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Ahoy there! Would living in a boat save you money?

Felicity Hannah

Whether the recession has forced people to leave houses to cut costs or simply prompted more workers to escape the rat race, more and more Britons are swapping their bricks and mortar for life on the waterways.

“With the average UK property price at £228,385 and a new 50-foot craft costing from £50,000, it’s easy to see why this option is so attractive,” said Nigel Mills, managing director of Towergate Insurance (marine).

But could you save money by moving onto a boat? And what would your life look like if you did?

The practicalities

Before deciding whether or not you want to act on your boating daydreams, you’ll want to consider the less pleasant side to canal life. And few things are less pleasant than emptying out the chemical toilet.

The Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA) explains: “You may have seen TV programmes or newspaper articles about this lifestyle, usually describing top of the range boats in glorious weather.

“But many boats are built to a far more basic fit-out and the chores of emptying the toilet and filling up the water tank in wet and freezing conditions are far less attractive.”

The words “freezing conditions” and “emptying the toilet” alone will be enough to put a large number of land lubbers off.

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How to buy a boat

According to Towergate Insurance, a new boat can costs from £1,000 a foot, meaning a 50-foot craft costs around £50,000. Of course, like any big purchase you can spend far more to get a luxury model.

If you chose a second-hand boat around the same size, you’ll pay from £30,000. Unless you have a lump sum saved, that kind of money can be hard to borrow as it isn’t easy to raise finance backed by the boat alone.

After all, a house can be maintained and sold at a later point if the lender has to repossess. Most boats will lose their value over time.

There are specialist providers of finance for boats, but they can charge high rates of interest. You may be better off negotiating with your bank to see if it will lend you the funds.

But make absolutely sure you’re confident that a life on a boat is right for you before you sink your life savings into it – there are many companies that lease narrowboats over longer periods, so consider renting one for a month or more before committing upwards of £50,000.

There are also many waterway rules and narrowboat practicalities that it’s important to understand before making a decision.

Read more about life on a narrowboat through the RBOA’s website and via Towergate Insurance’s guide for first-time buyers.

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Is it cheaper to run than a house?

The RBOA warns that the cost shouldn’t be your main motivation for moving out of a house and into a boat. Yes, you should save some money on energy, but the overall cost will depend on your choices.

“There is as much variation in the cost of living as with any other lifestyle. It can depend on the type of boat and how you are purchasing it, your cruising pattern or mooring location and facilities required, plus the fuel and other services that you will need.”

One important cost to factor in is mooring. If you need to remain in a certain area for work or schools then you’ll need long-term mooring. However, in some areas, particularly in London and the south-east, there are not enough spaces to meet demand and this has forced the price right up.

But some people definitely save money by living on a boat. Here’s one:

“Pretty magical”

Karen Bridges sold her house two years ago and bought a 58-foot canal boat with the equity she’d built up. She’s adamant it’s cheaper and that she hasn’t sacrificed any creature comforts.

“It was quite an off-the-cuff, spur of the moment decision; I’m quite spontaneous. I’d recently divorced and didn’t need a house. I’d had a narrow boat holiday a few years ago and it was my favourite.

“It was a bit of a romantic dream but two and a half years on, I’m still finding it romantic.”

Karen says her log-burning stove keeps the place warm even in the coldest winters and that her supermarket delivers food to nominated bridges.

Because she bought the boat outright, there are no rent or loan repayments. So how much does her floating home cost?

“All in, about £300 a month, including waterways licence, mooring fees, wood for the year and insurance.” Karen doesn’t pay water rates or for electricity – she generates her own electricity through her boat’s engine.

One concern would-be boat-dwellers might have is the lack of fixed address. Karen uses a Post Office box for her mail, but that wouldn’t necessarily help her if she needed to apply for a new financial product such as a bank account or loan.

So far, she hasn’t needed to. However, that is something to consider if you wanted to move into a boat – you might want to officially reside with a relative.

Does she have any regrets? “So far I have no regrets at all. To wake up on water every day is pretty damned magical.”

Would you consider life in a narrowboat? Do you live in one already? Share your thoughts and experiences with other readers in the comments below.