On a weekend break in Suffolk, while wandering along a woodland path that runs next to the Orwell Estuary, I stumble across an empty houseboat for sale, asking price £85,000. Excited, I march down the rickety gangplank on to the deck. “This would be a fantastic buy-to-let,” I shout to my more sensible other half, who is pretending not to notice my diversion from the footpath.
The kids race down the plank after me, which leaves their dad no option but to follow. When he arrives on deck he points out it’s less of a houseboat, more of shipwreck. This is true. It is in fact the shell of a scruffy old Thames barge in need of a total refurb. It has mains water, electricity and a phone line (according to the For Sale board) but that’s where the mod cons end.
However, it is moored in a great location, at a gorgeous riverside hamlet not far from the fashionable seaside town of Southwold, otherwise known as Islington-On-Sea.
I tell Captain Sensible that we could branch out into holiday lettings. Even the pokiest cottage in Southwold rents for about a grand a week during the summer holidays - and even at that price, they’re fully booked long before the schools break up.
My other half is super-skilled at pointing out the absolutely bleeding obvious, which in this case is that we haven’t a clue how to renovate a houseboat. I’ve fallen in love with the idea of a riverside property though, so I start to hunt for a modernised vessel.
On the internet I spot a converted French trawler, moored not far from my wreck, for sale at just a shade above £60,000. It’s only a two-minute walk from Woodbridge station, says the ad, from where there are trains to London. Looking online, I see houseboat owners are letting houseboats like this one for as much £875 a week. We could get a great return on our investment.
However, my dream starts to fade when I find that the cost of the boat isn’t the only outlay. You also have to buy a residential mooring (like taking a lease on a house), which can cost more than the boat itself, and then there are monthly rental fees on top.
Raising the finance could also be tricky. Marine mortgages do exist but they’re hard to come by and interest rates are higher than for bricks and mortar. Also, you can’t get a mortgage for the mooring, only the boat. So, basically, you need a lot of spare cash.
Then there’s the cost of insurance, which is more expensive than for a house (I suppose it’s easier for someone to make off with a boat, break in or set it ablaze). I’m told to factor in about £3,000 a year for one berth. Blimey. Plus there’s the hefty cost of maintenance and all the usual bills, such as council tax and utilities.
“You won’t get any bookings in the winter,” warns a friend whose boyfriend used to live on a barge in Battersea. “Houseboats are freezing - and damp. In fact, they’re bloody awful,” she tells me. My dream is shattered.
However, I see that someone is advertising a yurt for £700 a week. Given that you can pick one up for less than £3,000 I think these tents, not houseboats, are the future. “You need somewhere to pitch it,” says hubby, somewhat obviously. “Sure,” I say, “but if we could squeeze one into the garden…”