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Spend & Save

How to live on a boat without sinking your finances

For those tempted to abandon their fixed abode for the pleasures of Britain's canals and waterways, Ian Hunter provides some pointers on buying and licensing a vessel
Michael Sharon wanted to buy a place in the country. He decided he would like a place in Warwickshire, in Oxfordshire, in Wiltshire and occasionally in London. The solution was a 60ft narrowboat which, at pounds 20,000, was considerably more affordable than a brace of cottages.

An estimated 15,000 people live on houseboats dotted all over Britain. Boats are regularly advertised in such magazines as Exchange & Mart as well as the more specialised publications such as Waterways World.

Prices vary widely depending on the condition and size of the boat. The Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company recently offered a 16.2m ex-Admiralty steam pinnace for sale at pounds 35,000, while a 29.85m, converted Dutch Klipper barge was there for the taking at pounds 248,500.

Mr Sharon explains: "Many boats are now very well equipped with central heating, fitted kitchens and bathrooms; some even have washing machines and microwaves. It is possible to live very comfortably. If you want to make alterations, specialist help is usually available at a nearby boatyard. Acting on recommendation is, in my experience, the best way to proceed."

Potential buyers should always obtain a survey before completing a sale. A survey will usually cost between pounds 250 and pounds 500.

There are a number of finance companies that offer loans with repayments typically stretching over 10 to 15 years. Most loans are capped at 80 per cent of the purchase prices. Building societies and banks are usually reluctant to lend money to buy houseboats unless the boat is intended as a second home. In these circumstances the owner's main home can be used as security for the loan.

Every boat must have a licence, which can cost up to pounds 300 a year. The British Waterways Board, which controls much of Britain's canal network, will require a boat safety certificate before it issues a licence. The safety certificate will confirm that the boat has a mooring and that it complies with certain construction standards.

Finding the right mooring, however, is often more difficult than the right boat. Mr Sharon, who has bought and sold three boats, says that the boat often comes with a mooring.

Every boat is required to have a registered permanent mooring or to be continuously cruising. Permanent moorings can be at designated sites along the canal bank or in marinas. Most moorings do not allow the boat to be used for permanent residential use. Residential moorings are often in short supply.

Birmingham, home of Europe's most extensive canal system, offers a range of residential moorings. These are typically let on contracts of between one and seven years. The prices of the mooring permit - as opposed to the BWB cruising licence - varies depending on location. Fees are usually calculated by reference to the length of the vessel and the facilities offered.

There are a range of private marines and boatyards spread all over Britain. These sites offer varying degrees of facilities for their boat people. These typically include a sewage system, refuse collections and a water supply.

In the prime sites of London, such as Chelsea's Cheyne Walk or Maida Vale's Little Venice, a mooring permit can cost as much as pounds 4,000 a year. The Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company charges pounds 195 a metre per year for a mooring permit, plus pounds 60 per metre for annual maintenance.

Outside London the fees are usually somewhat lower. "A rural site with few facilities can cost less than pounds 40 per metre per year," says Mr Sharon.

Boats require regular maintenance. A wooden-hulled boat should be removed from the water at least once every two years so the hull can be scraped.

No boat should be left uninsured. The policy should also contain a "homehold" contents section.

"Unfortunately we have suffered a number of break-ins," says Mr Sharon. "The problem is that too many people think that because their boat is moored in the countryside and not a city it is therefore safe from burglary. This is not the case."

Additional specialist information regarding houseboats can be obtained from the Macclesfield-based Residential Boat Owners' Association. Write to the RGBA, PO Box 181, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 ONT.