Living on a houseboat in London: a guide to staying afloat on the capital's waterways

The capital has become a houseboat hotspot as Londoners take to the water in Dutch barges, narrowboats and other styles of floating home.
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The romantic appeal of houseboat living peaks at this time of year as London's river residents work from enviable deck-side offices, or on the roof terraces of their floating homes.

The Thames follows a 42-mile route through central London, while the city’s waterways cover more of the capital than the congestion charge zone.

The Canal & River Trust, which oversees 100 miles of waterways across the wider London region, including the Grand Union Canal, Regent's Canal and River Lea Navigation, has recorded a huge rise in boat numbers over the past five years. Hackney in east London is a particular hotspot, with an 85 per cent increase in the number of boats monitored in the area between 2013 and last year.


By autumn, 12 new leisure moorings will be created along the River Lea, adjacent to the Olympic Park, in response to a further surge in demand in east London.

While most of the 3,000 boats in London are leisure boats, there has also been an increase in the number of people choosing to live afloat, at least part time. 

Nigel Day of specialist estate agent River Homes says: "Houseboats are popular with artists, young professionals and those looking for an afforable pied-à-terre, as well as divorcees."

Demand for riverfront living has begun to outstrip the supply of moorings, increasing interest in London’s disused wharves, forgotten docks and Thames backwaters. However, it should be remembered that houseboats are not without their additional costs - and maintaining them isn't as simple as you might think. 

The Canal & River Trust agrees: "It’s a specific way of life and one that doesn’t suit everybody. We encourage people not to see canals and boats as a cheap housing alternative. There are hidden costs, and maintaining your boat is almost like a part-time job, so you also have to factor in the value you put on your time. Our advice is that you should only live on a boat if you love the lifestyle, not because you think it will save you money."


Types of houseboat
There are several different types of houseboat. Narrowboats must be less than seven feet wide, allowing them to pass through the Thames’s canal lock systems. Dutch barges are similar but wider, and they need to be moored on rivers rather than canals. Yachts are opulent but command a premium, while floating homes are built on to a “Thames lighter” - a type of flat-bottomed barge - and they look more like apartments than boats. Visit or for more details.

Where to buy
People live on the water all the way from Docklands to Twickenham, in houseboats functioning as both relaxing city pads and country retreats. Demand for houseboats is always high but there has been a surge in demand in east London and in the Hackney area in particular.

Who's buying them
Nigel Day from River Homes says artists and creatives are drawn to east London's canal network, young professionals tend to opt for Docklands and those living in Chelsea, Battersea and Wandsworth have bigger budgets.

Price guide
Houseboats cost, on average, from £100,000 to £1 million-plus, depending on the size, condition, location and mooring. The cost is calculated by the length of the vessel but a 50ft boat would cost in the region of £10,000 a year to moor in Chelsea and about £6,500 to moor in Docklands.

Houseboat finance
Many houseboats and floating homes are sold to cash buyers, since it’s far harder to get a mortgage on a boat than on a house or flat. But if you need a loan, don’t despair. Some specialist boat finance companies, including RoyScot Larch and Collidge and Partners may be able to help. It's worth noting, however, that these companies only lend on the value of the boat itself, and mooring rights are often more valuable.

Houseboats to rent
There are relatively few to rent simply because there aren’t that many houseboats around. The people who own them tend to keep them for themselves and you can’t buy a boat with a buy-to-let mortgage under current lending rules, which further restricts supply.

From a landlord’s point of view, houseboats make a great investment, however. The capital investment is smaller for landlords but a houseboat can let for a lot more than a standard flat of equivalent size because of their rarity. Once let, they are on standard Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreements so are usually taken for six months to a year. Those who rent them tend to treat them like any other rental property, rather than a summer home.

You'll need a licence
A British Waterways Licence costs about £400 per year for a small boat, while a Boat Safety Scheme certificate starts at £100 and needs renewing every four years.

Mooring fees
These are often determined per foot of length per week, but location, facilities and the type of boat also need to be considered. Securing a mooring on the Thames can often be more difficult than finding your ideal houseboat, and it can be very expensive, too - the further away from central London, the cheaper moorings tend to be.

“In addition to the permanent moorings, there are also a number of temporary moorings in London, especially along the canal network. These typically allow boat owners to stay overnight, seven or 14 days. How many are in occupation varies with the time of year, but there are about 700 temporary moorings across London, " says Nigel Day from River Homes.

Other costs to consider
Just because it’s a boat, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider domestic bills, including water, electricity, gas or diesel, as well as council tax and insurance. You’ll also need to factor in the running costs for fuel, engine oil, toilets and pumps, plus yearly maintenance, and getting the hull checked and painted. 

These boats need to be taken out of the water every seven years to have the hull scraped and they need painting every three years and varnishing every four to five years. River Homes recommends setting aside 10 per cent of the value of your boat each year to cover maintenance costs. Most permanent moorings offer mains utilities, so gas, electricity, sewage, phones and wi-fi bills are just the same as they would be in any other home.

Boat safety certificates, like an MOT for your boat, are required every four years and cost £150 plus potential repairs, according to the Canal & River Trust.

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