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Could you cope with living on a narrowboat?

What could be more idyllic than living cheaply in a beautiful canalside setting alongside ducks, dragonflies and friendly fellow boat dwellers?

A narrowboat can cost as little as £15,000 for a 'project craft' to more than £150,000 for new one built to your own specification. Residential moorings are a snip at £3k to £8k per annum out in the regions, but you're looking at £10k to £18k per annum in the London and South East area, and you’ll need to factor in council tax, insurance, maintenance costs and heat and power bills too. So what are the most cost-effective ways of getting afloat, and are you really cut out for life on the water? 

Those tempted to swap bricks and mortar for ropes and rudders would do well to attend the Crick Boat Show this May. This is the UK’s largest inland show held annually at Crick in Northamptonshire. The country’s narrowboat community will be celebrating canal culture, but Crick is also a great place for novices to look over newly built narrowboats, talk to second hand brokers, buy boating kit and attend seminars about life on the waterways.

Help with how to get afloat

“For 2016 we're doing a big push to encourage ‘beginner boaters’ to visit the show,” says Rachael Grignon, Events Marketing Manager at Waterways World which runs Crick Boat Show. “Seminar talks include ‘So you want to live on a boat?’ and ‘How to get afloat’. There’ll also be a drop-in session for anyone seeking advice on buying a new boat, and handling lessons to learn canal etiquette and the basics of casting off, steering, mooring and navigating locks."

Peter Johns, Publisher of Waterways World magazine and Show Director for Crick says: “Every year, we’re welcoming more and more aspiring boaters to Crick Show, whether they're visitors wanting to take a canal trip, buying their first boat or planning to live aboard. We want to meet that need by offering a range of expert advice, activities and resources to help people access and enjoy the 3,000-mile network of waterways in the UK.”

Beryl McDowall, head of publicity at the Residential Boat Owners Association, and editor of Soundings magazine often speaks at the Crick workshops. “Buying a boat to live on can be a very big and expensive mistake, with lots of new people only lasting a year or two,” she says. “It looks lovely in the summertime, but in the winter you face the prospect of flooding and seeing bits of your property floating away or at worst, your boat thrown up on the banks.” 

Both the Canal & River Trust and the RBOA are working hard to educate those enamoured with the idea of living on a narrowboat or barge about the harsh financial and practical realities. The RBOA has produced a 96 page book – Living Afloat – which provides a wealth of expert advice to those looking to take the plunge.

A boat is not a house

In recent years McDowall’s seminars at Crick have been crammed to the rafters with keen novices. “I’m very honest from the start about the reality of it, spelling out the costs of maintenance, moorings, insurance, council tax, as well as the challenges of constantly stocking up on water, diesel, coal, firewood. It’s hard work on a boat because you have to bring everything to your mooring, water and heating aren’t on tap like in a house. Some people walk out of these seminars after ten minutes, hit by the reality check. It’s a shame to shatter their dreams, but people need to learn the truth.”

Other issues to consider are maintaining your domestic water system on the boat, with water pumps often giving out and needing replacement. You have to carefully manage your waste, which might be getting your toilet pumped out regularly. Vessel maintenance is a massive consideration with narrowboats needing to be taken out to the water every two years to have their hull treated and painted, while engines need regular servicing and all your onboard equipment taken care of.

While it may only cost an owner £2,000 a year for a permanent base in a marina or yard in the Midlands or in the North of England, a berth at London’s Poplar Dock Marina (pictured below) near Canary Wharf or Lisson Grove NW8 - Little Venice - would set you back closer to £20k a year. You typically pay according to the length of your boat, with a 72ft narrowboat being the longest and most costly to berth.

Dodging these payments by becoming a ‘continuous cruiser’ means you’ll be moving every couple of weeks around your local area or beyond, and as McDowall points out this puts paid to getting your kids to school, keeping an eye on elderly family members and holding down a regular job and social life.

She says there’s been a surge in interest in owning a boat as cheap accommodation, “and this has become a massive problem, particularly in London”. Her understanding is that overcrowding and the illegal use of the waterways are causing a headache for the Navigation Authorities, particularly when owners try to dodge the mooring system by “flitting backwards and forwards between a couple of bridges”. Serious ‘continuous cruisers’ are compromised, while those living on houseboats in fully paid up moorings often have their feathers ruffled by an influx of sometimes unfriendly arrivals, upsetting small houseboat communities.

