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 in UK and abroad, people often ask “Is it cheap to live on a narrowboat?

Well having done so for six 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

It’s worth noting initially, that we have no ‘home’ mooring. We’re continuous cruisers. If you don’t know what that means, Canal and River Trust have some helpful, recently updated, ‘Frequently Asked Questions‘ on their site. It’s really not rocket science, and easy to comply. A minimum of just 20 miles a year movement is the minimum requirement. You must cruise within the ‘British Waterways Act 1955’. For full terms and conditions visit this link, Schedule 2.

Licensing

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 CRT.

The cost depends upon the length of the boat you buy, ranging from £512.14 (if you pay ‘promptly’) for a boat up to 18′ long (5.5m), to £1147.09 ( for one up to an incredible length of 73′ 9″! (23.5m)) – for a 12 month licence at 2019/20 prices.

Gold License

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 2019 for a boat up to 16′ 8″/5.09 metres £593, to £1,552 for a boat up to 75′ 9″/23.09 metres). The other possibility is a time-limited licence from the Environment Agency. For their current costs, call 03708 506 506, email boatreg@environment-agency.gov.ukor see their website www.gov.uk/environment-agency

If you’re going to trade from the boat, you’ll also need to apply for the appropriate business/trading licence from C&RT, which bring the cost up a little, but surprisingly not by very much.

Insurance

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 with Craft Insure (who we’ve used for many years) in 2019 was £166.35. We pay an additional £110.80 for insurance to trade from a side hatch (and from the towpath) for The Home Brew Boat, and to cover an item on board worth more than the maximum standard cover.

Licensing and Insurance cost us £1260.15 in 2018/19.

Toilets

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; 2015/16 £242.25 ;2016/17 £251.50; 2017/18 £298.05; and 2018/19 £398.20. Making an average annual cost for us of £281.25.

The larger increase last year, we believe, was a combination of 1/ Lots of visitors on board (we probably pumped out more than we needed to, as it can be a somewhat scary wondering when system’s full, and not being near a pump out with people on board!), and 2/ we think we’ve noticed an increase in prices.

We have a cassette toilet on board for ’emergencies’, which we made use of for the first time in 2017. We’d certainly recommend having some form of ‘back up’ where possible if using a pump out.

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 gained popularity in recent years is composting toilets. Kath and Anna-Marie write an informative post about their first experiences of using a composting toilet in 2017. 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.”

The mind boggles about this option (well mine does, after 35 years as a nurse and midwife I have no desire to focus with such intensity what to do with the contents of my bladder and intestines), but it seems as though there’s an increasing interest by more environmentally aware boaters …

A recent extensive survey by a narrow boater, via CRT, may come up with further information. Watch this space!

Diesel

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. It’s seen as a legitimate component of our business costs.

The price of diesel ranges hugely, from around 70 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; 2014/15 (the season we began trading) £1,345.69; 2015/16 £1,448.54; 2016/17 £1,014.78 (we found lots of the cheaper places for diesel that year we think); 2017/18 £1,229.27; and in 2018/19 £1,270.50.  Our diesel costs have remained pretty stable. An average of £1,258.45 per year.

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.

In April this year, Barry had one Solar Panel installed on the roof our boat through John at ‘Solar Afloat‘. Many narrowboaters have these and report that they’re fabulous for charging the batteries and cutting diesel costs. It’s likely we need more than one, but with a cost of just over £500 we’re hoping that will make a significant difference!

Heating

Just in time for the cold snap ...
Fitting our multi-fuel stove in October 2014, just in time for the cold snap …

Most liveaboards have a solid fuel fire somewhere on their boat. We had one fitted in the lounge during the autumn of 2014, having spent the first winter aboard with just diesel radiators (and a stove in the Boatman’s Cabin which wasn’t practical), 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 to use in the fire, and generally the wood you pick one year won’t be burnable until the following year after it’s been ‘seasoned’.

