Michael Wight spent much of the 1980s playing musical houses.

In the last eight years, he bought a new home four times, each time moving closer to his fantasy ideal. Three years ago, he finally found it in a community called Yacht Haven Estates -- a dilapidated, two-story rental house across the street from the Potomac River that he bought and fixed up until he had what he had long sought.

"I said, 'Whatever problems it has, I'll take it,' " recalled Wight, 36, a vice president with a District printing services firm who lives there with his wife, Denise, and two young children. "It just had all the right ingredients."

If Yacht Haven Estates has all the right ingredients, the main course is the Potomac itself.

Located along the river west of Mount Vernon in southeastern Fairfax County, the tiny Yacht Haven community is as obsessed with the water as its name suggests, resisting the changes sweeping through neighboring communities, determined to hold on to its isolated, boating-oriented lifestyle.

Boasting the only private, full-service marina in Northern Virginia, Yacht Haven celebrates its riverfront locale without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. The community is awash with nautical motifs: an anchor mounted on the white brick subdivision gate, and roads sporting names like Ferry Landing Road and Dolphin Lane and Neptune Drive.

At the beginning of boating season in May, neighbors gather for a Commissioning Day, at which time the "fleet" is blessed by a minister and the free champagne flows.

Every Friday during the summer, there is a Splash Party at the marina clubhouse. Virtually every youngster in the community is a member of the fiercely competitive swim team.

"What ties everyone together is the love for the water," said Edith E. Rosse', who has lived in Yacht Haven for 16 years.

"I have so much here. I have the boat, I have the water -- I don't feel I have to go to Ocean City," said Karl May, 50, a retired Army colonel who with his wife, Mary, bought a house in Yacht Haven 15 years ago. "We live at the beach all the time."

Incorporated in the mid-1950s, Yacht Haven represents a real estate smorgasbord, from older, one-story brick ramblers with carports to newer, almost palatial, three-story, two-car garage houses on Carlby Lane or on the Neptune Drive circle next to the water. One standout on Carlby, where houses have names like River House and Dogue Hill, is protected by tall wooden gates and has lighted, clay tennis courts in the front yard and a servants' house next to the road.

Residents include a healthy dose of federal workers and retirees, as well as the wealthier star homeowners, such as local Domino's Pizza mogul Frank Meeks and former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who recently moved out.

Likewise, house prices in Yacht Haven also range widely, and there is little turnover.

Since December 1988, nine of the neighborhood's 168 houses have been sold, with prices ranging from $205,000 to $587,500; another two were taken off the market. Four other houses now are for sale in the community, with prices from $275,000 for an inland house to $799,900 for an as-yet-unfinished house on a channel that leads to the river.

The few houses directly on the Potomac, though, dwarf the rest of the community in value. On the circle part of Neptune Drive, for instance, no waterfront house has been sold for several years; the last one that did was bought by Meeks in 1987 for $1 million. Unlike the newer, more luxurious communities sprouting up on either side of it, Yacht Haven is an older, woodsy, more unassuming neighborhood, where shrubs and trees sometimes grow unchecked.

"It's not the manicured lawn-type community," said Sandy Lenihan, a local real estate agent who lived nearby for nearly two decades. "The neighborhood has always stayed somewhat rustic and country because people there care more for boating than caring for lawns."

"You can always tell the serious boaters," said Rosse', "because the lawn doesn't get cut."

In recent years, the community has seen an influx of younger homeowners, but along with them has come a dilemma for the yacht club.

Years ago, when few Yacht Haven residents actually owned boats, the community opened the marina to river-faring outsiders. Today, just 26 of the 130 slips belong to "charter members," or residents. Other locals who have boats keep them on land or, if their homes face it, in the channel that snakes through part of the neighborhood.

Rosse', a real estate broker, objects to the policy of not guaranteeing homeowners a boat slip because she feels it hurts home sales and property values. "Nobody wants to do it because nobody wants to be the bad guy," she said.

As for Michael Wight, he's just whiling away his free time rebuilding the walkway and front porch, the latest step in his ambitious rehabilitation plan.

After three years, the house he bought across Tarpon Lane from the yacht club has increased in value from the $305,000 he paid for it to about $550,000. More importantly, he said, the house and community have proved to be as suited for him and his family as he had hoped.

His daughters, Lauren, 5, and Nicole, 3, can swim in the clubhouse pool across the street. He and his wife can sit in their 24-foot-by-24-foot glass sunroom enjoying the river view. Or the entire family can go for a cruise on their 28-foot power boat.

"It's a very good life, in the sense that you feel you're off on vacation," said Wight. "I think we're going to stay here for a long time."