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!
Occasionally 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 over seven years (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, we have no ‘home’ mooring. We’re continuous cruisers. It’s really not rocket science and should be easy to comply. Movement of just 20 miles a year is the minimum requirement., and you must cruise within the ‘British Waterways Act 1955’. For full terms and conditions visit this link, Schedule 2.
““Boats without a home mooring must be engaged in genuine navigation throughout the period of the licence”. Basically, make the effort, ‘in good faith’, to navigate around our waterways. You’ll need to continually move from place to place over a total range of 20 miles (32 kms) or more rather than just shuttling back and forth between two or three places.”Canal and River Trust Continuous Cruising Guidance
Licensing Your Boat
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 Canals & Rivers License cost depends upon the length of your boat, ranging from £538.75 (if you pay ‘promptly’) for a boat up to 18′ long (5.5m), to £1,206.71 ( for one up to an incredible length of 77′ 1″! (23.5m)) – for a 12-month licence at 2020/21 prices.
If you want to venture further afield, onto rivers such as the Thames, or the Nene, you’ll need to purchase a Gold Licence – in 2020 for a boat up to 16′ 8″/5.09 metres £606, to £1,586 for a boat up to 75′ 9″/23.09 metres, if paid in full. Direct Debit instalments are more.
The other possibility is a time-limited licence from the Environment Agency. For their current costs, call 03708 506 506, email firstname.lastname@example.org 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. https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/business-and-trade/boating-business/starting-or-expanding-a-boating-business/roving-traders
- Roving Traders (RT)
- 19.1 Roving Traders may have a Home Mooring. Those without a Home Mooring must comply with the ‘Guidance for boaters without a Home Mooring’. You may only trade from a Home Mooring if you have the consent of the mooring provider. You may not trade from any given point on our Waterway network for more than 28 days in any one calendar year unless you have planning consent and our written consent.
- 19.2 You must provide us with copies of:
- 19.2.1 A Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (or a Boat Safety Scheme Exemption Declaration, if applicable) in accordance with Clause 4 above. This must be a Non-private certificate if customers are allowed to board your Boat.
- 19.2.2 An insurance certificate covering your trading activities in accordance with clause 5 above.
- 19.2.3 A full risk assessment for all your trading activities if we request you to do so.
- 19.2.4 Evidence that all skippers of the boat hold a MCA Boatmasters’ Licence (or equivalent) if you carry coal, diesel, bottled gas, sewage, oil or other hazardous substances in quantities greater than those required for the domestic and navigation needs of persons operating the Boat.
- 19.3 All goods associated with your trade must be kept on the boat at all times. You may place one A-frame style advertising board on the bank between the Boat and the towpath in locations where it does not cause an obstruction or hazard but this must be removed immediately if requested by us.
Just like a house or car, every narrowboat is required to be appropriately insured 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 2020 was £150.20 – less than 2019 (£166.35). We pay an additional amount (£94) for insurance to trade from a side hatch (and from the towpath), and cover for an item onboard worth more than the maximum standard cover.
Licensing cost us £1,037.62 in February 2020. I believe we’re going to get a three month refund in 2021, in the light of not being able to cruise during the coronavirus lockdown 😉
Narrow boaters will tell you, in a jovial tone, a variety of ‘toilet story’ versions. 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 proponents of pump-outs and champions of cassette toilets.
One of these options will cost you to empty it at frequent intervals, depending on the size of your tank and 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; 2018/19 £398.20; and 2019/20 £337.50. Making our average annual cost, over seven years, £289.29.
The larger increase in 2018/19, 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!);
2/ We noticed an increase in prices;
3/ The ‘seal’ in the bowl was leaking, which meant the liquid (water) filled the tank faster. Luckily Barry’s mended it now! In 2020 we spent over £100 less.
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. However, we feel it’s needed far too frequently (every couple of days generally), and would be
fairly extremely unpleasant. Most boaters have more than one cassette and store the full ones somewhere in or on the boat, waiting to find a place to empty. Maybe 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.”https://www.waterlesstoilets.co.uk
The mind boggles about this option (well mine does, after 35 years as a nurse and midwife I’ve 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 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 it’s 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; in 2018/19 £1,270.50; and in 2019/20 £1,096.91. Our diesel costs have remained pretty stable. An average of £1,235.37 per year.