Coal isn’t cheap, but it’s preferable to diesel expenses wise. Over the past four seasons our costs have been: 2015/16 =£212.44 (the first full year with it fitted); 2016/17 = £249.04; 2017/18 = £314.07; 2018/19 = £369.97. An average of £286.38 per year.

They’ve  increased each year for some reason, more so the most recent one, despite running Calendar Club in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons.

We also have radiators in every room, which are run by an Eberspacher Diesel Central Heating unit – which obviously uses diesel! That’s been working very intermittently since we bought the boat in 2013. We had the fan motor replaced at a cost of £250 a couple of years ago, having been informed that was the problem. That made it work for a short while, but only if the engine was running. So we splashed out recently, and bought a new control unit for £350. For once it now works, even without the engine running, and is reliable. Thank goodness!

Engine maintenance

Barry does all our engine maintenance which saves money. He changes the oil about every 4-500 hours, as well as the oil and fuel filters. About every 800 hours, the gear box oil also need changing. The total cost of all these is generally around £100.

Most narrowboaters have membership with ‘River Canal Rescue‘, as a sort of insurance policy similar to the RAC or AA if your car breaks down. There’s four levels of cover costing from £65 to £280 per annum, depending on your needs or ‘fears’. We choose not to pay out for this, and it’s worked fine for us as Barry is capable of fixing most things thankfully!

Bottom blacking!

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 DIY cost of £378.76 (or £228.76 without the cost of anodes).

NB Areandare
The new blacked bottom in February 2017 at Hawne Basin

This year we again blacked the hull ourselves, this time at Stafford Boat Club. Thankfully I wasn’t taken ill – but I did have an account to build for my Ad-Extra job, which entailed working inside while Barry did more than his fair share outside. It’s a delicate balance this thriving in a parallel universe – pennies still need to be earned so I can’t pass up opportunities to do so!

The cost was £264 to take the boat out of the water and return, paint for the hull £100 (normally £175 but Barry found a large damaged tin that was reduced – yay!), £25 for some welding, and another £100 for paints for the gunnels, brushes and rollers. A total DIY cost of £489.

Time to return to the water – following blacking in March 2019

Boat Safety Scheme

This is a type of narrowboat MOT. To comply with regulations you need to have a current BSS , and renew it every four years – and most importantly to be as safe as possible! It will cost you around £150.

We had our BSC in February 2017, undertaken by the lovely Adrian Pye at a cost of £130.

To check the current requirements go to this page. A recent addition, from 1st April 2019, is that all narrowboats must have a Carbon Dioxide alarm fitted. Sadly there’s been a few deaths over the years of carbon monoxide poisoning. We had a tester sent to us to trial last year, which worked brilliantly. During a very windy night our alarm went off. We subsequently felt extremely grateful to have been woken up in time to do something about the potential build up of the gas on the boat.

Boat ‘equipment and maintenance’

This is one of the categories in our accounts spreadsheet so is worth mentioning, though without a breakdown of specifics.

In this category we spent £1,922.45 in 2013/14, £1,801.31 in 2014/15; in 2015/16 £1,559.18 ; in 2016/17 £1,354.47; in 2017/18 £2,208.68 ; 2018/19 £1,633.03. An average of £1,746.52 a year.

No wonder the acronym for BOAT is ‘Bring On Another Thousand’!

Cooking

For cooking we have a gas hob and grill (the latter of which isn’t the best, rather slow, but at least we don’t need the engine on or a hook up to use it), 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.

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; 2015/16 £41.79; 2016/17 £22.36; 2017/18 £47.25 ; 2018/19 £60.18. It’s brilliantly cost effective. An average cost of £57.16 per year.

Groceries

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 occasionally 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.

I’m not going to list how much we spent on groceries year on year, as it’s so diverse depending upon how many visitors we’ve had on board. We certainly don’t scrimp on food, I believe it’s one of life’s most precious pleasures. As a guide, last year we spent an average of £75 a week.

Mooring fees

As continuous cruisers, we rarely pay mooring costs (unless on the Thames for instance, 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.

