developers are capitalizing on an upward trend in houseboat purchases. The market for houseboats has seen substantial growth in the past few years and is expected to grow significantly through 2028, according to Verified Market Research. 

The 2020-21 real estate boom, during which housing in the area was so difficult to find, played a role in the popularity of houseboats, too, Lucchino said. There’s also the fact that more people want high-quality waterfront homes, which are in short supply, Lucchino added. 

Additionally, there is an outstanding demand for upscale houseboats for both buyers and renters, which Lucchino said is an untapped market.  

He said what really draws people to The Strands is its uniqueness. 

“We’re one of the few that are building cohesively in a neighborhood-style in partnership with marina,” Lucchino said. 

Given the success of The Stands, USA InvestCo plans to build other such communities in the U.S. It will only do so, however, in the right place and at the right time, Lucchino said.

“We will take the concept on the road,” he said. “We are vetting the next project carefully for the right fit for the local market.”

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