Until spring 2019, whether we moved or not, each day we’d need to have the engine on to charge the domestic batteries. Unless ‘hooked up’ to electricity somewhere (a rarity). Consequently, it wasn’t saving costs by sitting still for any length of time. We’d need to travel about three hours to fully charge the batteries.
In April 2019, Barry had one Solar Panel installed on the roof our boat through Plum at ‘Solar Afloat‘. The difference in battery life was noticeable, and we decided to take the plunge and buy another. Our fridge on board was a 240 volts one, which was draining power each day. Knowing 12-volt fridges were expensive, we hesitated but decided to shell out and buy one.
The cost of the two solar panels and controller was around £570. The 12 volt fridge £700. Not cheap. But we knew we’d be leaving the boat often, and replacing our six domestic batteries was a worry if drained of power too often.
By November 2019, we’ve noticed an incredible difference. We no longer needed to run the engine each day (though we still have to for cooking in the electric oven, or using the washing machine). The batteries are all kept charged using the solar panels. Even if we leave the boat for a few days.
Most liveaboards have a solid fuel fire somewhere on their boat. We had one fitted 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), we’d 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. Generally the wood you pick one year isn’t 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; 2019/20 £507.28. An average of £330.56 per year.
They’ve increased each year, even more so 2019/20. For the 2016/17 to 2018/19 seasons, we were both working at Calendar Club for three months so that would’ve reduced usage.
We have radiators in every room, run by an Eberspacher Diesel Central Heating unit – which obviously uses diesel! It’s been working very intermittently since we bought the boat in 2013. A couple of years ago we had the fan motor replaced at a cost of £250, having been (incorrectly) informed that was the problem. That made it work for a short while, but only if the engine was running. So we splashed out a year ago and bought a new control unit for £350. It now functions fantastically, even without the engine running; and is reliable. Thank goodness!
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 an annual membership with ‘River Canal Rescue‘, as a sort of insurance policy – similar to the RAC or AA if your car breaks down. There are four levels of cover costing from £65 to £280 per annum, depending on your needs or ‘fears’. These costs have remained stable since 2019. We choose not to pay out for this, and it’s worked fine. Barry’s capable of fixing most things.
The general recommendation is narrowboats come out of the water every two years, to 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.
Areandare’s bottom was blacked at a cost of £550 at Tattenhall Marina, in April 2014. 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).
In 2019 we blacked the hull ourselves, this time at Stafford Boat Club. Thankfully I wasn’t taken ill. Though 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 thriving in a parallel universe. Pennies still need to be earned, and 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 reduced in price); £25 for some welding; and another £100 for paints for the gunnels, brushes and rollers. Making a total DIY cost of £489.
In August we’re having Areandare taken out of the water to ‘shot blast’ her hull, and have a zinc and double epoxy coating on. No DIY this year. She’ll then stay out of the water while we’re away – so long as things go to plan! Nothing is certain as we all know now more than ever.
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.
Our most recent BSC was in February 2017. Undertaken by the lovely Adrian Pye, at a cost of £130. I don’t think he’s doing BSS any more. You can find an examiner in your area here – https://www.boatsafetyscheme.org/boat-examination-and-certification/arranging-the-examination/find-an-examiner/
To check the current requirements go to this page. Since 1st April 2019, all narrowboats are required to 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 in 2018, which worked brilliantly. During a very windy night that year, our alarm went off. How grateful were we 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 2014/15; 2015/16 £1,559.18; 2016/17 £1,354.47; 2017/18 £2,208.68; 2018/19 £1,633.03; and in 2019/20 ££2,259.82. An average of £1,819.85 a year.
No wonder the acronym for BOAT is ‘Bring On Another Thousand’!
For cooking, we have a gas hob and grill, 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; 2019/20 £44.50. It’s brilliantly cost-effective. An average cost of £49.21 per year.
As continuous cruisers, we don’t have a local supermarket, or Farmer’s Market selling lovely fresh local produce. We have to shop as and when we find a nearby store – then 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. Just make sure you put ‘Narrowboat …’ as the first line of the address.
