Would you swap your home for a riverboat?

Ned Browne

Whether you're a tenant or an owner, housing costs are always on the rise, that's where alternative options come in. Could a riverboat be for you?

Over the last 20 years, house prices have spiralled to unaffordable levels. In Oxford, often described at Britain’s least affordable city, the average house price of £385,372 is 10.7 times the annual earnings of the city’s residents. This has forced people to think laterally—some are clubbing together, others are taking advantage of the government’s various help-to-buy schemes. But some people are being altogether more adventurous: they’re replacing concrete foundations with water.

According to the Canal & River Trust—the charity that issues licences—33,000 people operate a houseboat and that number has been steadily rising. The fastest growth has come from the owners of roving houseboats; ones that don’t have fixed moorings, but are allowed to remain in most locations for two weeks at a time.

 

A community like nowhere else

Eryka Pownall, who’s been living on a riverboat on the Kennet and Avon for over 12 years, can definitely see the upsides.

“The boating community is creative, unconventional, loving and alive. I can’t believe my luck at being part of it. It’s changed me as a person in only positive ways and I sometimes wonder at how I would have found the same level of support, friendship and fun if I hadn’t ended up here.”

Eryka also loves living so close to nature and being able to observe the changing seasons first hand.

 

The costs

Prices of riverboats vary greatly, starting at £12,000 and rising to hundreds of thousands of pounds for large boats in London with fixed moorings. There are on-going costs too:

  • You will need to buy a licence, which costs between £510 and £1,100 a year, depending on the length of your boat. And, beware: licence costs are likely to rise.
  • One of the licence requirements is that you have insurance. Third party policies start at about £200 a year.
  • Permanent moorings can cost thousands of pounds a year (especially in London). Research these carefully.
  • Every four years you have to pay £150 for a boat safety certificate.
  • Boats need to be re-blacked every two-four years.  This costs between £600-£800.
  • Other costs include gas for cooking, coal/wood for heating, diesel for propulsion—allow £80 a month for these.
  • Also, if things go wrong, you will need to pay to get them repaired.
  • Finally, if you have a home mooring, you’ll have to pay council tax. It will, however, be in one of the cheaper bands.

 

Buying a riverboat

The first hurdle is this: you can’t get a mortgage to finance the purchase. Instead, you will need to take out a personal loan or specialist marine finance. You will also need to pay for a survey, which will cost in the region of £400.

Eryka advises that you, “Consider your reasons for moving onto a boat. It won’t be a financial investment in the same way property is. Boats usually lose value rather than gain it, and the wrong boat can be a money pit.” Consider where the boat is too—it’s possible to relocate to pretty much anywhere, but that could take weeks.

Don’t forget to enjoy the process though. Hunting down the perfect boat should be a fun experience. There will be loads to view and lots to consider. But don’t fall for the dream either; riverboat living can be tough.

 

Rough and tumble

Eryka is a realist too, “Boat maintenance is a constant. Everything is just that bit harder than living on land. Sometimes you run out of water, your toilets are full, you’ve burnt all your fuel, run out of food and the nearest shop is five miles away, or your engine has broken and you’ve no electricity. And sometimes all these things happen at once.”

“If you don’t stay on top of maintenance, a small leak or patch of rust can end in disaster so, there’s always something to do, every other weekend is given over to moving the boat, logistics of collecting vehicles, doing laundry or collecting wood, living on a boat is definitely not a holiday!”

She also cautions about the lack of space. If you’re not a neat and tidy person, you’ll need to become one. Ideally, you’ll be good at fixing engines, plumbing, painting and building too. These are all skills you’ll need.

Eryka is also worried that the growing popularity of riverboat living is creating a more hostile environment, “[the] Canal & River Trust are concerned about congestion on the canals and are constantly adjusting cruising demands and licensing restrictions for live aboard boaters, often refusing to re-issue licences and threatening to take court action and destroy boats of people they feel aren’t adhering to their somewhat vague and fluid rules.”

“It’s a very uncertain time, and many of us don’t know whether we shall be able to continue living on the canal and may lose our home and way of life.”

 

Is renting a riverboat a good option?

Writing this article has been a journey of discovery. There are far more costs, rules and hard work than I had imagined.

 So, if you are thinking about living your life on the waterways, perhaps you should initially rent a boat. You can rent a basic two-bedroom boat in central London for £700 a month. I’m very tempted.