Houseboats: the true price of staying afloat

If you want to live on the water, do it because you love the lifestyle - not the money
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The Independent Online

Everyone occasionally daydreams about living on a boat. The sun is beaming in a clear blue sky. Birds sing, fish leap, wavelets pat the hull. A long glass of something chilled is at your elbow. You have nothing to do but relax....

No wonder there is such strong demand for houseboats, especially in London where moorings are scarce. Rents in prime moorings now rival or even exceed bricks-and-mortar accommodation, at least per square foot. Houseboats rarely come on the open market - owners only have to put the word out and they sell quickly.

The combination of high rents and relatively low capital costs seem tempting for an investor, but there are severe drawbacks that make life afloat expensive and difficult. Houseboat owners don't do it for the money - they do it because they love the lifestyle.

Indeed, most houseboat landlords are people who bought them to live aboard but were driven ashore by the arrival of children, says Posy Roffey, a travel agent specialising in Africa, who rents a houseboat in Chelsea Harbour. "Our boat is owned by a lawyer who had to move out when they started a family," she says. "There is a lot of demand and boats usually go through word of mouth."

Roffey loves the floating life in her purpose-built houseboat, despite the high rent, which at £438 a week would get a two-bedroom flat in the area.

The other disadvantage from the tenant's point of view is the vagueness of the legal position.

"There is no proper marine law so there is no security of tenure and we never know if we are going to be chucked out. On our last boat we didn't even sign a contract," she says.

The unsatisfactory legal situation is bad for landlords too, says John Everitt, operator of Cadogan Pier in Chelsea and owner of houseboats moored at Hammersmith. He also lives on a houseboat at Wandsworth with such neighbours as Simon Beaufoy and Bear Grylls, travelling between his various locations in a zippy little motor boat. "It is terribly difficult getting moorings and the planners are very restrictive," he says.

He has just expanded Cadogan Pier after several years battling council planners and the Port of London Authority. Planners want to bring life back to the river, he says, but when a specific proposal is brought forward they suddenly seem to regard houseboats as a blot on the riverscape.

Demand is high, even though Cadogan Pier is non-residential. High-earning individuals such as lawyers and surgeons use the boats as floating pieds-a-terre, staying overnight once or twice a week. Other boats such as Sir Malcolm Cambell's lovely river cruiser Bluebird of Chelsea, are available for pleasure cruises and film work.

A maritime landlord needs to keep a constant eye on things, Everitt explains. "It's not like letting property. It is very difficult to maintain discipline, because boats always need something done to them, and if it isn't done they deteriorate," he says. "Moorings are expensive and very rare on the Thames."

The rental return is good, he says: "At Hammersmith the rents run at about £450 a week."

Everitt is not in the business for the money - he just loves the river and wants to see this incredible asset used for the benefit of London and Londoners.

Property professionals do not like floating investments. It can be extremely difficult to borrow the money, and the lack of secure moorings puts your investment in peril.

The main problem is the need to haul your investment out of the water every few years for an insurance survey, according to Sarah Blackburn of Lane Fox.

She recently let the houseboat Chairman at the famous moorings at the end of Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. The boat was for a while the home of the comedy actor Nigel Planer.

"I would never advise anyone to buy a houseboat as in investment," she says. "The need for dry docking every few years disrupts tenants - you can't just ask them to leave for a couple of weeks.

"You can't even put them up in a hotel because of the risk that the work might take longer than expected."

It is a different matter when the owner cannot live on their beloved boat for a time, but aims to return at some point.

"Young couples buy them, live in them for a while and then have to move out when children arrive, but they can't bear to sell," Blackburn says.