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Narrowboats moored in the Battlebridge Basin on Regents Canal. Kings Cross, London. Photographer: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Londoners are taking to canal boats to beat high property costs

Bloomberg, November 24, 2019

Narrowboats can be had for a fraction of the cost of a London flat. With sky-high apartment prices prompting more people to take to the water, canal life is now becoming more costly

LONDON, ENGLAND (BLOOMBERG) – In London, which suffers from one of the most expensive property markets in Europe, thousands have found alternative housing for less than the cost of a parking space — though it helps if you can repair an engine or plug a leaky hull.

Narrowboats, which aren’t much wider than a king-sized bed, have gained in popularity for those willing to sacrifice space and some creature comforts. Moorings on the city’s 100-mile canal network can be had for around 1,000 pounds ($1,284) a year. The waterways crisscross the metropolis, allowing boaters to live in posh areas such as Primrose Hill and St. John’s Wood at a fraction of the cost paid by their land-based neighbors.

Even with Brexit holding down price increases, London homes averaged more than 609,000 pounds ($783,000) in November, about 20 times the cost of a secondhand 60-foot narrowboat. The city is now home to over 4,200 canal boats, more than double the number of a decade ago. Authorities are scrambling to create additional moorings to avoid the same kind of jump in living costs that drove people to the water in the first place.

Narrowboats line the Regent’s Canal in Little Venice, London.
Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Liam Mertens, 28, a self-employed artist, struggled to qualify for a mortgage and decided to try canal life. He and his partner spent 83,000 pounds ($107,000) for a 60-foot narrowboat. About two-thirds of the price went to cover a coveted permanent mooring where they can remain connected to the power grid, get water and deal with sewage.

“We were in a rental situation and we didn’t really have job stability to get a mortgage and we wanted to stay in London,” he said. “It was the best way to have our own space and stay.”

The couple set about fixing up the boat, ripping out the walls and redoing the bedroom and the bathroom. Mertens honed his plumbing skills and learned about electric systems and motors, critical knowledge on the canals, where many problems can’t wait for a contractor to arrive.

“There are moments I felt like crying, for sure,” he said. “Now, I feel it’s under control.”

Mertens is one of the fortunate ones with a permanent mooring. Prices for the spaces have been swelling, given the growing demand. Some of the choicest moorings now cost more than 12,000 pounds a year ($15,400) and have seen annual increases of 15%.

Partly due to the rising costs, most of the new demand is for permits allowing “continuous cruising,” which can be had for a fraction of a permanent berth and prices tend to rise in line with inflation. But there’s a catch: boaters can only remain in one spot for two weeks before moving on. To keep their license, they are expected to travel within a 20-mile radius throughout the year.

Cruising requires a lot more planning and navigation skills. The boaters must be mindful of loading up on water and dealing with waste disposal at the stations sprinkled across the canal network. Navigating the canals means passing through locks, which are manually operated and generally require at least two people to open. The constant change of address complicates commuting or getting children to school.

Opening a lock gate on the Regent’s Canal, London
Photographer: Andrew Davis/Bloomberg

“There is a much younger demographic of boaters than we have in other places,” said Matthew Symonds, national boating manager at the Canal & River Trust, which manages the canal network. “It’s more affordable, if you don’t mind living in a slightly smaller space.”

An annual continuous cruising license costs about a 1,000 pounds for a typical 60-foot narrowboat. The trust estimated in 2018 that the number of boats in London could increase by more a third, or almost 1,700, by 2022. The group expects as much as 70% of those to be continuous cruisers.

Symonds is leading the Canal & River Trust’s new mooring strategy that if implemented would add 1,800 meters of long-term mooring, or about 100 new spaces, and improve the network of temporary berths. Maintenance of the aging system is a constant challenge for the trust.

The bulk of the network was developed in the 18th century to link the manufacturing heartland with London, and the canals were crucial to the U.K.’s rise as an industrial power. Expanding train and road transport eventually made the network obsolete, and it fell into a long period of neglect and disrepair. Restoration in the 1970s for leisure purposes helped expand canal living as rising property prices made narrowboats a cheaper and bucolic alternative to city life.

Boaters are free to roam the entire 2,000-mile national canal system, which stretches to Manchester and Leeds in the north. A trip that far would take about four weeks, given that the boats don’t move much faster than someone walking along the waterway.

The River Thames isn’t part of the network, but also allows for water living with much more space and comfort than on the narrow canals. Mike Leitch got hooked on the lifestyle after keeping a narrowboat in a gritty industrial area of West London for weekend getaways while working in Germany as European Director of Piab Group, an automation and robotics company.

Mike Leitch in his motorcycle workshop on board his barge in Battersea.
Photographer: Andrew Davis/Bloomberg

“It was an industrial area, but if you are looking down and up the canal from the boat, it was just stunning,” he said. “There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets and the swans are there. You could imagine you were living in paradise.”

Upon his permanent return to London in 2016, he wanted to be back on the water but he had something a bit grander in mind. He bought a 120-foot, 100-ton barge in the Netherlands and sailed it across the English Channel and up the Thames. He now moors in Battersea, where the berth alone cost as much as a small apartment — about 500,000 pounds ($643,000). The vessel has an eat-in kitchen, two bedrooms, a spacious living room and a retractable sunroof. There’s even a motorcycle workshop where Leitch has enough space to tinker on several bikes at a time.

Mike Leitch’s barge moored in Battersea. 
Photographer: Andrew Davis/Bloomberg

Life on the Thames with ferries plying the river and a heliport nearby is not as peaceful as the canals, but Leitch still loves being on the water.

“Every time I walk down the pier, I say to myself, you’re a lucky guy,” he said.

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