The costs of living on a narrowboat
I love discovering unusual acronyms. For instance there’s ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’ aka GOLF. Or how about ‘WareHouse at River Front’, aka WHARF.
Most apt for us is ‘Bring On Another Thousand’ – BOAT!
Every now and again we’re contacted by a blog reader asking us how much it costs to live aboard a narrowboat. With the upsurge in popularity of Inland Waterways stories and documentaries featuring in the media in UK, we’re now noticing an increase in passers-by asking “Is it cheap to live on a narrowboat?“
Well having done so for four years now (as well as two six-month trips in 2009 and 2010), whilst trying to budget sensibly, we feel we can give a fairly good overview of some of the costs involved.
Regular and expected costs (updated April 2017)
To keep a narrowboat on the Inland Waterways you must pay an annual fee for a Canal and River Trust (C&RT) licence. This entitles you to cruise the 2,000 miles of waterways owned and run by C&RT.
The cost depends upon the length of the boat you buy, ranging from £471.05 (if you pay ‘promptly’) for a boat up to 18′ long (5.49m), to £1024.27 ( for one up to an incredible length of 73′ 9″! (22.49m))
If you want to venture further afield, onto rivers such as the Thames, or the Nene, you’ll need to purchase either a Gold Licence (in 2017 £1,268 for a boat 52′ 8″ to 65′ 11″) or buy a time-limited licence from the Environment Agency.
Just like a house or a car, every narrowboat is required to be appropriately insured in order to obtain a license. The cost of this varies depending on the agent, and any add-ons to the policy.
Our basic insurance in 2017 was £192.55 – an additional £100 gave us insurance to trade from a side hatch (and from the towpath).
Narrow boaters will tell you in a jovial tone, that we all have our version/s of a ‘toilet’ story. If you were to ask us, we’d be delighted to regale more than one amusing tale – which, believe me, are really only funny in retrospect!
There’s a fascinating ongoing debate and divide between pump-outs and cassette toilets.
One of these options will cost you to empty it at frequent intervals, depending on the size of your tank and the number of people depositing waste into it. With two of us on board, we can generally last three weeks between pump outs. However …
We need to be mindful of when we last emptied our loo, where we’re heading, and what facilities there are. In 2013/14 pump-outs cost us £252.50; 2014/15 £245, and in 2016/17 £251.50. We do have a cassette toilet on board for ’emergencies’, and had to make use of it for the first time last year! So we’d certainly recommend a back up where possible.
Additionally if the mechanics fail, you’ve got the cost of repair to consider. Our vacuum pump-out gave up the ghost in autumn 2015 – rather ghastly as we had two guests on board at the time. Fortunately we were able to moor next to boaters’ facilities for the two nights it took to sort out. Replacing the necessary components cost over £200, plus a couple of days of hard (and foul) work for Barry.
Cassette toilet contents disposal is free – but we feel is needed far too frequently (every couple of days generally), and would be
fairly extremely unpleasant. I guess it’s something you get used to. If you had to. We’d rather not thank you.
Another option that’s becoming popular is composting toilets. There’s a range of options for narrowboats, like this one (Envirolet seems to be currently leading the way), at a cost of £995. Check out how it functions here. Apparently (wait for it, don’t read on if you’re squeamish), “The Solid tank will last one month with two people using it full time”
“By separating liquids from solids, the volume of solid human matter is significantly reduced. Air Head’s approximate 22 litres capacity means that up to a season’s worth of weekend use may be held. This is approximately 80 uses. Full-time use, 60 uses or two people for 1 month.
The liquid tank will hold approximately four days use per person if used exclusively.”
Another option could be this one by ‘simploo.co.uk‘.
The mind boggles about this option (well mine does, after 35 years as a nurse and midwife I have no desire to spend too much time considering what to do with the contents of my intestines), but it seems as though there’s an increasing interest by more environmentally aware boaters …
Currently narrow boaters can use ‘Red’ diesel to propel, and heat, their boats. You can divide the tax between propulsion and heating in different ‘splits’, depending on where you buy from – you declare and sign for the split. Generally people would split it 40/60.
As a trade boat, we pay no tax on it, as we need to move to attend events so it’s seen as a legitimate component of our business costs.
The price of diesel ranges hugely, from around 57 pence/litre to over £1. Ask any live-aboard who’s been travelling for a while and they’ll tell you the cheapest places to fill up!
Our diesel costs for 2013/14 was £1,241.93 (we travelled a lot!), 2014/15 (the season we began trading) was £1,345.69, last year 2016/17 it was £1,014.78. The recent significant decrease in diesel Barry believes may be due to switching off our freezer as it needed so much battery power for which we had to use the engine to charge them for longer and more frequently.
Whether we move or not, each day we’d need to have the engine on to charge the domestic batteries – unless we’re ‘hooked up’ to electricity somewhere. Consequently it doesn’t necessarily save costs by sitting still for any length of time. We’d need to travel about three hours to fully charge the batteries.
