Sailing Totem: Keep the House? Or Sell It?

It’s a question that many cruisers have before setting off—what to do with the house?

May 28, 2020

One of the biggest decisions for many gonna-go cruisers is what to do about their home on land. Do you keep it? Do you sell it? How do you decide?

Jamie, Siobhan, and Mairen
Jamie, Siobhan, and Mairen in front of our home on Bainbridge Island; 2004 Behan Gifford

My friend Nica has been cruising twice: before kids, then sabbatical with kids. She and her husband Jeremy are preparing to take off for a third time…in the same Calypso, their Bristol Channel Cutter. Having recently backed home sale plans up by a year (anyone looking for a sweet place near Charlottesville, VA?), home sales and cruising speckle our conversations.

Our pre-cruising intention was always to sell. When we made our five- year plan to go cruising, one of the first steps we took was to call our real estate agent. Goal: move from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, where we’d save money (public schools vs private tuition) while living close to our boat and the water…in a house that was purchased with resale value specifically in mind. The proceeds would fund our adventures; when the sabbatical cruise ended, we’d just start over. There might be time living aboard before buying another house; we might sell Totem for a down payment.


That blew up, because 2008 – our departure year – turned out to be a terrible year to sell. Hello, financial crisis and real estate crash! Our mortgage was under water; using savings to close the gap would have erased our cruising fund. We left without selling, and 12 years later still rent out a beautiful home back in Washington.

Dolphins changing course to check out the dinghy interlopers: priceless. Behan Gifford

Reasons to sell

Selling was supposed to be the basis of our cruising kitty: money to take us for years across the big blue. We owned Totem already, but for some, selling a home provides cash to buy The Boat. Having heard about what a nightmare it can be to deal with renters from afar as a property owner, shedding that stress seemed smart.

The biggest reasons not to sell weren’t issues for us. Losing our foothold in the property market was a fine tradeoff for magical years as a family; it is recoverable.


What if you don’t sell?

Keeping a house, as we did, has a few distinct benefits. If the property holds family or sentimental value, it may not be an option on the table. There’s the comfort of knowing it’s there, waiting, to fall back on if cruising life doesn’t line up with the way your dreams painted it.

Heirloom furniture or collections may be more readily stored in a garage or attic or room.

kids with seashells
I can’t remember most of the things we stored any more: our treasures are different now. Behan Gifford

A home can mean a financial boost, too; we know a number of cruisers who support themselves with rental income. In our case, we lost money in the rent/mortgage equation for years; it’s still largely a net-zero from a cash flow standpoint.


Where we truly lucked out is with a trusted friend to acts on our behalf when there’s turnover or an issue we can’t readily manage from afar; the cost of a property manager would have been hard to add. We’re fortunate to have a really wonderful family in the home now, but there have been a few who… well, I suppose the karmic wheel will turn for them later. My biggest angst with them is the burden it added to our friend, who helps us from the kindness of her heart.

Last night’s sunset, looking towards Loreto; Pablo in silhouette. Behan Gifford

The impossible question

There’s no right answer, because every situation and every set of priorities are different. Back to my friend Nica: she and her husband Jeremy are selling their house with clear-eyed plans. An experienced cruiser, she breaks down how she’d approach the decision.

What you cannot know before leaving is how cruising will change you. It does: this seems an intractable truth. In our case, it also means the house on Bainbridge that was so perfect for busy family years is no longer our home. Although it vibrates with treasured memories, but we’ve changed, and despite the fact the island it sits on remains a homeplace the property isn’t where we’d choose live again.


The greatest asset in retaining a house at this point is just that: the asset. As life afloat has gone from “a few years sabbatical” to “as long as we can” (12 years and counting), that value appreciates. We did not expect to be long-termers! Real estate values may cycle a few more times before cashing in becomes important, but absent much savings – the property is a kind of bank account for Someday.

Scoping bighorn
Scoping bighorn sheep on the beach Behan Gifford

Current view

For now, that Someday feels very far away. And for now, cruising carries on in our interim normal. About a week ago, I commented that the stay-at-home directive here in Mexico felt at times like a heavy weight, so many weeks in and so many weeks to go. A reader replied to remind me: “…you are living your life in a deliberate fashion, a life and lifestyle you chose, worked for, and maintain because it’s what you really want.” It’s true. Some by effort, much by luck, all by focus.

Hidden sheep
Sheep in the shadows: spotted from the dinghy yesterday afternoon. Behan Gifford

The experiences around us are a constant reminder. The last couple of days, we’ve been watching bighorn sheep wander the littoral. This morning, my excitement at the huffing breaths of dolphins drew our family on deck to revel in the wildlife around us and the beautify of sunrise. The warmth of friendship, a text away…and a few boatlengths away. These lift that weight: we’re so lucky, and so grateful, for where we are now.

Dolphins fishing
Dolphins fishing next to Pulsar as the sun rose behind Isla Carmen this morning. Behan Gifford


What’s myth? What’s reality? How do cruisers prepare? Taking on the very real question of piracy on our next TOTEM TALKS, scheduled for Saturday, June 6, at 10:00 am Pacific / 1:00 pm Eastern / 5:00 pm GMT. Advance registration required; your confirmation email includes a link to join on the day.

Scoping for pirates
Scoping for pirates in the South China Sea, 2013. Claire Suni

Totem was scouted by pirates in the South China Sea; and we’ll share that story and a few others. If you’d like to be notified of future TOTEM TALKS, head over to our subscribe page.


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