Life on Regent’s Canal cuts bills for houseboat lovers

Houseboats along the canal at Hackney Wick. Pic: Rachael Pells

Houseboats along the canal at Hackney Wick. Pic: Rachael Pells

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On Regent’s Canal, the houseboats lining the walkways have become an integral part of the East London landscape. Yet, these bright boats aren’t just decorative niceties – the economic advantages of living on a houseboat are luring an increasing number of Londoners into making this lifestyle change.

The Residential Boat Owners’ Association, a national organisation representing houseboat residents, always discourages aspiring boaters if their only motivation is money – an affinity with canal living is a prerequisite.

The biggest expense comes with buying the boat itself. Of course, as with a house, there is great variation in the cost depending on the boat’s size and, most importantly, on whether it’s new or second-hand. Mortgages are not available, but normal bank loans can be obtained – and a lot of the time they could be enough to snatch up the average used boat, which ranges between  £20,000 and £25,000. Brand new ones, however, can go up to a less affordable £100,000.

Joseph Rafferty, 23, musician and boat-liver since last July, was keen to remain on the cheap side of the spectrum: “I paid £19,000 for my boat – we went for a run down boat that we could do up ourselves.”

Before moving into their 70-feet-long boat, Rafferty and his friend were splitting the cost of a room: “Paying rent was extortionate”, he says. Despite sharing a room to split the cost, they realized they needed to find an alternative way of living.

On top of the boat, buyers need to take into account some extra expenses. A yearly Canals and Rivers Trust license to travel, is about £700 – but can vary according to boat size. Every four years the Boat Safety Certificate must be renewed for around £150-200. For Rafferty, insurance is £120 a year. A litre of fuel at 90p will keep the engine running for one hour – which recharges the boat’s batteries. That’s where electricity comes from, meaning petrol makes up for all bills. For heating, Rafferty uses a woodburner fuelled  by scrap branches, driving the cost down to pretty much nothing.

Maintenance work can sound scary for newcomers, but even then costs are kept down by DIY and a little help from other boaters. “We’ve been really lucky, because we’ve had a lot of things go wrong, but as soon as the community see you’re having trouble with something, people come out of the woodwork – and they’ve helped us for free all the time”, says Rafferty.

With all outgoings considered, and the monthly repayment of a loan he took out ( set at £150 a month) Rafferty can live life at a slower pace, without the need to work every hour of the day.

Moving every 14 days allows boaters not to pay for mooring – which is one of the most expensive add-ons to consider. In London, moorings average £7/8000 annually but can reach £9000. For workers tied to a specific area, mooring might be necessary – but still hard to get: in the whole of the Eastern side of Regent’s Canal, there are only about 150 spaces available, and some of them might require owners to pay Council Tax.

Despite changing neighbours so often, Rafferty feels this is the first time he’s experienced a true sense of community in London. “People on the water spontaneously look out for each other”, he says.

Moving so much can be troublesome: “It’s kind of difficult to get to grips with” says Rafferty, “because you get used to a place and then you’ve got to go a couple of days later”. Yet, it is also what makes houseboats so special: “The best bit about living here is the freedom it allows: if I wanted to go to Oxford tomorrow, I could just do that” – provided that the maximum speed of 4 miles an hour could get him there in time.

That said, Rafferty does not see himself living on a boat forever – some things can be harder to put up with if you’re a bit older.  “The winter was freezing. Because my boat was made in 1991, the insulation wasn’t very good. It was really cold”, he explains. The lack of space and the passersby’s curiosity can also become tiresome with the years.

All systems based on home addresses – NHS registration, electoral roll and post collection – also need some circumvention by registering at an alternative address. “My doctor is in Gloucester, where my parent’s house is, and my post goes there as well – I don’t vote, so that’s not really an issue for me”, explains Rafferty.

This said, Beryl McDowall has been living in a boat since the late 60s and does not seem to mind any of those difficulties. But in these 40 odd years she’s witnessed a lot of unprepared people moving into a boat. “When I first moved in 1969, not many people were doing it. I think people perceive it’s cheap, but they shouldn’t move unless they’ve done boating: they have no idea of what it’s like to live in limited personal space, and take a series of things for granted – on a boat you’re much more aware of how much energy and water you’re using”

You might not need a driving licence when you pick up a boat from a marina, but you do need a good combination of flexibility, patience and confidence to make this solution a viable option.

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