Property: Water below, ducks next door

Living in a boat can be fun, says Robert Nurden. But don't mess about: you might get your feet wet
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MAX WEBB's two-bed home in west London, with split-level living area, built-in Aga, rooftop garden, balcony area ideal for parties, hot and cold running water and extensive riverside views, was a snip at pounds 25,000.

It must have been its dimensions - 70ft by 6ft 10in - that prevented it from becoming a much sought-after property. Mr Webb's house is a narrowboat. He is one of 15,000 people who choose to make their homes on the country's 4,000 miles of canals and waterways. They own cruisers, fixed houseboats and all varieties of canal boats and Dutch barges.

The romance of a life messing about in boats is hard to resist. For anything between pounds 10,000 and pounds 100,000 you can buy a second-hand or new canal boat. But the route to watery bliss can be as tricky as walking along a dark towpath after a few pints.

And the carefree life of the water gypsy, tying up to the bank when the fancy takes him, is almost a thing of the past too, following the introduction of stringent rules and regulations by the British Waterways (BW) over the last five years.

Mr Webb, who says living on his boat is a "bit like camping - great fun but slightly less so when it's cold and wet" - wishes he'd done more research. "I got a job in London and wanted a place of my own, but I could only have afforded a tiny one-bedroom flat. Living on a boat would actually give me more space and an interesting change in lifestyle," he says.

"What I didn't realise is how your priorities change - getting a mooring and the intricacies of recharging batteries become very important. It's worked out a bit cheaper than living on dry land, but only marginally. The upside is the relative freedom and sense of community of boat owners."

Boats for sale can be found in marinas and boatyards, from brokers, or in magazines such as Waterways World, Canal and Riverboat and Canalboat and Inland Waterways. Buying a boat is as complex as buying a house, so use a solicitor who knows about land law as it applies to boats. Get him to check planning consents, leases and background information on the boat and its title.

First, check that the boat has a Boat Safety Certificate. Alan Prest, of BW's marketing department, says: "This guarantees that the engine, gas and electric systems have passed the required 320 safety checks. It's like a car MOT." Certificates must be renewed every four years and are compulsory for boats built after 1971. They cost about pounds 40.

Canal boats don't need a log book as cars do - currently there is no unified registration system. Informally, you'll need to ask to see bills of sale and evidence of repair work to be sure the person selling it is the real owner.

Ask to be taken out on the boat of your dreams to make sure it works. A survey is a good idea, especially if the boat is afloat and you've no way to check its underwater state. A lender will probably insist on a survey - it will cost upwards of pounds 250.

Banks and building societies may offer personal loans but they don't like accepting boats as security. There are finance houses offering specialised packages, and boatbuilders, boatyards and brokers may arrange finance. Interest is higher than for buying a house - from 17.35 per cent APR - but you can claim 15 per cent tax relief on the first pounds 30,000 if the boat is your main residence.

For watery wanderers, the fortnight rule is the passport to freedom. BW allows boats to stay free at one of its moorings for 14 days: after that cruisers must up anchor. Everyone else must find a permanent mooring, either with BW or at a private boatyard or marina, often in a quiet, safe piece of water off the main way.

Fees are paid according to the length of the boat, so for Mr Webb, whose 70ft craft is the maximum allowed, the annual fee is a hefty pounds 1,800. London and the South-east is the most expensive area.

In a fully serviced marina there'll be mains drainage, electricity, water, fuel, launderette, showers, rubbish and toilet disposal and phone. With waterways in the South increasingly crowded, it pays to buy a boat with a mooring.

You'll need a licence to ply the waters of whichever authority you are in, usually BW's. On a static boat on a mooring with good facilities (what is known as "with planning permission") you will need a houseboat certificate (pounds 525 a year for a 40ft boat). On a mooring without planning, a pleasure- boat licence will cost about pounds 300. There are substantial discounts for prompt payment.

Third-party insurance to the value of pounds 1m is required by law, and it usually costs around half a per cent of boat value. Unfortunately a crime wave is hitting isolated boats, and this makes the safety of an off-line marina mooring a big plus.

Maintaining a residential boat will cost more than a land-based dwelling, and the home is unlikely to appreciate in value. The boat's bottom will have to be scraped every four years or so, its engine serviced, and pipes unfrozen. There'll be the costs of fuel, heating, engine oil and toilet pumpouts, and council tax at Band A level.

If all this hasn't put you off, you've probably already set your heart on a life afloat. Mr Webb has no doubts: "You wouldn't get me back in the house now."

q Contacts: British Waterways, 01923 226422; Residential Boat Owners' Association, 0181 742 7944; Inland Waterways, 0171 586 2556; Canal Boatbuilders Association, 01952 813572; The Basic Boat Liability Company, 0181 477 5055; Seven City Marine, 01905 21235.

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