Property insider: houseboats on the Thames

Russell Day, director of specialist estate agent River Homes, gives his insider lowdown on houseboat living, from the most sought-after waterside postcodes to the latest luxury homes and floating pieds-à-terre.
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Houseboats in Chelsea
Cheyne Walk in Chelsea is one of London's most exclusive floating villages
The Thames is London’s biggest open space, yet with requests for riverside moorings reaching an all-time high, residents of this floating community are part of an exclusive set.

The Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA) estimates about 15,000 people live afloat in Great Britain. Russell Day, director of River Homes, estimates that the number of Londoners living in homes on the water is in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Despite the romantic idyll of houseboat living, this remains a niche property market. The number of moorings in London are limited, and the need for cash sales restricts the options for many prospective buyers. Prime residential moorings in the best postcodes are rare and will always be in demand.

Russell Day says buyers who opt for houseboat living find "a true oasis of calm in the bustling city" and count light, space, freedom and relaxation as part of this lifestyle's many charms.

The river has eternal appeal for City types chilling out and artists and creatives working from enviable deckside offices. Celebrity residents include artist Damien Hirst and former 'Dragon' Simon Woodroffe, both with moorings at Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk - London’s most exclusive “floating village”.

Mini communities are set up in village-like pockets of the capital, such as Chiswick Pier, St Katharine Docks near Tower Bridge and Cheyne Walk, where the highest number of moorings can be found.

Insider lowdown: Russell Day, River Homes

What different types of houseboat properties can be found along the Thames?
This market can be roughly divided in two: houseboats and floating homes. Houseboats could be classed as purpose-built boats; for example, barges, cruisers or narrowboats and quite often have an engine.

Floating homes are just that: often superstructures are built onto a Thames lighter (a type of flat-bottomed barge), or built totally from scratch, and often look more like sleek Manhattan-style loft apartments than boats. We recently sold a luxury floating home next to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea with a swimming pool on the roof for just under £1 million.

What is the difference between a residential mooring and a leisure mooring?
Residential moorings are allowed to be used as a primary residential address and owners will pay council tax.

Leisure moorings have rules attached: the mooring can have electricity, water and everything else owners need to be able to live there, however this can not be a primary residential address. Boats are only to be used for days or weeks, not continuously. These suit city workers in areas such as St Katherine's Dock, where boats can be used as weekday crashpads.

What types of buyers are attracted to this type of living?
Many people would love to live on a houseboat, however buyers are restricted as these properties require a cash purchase which takes the majority of "window shoppers" out of the equation. It's not a cheap alternative to buying a more conventional property.

Houseboat living attracts many creative and artistic people, including painters and musicians who are looking for something architecturally different, or to be able to stand on the deck and soak up their surroundings - nature, the birds, the water and the lifestyle. Quite often buyers are looking for an alternative way to live in a city - they don't want to be constrained by bricks and mortar.

Surprisingly, some average homebuyers who need to live in a particular postcode and have cash, but for some reason can’t get a mortgage or need a particular number of bedrooms, opt for houseboats.

What types of houseboats and moorings are most sought-after along the Thames?
Secure residential moorings - or moorings with 10 years or more on the licence - are always in demand, especially in prime postcodes. Given that there are so few moorings in London, and with such high demand for quality vessels, the right boat on the right mooring will sell quickly. Areas such as Battersea, Cheyne Walk, St Katharines Dock next to Tower Bridge, and Brentford are all popular.

Where are the "hidden gems"?
Because there are so few moorings there aren’t really any cheap moorings, even towards the outskirts of London. In areas such as Kingston they are slightly cheaper, but not as much as you would imagine. The more secure the mooring, the more expensive it is. Chelsea has secure moorings offering 10 years or more on the licence with ease of renewal. Costs come down if the mooring is less secure, for example the moorings in the canal network where it joins St Katharines Dock tend to have a year rolling licence.

Are there investment opportunities in this type of market?
Investment is ruled out for most people as purchasers need cash. That said, if a boat were purchased to rent out, it would never be empty. The market is relatively seasonal but during the summer months we get dozens of enquiries from prospective tenants looking to live on a riverboat - who wouldn't want to?

What are the costs involved?
Regular mooring and maintenance charges - equivalent to a service charge - vary dramatically from £100 a month up to £1,000. Before we do viewings we go through the facts, figures and financing options with buyers. Ongoing maintenance costs add up; every three-to-five years boats need to be dry docked, surveyed and metal plates need to be fixed and painted. A regular maintenance programme is essential.

What are your favourite viewings to show potential buyers?
There are two different considerations - one is the area and the other is the vessel. People are less postcode specific when it comes to searching for a houseboat, as individual boats are all so different. Buyers are more flexible on the location than the interior and layout of the boat. Quite often buyers don't have children so they don't need to be close to specific schools.

If money were no object, what type of floating property would you buy, and where?
Personally I would opt for one of the very modern floating apartments - I'd have my inflatable rib boat hanging off the side so I could use that as my river transport, dropping into the Sainsbury's on the river in Fulham to pick up groceries. I'd make the river work for me.

Russell Day set up River Homes with his father and brother in 2003, and specialises in selling and letting properties on and near the river Thames

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