Narrowboat first time buyers guide

If you're buying a narrowboat for the first time you may be unsure of what to look out for. Our first time buyers guide will help you know your traditional narrowboats from your cruisers and give handy advice to help you end up with the perfect purchase.

In a bid to help ease the purchase process for an increasing number of waterway enthusiasts, canal boat insurance provider Towergate Insurance, offers some boat buying tips.

What are you going to use your narrowboat for?

If it's for leisure you'll need a craft of around 30 to 40 feet; a larger craft would be needed for living aboard, 50 feet or more is usually ample.

Consider your stern space

Do you want a short deck with limited standing room (traditional), more space with seating (cruiser) or a combination of the two (semi-traditional)?


If you are planning to live aboard and cruise continuously, you'll need to use British Waterways or private moorings. If cruising continuously, you're not liable for council tax or water rates. If living aboard on a permanent residential mooring, you're likely to be on the lowest band council tax


Naturally, you're going to have a budget in mind when looking to purchase your narrow boat. It can be tempting to go for a cheaper second hand narrow boat but if you're thinking long term, it might be worth buying new.


New boats are approximately £1,000 per foot, so a 50 foot craft will cost around £50,000. A same-size second hand boat can cost £30,000 plus.

If buying new

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 - it details when you pay out and enables you to take ownership of any completed work should the builder fail.

Used boats

Register with several brokerages so you can compare prices and be notified of anything coming up that meets your criteria.

Checking the condition of a narrowboat

Evidently, if you're buying new then you'd expect the condition of the boat to be excellent. If buying second hand however, there are a few things you should look out for.

General maintenance

Has the boat been well looked after? Check the paintwork, varnishing and onboard equipment. Is 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?

Hull condition

Does the hull meet the traditional 10/6/4mm plating or steel thickness specification? 10mm is the steel thickness on the hull base, 6mm, the sides and 4mm, the roof. When was the boat last 'blacked' (in dry dock, pressure washed and hull protected with two coats of bitumen)?

Engine and gearbox

What condition is the engine and gearbox in? 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.


Check the boat has an inverter to convert 12 volt battery power to 240 volts

Three leisure batteries coupled with one starter battery is standard. 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.


Have the boat surveyed by a qualified Marine Surveyor who will advise of any faults on the hull and with the boat's internal systems.


Getting the right specification on your narrow boat can be a deal breaker. Below we outline the pros and cons of differing narrow boat creature comforts and necessities.

Heating and water

Most boats are heated by solid fuel burners or gas/diesel powered central heating. Burners can run radiators and provide hot water via a back boiler and calorifier. Gas and diesel systems won't give a 'warm glow' in the lounge area, but are quick to produce heat and water.

Chemical toilets

Pump-out or portable cassette? Pump-outs have a fixed holding tank and contents are removed at a pump-out station (for a fee). Cassettes are in two halves, a base carries waste and the top houses a freshwater flushing mechanism and seat. Spare cassettes reduce the amount of time visiting sanitary stations and emptying is usually free.

Paperwork and qualifications

This is the boring bit. None the less, it is unavoidable. Below we cover off a range of certificates and requirements which you will need before you get out there and enjoy your new purchase.

Safety Certificates

Boats over four years must have a Boat Safety Certificate

A boat under four years-old must have a certificate Recreational Craft Directive (Class D Inland Waters), confirming it's built to Approved Standards. Boats over four years must have a Boat Safety Certificate. This confirms the crafts' basic safety systems - engine installation, ventilation, heating, gas, electrics and fire extinguishers - have been checked and approved.


A British Waterways Licence allows you to use the canals and rivers. Before applying, you must give details of your current Boat Safety Certificate and insurance.


There are a number of firms offering canal boat insurance, so identify what type of cover you need and shop around. In 2011, Towergate Insurance launched its Freshwater Options policy offering customers varying levels of cover; Bronze gives third-party and legal expenses cover, Silver extends third-party and legal expenses to include fire, theft and weather-related claims, Gold builds upon this with accidental damage and personal accident protection, whilst Platinum encompasses all options, offers higher cover limits and a bespoke breakdown and rescue support service from River Canal Rescue.


Be safe and confident with your craft. Sign up for a Royal Yachting Association Inland Waterways Helmsman Course which covers safety, helmsmanship, locks and tunnels, collision avoidance and an introduction to engine maintenance. Other firms run similar courses.

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