Buying a houseboat

Do you dream of life on the ocean wave? Do you long for escape to a glittering marina, an idyllic canal or simply to while away your days meandering through the UK’s scenic waterways? If you are seriously thinking about making these dreams a reality and moving from terra firma to a watery lair, then this guide to buying a houseboat is the place for you.

Here you will find all the advice and information you need, from the practicalities of buying or renting a houseboat to the hows and whys of getting started and staying afloat. In addition to this we provide a list of useful links to the official bodies in charge of licensing, taxing and regulating houseboats in the UK.

In order to make it easier to understand all the different aspects of buying a houseboat we have split this guide into several different sections as below:

  • Buying a houseboat in the UK
  • Financing a houseboat
  • Where to moor your houseboat
  • Useful links to other websites

According to the Royal boat builders association around 23,000 people live on boats in the UK. Are you ready to become one of them?

What kind of boat should I buy?

There are many different kinds of houseboat suitable for living aboard. To help you decide which is the best houseboat for you, we list the most popular types and the environment for which they are designed.

  • Narrow boat

Long and narrow in order to navigate through the UK canal lock systems and usually constructed of steel, with rectangular or, more traditionally, round port-hole windows. They may have an engine for cruising or none for permanent mooring.

  • Dutch Barge

Similar to a Narrow boat but with a wider beam that gives valuable extra living space, making them ideal as a floating home. Due to their extra width they must be moored on rivers rather than canals.

  • River Cruisers

Constructed from fibreglass, ready to go and available in pre-defined models. Just like driving a new car out of the showroom you can be living aboard as soon as you have all the paperwork settled.

  • Houseboats

Permanently moored accommodation, constructed upon floating barges or specially designed platforms. You will find many of these types of houseboat in London where moorings can be costly. If this is your plan then get yourself on a waiting list as soon as possible!

  • Motor Fishing Vehicles (MFV)

MFVs are widespread throughout the country and as such can be bought for knock-down prices after decommissioning. Their large size makes them ideal homes but remember with all that extra space comes extra maintenance too! Suitable for coastal or riverside moorings, MFVs cannot cruise the inland waterways.

  • Luxury Yacht

Starting at the price of a small apartment and running into hundreds of thousands of pounds this is no small investment. You will want to moor your luxury yacht in a reputable Marina for maximum security and peace of mind.

Buying a boat to live on

There are many specialist operators who will make a boat to your exact specifications, or you may wish to get more for your money by going second-hand. According to your inclination you can buy a houseboat that is already habitable or buy a shell, then get down and dirty with the DIY. Here is a list of the main options for buying a houseboat.

Remember that boats, unlike houses, do not come with title deeds, so you need to verify that the person you are buying from owns it, otherwise you could lose your investment and the houseboat itself. You can read a very informative article here on How to Avoid Buying a Stolen Boat.

Buying a new Houseboat

So you want to buy a new houseboat? There are several ways to do this, depending on the type of boat you wish to buy.

  • Look in the trade magazines for classifieds.
  • Visit boat shows to see the latest fibreglass river cruisers and yachts.
  • Visit boat brokers at boat yards.
  • Commission a brand new Narrow boat or Dutch Barge to your specifications.

When commissioning a new houseboat it is usual to pay in installments so be ready to make several visits to the boatbuilders to check on progress and pay after the completion of pre-arranged tasks. Insist on a written copy of all work to be undertaken and a receipt each time money changes hands - the British Marine Federation can help you with a contract of this type.

A new boat must be built in accordance with the European Union’s Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) to meet standards of safety. The RCD is designed in accordance with the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) and automatically passes the boat for a waterway licence.

Buying a second-hand houseboat

You can get a lot more for your money by going second hand and you can find boat brokers at many marinas offering a range of models. A good broker should supply you with all the documentation regarding the boats usage, maintenance history and surveys. Before you commit to buying a second hand houseboat be sure that you have considered the following points:

  • Be sure to get your own ‘’‘independent’‘’ survey carried out
  • Be prepared to spend more money on subsequent maintenance
  • Insist on seeing a recent BSS Certificate
  • The price will be reflected in the condition and age of the boat as well as the vendors reputation

Renting a houseboat

Renting a houseboat can be a great alternative to renting an apartment or house. If you are renting a houseboat to live in you must ascertain that it comes with residential mooring. Not all residential moorings allow houseboats to be let, so make sure to check all the paperwork first.

Before renting a houseboat consider the following points:

  • You should usually have a common law tenancy
  • You will most likely have to pay council tax on residential moorings
  • Housing benefit can be claimed to cover the cost of your houseboat rental, residential mooring and the cost of your boat licence

Other boat ownership options

Not ready, or not able to take the plunge into full-time maritime living yet? There are several options available to those who wish to sample life aboard on a less than permanent basis:

  • Shared Ownership

As the phrase suggests this implies sharing not only the ownership but the time spent on the houseboat with other people. It is advisable to use a dedicated company who will take care of all the essentials and allocate the time-slots between up to twelve individuals.

