Living on the waterfront

Houseboats are not only a cheap option for first time buyers, but can also provide the more well-heeled with a luxury city home
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Taking to the water is one way of finding an affordable home in London for first-time buyers. Tim Brewster lived on his 58ft long narrowboat in Wenlock Basin on the regent's Canal, N1, for eight years.

Taking to the water is one way of finding an affordable home in London for first-time buyers. Tim Brewster lived on his 58ft long narrowboat in Wenlock Basin on the regent's Canal, N1, for eight years.

"It seemed to me the perfect way to get on to the property ladder and the mooring fees and charges were about the same as if I bought a flat in one of the new developments," says Brewster, now training as a carpenter in Lowestoft.

Narrow boats are relatively cheap to buy, but as suggested by their name, they are only 7ft wide and really suit only someone of a particularly tidy nature. Couples needing their own space, or families with cats, dogs and paraphernalia should not apply.

"I loved it," says Brewster. "It was incredibly peaceful waking up to swans outside the window and as Wenlock Basin has an entry phone system, it is very secure." He spent a year travelling the canals, going as far as York, Wales and down to Bristol, but has just sold his narrowboat for £50,000, which will give him a substantial deposit for a flat or a house.

Currell, the estate agent which sold the boat for him, is also selling Clive Hayton's 45ft narrowboat, The Lead Balloon, which is moored in the same basin. This has a double berth, open-plan galley kitchen and saloon area and is on the market for £54,950. "I've loved living on the boat, but I really need more space - I have to keep my books, for example, at work," says Hayton, who is a university lecturer and has owned the boat for five years.

He had previously owned a boat at Wenlock Basin for 12 years, which he used at weekends, while living in a London flat with his wife. When his marriage split up, he bought a bigger boat and moved into the basin permanently. "One of the great things about it is the people.

Everybody is very supportive and friendly and there's always someone to go to the pub with," he says. "Also the price of boats is great - you couldn't get a garage for £55,000."

Hayton pays around £3,800 a year in mooring fees and a couple of hundred pounds on electricity and Calor gas. "I have a chemical toilet, which I empty in a nearby washroom building, but people who have to pump-out have to take their boat through a couple of locks to do so," he says.

Another boat for sale in London is a very beautiful 43ft motor yacht, Amali, which is moored in St Katherine's Dock. Built in 1992, the boat has a cedar and teak hull, and the cabin boasts mahogany panelling, a cast-iron wood-burning stove and handmade Delft-like basins. Kitted out with satellite navigation and autopilot, for cross-Channel use, the Amali has two double and three single berths, a gas cooker and central heating. City & Country Group is selling her for £180,000. Mooring costs £1,778 for six months, VAT extra.

The newest breed of houseboat is much more "house" than "boat" - it doesn't even have an engine. The 60ft Optimum, made by Waterspace, is made from fibreglass, steel and concrete and designed for modern living. The Waterspace director Nils Baker explains: "We wanted to provide a home on the water designed to the highest standards with a focus on comfort, space, security and quality."

The idea was conceived when Baker, then a property developer, wanted a floating show flat for one of his sites on the canal in North London. "I couldn't find anything suitable and the idea sprang from there," he says.

These 16ft-wide boats are far more expensive at £249,000, but they offer much larger accommodation and are very low maintenance, unlike narrowboats that need to be lifted from the water every five years or so for repainting.

Nigel Burney is the first person to buy one as a London pied-a-terre; he plans to keep the houseboat outside a new development, Riverside Quarter, in Wandsworth, south west London. An equivalently sized flat of just over 1,000 square feet in this development would cost twice as much.

"Actually I'm not into boats at all. I don't sail, but I do like water," Burney says. "I met one of the directors of the company at a cocktail party and it sounded a good idea. I had been looking for a way of having something in London, because I need to be in London during the week."

Burney, who runs online financial analysis company StockCube, lives with his wife and four children in Oxfordshire. "When the company described it to me I thought it would be fun and not cost a fortune, but I never imagined it would be like this. It's not like a boat at all, more a building which just happens to be on the water."

Although the boat does not have an engine, it can be moved by towing it with a tug, so you could move your home around, or even take it across the Channel.

The top deck is open plan with a large wood-floored living space and generous seating area curving round the stern. Huge windows all round make the room light and airy. Alongside the spiral staircase up to the roof terrace is a smart galley kitchen with all mod cons - electric oven, hob, washing machine and sink.

On the lower floor, you can have one, two or three bedrooms, a smart bathroom with ceramic floor and/or an en-suite shower room. "One of the good things about the boat," says Nigel, "is that you can alter it very easily. My boat will have two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but when our children are bigger if we wanted more bedrooms, we could easily have them."

The Optimum has mains electricity and sewage goes into a huge holding tank that is then pumped out into the Thames; it has full air conditioning and very good insulation. Older narrowboats may require a more spartan living regime, with loading limits on electricity supplies (blowouts are not unknown when you try the hair dryer at the same time as a fan heater), and remembering to physically fill up the boat's water tanks every so often, usually by hose, as well as moving the boat from its mooring to pump it out every four or six weeks.

But for some, that is the fun and charm of it. And when you are woken in the morning by a flock of week-old coot chicks chirping outside the hull, or see a heron pace up and down the towpath, then all the minor hassles seem worthwhile.


Many narrowboats are bought with cash, but Barclays Marine Finance can provide a marine mortgage, lending up to 80 per cent for 10 years.

To use the inland waterways, you must display a BWB cruising licence that costs around £20 to £30 a metre each year. To qualify for this you need insurance and a Boat Safety certificate.
If you don't move your boat except to pump out in your basin or marina or use the tidal part of the Thames from Teddington to the estuary, you don't need a licence.

Insurance, which can be obtained from a marine insurance company, costs from around £130 for a 50-footer up to £1,200 for the larger sea-going Dutch barges.

Mooring charges vary from mooring to mooring and could be anything from £90 to £214 a metre, depending upon location and facilities.

Currell, 020 7226 4200; Waterspace, 020 7349 8455; British Waterways Board, 01923 226422; Inland Waterways Association, 01923 711114