Houseboat living - a life less ordinary

By Rebecca Marston
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Welcome to our lovely home: Matt and Rose aboard "Tigger"

Matt and Rose Johnson are settling in for the evening after their day at work.

There's the usual scurry round, the divesting of work accoutrements and snippets of talk about what the day has brought.

The morning's coffee cups sit on the drainer as the evening meal is started. All in all another regular evening at home.

The difference here is that Matthew and Rose don't walk to theirs via a pavement, but a towpath ending in a gangplank.

They live on a boat.

"The housing market was such a nightmare last year we didn't want to get involved - the length of time it takes to get anything done, the cost and the way it ties you down. So we went for a boat," says Matt.

They call it "Tigger".

Licence to cruise

The average house price is £207,000, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government, putting conventional property ownership out of the reach of millions.

A residential boat is a far cheaper outlay.

The average price of a canal boat - the most common form of floating home - is anything between £60,000-£100,000, according to the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO).

But there are, of course, other costs involved.

You need a boat safety certificate - think of it as an MoT. You also need a licence to be on the waterways - think of this as Road Tax.

Also, like a car, insurance is necessary.

And you need the right to "park" - a mooring permit - and that can be a hefty cost.

A moving home presents the chance of living wherever you want, but like any form of property, the well-worn mantra "location, location, location" applies.

In London's Little Venice, for example, the right to park your boat, with all its access to services like power and water, could cost you up to £7,000 a year.

Living on a permanent mooring gives access to these services, at, of course, a cost - the most expensive spots come with full services, sewerage, power, water, wi-fi, parking space and even a garden.

Image caption,
Limited space aboard means home comforts must be chosen with care

And there are very few of them on offer.

Continuous cruising

Matt and Rose have avoided this tricky business by using what's called a continuous cruising licence.

These come with strict conditions.

You have to move the boat every two weeks, and more than a couple of miles at a time. You must not have a fixed place of work, or study, and must be genuinely peripatetic.

British Waterways (BW) says these rules are often abused.

"Continuous cruisers - boaters who by choice or circumstance do not have a permanent mooring - should be able to show that they are on a continuous journey," says the group's spokesman Ed Fox.

"However, this is occasionally abused by so-called 'bridge hoppers' who move backwards and forwards in the same area.

"This is unfair on paying boaters and we have had a public consultation on how to respond to this issue."

BW can take action against those who flagrantly abuse the terms of the licence.

That's not a problem for the Johnsons, as Matt is a boat husband and Rose is studying for a PhD with the Open University.

There are 34,000 licensed boats on British waterways, of which BW estimates 6,000 are permanent residences.

But the chairman of the Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA), Rex Walden, said boat owners often bend the rules. He says that he knows marinas that offer 12 residential licences, but that around six times that number are living there permanently.

'No contract'

But although mooring rules are not simple, it seems easy enough to walk into boat ownership.

"Buying a boat is rather like buying a motor car - and just as easy. No written contract is required and an offer to purchase for an agreed price, subject to any conditions, can be accepted by the vendor and the deal clinched," says The National Association of Boat Owners.

But, if you did just that, you could be walking the equivalent of the financial plank.

NABO says there are a raft of pitfalls.

Even Mr Walden says he spends more of his time telling people not to set up home on a boat than advising how to do it.

"Please don't use the term 'getting on the property ladder' - you are not buying real estate and [the boat] will depreciate. So many people sit in a pub garden on a lovely day watching the boats go by and think how nice it would be to own one," he says.

But so many people don't do their homework.

"I have actually met people who have commissioned a boat built, who are within a month of taking possession and who have never, ever, stepped on board one," Mr Walden says.

They may well be in for a shock. Matt and Rose know only too well the lifestyle changes presented by living afloat.

Image caption,
Morning all: Where else could you wake up to geese outside your bedroom?

"Lugging 25 kilo sacks of coal on a frozen towpath," reminisces Matt, "emptying the loo, recharging the engine's battery every few days, washing by hand - we now have a mangle!"

Cold is an issue, but so is water. The Johnsons both tell the tale of the boat owners who were so well equipped they had a washing machine, tumble dryer and a bath - none of which were much use when their boat was frozen stuck and the amount of water needed to run their facilities involved back-breaking endeavours.

"Even a hairdryer is out of the question," says Rose. "It simply uses too much power."

David Fletcher of NABO is blunt about these privations. "If you can't take a joke, don't join us," he says.

Both Matt and Rose are well practiced at living afloat. They have advantages in that they are both young and used to simple living from recent student experiences.

Mr Walden warns the cheaper lifestyle will not make up for the enforced changes: "If you're doing it for its own sake its perfect - if you're doing it to live cheaply it won't work."

Matt sums up the situation: "We're no richer, but it doesn't matter. There are certain priceless qualities to living on a boat - where else could you ever wake up to geese and ducks swimming outside your bedroom, or see a swan building its nest outside your door?"

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.