Think about the hidden costs

You can’t take out a home loan on a canal boat as you're not living on a fixed plot of land. Instead, buyers must either pay in cash for their vessel, or take out a marine mortgage - which is really a tailored personal loan. 

One big misconception is that borrowing for a boat is the same as arranging a mortgage for a house. It’s not. Marine mortgages are more expensive, and have to be taken over a shorter period of time – 5 to 10 years, as opposed to 25 years – explains Rob Carr, head of Marine Finance at Arkle Finance. “The use of the term ‘mortgage’ confuses actually, because in reality a marine mortgage is a very different option from a property mortgage, it’s more like a loan – interest rates are about 3% higher.”

He adds: “People think it’s going to be really cheap to own a boat, and they jump into it. But often when we ask would-be boat dwellers to work out their income and expenditure when assessing their suitability for a marine mortgage, some people are shocked to discover that they can’t really afford to live on one. When you add up everything you’ll need to pay for, it’s not as rosy as it might first seem.”

Consider too that narrowboats – like all boats – depreciate slowly over time and this puts a different slant on taking out a mortgage. “If you invest in a house you’re almost guaranteed to see its value grow over the years, but the opposite will happen with a boat, so it’s not such a healthy financial decision for anyone hoping to build equity for themselves or their children,” says Carr.

For those seeking a really cheap alternative to a house of flat, a £30k narrowboat might be the most they can afford. This will likely be an old boat that needs a lot of repair to make it safe and livable, as well as ongoing costs. Woodwork may need replacing and even the metal elements of an older vessel will suffer from rust and corrosion. “It’s not uncommon for engines to give out and it will cost several thousand pounds for a new one,” says Carr.

Big demand for narrowboats

Nevertheless demand for narrowboats, wide beam ‘barge’ style boats, and livable cruisers is on the up. With average UK house prices now approaching the £200k mark, the opportunity to own a floating home for around a third of that is appealing to many financially-challenged and frustrated Brits. 

Here at Boats and Outboards, we've seen traffic to the Narrowboats for Sale section quadruple in the last two years, with adverts for well maintained ‘livable’ boats priced under £80k flooded with enquiries, and narrowboat brokers around the country kept incredibly busy. “Our search data shows there’s more demand than supply,” says Paul Scrivens, director of BoatsandOutboards.co.uk. “A big trend is for young couples or retirees to buy a boat at a bargain price of say £30k to £40k and renovate it as an investment project – aiming to create a dream floating residence that won’t break the bank, even once you factor in the licence, insurance, maintenance and mooring fees.”

BoatsandOutboards.co.uk has carried out research into narrowboat ownership costs and estimates that you can make an old narrowboat livable by spending between £3,000 and £7,000 on initial renovation work, with the greatest expense being a new engine (£4,000). Then expect to pay at least £1,000 each year on maintenance – you’ll want that beautiful Roses & Castles folk art paintwork looking its colourful best! 
You'll spend £800 to £1,000 on a licence and £180  for a Boat Safety Certificate annually; around £200 - £500 for insurance; and around £900 a year on heating and electricity if you want a cosy home with all mod cons. Mooring fees will be a big outlay, or if you keep moving around the canal network (a major lifestyle consideration) remember to factor in diesel costs. 
You can’t take out a home loan on a canal boat as you are not living on a fixed plot of land. Instead, buyers must either pay in cash for their vessel, or take out an unsecured personal loan. Interest rates on these loans can be double those on a home loan and typically must be paid off in five years. So while you won’t be saddled with a big mortgage, you will need a lump sum to get you afloat in the first place.

Anecdotally, savvy boat-buyers are snapping up canal boats from the North and cruising down to London to live on them, says Parry at the Canal & River Trust, “and this would certainly be the cheapest option”.

Geoff Ashley, executive director of professional brokerage Narrowboats Ltd in Northwich, Cheshire, has found this to be the case. He sells new and used narrowboats and widebeams priced between £20k to £100k and ‘liveaboard boats’ have become his bread and butter. “While ten years ago stock was sold largely for leisure boating, today the vast majority of narrowboats are being bought up by people who want to live aboard, very often further South,” he says. “The boats themselves cost less money up here, and of course the cost of living down south is driving a trend for alternative accommodation and we are seeing a big demand on the back of that. We can take care of delivery, and help with advice about financing. But a crucial question now is mooring. We advise people to secure their mooring first if they're going to live aboard in the South of England, or face getting caught in a tricky situation with a new boat they’ve nowhere to moor.”

