Stop Fantasising About Living on a Houseboat

Don't be fooled – it involves a lot more than just cruising a boat down a canal on a sunny day.
A South Asian woman on a houseboat in London
Anjali on her houseboat. Photo: Aisha Mirza

“There have been moments where I’ve just burst into tears on the tube because all I want to do is go home, have a bath, and go to bed.” Instead, 24-year-old teacher Clare Hayhurst, who wishes to be referred to by a pseudonym as “canal folk can get territorial online”, was faced with finishing work at school, only to begin her evenings renovating her house boat and reading The 12-Volt Bible – the beginner’s guide to electrical systems. 


In 2021, Hayhurst and her partner were paying £1,500 a month for a one bedroom flat in London, when they saw an advert on Gumtree for a 45-year-old project boat. They purchased it and within two weeks found themselves on the water, cruising alongside London’s 4,000 other boats; a number that is ever-growing and has seen an 86 percent increase since 2012, according to the Canal & River Trust, who are responsible for English and Welsh waterways. 

For many first time buyers, purchasing a narrow boat is a gallant first step onto the housing ladder. The average price of a project boat is around £20,000, compared with £537,920, the average London house price in 2022. This, combined with the idea of cruising along picturesque canals, can make the prospect of buying a boat seem like a sweet deal. But blindly purchasing a 52 ft, 20-tonne mechanical vehicle that operates on water is not the cheap utopic experience it might appear, no matter what the latest article about a “25-year-old couple living rent-free on London’s canals" might tell you. 

Clare bought her boat with no shower or running water and in a barren condition, leaving her overwhelmed. “Within the first week, leaks came through from the rain and put out our fire, which at the time was our only source of heat,” she remembers. Many first-time boat buyers must overcome dauntingly complex trials like fitting a circulation pump for hot water, understanding the intricacies of engineering and wiring the boat with electricity sourced from solar panels which they might also have to install themselves. Not to mention the expenses – Hayhurst estimates she’s spent up to £7,000 on repairs so far.

A woman with plaited hair on a houseboat

Clare Hayhurst, 24, on her boat.

But living within a network of people who are experiencing, or have already experienced similar problems, means there’s often someone there to offer help or advice. Twenty-five-year-old Joshua Buchanan, who owns £30,000 ‘Poppy’, says that “boating can be a relentless task. I’ve had to minimise the number of possessions I own, I’ve experienced the dangers of Storm Eunice on water, I got COVID and to put it crudely, my toilet filled up and I ran out of water. Nonetheless, it’s rewarding, as you cruise freely alongside a community of people that you feel a sense of comradeship to.”

He feels that he and the other boaters are part of a slightly marginal group living outside of landlocked London – an inherently bonding experience. “You just share that understanding,” he explains. That extends itself online too; forums like London Boaters - We Are These People are overrun with posts on everything from how to fit a stove, to warning boaters of when the CRT (Canal & River Trust) are patrolling and checking licences. 

A man in a beanie on a houseboat

Joshua Buchanan on Poppy, which he bought for £30,000. Photo: courtesy of subject

Reddit’s narrowboat community r/narrowboat describes itself as continuing the traditions of those who have ”cruised the British waterways for more than 300 years”. Members told me that articles attempting to depict the lifestyle fail to show the relentless hardship – and overlook the fact that some boaters were previously homeless, just about managing to pull together £2,500 for a small fibreglass boat and a licence to put a roof over their head. Some have also been kicked off GP lists due to having “no fixed abode”. The work that goes into the upkeep of a livable boat never ends, too. As one Redditor explains: “I shit into Tupperware and empty it out into a sewage grate every fortnight.”


For many, buying a boat isn't as much of a lifestyle choice as it is a necessity. If it is a choice, it’s one made between living on very little to make ends meet on land, or the willingness to take on the leaks, the nights spent plumbing, the hassle of moving the boat every two weeks, for the benefit of being a part of the rich tapestry of London’s canals, where you can depart the status quo and freely travel from place to place. “It’s being able to experience the beauty of a Sunday morning in Paddington,” Buchanan explains, “moored against the same buildings of those paying half a million pounds to see the same view you’re seeing.”

Continuous cruisers also believe that those freedoms are also being infringed on by the CRT and that the number of mooring spaces have been reduced. In March this year, it resulted in protests across the UK. Twenty-six-year-old protester Anjali – who has cruised the canals for four years and wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons – says that the CRT are unfairly biased towards the use of canals for commercial or leisure purposes. 

The CRT told VICE that these claims were “simply untrue”, as the mooring spots that were previously inhabited “[were never] suitable for mooring and no experienced boater… would expect to be able to moor in a location which puts them or others in danger.” Anjali, on the other hand, maintains that “the issues continuous cruisers are facing go back to the fact that boats aren't being recognised as the homes they are”. 

Living on a boat isn’t the carefree, bohemian lifestyle you might have assumed from breathless YouTube videos, serene DIY TikToks or hearsay from a friend of a friend who bought a narrowboat back in 2019. So what advice would boaters give to someone genuinely looking to pack up, save money and take to the water? 

“Try and find someone that is looking to sell their boat, meet up with them, have them show you around their boat and ask them to spend half an hour trying to dissuade you,” says Joshua. “If you come away from the end of that still excited to live on a boat, do it.”