London Houseboats Used to Be an Affordable Alternative. Not Anymore.

London Houseboats Used to Be an Affordable Alternative. Not Anymore.

When you walk along the towpaths lining London’s 100-mile network of canals, a life on the water can appear idyllic. The boats dotting the winding banks look impossibly charming, romantic, colorful. Even better, they’re cheap to acquire compared with buying a conventional land-based house or apartment in the city.

“It’s so peaceful here,” said David Ros, a freelance sound designer who has been living on the London waterways for 15 years. “I wake up in the morning and open the side door looking out over the river, and the ducks are waiting for me to feed them. It’s just a really nice way to live.”

Mr. Ros, 62, took to the water all those years ago after his marriage broke up and his mother fell ill with cancer. “At the end of that, I didn’t really have much money as I hadn’t been able to work for quite a while,” he said. “I just had enough to buy a boat, so I got one.”

As he spoke, a kingfisher flew by and the sun cascaded through the windows of his 43-foot-long Dutch barge. He bought his current houseboat about six years ago for £30,000 ($38,000). It was a “complete wreck,” he said, so he did extensive renovations. Dating from 1940, the barge has an open kitchen/saloon in the bow, a bathroom with a shower and toilet, and a double bedroom in the stern. It’s a nice setup, if a bit cramped. “The headroom is one of the main disadvantages,” he said.

Mr. Ros says he’ll never live on dry land again, as he prefers being “surrounded by nature.” But the reality is, he probably couldn’t afford a place he wanted, anyway. Home prices remain out of reach for many in London, with an average sale price of about 508,000 British pounds ($636,000), a 50 percent increase over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, a two-bedroom Dutch barge houseboat in the area will now run you around £190,000 ($238,000).

The option is almost too appealing — a new wave of residential boaters is stretching London’s canal support system past its limits. “It’s changed dramatically in the last few years,” Mr. Ros said. “There’s probably three times the number of boats, four times the number of boats than there were 10 years ago. And the demographic has changed; there are a lot more young people.”

Boaters have been living on Britain’s canals since the industrial revolution. But according to the Canal & River Trust, which looks after the nation’s waterways system, the number of residential boats in London has ballooned by 86 percent over the past decade, to more than 4,000. Boats without home moorings — that is, a legal place to stay put — have more than tripled.

“I think it is fair to say that the large increase in people living on boats in the capital is driven by the housing crisis and cost of living in London,” said Jonathan Ludford, the national communications manager for the Canal & River Trust.

With all the new boats on the water, even this affordable living option is becoming less attainable. Mr. Ros’s winter coal supply costs £22 ($29) per bag, and he needs at least 20 bags for the season. Prices for diesel and gas are also up about 50 percent, and the basic price of a boat license is rising.

Even so, the Canal & River Trust is not taking action to limit the number of boats, said Fran Read, the organization’s national press officer. “There is plenty of room, even in hot spots like London, where boat numbers are more concentrated,” Ms. Read said. “But there is a finite amount of canal, with some places very busy already. So if a boater doesn’t have a permanent mooring, they may not be able to find a mooring space just where they’d like.”

Residential boaters in London have two options: One is a permanent mooring, maybe in a marina or along the towpath, with an electric hookup for everyday functions. In inner London, permanent moorings are just about at capacity. The other option, more affordable but less stable, is to “continuously cruise,” whereby the boat has to move into what is essentially a parking spot at least every 14 days.

To ease congestion, the Trust is cracking down on rogue mariners. “If you don’t have a mooring, they move you on, just like a parking attendant,” said Mr. Ros, who has a permanent mooring for around £7,000 ($8,800) a year — a lot less than the typical amount in the area. “They have these people on bicycles controlling each area, logging how long each boat is there. You get fined £25 a day if you overstay.”

Ms. Read confirmed that boat living in London can be “considerably cheaper” than living on land, though it comes with unique challenges and isn’t for everyone. “We support any boater who is struggling wherever possible,” she said, “including directing them toward benefits that are often available for those living afloat on low incomes.”

