The complete guide to houseboats

The complete guide to houseboats

By Helen Gilbert

Dreaming of life on the water? We'll take you through the costs involved, the different types of houseboats to choose from and the lowdown on mooring fees.

Thinking about living on a houseboat? You're in good company.

Artists, young professionals and anyone seeking affordable housing are among those flocking to live on the water.

The gentle pace of life among a friendly waterside community sounds idyllic. 

Yet the reality is that living on a boat involves a lot of hard work, and ongoing costs and maintenance.

1. What do I need to know about living on a houseboat?

Boat living can be a fantastic way of life. But it comes with its own challenges such as having to fill up with water, empty your toilets and do lots of hands-on maintenance.

To live on a boat full-time, you need to be either 'continuously cruising' or have a 'residential mooring'.

Continuous cruising means you will need to move your boat every 14 days. In short: boating is a lifestyle choice rather than somewhere to live.

It’s worth booking a week’s holiday on a houseboat in both winter and summer, to get a feel for what’s involved and whether it suits you.

Taking to the water for the first time? Learn the basics of boat safety with the Royal Yachting Association’s Inland Waterways Helmsman Course.

2. What kind of houseboat can I live on?

‘True’ houseboats actually aren’t boats. They are static homes without engines built on pontoons out over the water. But these are rare in the UK.

The most common form of houseboats here are:

Narrowboats

Narrowboats are typically 6ft 10in wide, up to 72ft long. These steel vessels are the most popular type of houseboat found on Canal & River Trust waters.

Narrowboats have limited living space but are ideal for navigating the UK’s rivers and canals.

Second-hand narrowboats can start from as little as £30,000 but would need more than double that investment to bring them up to spec.

Dutch Barges

These former commercial vessels can be up to 120ft in length and 20ft wide. 

They are on one level throughout making conversions to residential use straightforward. Being flat bottomed, rocking is minimal. 

Dutch barges must be moored on rivers. Prices start from around £50,000. 

3. Can you live on a houseboat full-time?

Yes, although you’ll either need to have a residential mooring, or be on the move every couple of weeks. 

Residential mooring

If you need to stay in one place because of your children’s school or work commitments, you’ll want a residential or ‘home’ mooring.

A ‘home’ mooring allows you to leave your houseboat when you’re not out boating.

Residential moorings can be expensive and vacant spots hard to come by, especially in cities and the south-east.

Continuous cruising

You simply licence your boat, which can cost between £500 and £1,000 per year.

This licence requires you to move your boat from one mooring to the next every 14 days and cover at least 20 miles a year.

You can stay anywhere on the towpath for up to 14 days, unless there’s a visitor sign with a time limit or you’re near a lock. 

It’s usually best to moor against the towpath or on signed visitor moorings. Many riverbanks and the non-towpath side of canals are private property.

The Canal & River Trust provides clear guidance for continuous cruising.

Leisure mooring

A leisure mooring limits the time you can live on your boat to a few days a week.

It is usually cheaper than a residential mooring.

Winter mooring

Moving every few days can be tough in winter. Especially with bad weather and canal maintenance causing closures.

As a result, the Canal & River Trust offers some November to March winter moorings.

Find out more about temporary winter moorings for continuous cruisers.

A house boat in Wapping

4. How much does it cost to live on a houseboat?

Many people believe living on a boat is a lot cheaper than a house. 

But the cost of living varies depending on the vessel size, type, how often it’s used and where you moor it.

There are financial perks. For example, houseboats are exempt from stamp duty.

Plus, if you have a residential mooring, you will have to pay Band A council tax (the lowest band). 

But if your primary reason for choosing life on the water is to save money, you might be in for a surprise.

Factor in the these annual or ongoing costs:

  • Boat survey: £350-£400 plus potential repairs

It’s essential to check the condition of a second-hand boat, to avoid any unpleasant surprises. Be prepared to negotiate or pay for specialist repairs.

Canal Junction has a list of approximately 100 marine surveyors who cover the whole of the UK and specialise in particular types of craft. 

