Buying a canal boat, new or used

The first crucial point that needs to be hammered home here is quite a peculiar one and that is that there are no official, formal records of who legally owns a canal boat. Yes, seriously.

Although boats have a licence number which is recorded by the Canal & River Trust or whichever organisation runs the waterway you’re using, this merely relates to the person who paid for the licence for that specific boat and it is not a record of ownership.

Therefore, anyone selling a canal boat could – potentially – be selling you something they don’t own. Reasons could range from them having stolen it (it does happen occasionally, despite the seemingly amusing notion of someone making off at 3 mph down the canal), the boat having finance secured upon it in which case the finance company has ownership over it, or simply the seller not having the authority to do so because it’s part-owned by someone else such as in a marital breakup situation.

The great trouble here is that there is no watertight – pardon the pun – solution to this issue. I wish I could describe a foolproof method of checking but there isn’t one. What you have to do is keep your wits about you and use as many methods as possible to verify ownership as you can.

In many ways, this is one of the key advantages of buying through a reputable brokerage rather than privately because they will (or should but do check the contract) indemnify you against the boat turning out to have been sold illegitimately.

Buy privately and you are on your own and could lose your money. It’s genuinely terrifying when there are thousands of pounds at stake. That said, many people do buy and sell boats directly with no problems whatsoever so panic not, it can be done.

The kind of checks you need to do include asking to see:

  1. The bill of sale from when they bought it from the prior owner (and ideally, the one before that and the one before that and so on back to the point where the boat was new). Granted a thief could simply have found these on the boat but if you check the newest owner’s name and some ID against the most recent bill of sale, they should match.
  2. A library of photographs of the owner on and using the boat – this establishes that they didn’t merely “liberate” it from its mooring last week and give it a quick repaint. There can be few boat owners who genuinely won’t have at least a handful of pics of them with their purchase, family having fun in the summer and so on.
  3. Service history and maintenance receipts. Again these might simply have been left on the boat so it’s no guarantee the supposed owner is the owner but ask to see some ID and check it matches the most recent receipts.

Plus of course the person selling it should know all about their boat so ask many questions and if they’re vague or evasive or say they don’t know then these are red flags. A lot of this buying process comes down to gut feeling and intuition, sadly.

The method of payment could give you a clue too. If they’re asking for cash only as a suitcase of used tenners, this might raise an eyebrow.

The most popular places to look for private sales are the auction website eBay and boat sales website ApolloDuck.co.uk despite the latter having the look and feel of a website from the 1990s.

On a positive note, ApolloDuck enables you to narrow down your search with various criteria or search for key words in the description. Some brokers also tend to list their boats here as well as on their own websites.

I’m going to stress it again; as with any purchase from a random stranger off the Internet, exercise great caution especially when large sums of money are being dealt with.

There’s no single directory that I’m aware of listing all the boats on brokerage; each firm tends to have their own, so finding one is a case of trawling through website after website and dealing with the individual peculiarities of each. Just Google “uk canal boat broker” and go from there or do a search on the www.canalworld.net forums.

Obviously I can’t list them all but I bought my first boat from ABNB (www.abnb.co.uk) which used to be at Crick in Northamptonshire but has now moved to North Kilworth Marina, a little further north, and they seem to have a decent reputation; likewise Rugby Boats (www.rugbyboats.co.uk) have plenty of happy customers. Despite their name, they’re actually based at Weedon, near Northampton.

A popular brokerage for new buyers that’s also in that part of the country is Whilton Marina (www.whiltonmarina.co.uk) who are happy to hand out keys to the boats and let you browse several in your own time without any salesperson hovering over your shoulder. This casual browsing alone makes them a worthwhile visit even if only to get the gist of what different boats look like. My opinion is that they price their boats a tad optimistically but they’re a friendly bunch and have a cafe and chandlery on site too so it’s an easy place to spend a couple of hours browsing.

Brokers are a mixed bag and there’s an odd process to buying from them. It varies slightly from broker to broker but generally you’ll visit, browse, find a boat you like and put in an offer.

(Take note that some brokers will refuse to accept an offer – indeed, some will event refuse to let you view boats at all – unless you can show them proof that you have the accessible funds to make the purchase. I recall one broker refusing to bring a boat from a distant pontoon so that I could see it because my house wasn’t yet on the market and in his opinion that meant I wasn’t serious. More fool him!)

Once the offer is accepted you’ll be expected to hand over a deposit “subject to survey” and this is where it gets interesting because if the survey only turns up remedial work that would cost less than a certain percentage of the asking fee, you sometimes remain contractually obliged to buy though the asking price may be renegotiated down to allow for that work.

Notice how you sometimes won’t be permitted – depending on the terms of the contract you’ll have signed when you handed over the deposit – to back out from the deal unless the work needed is substantial. Essentially, when you hand over the deposit you are sometimes agreeing that you will buy the boat even if it needs some work, unless it turns out to be a basket case.

