Houseboats: Break free of bricks and mortar – try life on the open water

On terra firma prices are high and mortgages hard to come by, so why not consider the freedom of a houseboat? Chiara Cavaglieri reports

Even in what is a stagnant summer property market, house prices in many parts of the UK are still at or near all-time highs.

Big deposits, growing job uncertainty, strict lending criteria and just the hassle of home ownership are enough to put many people off the notion of bricks and mortar.

But there is a cheaper alternative, which, with the rejuvenation of Britain's waterways, is growing in popularity – buying a houseboat. If you dream of an idyllic life, floating up and down the UK's rivers, canals and estuaries, buying a houseboat could be for you. But what do you need to know?

First, you need to decide what type of boat you want to buy. Strictly speaking, a houseboat is a static home built on a floating pontoon, while a narrow boat is designed to navigate canal locks and is usually only 7ft wide but anything up to 70ft long.

Barges, usually Dutch or English, come in various lengths and widths. Lighters, which were originally built to transport cargo, are wider than barges and up to 75ft long. The term "cruiser" is used to describe any boat, such as a ferry, trawler or lifeboat, which has been converted into a home.

"Owning a narrow boat can allow you to live in a prime central location for a fraction of the cost of owning a traditional property in the same postcode," says Rob Villalobos at London agent Fyfe Mcdade. "Owning a boat is also incredibly unrestricted – you can travel across the country making the most of all the beautiful waterways the UK has to offer,"

You can commission a new boat to your specifications, but otherwise you can buy one from dedicated boat websites such as Apollo Duck and Boats & Outboards, or trade magazines. You can also visit boat shows and boat yards to talk to brokers about what you are looking for.

The price will be determined by the size of the vessel, its condition, location and mooring. Premier Houseboats, for example, features an 87ft designer houseboat which sold for £75,000 in Kent, complete with three cabins (including one en-suite double), a small study and a garden area. There are also narrow boats in need of more than a little TLC but ready to be converted and on offer for as little as £10,000.

"Residential boat prices, without a residential mooring, compare with leisure boat prices and can vary depending on the condition and size of the boat, like a car, from a few hundred pounds to many thousands," says Julia Jacks from the Residential Boat Owners' Association (RBOA). "Whereas, permanently moored houseboat prices, on their moorings, reflect local property values and that of the mooring, whether leased or owned."

Buying and selling a houseboat is relatively straightforward; once you've found the right vessel you sign a contract, put down a 10 per cent deposit and typically complete the purchase within 10 days. There are still some vital steps to take though, starting with checking that the seller is the true owner.

If you buy a second-hand houseboat, the broker should supply you with all the relevant documentation regarding its usage, maintenance history and surveys, including a recent Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) Certificate. You should still get your own independent survey completed, which costs around £2,000, to ensure everything is in working order.

Raising the money is where the hard work starts. Mortgages are difficult to come by and cost more than standard loans as mainstream lenders see houseboats and the associated lifestyle as high risk. There are specialist boat finance companies such as Collidge and Partners, Barclays Marine Finance and RoyScot Larch, but you can expect to put up a minimum 25 per cent deposit, paid back over 10 to 15 years.

Another issue is that these firms only lend on the value of the boat. So, even though a boat with mooring rights will cost much more, you can only borrow up to the price of the vessel itself. With so many hurdles, the majority of houseboat buyers pay in cash, so you may prefer to sell your existing home or to get an unsecured loan, to raise the money.

Once you've find your boat, there are still lots of other expenses to consider. All vessels need a British Waterways Licence and BSS certificate (which must be checked every four years) and houseboats must also be insured to a mandatory minimum value of £1m. Of the ongoing costs, mooring is the biggest commitment, unless you plan to live a nomadic life, cruising the waterways with no permanent base. A proper residential mooring enables you to use the location as your home address and gives you the same rights to services and schools as other locals.

The sticking point is that residential moorings are very hard to come by, particularly in London, but you can sidestep this by buying a houseboat with a mooring that can be transferred to you on completion. Typical rates are £1 to £1.50 per foot of length a week, but this depends on the location, the facilities available and the type of boat you have. You could pay as much as £340 per week in some prime London spots.

"Finding a secure residential mooring is the key. Find the mooring first and then buy a boat – do not do it the other way round or it could end in tears," says Richard Savage, who runs residential mooring Wenlock Basin in Islington.

Then there are the usual domestic bills to cover: water, electric, gas or diesel, plus running costs for fuel, engine oil, toilets and pumps. Council tax is usually payable too, albeit at the lowest threshold (Band A) and single occupants also benefit from the 25 per cent reduction.

Bear in mind that boats need more attention than a standard house – it is recommended they are taken out of the water every four years for the hull to be checked and painted. As a guideline, put aside 10 per cent of the cost of your boat away each year to cover maintenance costs.

Depreciation isn't as much of a concern for houseboats as it is for cars, but equally, a boat is not an investment, so unless you can add value, don't expect to turn profit.

"Houseboats tend not to increase greatly in value, but they also do not lose much. They will always provide affordable housing in a given area," says Steve Sutton from Premier Houseboats. "In Medway, you can pick up a four-bedroom detached house for around £300,000 and a good sized houseboat, with probably slightly more space, would cost anywhere from £100,000 to maybe £170,000".

Phil Wallis, 58

Semi-retired, Kent

Phil has lived on Jorga his 100ft, converted US Navy tug, complete with a computer room, conservatory and a spiral staircase, for the past five years. The boat is moored in Port Werburgh, Hoo, and after paying £100,000, using the proceeds of his house sale, Phil has spent a further £40,000 on the conversion. While looking for a narrow boat, Phil came across the tug and was soon convinced. He now pays £400 a month for the residential mooring (which includes electricity). But for Phil, the lifestyle is the biggest selling point. “I’m planning to stay as long as I can on it,” he says. “It’s such a nice environment."

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