  • Boat safety certificate: £150 plus potential repairs

On most of the UK's inland waterways, a boat needs to be licensed, insured and have a valid Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) certificate.

Check with your navigation authority if this applies to your waterway, and find out more about BSS certification.

  • Boat licence: £510 to £1,100 a year

The Canal & River Trust runs 96 canals and navigable rivers in England and Wales. Every boat that uses the waterways must have a licence.

There are three, six and 12-month options ranging from £510 to £1,100 in price depending on the length of your boat. 

You can only buy a licence if you have a boat safety certificate and insurance.

Boaters require a separate licence for other waterways. 

The Environment Agency runs the River Thames, the River Medway and rivers in East Anglia.

The Broads Authority looks after the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.

For Scottish waters visit the Scottish canals website.

Check the Inland Waterways Association’s waterway pages for any other navigation authorities

  • Insurance: £200 plus a year

Expect to pay this as a minimum for basic third-party insurance required for a licence. 

This does not include contents insurance. If possible to secure, this is likely to be more expensive than a land-based property. 

Collidge and Partners are a specialist marine insurance company.

  • Mooring fees: £2,000 to £18,000 a year

These costs depend on your mooring type and location. See section seven for more details.

  • Hull blacking and painting: £850 plus 

Depending on the size of your boat, this may cost more or less. It is advisable every three-five years to protect your boat from corrosion. 

It can cost £350 to take your boat out of the water and £500 to complete the work, which can take a week. So factor in the cost of alternative accommodation.

  • Toilet pump-out: £20 a month

This might sound scary, but houseboat toilets look like ordinary loos. You don’t manually 

empty the tank, the contents are pumped out via pipework at a pump out station.

7. The pros and cons of living on a houseboat

Pros

  • The freedom to explore Britain’s waterways at a moment’s notice
  • Fresh air, an outdoorsy lifestyle and the chance to bond with nature
  • A strong community spirit
  • Unrivalled waterside views
  • No stamp duty
  • No council tax for continuous cruisers
  • An opportunity to live in city centres or exclusive postcodes at a fraction of local bricks and mortar prices 

Cons

  • Limited storage space – you’ll have to be ruthless with your belongings and food
  • Ongoing maintenance from engine servicing to treating rust spots and blacking the hull
  • The summer months can be unbearably hot, while rainfall at night can keep you awake – especially if your boat has a steel root
  • Vessels are often regarded as a depreciating asset
  • Continuous cruisers may find work commitments logistically difficult
  • Be prepared to empty your toilet and fill your water tank
  • Arguments – if you’re in a couple you’ll be living on top of one another

8. How to buy a houseboat

Lots of people who buy houseboats do so with cash rather than a mortgage.

Most mortgage providers won’t lend on floating homes. 

This is because houseboats can’t be registered with the Land Registry. Plus, you could sail off into the sunset with it before the loan is repaid (we know you wouldn’t, but still).

Specialist 'marine mortgages' are available. But they need at least a 25% deposit and come with higher interest rates and a shorter repayment term.

When it comes to boat buying, there’s a huge variation in price so shop around. 

Use our advanced search function to find houseboats for sale.

Or you can find houseboats for sale on brokerage websites like Apollo Duck or Whilton Marina. 

Top tip: You must find a mooring before buying a boat or ensure the craft you are purchasing comes with the transfer of the mooring it is currently on. 

9. How do I find a mooring for my houseboat? 

The Environment Agency operates some. There are privately owned residential moorings on some boatyards at marinas.

The Canal & River Trust leases a selection on an annual basis. Costs range between £2,000 and £18,000 per year depending on boat size, location and the facilities available.

The best moorings are fully serviced with water, fuel, a sewerage facility and shore power. 

Walk the towpath of the area you’d like to moor in and talk to the boat-owners to see if they’re aware of any that might be up for grabs.

Visiting boatyards to check availability is a good idea too. Here’s a list of boatyards, marinas and moorings in the UK to check out.