People can argue about the legitimacy and contractual validity of this until the cows come home and many a bar room lawyer will indeed do this on the Internet forums but until someone takes a broker to court – which would probably cost more than the deposit being argued over so is unlikely to happen – it remains the way that this business operates.

That might sound like brokers are a bunch of sharks and indeed some may be but by and large they’re just trying to ensure that buyers don’t renege on a purchase simply because of a few minor issues that can easily be put right with a bit of work.

The rationale is that pulling a boat out of the water costs the broker and seller time and money so if buyers cancelled and had their money back on the basis of an issue that could be relatively easily fixed, it could make selling boats unfeasible and prices would go up to compensate.

Bear in mind the way these contracts work is that you’d only not get the deposit back if the remedial works are minor. If the boat needs substantial fixing, you’ll get a full refund. And not all brokers use this system anyway. Check their terms!

The benefits of using a broker are that they’ll typically have several boats for you to look at, can advise on what might be most suitable for your intended use, should indemnify you against a fake seller as mentioned earlier and will tend to have done background checks into the provenance of the boat.

Surveys

I mentioned purchases being “subject to survey” a moment ago and whilst surveys are certainly not compulsory, they are essential in my opinion unless you are extremely confident about your own ability to assess a hull and engine.

Surveys are carried out by specialists that you as the buyer contract to do the job. The seller or broker will arrange for the boat to be hauled out of the water at a mutually convenient time and the surveyor will inspect the craft.

This will cost you a few hundred pounds; sounds expensive but bear in mind the surveyor takes at least half a day plus travel time to look at the boat plus further time to write up the report, as well as admin in arranging it etc.

Plus if the surveyor finds extensive fault with the boat that you might not have spotted yourself, it could save you thousands of pounds in later welding or other fixing. And the survey can be used to haggle down the boat’s price even after a sale price was agreed.

For example, my boat was originally on offer for £49,950. I offered a bit less than this (which was accepted and the sales contract signed) but then negotiated the price down even further after the survey as it showed various bits of work needed doing.

At minimum a survey should check the hull for condition but will optionally also check the engine and, if you wish, the interior fixtures and fittings for condition and whether they meet the Boat Safety Scheme standards.

Inevitably, surveyors have all manner of “get out” clauses in their contracts which exempt them from liability if they miss something so you might feel it’s a waste of money but on the other hand, there are legal rules about what they’re allowed to exempt themselves from, and they might well find problems with the boat that could save you money in the long run. It is definitely worth asking around and on the Internet forums to find the name of a reputable surveyor.

As with house surveys, it’s a bit of an expensive insurance policy really. Whether you want to take the gamble is up to you. For me, an experienced second pair of eyes looking over a potential purchase is worth the money and peace of mind.

A final note about brokers; as the name implies, they don’t (usually) own the boats they’re selling. They’re a broker only, just enabling a private transaction between you and the person who’s selling. As such, the laws surrounding the sale are slightly different compared to the situation where a business sells you a product that they make or distribute.

That said, a handful of brokers do offer to buy boats outright for cash and therefore will own those boats when it comes to sell. For the buyer, this is actually a good thing as the broker, a business seller, is then under stricter legal obligations regarding quality and fitness for purpose and suchlike.

A full legal explanation of the niceties is well beyond the scope of this website – and my knowledge – but knowing that there is a difference is a useful lever if a problem occurs.

New build

One way to avoid the stress of who owns a used boat is simply to buy new, assuming you have the budget! Then you are buying from a company which builds it for you so it’s definitely yours and you’ll have the receipts to prove it come the time that you ever sell it on.

You should still be very cautious though; there are good and bad boat builders and the canal forums are littered with tales of people losing thousands of pounds to unscrupulous or simply unfortunate builders who’ve gone out of business taking the money with them and leaving half-built or even non-existent boats on their books.

The advice is to read up; ask around; and above all go and visit several boat builders and see how you’re treated. Gut feeling plays a part in all of this but so too does extensive research. Many smaller boat builders will actually be very reputable but some will be cowboys. Likewise some bigger companies can turn out to be flaky as well.

Typically buying new will involve payment in several stages as chunks of the boat are made. A deposit to secure your slot is common, then a first payment once the hull is manufactured, and another when the interior is underway. One final payment secures the finished boat.

Make sure your contract stipulates where your stage payments go and what you’ll receive for each part of the money. It’s not a bad idea to pay an independent surveyor to go and check over the build before parting with money at any of the main stages. Yes, that will cost, but it could be money well spent. If you can, write completion dates into the contract as well – a friend of mine has currently been waiting for more than a year since the date when her boat was supposed to be delivered and it’s still not ready.

Reputable builders are likely to be members of the “British Marine” trade body which issues standard build contracts covering all relevant matters. If they’re not, get the contract checked by a knowledgeable lawyer before you sign it and part with any money.

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