Boaters on residential moorings can claim housing benefits the same as land-based residents. And the Canal & River Trust lobbied for boaters without home moorings to be included in the government’s Energy Support Scheme last year.

Mark Knightley, 41, and his partner, Tessa Roberts, 37, bought their first London houseboat about eight years ago after realizing that it was their best chance of living together.

“We were renting two separate places, living miles apart,” Mr. Knightley said. “And I’m an actor, while Tessa is a researcher, so we don’t have a lot of money. And the cheapest way of living together was to buy a boat.”

For five years, the couple lived on the 36-foot-long narrow boat in Hackney, east London, which they bought for about £35,000 ($45,000). “It had a bed that would fold out every night, and the floor space was about two square feet,” Mr. Knightley said. “But it was on a beautiful marina on the River Lee.”

Three years ago, shortly before their daughter was born, the couple upgraded to a 70-foot-long Dutch barge with a permanent mooring at South Dock Marina, by the Thames in Rotherhithe, southeast London, for around £200,000.

Mr. Knightley glowed about the community around them — “like nothing that we’d find anywhere else in London,” he said. “There’s a lot of creative people, and loads of history with the dock and the boats that are here.”

Still, it’s a schlep to the supermarket, and ordering food gets complicated when delivery drivers don’t understand your address. And of course, raising a child on a barge comes with its own challenges. In the winter, power outages are a problem, “which can be scary for a young child when she’s in the bath and we’re suddenly plunged into pitch-black darkness,” Mr. Knightley said.

“People assume we must be terrified about her safety all the time because of the water,” Ms. Roberts said. “But I think it’s the same as living near a road: You teach them to be careful around it and you don’t leave them unsupervised outside.”

But the couple’s biggest challenge recently has been the spike in costs. Boat license fees rose by 4 percent beginning in April 2022, and the Canal & River Trust has also phased in additional pricing bands for boats wider than 7-foot-1. Fees for boats more than 10-foot-7 wide are subject to an additional 5 percent.

Houseboats in the River Trust’s jurisdiction require a Boat Safety Scheme certificate, which must be renewed every four years. And for boaters with a permanent mooring, there are mooring fees, paid monthly or annually to the marina owners; the fee that Ms. Roberts and Mr. Knightley pay rose by 11 percent this year, to £10,000 ($12,500).

“The maintenance costs are large when the size of the boat goes up,” Mr. Knightley said. “For our barge it cost £13,000, although the work done to make it legally safe will probably last 10 years. The last time this boat came out of the water, they had to extensively replace the steel, and it cost £40,000. You should also do an engine service every five years or so.”

In their area of London, higher fees are part of a plan by the Southwark borough council to redevelop the marina, at a cost of £6 million. The goal is to address health and safety issues on the water and on the docks, create new wash facilities and a cafe, and replace old workshops that are currently in shipping containers with new purpose-built ones.

The plan, said Catherine Rose, a Southwark Council member for neighborhoods, leisure and parks, “will address urgent health and safety issues to help maintain a working marina and enhance the boat yard environment.”

To help ease the transition, she said, the council is offering a discount for boat-repair shops and staggering the rent increase over a three-year period for all existing boatyard businesses.

But boaters like Mr. Knightley and Ms. Roberts see the move as a way to replace lower-income boaters with more commercial interests. “There’s a lot of concern at the moment with the community here about how the council are essentially trying to force people out,” Mr. Knightley said. “The housing situation in London is horrendous anyway; they’re just making it even worse.”

The boaters tend to agree, though, that safety and security are urgent matters. The Metropolitan Police Service does not keep separate data on water crimes, but boaters say that crime at marinas, and even on boats, has long been a problem.

“I’d never live on a boat again,” said Janusz Konarski, 56, who did just that in London’s Little Venice from 1983 to 1995, before returning to land. “I didn’t ever feel secure. There was a bloke trying to steal my bike. Then we had a glue sniffer undoing the moorings because he was mentally ill. He pulled a knife on me, although the police got him.”

These days, Mr. Ros said, “it feels like there’s a lot of crime around. There’s a lot more breaking in, there’s a lot more general thievery going on. It’s desperate times here, and boats are an easy target.”

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