The Home Brew Boat at Mercia Marina
Our 2017 mooring at Mercia in 2015

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 for his initial spousal sponsored visa application, 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. In 2017/18 and 2018/19, we stayed in the Lichfield area for our Calendar Club seasons.

Marina fees understandably differ considerably depending on location and services available. Prices will also depend on the length of your boat. To check out what’s available, go to this link.

Phones

I have an iPhone 8 currently, that I’m paying for on contract with Three for 24 months. I’ve got unlimited calls, texts and data (that can be tethered). Not cheap. £43 a month.

Barry has my ‘old’ iPhone 5, and a contract with unlimited calls and texts, but only 10GB of data at £11.91 a month.

Internet

We use an extra ordinate amount of data for various things – our businesses, blogging, emailing, Skyping/Facetiming to NZ, etc.

We have a Three Huawai mobile wifi device, which has been for a couple of years on 40GB a month for £20.52, and we’ve just happily upgraded on a special offer to unlimited for only another £1.50 a month starting in May.

Transport

We don’t have a car. It’s quite a challenge for continuous cruisers to do so, and also expensive. I used to be insured on my mum’s car to take her out and about when I stayed with her in Droitwich. That ended last February when we decided to give the car away to my sister.

We mostly rely on public transport. Booking trains in advance can usually help to reduce the cost – our favourite ‘App’ is trainline.com for this. Splitting tickets works well. We try and shop around for the cheapest fares, which generally come 12 weeks in advance – it’s worth planning trips.

I travel around quite a lot, previously to spend time with my mum (and before that mum and dad), and my daughters. Consequently our public transport costs are fairly high, but still less than owning and running a car. In 2013/14 we spent £609.65; 2014/15 £902.03; 2015/16 £715.75; 2016/17 £658.17; 2017/18 £835.83 ; and 2018/19 £1,482.78! An average of £867.37 per year.

Barry’s been travelling more in the last year, which is probably one of the reasons for the increased costs. He’s got a ‘Senior Railcard‘ so gets 30% off – and from 28th September this year I’ll thankfully have this option too which will save a great deal!

Other times we hire a car – as it gets too complex and costly on public transport. The past year we’ve vastly increased the costs for this, having no access to a car any more. Car hire and petrol in 2018/19 cost us £2,152.29.

We use Enterprise for hiring, and have built up sufficient points to be Gold Tier members. Occasionally we have enough points to pay for a day or two hire. And we have two ‘Free’ upgrade vouchers we’ll be using this year. One of the challenges of hiring a car is that you need to have a Credit Card and a physical address. Otherwise it gets rather complicated we’ve been told. However one of the fabulous things about Enterprise, is that they’ll collect you from whoever you are (within reason!) and take you to the car hire office. Then return you after your hire. Brilliant if you’re moored somewhere away from public transport routes.

The other important note here is NOT to be fooled into paying extra to reduce the excess on the hire car insurance. Buy an annual hire car insurance policy from somewhere like icarhireinsurance (that’s who we use for just £47.99), and you should be covered for most eventualities. You will have to pay out initially if there is damage, but you then claim it back.

It’s still, we feel, simpler and cheaper to continue without a car of our own.

TV Licence

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 £154.50 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.”

Unexpected costs

This is where the ‘Bring On Another Thousand’ acronym really 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!)

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.

(Last updated 21st May 2019)

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25 thoughts on “The costs of living on a narrowboat

  1. Very informative, wish I had the will to keep accounts!
    Hope you are feeling better…
    Chris
    nb Ceiriog

    • Hi Chris. It’s extremely empowering, gives a sense of ‘control’ over what’s going out and coming in for me. And so good to have a record from the past to compare.

