‘We made dream houseboat from scratch’: How one London couple escaped mortgage trap hell

Max and Sorcha are living in the country-like bliss of Tottenham Marshes with more square footage than most London flats

Sunday 22 October 2023 16:51 BST
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<p>Max with Sorcha and their dogs Pecan, Brenan and Stringer Bell</p>

Max with Sorcha and their dogs Pecan, Brenan and Stringer Bell

With interest rates having risen to eye-watering levels, more and more Britons are looking for new ways to beat the mortgage trap. In the first of this series, The Independent spotlights residents across the UK who swerved soaring monthly payments while still managing to secure their dream home.

Given the low likelihood of being able to afford a house big enough for them and their furry family, Max Hart-Walsh, 32, and Sorcha Elspeth, 30, chose instead to join the estimated 10,000 Londoners living on the capital’s waterways.

The couple renovated the empty shell of a brand new 60-foot houseboat, adding marble kitchen tops, bookcases and solar panels while still keeping enough space for full-size sofas, a massive TV, and beds for their pet dogs Pecan, Brenan and Stringer Bell.

Paying £58,000 for the boat shell and an engine, the couple kept costs low by designing everything themselves, with Max putting the newfound renovation skills he had learnt after accepting a job at a boat-fitting company to the test.

Max and Sorcha renovated their boat shell from scratch

It meant that the couple’s dream home cost just over a tenth of London’s average flat price of £541,000 last year. Renting wasn’t an option either, with the average rent outside London now standing at £1,278 – 10 per cent higher in September than last year – as the scramble for affordable housing intensifies.

Serving The Independent a magnificent fish stew, thankfully not dredged from the murky depths of the River Lea but plucked from the shelves of Aldi in Bruce Grove, Sorcha says the leap into houseboat ownership was a logical choice for the pair.

“My dad left me a chunk of money – not much, but I wanted to do something important with it. I tried to get myself something to live on and wanted to avoid rent.

Sorcha enjoys the space

“You are close to the elements, the water, you have a fire roaring in your house. You are surrounded by space and feel so close to nature.

“I grew up in the Highlands in the remotest part of the UK, so it is a way for me to cope with the city.”

She says: “My first boat was just a shed on water, the electrics never worked. I was working as a dogwalker, so I just lived in the park. I got confused with being homeless three times because I was wearing the same clothes all the time. But I knew it was a lifestyle I wanted.”

Just as their plans were coming to fruition, Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, causing a worldwide shortage of boat materials, such as steel and the birchwood that grows in Ukrainian forests. The couple saw the price for a boat shell with an engine shoot up by £20,000, prompting them to move fast.

“Our hand was forced. When the war in Ukraine started, it drove up the price of steel. Boatbuilders found a way to make the war about them.

The couple’s brand new shell of a boat is lowered onto the River Lea

“Ukraine has the best birch forests, apparently – there is even a quote from a Ukrainian general saying that Putin only wants our trees, not our land.

“Birch is the nicest wood to use on water: it’s hardy but paints well. All the prices shot up – it got really expensive.”

Sorcha says: “If we didn’t buy it that day, the prices would have gone up and we would never have been able to do it. We didn’t have anyone else who would give us the money. They were all getting snapped up. This was the last one they had, so we had to go for it.”

Despite saving £12,000 on VAT after going for a larger 60ft houseboat, which means it qualifies as a dwelling and so escapes the tax, Max bemoans the fact that moorings cost thousands, with Little Venice and its quaint riverside pubs being the most desirable spot.

“The dream is there is a 60ft space, but people just sit there for months. They cost £25 a night, which is steep.

The houseboat is 60ft long

“They are basically saying you can ‘f*** off’ if you can’t afford it. They are making it more of a monopoly situation. The whole point of the canals is that anyone can moor in any point of London – that was the original appeal.”

Max took up a job at the BoatFit Co, based near Tottenham Lock, where he learnt the skills to do up other barges at the same time as working on his own home full-time for six weeks.

“We’ve never had a blueprint,” he says. “We did it ourselves, but Calum [from BoatFit Co] has this amazing brain, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. He saw what we couldn’t and did all the measurements.”

A floating bookcase for the creative couple

Tattoo artist Sorcha says the move also meant that the pair escaped the fiercely competitive rental market, which now sees the average home attract more than 25 inquiries amid a shortage of available homes.

Sorcha says: “I have been self-employed my whole life, so I couldn’t see myself getting a house in London, but I could see myself getting a boat.

“We tried to do most of it on our own. We wanted the space and the light. We were going to have my tattoo studio in here, but I felt like it would be too small.

“I’m not sure I want clients to come into my house. I thought it would be a great novelty at first, that I wouldn’t have to leave, but I’ve been working on my boundaries.”

Max says the pair also didn’t want to be weighed down with a mortgage – and that with three dogs to accommodate, they would have to live far outside London to be able to afford a suitable place.

“The time was right for it. Every boater, even the most middle-class, white-bread boater, has that pirate thing, where they don’t trust mortgages or credit scores. It was a boater who told me credit scores were invented in the Seventies,” Max says.

“I feel for the first time that I’m not paying people back now. When I get paid now, that is all mine.”

Max enjoys the view with his friend and colleague at BoatFit Co

“While I was working on it, I wasn’t paying myself – it was going towards my share of the boat, not like Sorcha’s vast sums of money she has made from her incredible tattoos.

“All I can offer is physical labour in return. But now it’s finished, I guess I have nothing to offer.”

“You owe me a shoe rack”, Sorcha interjects.

But canal life is not without its dramas. Last week, a cannabis farm burned down metres away from their mooring spot in Tottenham, with the “terrifying” flames blowing towards their boat, where Sorcha was alone with three dogs after Max went to play for his beloved football team Ladzio.

Sorcha says: “I woke up at midnight, and someone was banging on the side screaming ‘Fire’. I looked out of the porthole and all I could see was flames.

Brenan takes a shower

“Everything I’d worked for, I could see it going up. I was untying the ropes to push myself away and protect the dogs, who were freaking out.”

But for the most part, the couple love the serenity that comes with living on the water.

Sorcha adds: “We love it: the swans are going past the window, the sunsets are beautiful, the mist on the water. It is beautiful.”

Now the couple are contemplating the logistics of bravely taking their home across the English Channel to explore the waterways of Europe with their furry army in tow.

Max says: “We just have to hope it moves again. We have to check the diesel leak. The work is never truly over.”

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