Floating Home at the Centre of a Cottage Country Feud
“Not everyone can pay millions for lakefront property”: This man’s floating home is at the centre of a cottage country feud
Joe Nimen believes his shipping-container houseboat is a masterpiece. His neighbours in Port Severn say it’s an eyesore. Now, the Ontario government is threatening to ban vessels like his from overnight stays on provincial waters
BY COURTNEY SHEA | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK MARCOUX |. TORONTO LIFE | JULY 13, 2023
Three years ago, amateur engineer Joe Nimen got to work building his dream home: a collection of four shipping containers fashioned into a floating cottage. In Nimen’s eyes, the four-season structure is a feat of ingenuity and environmental stewardship. For his many critics in the Port Severn area, however, it’s an unsafe eyesore with no business being on the water. At the core of the conflict is whether this dwelling qualifies as a houseboat (Nimen says it does) or whether he’s simply exploiting a loophole to avoid zoning regulations and property taxes. The Ontario government recently weighed in on the conflict, announcing plans to ban floating homes from overnight stays on provincial waters. Nimen says most of the relevant waterways are federal but that he appreciates the publicity boost for his company, Life on the Bay, which makes and sells vessels like his. Here, he tells us how he built a seaworthy home, why he isn’t bothered by his critics and what he sees as the real issues in cottage country.
Let’s start with how you ended up living in this…boat? Cottage? What do you call it?
We call it a floating home, but technically it’s a houseboat. It’s aways been my dream to live on the water. My parents had a cottage on Port Severn, and we would boat over in the summer. I loved the idea of a home that you could sail from Port Severn to Parry Sound or Toronto. For years, I was making plans on AutoCAD, a 3-D design software.
Do you have a background in construction?
I studied engineering and later did some work installing foundations for buildings and docks. In October 2020, my girlfriend, Erin, said she was sick of hearing me talk about the houseboat idea—so I knew it was time to take action. We sold our house on Lake Nipissing and used that money to fund the project, with the hope that eventually we could make similar homes to sell. The house I’m living in cost about $350,000 to make, but some of that was spent on equipment. I bought the shipping containers off Kijiji. I had to create something that could endure the winter, when the lake freezes over. It was a lot of trial error. There were nights in February when we woke up with no water because the pipes had frozen. But we got there.
For those who haven’t seen it, can you describe your home and how it works?
Basically, it’s two pieces, each made from two 16-metre shipping containers that sit on top of wooden barges. The first piece is our work area and garage, where we store snowmobiles, ATVs and other seasonal items. The other half is our home, plus an outdoor deck area with patio furniture and a barbecue. When we want to move, we attach the whole thing to a tugboat.
Can you park it anywhere, or are there rules?
We’re allowed to anchor anywhere on Crown land for up to 21 days. After that, we have to move at least 100 metres. To the best of my knowledge, most public waterways—lakes and rivers—are federally regulated.
When did you first get the floating home out on the water?
About two years ago. I remember sitting on my couch, having my coffee as we moved across the lake. I couldn’t believe we actually did it. It was a great day, but I guess not everyone felt that way. By the following week, we’d gotten visits from representatives of our township, the adjoining township and fire services. People were wondering, What the hell is this thing?
Did you anticipate a negative reaction?
When I look back, there are some things that I should have taken into consideration. At that point, it was a work in progress, so all of the mechanics were visible from the outside. It didn’t look like a nice finished home yet—it was more like a huge science project. I can see why people were a bit alarmed. Plus, the spot we chose was a high-traffic area. For me, it was sentimental: it’s near an island I visited as a kid.
Do you think some cottagers might have interpreted it as you shoving your giant non-taxable flotilla in their faces?
That absolutely wasn’t my intention, but I see how it may have come off that way.
You mentioned visits from local authorities. What did they inquire about?
I think they wanted to make sure we were following all of the rules, and to the best of my knowledge, we have been. We’ve had two safety inspections from Transport Canada, both times with no issues. For the most part, people who take the time to come aboard tend to be pleasantly surprised. I realize that not everyone is convinced, but no one has ever said anything bad to my face.
Fair enough, but behind your back, people are saying that you have no business plopping your unregulated home in an area where you don’t pay property taxes.
My response is that we live on a houseboat. From a categorization standpoint, it’s the same as any other cruising boat with a washroom and a kitchen. We’re federally regulated by Transport Canada, we pay to keep our boat at a marina and the marina pays property taxes. And we’re not unregulated. There is a Transport Canada building code for boats, called the Construction Standards for Small Vessels, with hundreds of rules around fire escapes, electricity, plumbing, sewage and more. We follow all of them.
I’m glad you brought up sewage. Wastewater and other environmental concerns are key talking points among your critics.
We have our own sewage treatment plant built into our boat. It’s been tested and approved by Environment Canada, so I’m pretty sure that’s good enough. It’s funny that all of these cottagers are talking about their environmental concerns—a big part of why I built this place is because I wanted what my parents had but didn’t want to cut down trees, dig into the land, blast the rock and disturb the squirrels. We’ve come up with a way to have all the fun of a cottage without disturbing the natural environment. So I’m not convinced that’s their real motive.
Any theories about the actual source of outrage?
I think there are people who are upset that they had to spend three million dollars on their cottage and we didn’t.
What about the eyesore factor? The mayor of Severn called your place an “ugly sea can.”
Like I said, that first summer it was a prototype. These days, it looks like most modern cottages.
Your company, Life on the Bay, sells these types of vessels. How many orders have you gotten so far?
We have five under construction, plus three that are paid for but not underway yet. Since this latest comment from the provincial government, my phone has been ringing off the hook.
You’re referring to a recent announcement from Doug Ford, who said he’s banning floating homes from staying overnight on provincial waters. Isn’t that bad for business?
I don’t think it will be. Like I said, we’re talking about federal waterways, so I’m not sure that the province has any control. But, by bringing publicity to the issue, they’re driving traffic to our website. I should really send a thank-you note.
Who do you see as your target market?
We get a lot of interest from people who want a cottage but can’t afford to pay two million dollars, which is what a fixer-upper in this area costs. Instead, for $700,000, you can buy a brand new three-bedroom, two-bathroom floating home. We also have even more-affordable options. Maybe you’re downsizing after retirement—How else could you get a home for $300,000?
I’m not sure that bringing affordable housing to cottage country is going to help your case.
I understand that there are people who want lakefront property to be exclusive, but I don’t think it’s up to them. And, honestly, I think the whole situation is being exaggerated. Yes, my boat got a lot of attention, but it’s not the out-of-control invasion some are making it out to be. If anything, what’s out of control is how all of the accessible shorelines up here are private property—not great for families who just want to spend a day on the beach. Maybe that’s the invasion we should be focused on. I’m just giving people a chance to enjoy the water.