All navigable waterways in the United States are public property. Houseboats dwellers need to be aware of local and state ordinances, especially if crossing over state lines. Laws pertaining to houseboat living differ from regular land residences since houseboats are mobile and on public property. Gun laws vary from state to state, and transporting a weapon on board without a permit may be illegal. In some states, police officers do not need probable cause to board a vessel.
Land under the water, or submerged land, is public property. This also includes the land up to the high water mark. The states are the trustees for all submerged land within their borders and held in trust for the people. The states cannot sell the rights to submerged land. All persons have the right to use the water for conducting commerce, fishing, bathing, swimming, boating and general recreational use. The states cannot commit submerged land for private use; however, legislatures have the power to determine water usage. For example, the legislature may determine an area suitable as a port or a public beach. It is responsible for resolving disputes that may arise if the public disagrees on a suitable use for the area. For instance, it would be a safety hazard to allow people to use a busy port for recreational purposes.
The federal courts use the federal test of navigability to determine if a waterway is public or private domain. Navigability is determined as of the date of statehood. The waterway must be capable or susceptible to use as a highway for the transportation of people or goods. The waterway must be usable for transportation conducted in customary modes of trade and travel on water. Waters must be navigable in their natural and ordinary condition. The state may adopt additional criteria when determining navigable waterways. For example, the state of Texas defines a navigable waterway as any stream that maintains a width of 30 feet from its mouth up. The state of California defines any waterway accessible by a recreational boat as public domain.
Each state adopts anchoring laws particular to the needs of a specific location. For example, the town of Hingham, Mass., requires that all vessels moored for longer than two weeks must have a harbor permit, and any vessel that stays within the Hingham harbor master’s jurisdiction for more than 48 hours must have the harbor master’s permission. The state of Mississippi mandates that vessels cannot anchor in any place that may obstruct any passing vessel, boat ramp, wharf or other facility.
In response to conflicts between boaters, homeowners and law enforcement, the state of Florida passed specific guidelines that define houseboat dwellers. Local governments cannot regulate live-aboards. A live-aboard vessel is any vessel used as a residence and not for navigation. A vessel is still a live-aboard even if it is rarely moved. Local governments may not restrict any person in a non-live-aboard vessel from anchoring outside of the mooring fields.
While it is legal to live on a houseboat on U.S. waterways, it is almost impossible to live solely on a houseboat without retaining a legal permanent land address. The U.S. Postal Service requires a current permanent address before issuing a post office box. A person must have an address to register a vessel. State registration requirements vary; however, the Department of Motor Vehicles states that there is a strong chance every boat will need a registration permit. (Resource 4) Some states, Mississippi for example, require that all persons must register their vessels with the state. Out-of-state registrations are not valid after 60 days. In some states, it is illegal to operate a houseboat without a valid registration number.