So what does a canal boat cost? It depends on numerous factors such as what sort of boat it is, whether you’re buying new or used, how long it is, how wide, the fixtures and fittings, the quality and brand of the manufacturer, the hull, engine and interior condition if it’s used, the layout – and so on.
Let’s consider a brand new narrowboat to start with. You can buy a 57-foot, fully-fitted one for £120k to £140k ish but it will be a fairly basic fit-out using simple materials and almost certainly lacking many niceties. Budget at least £150k for a better spec new-build and upwards of £175k for higher quality carpentry and fixtures. A really nice boat can be had for £200k and anything upwards of that has probably got gold-plated taps.
Widebeams tend to cost upwards of £175k and can easily go up to £250k and beyond, depending on the design. They’re unusual in that there’s an odd exemption in UK law on paying VAT (sales tax) on residential boats that have certain design characteristics which many widebeams do meet, so they can actually be quite good value if you’re looking to use one as a permanent home.
Do consult an accountant who knows about this stuff if you’re looking to take advantage of that loophole, the boats have to meet a very odd but specific set of requirements to qualify.
New fibreglass (GRP) cabin cruiser boats are surprisingly expensive to my eyes; as mentioned on a previous page here the Viking 32 retails at about £75k but you definitely find more bargains in this genre of craft when it comes to second-hand boats at the lower end of the budget, compared with narrowboats, with small day and weekend boats starting at maybe £2,000 (or less if they’re an absolute project for refurbishment)
Narrowboats can be seen advertised for anything from £5k upwards but in terms of a typical 50-60 foot boat, I’d say beware of anything offered at less than £40k these days.
Some will accuse me of being a snob here, since there are plenty on sale for less than that but it is my belief that those will almost certainly have serious faults or substantial work needed, if not to the hull (if you’re lucky) then to the interior and you’re going to end up spending another £10k-20k+ just fixing them up so you might as well buy a nicer one to start with.
If I can give you no other advice than this, it’s not to be swept away by the enticement of a smart interior! The most crucial thing to buy a used boat on is the state of its hull. Anything else can be fixed but if your boat sinks then you’re screwed no matter how much like a beautiful country cottage it looked inside.
Buy a good hull and a working engine and you’ve got the basics covered. A pretty interior can be sorted later.
I mentioned the importance of getting a survey on the page about how to buy a boat, and although the cost for this will seem like a lot of money especially at the lower end of the boat budget, it’s even more crucial for cheaper boats because they’ll be cheap for a reason.
You absolutely should ignore any prior survey offered by the boat’s current owner. Even in as little as a few months, a boat can go from being solid to sinkable, depending on how it’s been treated. Get your own done, grit your teeth, and deal with the cost.
Having said that, you shouldn’t consider a survey as 100% reliable; surveyors are only human and make mistakes or miss things. Some just simply aren’t as good at the job as others. Before hiring, ask around on the forums, other boaters and don’t necessarily take the surveyor that a brokerage suggests in case there’s any arrangement between them that you don’t know about.
A good narrowboat, maybe fifteen to twenty years old with a decent hull and engine, can be had for £50k – £60k; stretch to another £10k to £20k on top and you should be looking at a nice boat. Above about £70k the boats won’t necessarily be in better condition but they’ll be newer, with fewer working hours on the engine and less general wear and tear.
If you’ve got £90k+ to spend on a used boat then you should easily be able to find a very good one indeed.
Widebeams tend to cost more and generally have come more into fashion only in recent years as people have looked to them as an alternative to a house or flat so there are definitely fewer on the market. You’re probably going to have to spend at least £75k for an old one that needs lots of work; I’d suggest at least £100k or more for a decent one.
There are hoards of unusual variants available for sale too; old boats that have been converted to liveaboard with varying degrees of success and competence. Beware the owner fit-out; some people are great at DIY and do a better job than so-called professionals but some are horror stories waiting to burst into flames.
Speaking of DIY, there is another avenue entirely to a new boat though and that’s to buy a brand new hull but fit it out yourself. These so-called “sailaways” are very popular for people on a budget who don’t fancy risking an older but fully-fitted boat.
You can buy a pure hull only without even so much as any insulation or even an engine. Most people, I suspect, would probably choose one where the hull has been spray foam insulated, ballast and a floor laid, windows put in place and an engine installed. On the outside, such boats tend to have protective ‘blacking‘ on the hull and primer paint on the cabin sides. Then it’s up to the owner to line the interior walls and ceiling with plywood, install plumbing and electrics, and fit out the rooms with furniture.
You might feel like having a go at installing the gas systems aboard too but this could be a recipe for an explosive disaster landing you with bills and lawsuits so unless you are a Gas Safe registered engineer with accreditation for boats, I’d strongly suggest hiring in a suitable person for that part of the build. Or, go gas-free with a big enough battery bank to support electric cooking.
That said, the electrics – especially 230V mains – should also be installed by someone competent (and by that, I meant competent at marine electronics – it’s not the same as household wiring in many crucial respects) or at the very least checked over by them and signed off as suitable.
The trouble with sailaways is that while they give you a fascinating and substantial project to work on, living aboard while trying to fit a boat out is not a great idea for logistical and health reasons.
It’s likely to take several months to complete even if you can do it during the week (I know of a lovely couple who’ve taken three years so far to only partially fit out their narrowboat due to life circumstances knocking them back every now and then, which you simply can’t predict) and at the end of it all, you may end up with a dogs dinner of a fit out which is hard to sell should that time ever come.
Incidentally, one clue to a boat where the owner did all the work is off-the-shelf kitchen and bathroom units. Professional boat builders tend to make their own custom joinery whereas self-builders often buy stuff from Ikea and cut it to shape.
There are really only two absolutely critical things when buying a boat: the hull and the engine. Everything else is relatively straightforward to fix and not necessarily costly but the engine and hull need to be solid and reliable.
As already mentioned, a pre-purchase survey can be worth its weight in gold either in finding fault or reassuring you that the boat’s OK. A typical survey could cost a few hundred pounds depending on how extensive the survey is (ie hull only or the full works)
Any remedial work found to be done on a used boat may either be negotiated down from the asking price or may have to come out of your pocket and clearly a single likely figure can’t be given here – it will depend entirely on each individual situation.
A poor steel hull may require overplating – where new metal is welded onto an existing hull – and if done properly this is an expensive business running into thousands of pounds.
In fact, proper overplating isn’t “over” plating at all – the bad metal is literally cut out and a new plate welded into its place. The problem, obviously, is that this likely requires removal of everything inside the boat where the new plate needs to go otherwise it would not only drop through when the old metal is removed but possibly light up on fire when the new plate is welded in place.
Therefore the more typical style of ‘overplating’ is where new metal is welded over the top of the existing hull but the danger here is that any cracks in that work will result in water seeping between the new and old steel, and rusting the boat from the inside out which will probably only become apparent when a hole appears and the boat takes on water.
Such poor workmanship should be highlighted by a competent surveyor but even a good one may not be able to identify hidden faults so don’t rely on it.