With an estimated 15,000 people in the UK living on houseboats, quitting dry land has never been so popular. But is narrowboat living really that savvy?
As the number of people choosing to live on a boat in London soars, the managing body for London’s waterways is raising mooring fees, to reflect the London market rate.
The Canal and River Trust (CRT) could raise permanent mooring fees by up to 89% this year. Some traditional houseboaters, who’ve maintained the same moorings for years, could have to pay up to £20,000 a year to stay put.
“If you’re living in London, you’ve got to pay for things. It’s clear the fees are going up because the CRT have tapped into increased demand. It’s a chance for them to make a lot of money,” said bike repairman Sam Skinner, who has been living on the water for ten years.
How many people live on London’s canals?
The number of people choosing to live on a boat in the UK capital has risen rapidly in the past few years. The CRT reports that the London houseboat population has more than doubled since 2012, to almost 5,000 – an “unprecedented” level. And this trend isn’t dying out: they predict a growth in the houseboat population of 35-52 per cent by 2022.
What about other European cities?
Amsterdam is notorious for its waterways, and the boats that line its canals. The number of houseboats in the Dutch city centre is estimated at 10,000: double that of London. As a result, converting to life on the water in Amsterdam is less accessible. Finding a mooring is a pretty difficult task, and the price of cruising on the river is higher than in London.
Other European cities have not released census numbers for their houseboat population yet, but the trend is popular among twentysomethings in Berlin and Paris, where more and more narrowboats – the real lingo for houseboat – are being bought every year.
How do London prices compare with other global cities?
Does it make financial sense?
A large proportion of these recent converts have moved to the water out of necessity, priced out of the urban housing market.
The financial allure of houseboats is clear: in London, prices start at £20,000 to buy a boat, while the average property in the city is twenty-five times as much.
‘Constant cruising’ avoids the big costs
The majority of new boaters opt for ‘constant cruising’, required to move their boat to a different mooring every two weeks.
This is a way of avoiding the mooring costs which are being increased. Constant cruising costs between £600 and £1000 a year, depending on boat length. But this may not be a cheaper option for long – the CRT has warned this may also increase.
Although the proposed price increase is unpopular amongst the traditional boating community, for newcomers, boating after the change will still represent more value for money than on London’s dry land.
“I see it like council tax – I’m paying for a set of facilities. But it makes more sense than council tax, where the banding system was devised arbitrarily. Boat length is a good measure – to a degree, you’re using twice the resource. And in London, space is the main consideration,” said PhD student Jeremy Clarke, who moved to the water last year.
What are the drawbacks?
As the waterways get busier, congestion has become a problem, and facilities like water points are under strain.
The alternative lifestyle has also gained popularity on the other side of the world in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. But Hong Kong serves as a reminder that living on the water is less secure than on land.
In Hong Kong, until recently, many chose to live on boats in the Discovery Bay marina on Lantau island. But this novelty soon wore off in August, when the owners of the bay wanted to renovate, and gave residents just four months to relocate. The spot you moor to is always owned by a city’s waterway management, and you’re at the mercy of whatever they decide.
Would you be willing to go off-grid?
Another key element to bear in mind: while permanent moorings in London enjoy the luxury of being connected to power supplies, constant cruisers have to adapt to life off-grid. This may be a challenge if you can’t keep away from blue screens for long.
An alternative lifestyle choice
Many in the houseboating community are motivated by the lifestyle, more than finance. The prospect of a stripped-back life is a large part of the allure.
“It’s a bit of an underworld here. It feels like going back to nature living on the water, and it stops me from taking modern comforts for granted,” says boater Sam Skinner.
For him, once you’ve converted to boating, the lifestyle is too good to go back. If central London does get too expensive, crossing the Channel is a contingency plan for Sam.
“It’s not like living in a normal place. It’s more fun. If the fees inflate too much here, I’ll just go and do it in France.”
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