At some stage in the not-too-distant-future, we’re hoping to install solar panels on the roof of the boat. Many narrowboaters have these and report that they are fabulous for charging the batteries. We just need to work out how we can fit sufficient solar panels on the roof of our boat in between the three top boxes! There’s also the initial outlay to consider. But Barry is on the case …
Most liveaboards have a solid fuel fire somewhere on their boat. We had one fitted in the autumn of 2014, having spent the first winter aboard with just diesel radiators and found it challenging to maintain any semblance of warmth without using up a large volume of diesel.
Whilst you can scour the towpaths for ‘free’ wood to burn, it needs to be very dry and generally the wood you pick one year won’t be burnable until the following year.
Coal isn’t cheap, but it’s preferable to diesel. During the winter and spring of 2015/16, we spent £134 on keeping warm using the fire – admittedly we’re rather frugal though. We don’t have it on 24/7 like some people, and only lit it again mid-October 2015 after not using it since March.
In 2016/17, we cruised during the autumn and winter months. Consequently the amount spent on coal/kindling increased t £249.04.
We also have radiators in every room, which are run by an Eberspacher Diesel Central Heating unit – which obviously uses diesel!
Barry does all of our engine maintenance which saves money. He changes the oil every 200 hours, as well as the oil and fuel filters. Every 400 hours the gear box oil also need changing. The total cost of all these is generally around £70.
The general recommendation is that narrowboats are taken out of the water and have their underneath parts power-washed, scraped and given a couple of coats of a bitumen-type black paint. Many narrowboaters do this themselves, hiring a dry-dock for a week.
We had Areandare’s bottom blacked early in 2014 at a cost of £550. In February 2017 we performed a DIY bottom blacking at Hawne Basin (well, to be fair, Barry did. No ‘we’. I was unexpectedly and horribly
indisposed hospitalised after a trip to Africa). This entailed seven days of hard graft, in addition to the monetary costs. Taking the boat out of the water cost £188.77, paint and brushes £39.99, and four new anodes (and a spot of welding) £150. A total cost of £378.76 (or £228.76 without the cost of anodes).
Alternatively Barry informs me there’s a new(ish) method of shot-blasting the hull to bare metal, followed by a two-pack coating of paint which lasts longer than the basic method. However it costs more and is likely to need to be done professionally.
Boat Safety Scheme
A type of narrowboat MOT, you need to have a current BSS and renew it every four years to comply with regulations – and most importantly to be as safe as possible! It will cost you around £150.
We had our BSC in February this year, undertaken by the lovely Adrian Pye at a cost of £130.
Boat equipment and maintenance
This is one of the categories in our accounts spreadsheet so is worth mentioning, though without a specific breakdown of specifics. In 2015/16 we spent £1,559.18 in this category, and in 2016/17 £1,354.47. So it’s fair to say around £1,500 per year.
We have a gas hob and grill (the latter of which is hopeless!), an electric oven and grill (which only works when we’re hooked up to electricity or the engine is on full power), and a microwave for cooking.
We’ve found gas to be an incredibly cheap resource, despite cooking on the hob most days. In 2013/14 we spent £98.48 on gas, 2014/15 £72.93, and 2016/17 a measly £22.36! It’s brilliantly cost effective.
As continuous cruisers we don’t have a local supermarket, or Farmer’s Market selling lovely fresh local produce. We shop as and when we find a nearby store – as we have to carry it back to the boat! Or we shop online and get it delivered – you can even put in a bridge number for this. Sue from NB No Problem, has a very useful page on her informative blog site clearly explaining how you can do this with Tesco online – click here to read all about it.
We can forage for a few things – like fresh nettles for soup, blackberries for pies, elderberries for wine and cordial, sloes for gin … And we can grow a modicum of fresh food and herbs on board, on the roof, or in the ‘cratch’.
We can occasionally time our expeditions to the afternoon, when many ‘about to go out of date’ foods are reduced in price.
In 2015/16 we spent £2,783.92 on groceries (£53.54 average per week); in 2016/17 this increased to£3,248.20 (£62.46 average per week). I’m not sure why, and will be aiming to find ways of reducing this cost this year, without compromising healthy eating.
As continuous cruisers, we rarely pay mooring costs (unless we’re on the Thames, as we were in 2010, or the River Nene in 2015 where we paid a £5 overnight charge) as it’s covered in the cost of your C&RT license.
However, we chose to moor in Marinas for the winters of 2013/14, and 2014/15 – Tattenhall Marina from August 2013 to March 2014 (because Barry had to return to NZ to apply for his visa, and it meant we were close to my eldest daughter and grandsons to help out) which cost us £1,171.92, then Worcester Marina December 2014 to March 2015 (because my elderly father who lived nearby,was very poorly) for £918. In November and December 2015, we accepted the offer of a trading mooring at Mercia Marina. However the costs of the mooring (£577.72 for two months) were only just covered by the income from trading there, so we chose to leave in January 2016.