Particularly popular at Narrowboats Ltd is the specially designed 60ft x 9 ft Slimline Widebeam Pioneer new build (pictured below), priced at around £90,000 – 14 have sold in the last 18 months. “This model appeals to people on a budget because it has enough cubic volume inside to qualify as a residential boat, so has no VAT to pay, yet is narrow enough to cruise the canalways so is ideal for continuous cruising – again a cheap option,” says Ashley.


Buyers on a budget can also opt to purchase a new built vessel as a 'sailaway' - which means you take the basic boat - typically including lined hull and engine - and fit out the interior yourself. Sherwood Narrowboats offers a range of options at different prices, allowing real buyer flexibility, as do JD Narrowboats, Fernwood Boats and Collingwood Boat Builders.

Undoubtedly older, second hand boats are cheaper and very popular. Carr at Arkle Finance says he’s regularly speaking to people wanting to buy an original Dutch barge and berth it on the coast, while others are looking to live on boats along canals and rivers in urban settings. “There are lots of tidal estuaries within reach of London that are getting busy in this way,” he says. “Or if you’re happy out in the countryside you might find a coastal mooring in Hampshire, Devon or Cornwall in a pretty yard.”

The big trend has been for beautiful character narrowboats for inland residential mooring says Scrivens at BoatsandOutboards.co.uk. "People are finding bargains, falling in love with the idea of a colourful, cosy canal boat home, and adapting to life in a confined space. A great many specialist boat fitters are working hard to renovate these boats and make them fun, affordable places to live for a new generation of boat dwellers."

Carr says buyers should be wary of this lack of space. "Internally you can’t pass by each other on a narrowboat and it’s not a convenient shape for long term family living, as they are only 6 ft wide,” says Carr. “Dutch barges are wider - 12 to 14ft - and lend themselves to the houseboat lifestyle. But 6.10 wide or 7ft wide can be really tough going over time.”

Secure a mooring first

It’s estimated that today over 10,000 people live on the capital’s waterways, with areas such as Hackney and Islington getting crowded.

The Canal & River Trust looks after 100 miles of waterways across greater London: the Grand Union canal, Regent’s Canal and River Lea navigation (but not the Thames). These waterways have seen a 52% rise in numbers over the past five years to 3,255 boats in March 2015 up from 2,137 in 2011, says chief executive Richard Parry. “The number of boats without a home mooring is particularly increasingly.”

He adds: "There’s a lack of mooring space and facilities are struggling – they were never designed to deal with this many boats. We’re trying to create more residential moorings without losing ‘casual’ towpath mooring space used by cruisers."
"While it’s important to appreciate that getting to facilities provided by both the trust and third parties can require time and effort, and something that's part of day-to-day boating life, we’re doing our best to provide more where we can.  We’ve recently installed a new pump out and water tap at Hackney Wick, for example, and are working with boating groups to identify where there might be other areas of need."

McDowall at the Residential Boat Owners Association agrees there is now a severe shortage of moorings for narrowboats in London and across the South East as fleets of new owners are vying for space to live out their cost effective new existence. She sits on the Navigation Advisory Group within the Canals & Rivers Trust, and says this is a major problem being dealt with currently. “We are working on how to ensure fair mooring for all. If you have all these new people flitting around the canals and rivers trying to dodge the berthing and Council Tax payments, it can make life difficult for genuine cruisers and houseboat owners.”

There are plenty of cases where dreams of living on the water are shattered by the realities of emptying out toilets, paying high mooring fees, struggling with technical problems with the engine, or simply finding the space cramped and uncomfortable to live on. “Some want to quit after 6 months and sell their boat on, but equally a whole new generation of boaters are falling in love with the lifestyle and making it work,” says Parry. “For the CRT it's heartening to see the joy of boat living being embraced by a new audience of young enthusiastic urbanites.”

Watch the video below by film maker Charlotte Ladefoged showing how she has made the most of the space on her narrowboat – including a bedroom that morphs into an office.

Anyone considering to live afloat should also be aware that most marinas in and around London have lengthy waiting lists. Popular spots are Lee Valley Springfield Marina, Battlebridge Moorings at Kings Cross N1, Lisson Grove NW8, Poplar Dock Marina E14 –all over-subscribed today.

“If you look out West towards Brentford and Southall you might find an affordable berth, but even here things are getting more and more built up,” says Parry.

If you do get a good mooring with the full compliment of facilities, you’ll at least be able to live a fairly regular, comfortable lifestyle and hold down a job, or even get the kids to school. You’ll be able to hook up for waste, water and electricity. However not all moorings are so well equipped, and of course the best appointed will be the most expensive.

