Buying a Narrowboat - First Time Owners Guide

If you're buying a narrowboat for the first time, then you may be unsure of what to look out for. Fortunately, our guide has all of the information you need to make a successful purchase, as well as invaluable advice for essential maintenance and security.

Whether you’re inspired by the romance of life in the slow channel, or you are looking for an alternative to the rocketing housing market, buying a narrowboat can be a very appealing option. And what’s not to like? From exploring some of England’s most beautiful waterways, to living in the hipster heart of a major city, a canal boat gives you the flexibility to live on your own terms. If you’re considering buying a narrowboat as a second home or are thinking about living on a canal boat permanently, you need to factor in the costs and realities of life on the water. So, before you consider buying, take a look at our beginner’s guide.

What is a narrowboat?

Officially, a narrowboat has a beam (width) of between 6ft 10in and 7ft. A barge can be around twice the width – normally around 14.5 ft. In between, you’re looking at a range of vessels called ‘wide beam’ canal boats.

Narrowboats are the most commonly seen from the towpath, and are the boats most often used for living in. The maximum length for a narrowboat is about 70ft, as the longest locks in the UK are only 71ft 6 in long. If it’s for leisure, a boat measuring 30-40ft will be more than ample, and 50ft is a good figure if you’re buying a narrowboat to live on.

How to buy a narrowboat

Choosing the best vessel for your life on the water isn’t so cut and dry. Make sure you take in to consideration mooring and licence fees, as they can stack up against your boat’s initial cost. It’s also worth defining the exact specs you’re looking for, such as:

  • How much space do you need?
  • Will you live there full-time?
  • Are you after a restoration project, or something pristine and top-of-the-range?

Buying a new narrowboat

Generally, a new narrowboat costs around £1,000 per foot however prices can vary dramatically, and some can go for well over £100,000.

New narrowboats are typically bought directly from a boatyard. If this is your preferred option, make sure to check the financial stability of the boatyard, and compare costs and warranties with other suppliers.

Once ordered, ensure the contract releases ownership of the boat in stages. Boat builders commonly use a British Marine Federation Standard Contract, which details when you pay out, and enables you to take ownership of any completed work if you run into any problems.

Buying a used narrowboat

Buying a second-hand boat is the cheaper option if you're on a tighter budget. It’s wise to register with several narrowboat brokerages, so you can compare prices and keep up to date with the market. You can cut out the middleman and buy online, although we’d recommend giving the boat a comprehensive look over before exchanging any payment.

Buying a narrow boat checklist:

  1. General maintenance: Check to see the boat been well looked-after. Look at the paintwork, varnishing and on-board equipment for signs of wear and tear. Are the fridge, cooker, heating system and shower in good working order? Are there central, fore and aft ropes for easy mooring and a windlass (lock key) and mooring pins?
  2. Hull condition: Check the hull meets the traditional 10/6/4mm plating or steel thickness specification. The steel thickness on the hull base should be 10mm, 6mm at the sides and 4mm on the roof. When was the boat last 'blacked' (in dry dock, pressure washed and hull protected with two coats of bitumen)? This should usually be done every 2-3 years to protect the hull from rusting.
  3. Engine and gearbox: Check the condition of the engine and gearbox. Are there any leaks from the stern gear? If there are, it may need repacking or adjusting. Water-cooled diesel engines are used on newer boats; older craft have noisier air-cooled engines or vintage models.
  4. Batteries: Three leisure batteries coupled with one starter battery is standard in narrowboats. Look for a battery management system; this creates greater efficiency as it regulates the flow of current into the batteries. Check the boat has an inverter to convert 12-volt battery power to 240 volts. Without it, you'll be unable to run electrical equipment unless you plug into a marina's power supply.
  5. Survey: Have the narrowboat surveyed by a qualified marine surveyor who will advise of any faults on the hull and with the boat's internal systems.

The costs of living on a narrowboat

Besides the actual boat itself, you’ll encounter several additional costs, depending on how you use your boat:

  • Canal and River Trust licences: Costs depend on your boat’s size, but as an idea, a 40ft vessel is just over £700 per year.
  • Boat Safety Scheme: This is like an MOT for your boat and costs approximately £87.50 per year.
  • Council tax: If your boat is moored permanently, it will typically be in the lowest tax band. However, if you’re happy to move every two weeks as a ‘continuous cruiser,’ you won’t have to pay this.
  • Mooring fees: Fees vary dramatically depending on where you live, from as little as £3,000 a year in some regions to as high as £18,000 in London.
  • Fuel and heating: Costs depend on how much you intend to travel and how much you feel the cold.
  • Insurance: Policy prices will vary depending on the kind of cover you need.

Canal boat maintenance

Maintaining your narrowboat will ensure it has a long and happy life. Some checks should be carried out daily, others over the course of the seasons:

  • Every day: Check your oil level, engine coolant level and bilge level.
  • Every month: Check your engines and drive belts, see if there are any exhaust leaks, check your gas flame is blue, and inspect your mooring ropes for chafing.
  • Beginning of the season: Check your engine’s alignment, see if you need new fan belts, renew your fuel filters, clean out air filters and change the oil in your gearbox.
  • End of season: Monitor antifreeze levels in your pipes, ensure the heater is performant.

Narrowboat security

Here’s what you’ll need to do to keep your narrowboat secure:

  • Moorings: If you can find a gated marina, you might need to do little more than lock your doors. But if you’re living along the canal, you will have to take more precautions.
  • Contents: Keep valuables out of sight of the windows, and secure anchors, ropes and gas bottles.
  • Doors and windows: These can be reinforced with additional locks, clasps and bars.
  • Boat alarm systems: Ranging from the most basic motion sensors to CCTV.
  • Locking fuel cap: Fuel is expensive and easy to steal, so fit a lockable filler cap.

The dream of living in a narrowboat is becoming ever more popular in the UK, making it an exciting time to own a canal boat. At Towergate, we help boat owners live with the peace of mind that their investment is secure. Contact our boat insurance experts to find out more about our narrowboat insurance. 

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