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TRY A VACATION RENTAL THAT FLOATS

Seniors considering a vacation rental this summer might want to add a houseboat to their list of options. Available at a surprisingly large number of the nation's lakes and rivers, houseboats provide many of the same advantages as landlocked rentals -- along with unmatched access to whatever water recreation activities appeal to you. Prices, too, are comparable to what you'd pay for a condo or cottage.

Think of a houseboat as a recreation vehicle or mobile home mounted on pontoons or a hull. Typically, you get sleeping facilities for two to 20 people, a functional kitchen, at least one full bath with shower, air conditioning, and a deck where you can bask in the sun, sit in the shade, or fire up the barbecue. Some provide one or more private bedrooms; others feature convertible sofas. Some marinas that rent houseboats offer small cabin cruisers as alternatives for one or two couples.

Houseboats are mobile, typically powered by a good-sized outboard or inboard engine. At an average speed of less than 10 knots, you won't win any races in a houseboat, but you can get away for some privacy in a cove or uninhabited stretch of river. And you can always dock, get your car, and drive off for local sightseeing or to stock up on supplies at a nearby market.

Rates are comparable to what you would spend for a land-based accommodation, starting at around $1,000 a week for a small unit, to $3,000 to $5,000 for a deluxe unit sleeping up to 20. At most places, you can also rent for weekends or shorter midweek periods.

Accommodation space on houseboats is distinctly tighter than you'd find in most land rentals, however. And, at least as far as I can see, those "sleeps" number claims are even more exaggerated than those for land rentals. As with vacation rentals, rates are highly seasonal, with the best deals in the early spring and late fall "shoulder" seasons. And, as with many land rentals, you'll find the best per-person prices if you form a group to rent a large unit, rather than decide to go as just a couple.

Arranging a rental is easy. One way to start is with a Web site that list houseboat rentals around the world. The most comprehensive I've found is www.houseboatrentals.com, where you can search for houseboat rentals in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, as well as 15 countries/continents around the world.

To satisfy my curiosity, I checked "India," where, as it turns out, you can rent a houseboat for about what you pay in the United States. As with similar rental sites, Houseboatrentals is a "portal" with direct Internet links to individual rental companies. All of the places I tested showed rates and provided pretty good graphics and specifications.

Gordon's Guide (www.gordonsguide.com/houseboats) is similar, but shows fewer individual rental companies. Also, quite a few rental companies on the Gordon's site do not show rtes online -- a major disadvantage.

Several large multi-location resort operators rent houseboats. Among the better ones are Forever Resorts (www.foreverresorts.com) and Seven Crown Resorts (www.sevencrown.com). You can easily locate rental companies at just about any body of water by Googling "houseboats" plus the name of the lake or region. You can also search for the visitor information Web site for a vacation area, where you'll usually find links to local houseboat renters.

I'll have to confess that I've never rented a houseboat. However, I have friends who love the experience. And I often pass by Lake Shasta, Calif., one of the nation's busiest houseboating centers. I've also rented boats at Lake of the Ozarks, another important center. And for fall and winter renters, you'll find plenty of options in warm-weather areas, such as Lake Mead, Nev., (it's like spending a week in Grand Canyon) and in several Florida lakes.

e-mail: eperkins@mind.net

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