  • Timeshare

Narrow boat timeshare means you buy houseboat holiday time that is not specific to a particular vessel. With some companies operating in several areas you can choose your holiday spot accordingly or even redeem your credits on a foreign vacation.

  • Hire-boat sponsorship

A scheme whereby you can sponsor a hire-boat, earning limited yearly usage of it and full ownership after a number of years.

So you have decided to take the plunge and buy a houseboat. Having agonised and exalted over the vessel of your dreams it’s time to take the next step and find out how to finance a houseboat.

Getting a mortgage on a houseboat can be an expensive affair. Most lenders see the fact that you can literally sail away, absconding with yourself and their investment as an increased risk. This means that mortgage rates can be substantially higher than normal. Given this it, it is worth your while looking into the following, alternative areas of boat finance:

  • Credit Card Finance

Many credit cards offer an APR that is considerably lower than a bank loan, have a shop around for a card offering 0% balance transfer rate and always read the small print first!

  • Bank loans

If you own your home then you can most likely get a loan with a decent rate secured against it.

  • Marine Loans

Check out the specialist boat finance companies advertising in the waterway press and our section below on useful 'houseboat links'.

Houseboat licenses, tax and insurance

There are many other financial considerations to take into account when deciding to live on a houseboat. The following guidelines apply to all boats, (excepting those operating solely on tidal rivers, seaways and estuaries) make sure that you are operating within the rules!

  • Houseboat licence

If you intend to use UK canals or rivers you must obtain a British Waterways Licence. You can obtain one here.

  • Paying tax on a houseboat

If you live on a residential mooring you may be liable for council tax although in some cases you will only be liable for VAT if your houseboat has a motor. As the situation varies between constituencies please check accordingly.

  • Insurance

According to Canal and River Trust, third party insurance to a minimum value of £2,000,000 is mandatory. You can find specialist insurers advertising in the waterway press.

  • Boat Safety certificate (BSS)

All boats must comply with the BSS and be checked every four years. For full details visit the BSS Website.

Choosing mooring is as important a decision as choosing the boat itself. For the majority of liveaboards, residential mooring is a fact of life. Only the truly nomadic amongst us choose “”continuous cruising“” and moving on every fourteen days.

Residential moorings are notoriously hard to find, so you may need to consider getting yourself on a waiting list as soon as possible. Another option is to become a member of a boat club - more information on this can be found at the Association of Waterways Cruising Clubs] website.

The cost of mooring is dependant on the location, type, the range of facilities available as well as on the size of your boat. Moorings are generally charged per metre and can vary from a few hundred to several thousand pounds a year.

Types of Houseboat Moorings

  • Canal side Mooring

Houseboat moorings are often owned by the governing canal authority with a maximum length of stay to ensure fair usage. Moorings may also be found attached to private land, in which case contact the proprietor directly.

  • River Side Mooring

Mooring your houseboat on a river is dependent on the action (or inaction) of the tides so you need to be aware of how this will affect access to your boat and the times at which you can move on. Riverside moorings fall into three main categories: ‘’Mud Berth’‘, ‘’Half tide’‘ and ‘’All States Of Tide’‘.

  • Marina Mooring

Residential mooring in a marina can be tricky as long stays are generally discouraged. For recreational mooring however, they offer probably the highest level of houseboat security with CCTVs, security and a range of other facilities.

  • Boatyard Mooring

Mooring a houseboat in a boatyard can be a cheap alternative, with many offering residential moorings though this is generally done in order for houseboat maintenance to be undertaken.

  • Swinging moorings

These are usually the cheapest type of houseboat moorings available. Your houseboat is attached to a buoy in a harbour or estuary and will ‘’swing’‘ in the direction of the tide as it moves in or out. Access has to be made by smaller craft such as a dinghy so there are obvious downsides to this kind of arrangement.

Further information on houseboat moorings can be found at the following websites:

  • Canal and River Trust has a list of boat moorings in various regions of the UK
  • Berthsearch provides an online search facility for available UK Marina and Mooring sites.
  • Onboard Online are a large online international marina directory

Useful links to other websites

Need more? You can find extra information about living on a houseboat at the following sites:

General Information
  • Residential Boat Owners Association Loads of information direct from those who live the maritime life
  • Canal Junction Find out everything you need to know about Narrow boats, Dutch barges and replica Tugs or Joshers
  • The Environment Agency A major organisation looking after inland rivers, estuaries and harbours in England and Wales
  • Visit Thames All the advice you need if the River Thames is your destination including London houseboat moorings
  • Boat Safety Scheme Website Learn all about the BSS and how it applies to you
  • Shelter Advice of the housing laws that relate to living on a houseboat

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