One development that might ease the pressure is landowners converting their fields running alongside rivers and canals into serviced moorings, as has been done at Park Farm Marina alongside the Trent & Mersey Canal. "Landowners are starting to consider building marinas as a new income stream, and a way to catch this new interest in living on boats close within reach of the large urban areas," says Ashley at Narrowboats Ltd.

Facilities are improving

Overall across the whole country the numbers of boats being licensed annually with the CRT has only risen from 32,000 to 33,000 in the last five years. The hike in licenses being paid in London and a handful of other hotspots – in particular the Bath end of the Kennett & Avon Canal – is being ploughed into improving waterside facilities for boat-living communities. Just as well, because where boating communities have swelled uncontrollably, facilities are under pressure.

The CRT's policy is to encourage ownership and living as a really great lifestyle choice, "but we're working hard to communicate the fact that living on a boat in London is not a cheap alternative. We also need people to understand that being on the water is very different from being in a house", says Parry. 

Not only do new moorings need to be added to cope with growing demand, it’s become clear in recent years that facilities along the canal and riverbanks are under intense pressure. The Navigation Authorities are ploughing money into updating sanitary service areas in particular, as these are getting busier and busier. “Waste disposal facilities (Elsan points) are getting blocked and broken and need to be updated,” says Fran Read, national press officer for the CRT. “People new to living on the water might not understand that baby wipes block up our pumps, so we have a lot of communication and education to do in this area.”

She says there’s also the issue that it’s logistically difficult to access many of these places for improvement work “because we don’t own the land, or we can’t get vehicles near sites that need unblocking and updating. A lot of strategic planning work is going on for the London area, but it will take time and money to bring the standard up to what most people would hope to be finding.”

Continuous cruising – life on the move

Continuously cruising is the way to avoid hefty residential mooring fees - if you can cope with the romantic, but potentially disruptive nomadic lifestyle. “Continuous cruisers have to move their vessel at least every 14 days and in this way avoid paying for permanent mooring and Council Tax,” says Read at the Canal & River Trust. “Although even then you still have to pay for the boat licence – around £800 depending on the length of your vessel – and for diesel as you’ll be moving around.” She makes the valid point that there’s also a time cost to factor in, as it takes a day to relocate, and you will have maintenance bills the more you cruise in any boat.

The system for continuous cruising is being tightly policed in response to abuse of the system recently, with moves last year by the CRT to enforce its longstanding rule to prevent overcrowding. Today the charity’s stretched Enforcement Team covers the CRT network tracking the movement of boats and making sure continuous cruisers are operating within the rules of the waterways. From May last year, owners found repeatedly in breach of the two-week rule will be refused annual ‘continuous cruiser’ licences unless they take a residential mooring.

“People do have problems sticking with the regime of continuously moving around – not least because it’s so disruptive to normal working and family life,” says Read. “We’ve had cases where someone might have a family or medical issue – say a broken arm – that means they can’t physically move on, and we can relax the rules for that.”

"If you buy the right boat, and learn how to maintain it well and control your mooring costs, living onboard can be economical,” says Geoff Ashley at Narrowboats Ltd. “Demand is still growing and I can’t see the bubble burst any time soon.”

Boating is a brilliant thing to do, and the boating community really make the waterways what they are, but remember that boating is a completely different life and one that doesn’t suit everybody.  Richard Parry at the CRT sums up saying: "We encourage people not to see canals and boats as a cheap housing alternative, as there are hidden costs and maintenance jobs which people don’t necessarily appreciate. Our advice is that you should only live on the water if you love the lifestyle, not because you think it will save you money."


Top tips on how to live on a narrowboat without sinking your finances

·       Buy a secondhand narrowboat in the North to transport South

·       Consider a ‘sailaway’ new build vessel at lower prices

·       Find cheaper moorings around Greater London

·       Live as a ‘continuous cruiser’, moving every 14 days 

·       Learn how to maintain the boat yourself – head to Crick Boat Show for advice

Crick Boat Show takes place Saturday 23rd to Monday 25th May 2020: Find out more here

Read Tony Jones Case Study: Living and working on a Narrowboat

Browse an extensive range of narrowboats and canalboats for sale here. 


Article: Alison Clements

Photos: Waterways World/Crick Boat Show Canal & River Trust, Narrowboats Ltd Fernwood Boats



Boats and Outboards Team
Published on 2016-03-16