In the winter of 2016/17, we remained in the Birmingham area, as we were both working ‘on land’ for Calendar Club in Merry Hill and Tamworth.
Marina fees differ considerably depending on location and services. Prices also depend on the length of your boat.
I have an iPhone 4s that I purchased in 2011 and (thankfully) is still working okay – Barry has recently ‘inherited’ this and I’ve now taken a contract for an iPhone 5SE, with Three that includes 30GB of internet (with tethering), unlimited texts, and calls for £37 a month.
Barry has a contract with Talk Mobile, with a small amount of data, texts and calls for £8.50 a month. We’re planning on upgrading this soon.
We use an extra ordinate amount of data for various things – our businesses, my voluntary work with the Roving Canal Traders Association, blogging, emailing, Skyping/Facetiming to NZ, etc.
We have two Three ‘mifi’ (mobile wifi) devices, giving us a total of 15GB of data a month, at a cost of £35.98. However, we’ll be cancelling one of these in July when the 24 month contract is up – and will then have 40GB of data, for £20 a month, plus my phone and tethering ability.
More than enough for our needs.
We don’t have a car – it’s quite a challenge for continuous cruisers to do so, and also expensive. However I am insured on my mum’s car so I can take her out and about when I stay with her in Droitwich.
Otherwise we mostly real on public transport. Booking train in advance can usually help to reduce the cost – our favourite ‘App’ is trainline.com for this.
I travel around quite a lot to spend time with my mum and daughters, more so than most boaters, so our public transport costs are fairly high, but still less than owning and running a car. In 2015/16 we spent £715.75, and in 2016/17 £658.17.
We consciously choose NOT to have a TV on board.
However, many, if not most live-aboards seem to have one judging by our experiences and the number of ariels on roofs!
A TV licence currently costs £147 per year (note that the fine for watching any form of TV without one is up to £1,000).
Those without a TV may use their laptop or tablet – or their phone – to watch ‘catch up’ or even ‘livestream’ TV.
Boaters may be under the mistaken impression that if they have no TV they don’t need a TV licence. Sadly they’re wrong. Those who come from abroad may not even know about TV licensing; for instance there’s no such thing in New Zealand.
If you’re unsure, it’s worth clicking on this link to read the information. Don’t get caught out!
“If the “bricks-and-mortar” address is the boater’s permanent address, and they have a TV Licence for that address, then the licence will cover their boat as well. Boaters only require a TV Licence if their boat is their permanent address or if they watch live TV, or watch or download BBC programmes on iPlayer on board, and are not already covered by a home licence.”
“It’s easy to pay for a TV Licence or update details online, using a forwarding address if necessary. There are many ways to spread the cost, including weekly, fortnightly or monthly cash payment plans and direct debit options, which can be set up quickly. You do not need a fixed address to receive your TV Licence, as a licence can be arranged for your boat and sent to you by email.
Canal boat owners should visit tvlicensing.co.uk/info for more information about when a licence is needed.”
This is where the ‘Bring On Another Thousand’ acronym comes into its own!
You never know what you may have to find some money for from one day to the next – though maintaining the boat obviously keeps costs down.
But things, like people, wear out with constant use and need replacing.
Examples of unexpected costs we’ve experienced include:
- Replacing a bent propellor was around £380 (which we were able to claim some of on the insurance)
- Calorifier – £421 plus accoutrements of around £50 to fit (by Barry again!)
- One we’ve yet to sort is to fix parts of the inverter which will be around £250 to enable it to charge the batteries effectively
What have I missed?
In reply to the question “Is it cheap to live on a narrowboat?“, my response would be “That depends on your income and expectations!“
Like many things in 21st century life, it’s all relative …
If you compare it to living in a house, running a car (or two), commuting to work five days a week, an annual fortnight in Spain, etc, etc, then yes, it’s definitely ‘cheap’.
However, if you feel you can move onto a narrowboat and continue with similar expenses, eating out frequently, keeping the fire going 24/7, not maintaining the vital components of the boat, etc, then not so much.
I guess at the end of the day it depends what you’re prepared to ‘give up’, in order to gain more life in your days?
Do you crave luxury and heaps of ‘stuff’? Or are you looking for more quality, exercise, fresh air and variety?
Of course other variables need to be considered too, including the size and age of the boat, or whether you’re having one custom built.
Like many things in life, much of the experiences you’ll have are as cheap or expensive as you make it.
I’ve no doubt we’ll receive comments from fellow narrow boaters about what I’ve missed out.
Please feel welcome and encouraged to comment below and tell us what your costs are in comparison to ours – we may be missing bargains …
I’ll update this page whenever I’m aware of new or amended information.