      I’m feeling a lot better thank you, will be back blogging again very soon …

      Thank you for your comments and concern, much appreciated 😉

  2. Pingback: So how much DOES it cost to live on a narrowboat?  | Adventures Aboard AreandAre

  3. First time I have read your blog. I have subscribed. I also follow you on Twitter (which is much fun), leaving you comments in recent times. I met Barry last year at Birmingham, but you, Sandra, were hiding in the boat. I have been studying the liveaboard option for 5 years, reading all the magazines, visiting the last 3 Crick shows, will be my 4th this month, also I talk to any boater I manage to pin down. I am currently looking after my elderly mother, and living by the Thames in Staines, Middlesex. I have 7 days (not altogether) experience on the Wey and the Thames. Not a lot, but am thoroughly smitten, even before I set foot on a narrowboat. I joined the RBOA 2 years ago and attended their AGM last year. So you see, I am committed to this retirement plan. I just hope I have got my sums right. I have a boat build slot to start end of this year. I am not intending to have a solid fuel fire. Planning only for diesel radiators (despite what you say, I have my reasons). I am not cold blooded, and fleece jackets work very well, and with a cratch cover and pram cover should hopefully help further to keep out icy winds. I hope also to avoid gas, and considering diesel oven and hob. Or maybe electric if the Hybrid engine is not too costly. Will be looking into that option more thoroughly at Crick. Well there you are, my store so far ….. any comments will be gratefully received. From a future boater, Jo (jbrady2809)

    • Hi Jo
      Welcome to the blog! It’s great to have you here, I hope you’ll find it helpful. There’s a few Facebook groups that are extremely supportive for new (and old!) boaters. Posting questions in such places always brings back heaps of helpful suggestions from those with experience.

      We spent our first winter without a multi-fuel fire, sitting in a Marina, and I have to say it was jolly cold! I wouldn’t be without the fire now. There are ways to have a diesel fire which could suit you?

      How wonderful to be having a boat built to your specifications, now’s the time to research what will work for YOU.

      I’d definitely recommend the Facebook groups – just search for ‘narrow boating’ and you’ll have a deluge of possibilities.

      Get in touch if you think we can help.

      Enjoy Crick!
      Sandra 😉

    • Hi Jo,
      Maybe worth looking into a heritage range cooker, they are based in Cornwall and happy to discuss your needs. We have a build slot at beginning of 2018 ( so excited) and are now pretty confident this is what we are going for. I have always favoured gas free boating, this stove will take care of our heating, water and cooking needs. Having had long discussions with the team we are confident it will be fairly economical. Hope this is of some help / interest to you.
      All the best,
      Gail

  4. Pingback: Moored up at Mercia Marina for the winter | Adventures Aboard AreandAre

  5. Nicely written. Just out of interest, if you have a mobile contract with unlimited internet and tethering capability, why do you also use mifi devices at extra cost? Is the “unlimited” internet subject to a fair use policy or something?

    • Hi Phil

      The unlimited internet access doesn’t include tethering sadly. When I was first sold the contract in 2013 by The Carphone Wharehouse they mistakenly informed me it did. I was understandably ecstatic! Three previously sold a contract that did, but they’ve withdrawn that. They’ve recently made a 4MB a month tethering option available, which I took up earlier in the year for a bit extra.

  6. We found etiquette is becoming a thing of the past on the waters. Due to boaters moving through thick ice we had to have our boat blacked 4yrs running till we gave up and left the waters 3months ago

  7. As a frustrated non NB’er (with a wife who won’t commit) I thought your article was fantastic and thoroughly informative. Thank you.

    • Hi Alan
      The challenge is that it’s going to depend on many variables. Length of boat, continuous cruiser or moored in a marina, how frugal you can be with groceries, socialising, any ‘unnecessary’ expenses such as holidays (!), gifts, clothes, etc.

      I can tell you our annual costs for personal and boating if that would help? We’re fairly frugal, but could always cut down more (and will be!).

      2013/14 April to March = living £906/month, boat £570/month
      2014/15 April to March = living £1084/month, boat £490/month
      2015/16 so far (7 months, we’ve been MUCH more frugal) = living £693/month, boat £365/month

      Does that help?

      Happy too chat further if you want to email 😉

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