Living on a houseboat in London: living on the water is no longer an alternative lifestyle choice as Londoners look to rivers and canals for better value homes

Londoners looking for a central home on a budget are hitting the water — and avoiding stamp duty in the process.

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The number of Londoners resorting to living on boats has rocketed — with many driven off dry land by the high price of conventional homes.

The number of boats registered to be moored on London waterways has increased by nearly 60 per cent in the past five years to almost 4,000, according to latest figures from the Canal & River Trust, which manages 100 miles of canals in the capital including the Grand Union and Regent’s Canals. Many other floating households are in private marinas or at moorings along the Thames. 

Up to a third of those who live on water in London have a nomadic existence. Their licence requires that they pull up anchor and move from one mooring to the next every two weeks. Permanent moorings are often hard to find — or simply too expensive.

Fran Read, a spokeswoman for the trust, said: “If you don’t pay for a permanent mooring then it is definitely a cheaper option because you only need a boat licence, which costs between about £500 and £1,000 a year depending on the length of your boat.”

Many houseboats and floating homes are sold to cash buyers, as it’s far harder to get a mortgage on a boat than on a house or flat, although specialist boat finance companies can assist.

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£168,000: a one-bedroom converted lifeboat in Twickenham

SAVE ON STAMP DUTY

At the other end of the market Simon Waller, associate director of Riverhomes estate agents, which specialises in selling riverboats from modest vessels to all-frills Dutch barges costing several million pounds, believes recent increases in stamp duty costs for second homes have played a part.

“A home owner who lives in the country used to have a pied-à-terre in London for the working week but a boat is a cheaper option because you do not pay any stamp duty on the vast majority of boats,” he explained.

Financial motivation apart, Read also thinks there is romance in life afloat. “It was once a very alternative thing to do but now it has become a lot more acceptable. We have bankers, teachers, a lot of students, a real cross-section of people living on boats, and it is a really good community life. It’s a very free-spirited way to live, and when you come home at night you are very close to nature, which is lovely.”

Houseboats are popular with celebrities including British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of Oscar-winning movie Twelve Years a Slave, and TV personality Bear Grylls.

HIDDEN COSTS OF HOUSEBOAT LIVING

But although small doer-upper houseboats can be bought for less than £50,000, and using temporary moorings is free, would-be boat residents need to remember that the cost of maintaining residential boats is high.

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£275,000: a one-bedroom floating home in Hammersmith

And people who need a permanent base face hefty annual mooring fees. Costs range from about £4,000 per year in suburban locations, to tens of thousands of pounds in the centre of London.

NEW MOORINGS IN EAST LONDON

The trust is working to increase the number of moorings, with new berths established at Matchmakers Wharf, Homerton; Atlip Road, Alperton; Burdett Road, Limehouse, and Bow Wharf in the last year. This week Tower Hamlets council’s planning committee is expected to approve the trust’s plans for a 16-boat mooring at Millwall Outer Dock.

Meanwhile, London Waterways Projects, a social enterprise, is working on providing affordable moorings for Londoners at a trial site at Corbridge Crescent in east London, near Broadway Market. Preference will be given to people with local connections, and “on the basis of need”, and fees will be a comparatively modest £375, plus VAT, per month. 

However, the trust admits these improvements are a drop in the ocean. “The demand for London’s waterways is putting a real pressure on a system which is not really designed for so many boats,” said Fran Read. She said the trust is working to create more mooring spaces, and is encouraging developers to add moorings to waterside schemes. Pontoons could also be used to create more moorings on larger waterways. 

“If a council or a developer decided to build a marina somewhere, that would give a lot more space,” she said.


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