I’m pretty sure any supermarket will do this – though I highly recommend you do NOT use Sainsbury’s! The one time we did, at the end of the coronavirus lockdown, they cancelled the order on the DAY OF DELIVERY. It was incredibly frustrating and caused us a lot of extra work that we hadn’t been expecting. I shall avoid that company if at all possible. I got no explanation – except “security cancelled it because you used a non-Uk card“. It was a UK American express credit card, which the woman on the phone admitted they should have taken. And every time the order had been amended in the week, the card had been ‘verified’. I have had absolutely no apology from them since despite attempting to get to the bottom of the shocking service.
We can forage for a few things – like dandelions for honey, fresh nettles for soup, blackberries for pies, elderberries for wine and elderflowers for cordial, and sloes for gin if we find them at the right time! We can grow a modicum of fresh food and herbs on board, on the roof, or in the ‘cratch’. Recently I’ve grown a cherry tomato plant gifted by the lovely couple who run ‘Cheshire Cat Narrowboats‘ and live in the lock cottage at the top of Hurleston Locks.
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 £74.34 a week.
As continuous cruisers, we rarely pay mooring costs (unless on the River 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 our 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 for his initial spousal sponsored visa application. It meant we were close to my eldest daughter and grandsons). This cost us £1,171.92. Then Worcester Marina December 2014 to March 2015 (my elderly father who lived nearby was 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. Last winter we pottered around Chester – moving from Tattenhall to Chester and back frequently. It meant we could see more of my eldest daughter and her family.
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.
I currently have an iPhone 8, that I’m paying for on contract with Three for 24 months until October 2020. I’ve got unlimited calls, texts and data (that can be tethered). It’s not cheap, at £43 a month. But it’s necessary for the work I do.
Barry has a Huawei P30 light, which cost about £260 to buy. It’s got a brilliant camera, which is why he chose it. He has 10GB of data a month, but unlimited calls and texts. It’s a SIM-only contract, we paid outright for the phone. The monthly charge is around £25.
We use an extra ordinate amount of data for various things – our businesses, blogging, emailing, Zooming for work, Skyping/Facetiming to family here and in NZ, etc. Onboard we have a Three Huawei mobile wifi device which had 40GB a month for £20.52 for a couple of years. It rarely lasted a month which was frustrating. In May 2019, we upgraded on a special offer to unlimited for another £1.50 a month. It made a dramatic difference.
We don’t have a car. Some liveaboard boaters choose to. However it’s quite a challenge for continuous cruisers to do so, and also a big expense unless it can be justified. 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 February 2018 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 work well, which they have included in the App now. We try and shop around for the cheapest fares, which generally come 12 weeks in advance – it’s worth planning trips. Obviously this has changed significantly since the coronavirus outbreak!
I used to travel around quite a lot. Initially to spend time with mum (and before that mum and dad). Since 2018 it’s been to visit my eldest daughter and our grandchildren. Consequently, our public transport costs are generally 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 ; 2018/19 £1,482.78; 2019/20 £1,381.79. An average of £848.86 per year.
We’ve both got ‘Senior Railcards’ now so get 30% off. Shame we can no longer get free bus passes at 60 🙁
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. 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 they’ll collect you from wherever 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.
We’d never had a problem with Enterprise until January when the service at the Chester Branch was horrendous. They moved places the week we first rented, which wasn’t ideal. Then next time, a week after, they’d had time to settle in – but it was no better.
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’ll have to pay out initially if there’s damage, but you then claim it back.
It’s still, we feel, simpler and cheaper to continue without a car of our own.
We consciously choose NOT to have a TV onboard. However, many, if not most liveaboards, 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.”
This is where the ‘Bring On Another Thousand’ acronym comes into its own once again …
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 on 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 also be considered – 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’m happy as usual, to receive comments from fellow narrow boaters about anything 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 9th June 2020)
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We’re booked to fly to New Zealand on 16th August 2020, for an indefinite period. It’s likely to be six months, but if the UK coronavirus management hasn’t improved, and things remain uncertain here, we may stay there for longer.
Whatever happens, if we do get on the plane and make it back to Aoterearoa, we won’t have a full 12 months of expenses to share next year.