Local communities take a wide variety of forms. At one extreme, among Bajau Laut boat-dwellers, local communities consist of scattered moorage groups made up of families whose members regularly return, between intervals of fishing, to a common anchorage site. Such communities tend to be fluid in makeup and are characteristically organized around smaller family alliance groups ( pagmundah ). The latter are comprised of anything from two to six closely related boat-dwelling families whose members regularly fish and anchor together, often sharing food and pooling labor, nets, and other gear. Intermoorage relationships are maintained through intermarriage, frequent exchange of visits, and the movement of families from one group to another. Such relations, and a similar status as clients of surrounding shore people, reinforce a wider sense of identity. Somewhat less extreme are pile-house villages made up of families whose members regularly move between the village and extended periods at sea as boat-dwelling family fishing crews. Houses in such communities are often small and poorly constructed; some of them are too low to permit their occupants to stand upright inside. Such communities are generally those of recently settled boat-nomads. More typical are well-established pile-house villages. Here village members fish largely in all-male crews, on a daily or overnight basis, returning to the village for meals and to sleep. Such settlements generally consist of densely clustered houses built in close association with nipa and mangrove forests, where village members find seasonal employment as thatch- or woodcutters, particularly during the northwest monsoon when squalls and high seas prevent open-sea fishing. Houses usually consist of a single unpartitioned room, raised on piles 1 to 2 meters above the ground or highwater mark. Most are fronted by an open porch or platform, often serving as a common work area, with an attached kitchen at the rear. Finally, at the opposite extreme are land-based villages built inland from the immediate shoreline. Here individual houses are generally separated by house compounds, fruit trees, and gardens. Houses, both ashore and in tidal settlements, are individually owned, with the house owner generally acting as the household head or spokesman. Households are grouped into clusters ( tumpuk or ba'anan ). Most clusters contain between two and five closely related and physically adjacent households, although a few headed by especially wealthy or effective leaders may be considerably larger, attracting the allegiance of more distant kin and affines. Household spokesmen and other core-cluster members are most often related as married siblings, spouses of siblings, or members of closely related sibling sets. Because of the tendency to uxorilocal residence, ties between married sisters generally predominate. One household head is looked to as the cluster spokesman. A cluster may coincide with a parish, a group of households affiliated with a single mosque. More often, however, a parish contains more than one cluster, with one cluster spokesman, typically the mosque owner or sponsor, acknowledged as the principal parish leader. A parish might comprise a village, or be larger or smaller. In villages containing more than one parish, one parish leader, having the support of the majority of household spokesmen, acts as village headman.
Among boat-nomadic groups, the boats used as family dwellings vary in size and construction. Those of northern and central Sulu are basically small dug-out vessels with double outriggers, while farther south, in southern Sulu and southeastern Sabah, boats are generally larger, averaging 10 meters with a beam of between 2 and 2.5 meters, lack outriggers, and are plank-constructed with solid keel and bow sections. All are equipped with a roofed living area made of poles and kajang matting and a portable earthenware hearth used for preparing family meals, usually carried near the stern.