A narrowboat blacked and ready for craning-in, Grand Union Canal, Uxbridge (David Gee)This article is about buying a second-hand narrowboat for Britain's inland waterways.  It outlines the process you would normally go through between deciding to buy a boat and sailing it away.  First make sure that the lifestyle is right for you - read the Moving and mooring and Boatkeeping sections.

Stage one: Deciding what you want

Things to decide:

  • Your budget.  It'll be hard to buy a decent narrowboat (i.e. one that goes along and doesn't sink) for less than about £20,000 - and that's a minimum.  A pretty good boat can be bought for about twice that, then it's upwards from there for quality.  You can get a cheaper boat if you want a project to work on, but you'll usually need to spend a few thousand at least, plus your time, to get it shipshape. 
  • Boat type (narrowboat, cabin-cruiser, raft...) - see What kind of boat? for guidance.
  • Boat length and width (also called 'beam').

Stage two: Deciding on your 'red lines' 

You'll also need to decide on some basic standards for the build of your boat, especially the hull, engine and interior (also called the 'fit-out').  We suggest the following:

  • Hull.  If you're after a narrowboat, we strongly recommend you go for an all-steel construction, with original hull thicknesses at least 6mm on the bottom, 5mm on the sides, and 4mm on the cabin (and current thicknesses no lower than 4mm anywhere, unless you're prepared to pay for steel over-plating, which can cost £1,000s for a big job)
  • Engine.  You'll want something not too noisy or smoky, not overpowered or underpowered, and not dripping oil or diesel all over the bilge.
  • Fit-out.  Watch out for any rot, especially in the flooring.  You can always change the fit-out but if you want substantial changes they'll be expensive, even if you do them yourself.

There are 1,001 other things to look out for, too, but these are probably the main googlies.

Stage three: Finding a boat

Be prepared to travel - it's all part of the adventure.  A number of marinas operate brokerage services.  These allow you to view a few boats at once, which is worth doing first just to get a feel for what's available.  Apart from these marinas, Apollo Duck is currently the main online sales agency for inland boats.

Beware settling on the first boat you see - have a look at a few first.  Don't worry if this means you miss out on a lovely boat - there will be others.

Romance.  It's not all about hull thicknesses and frequency of engine services.  Don't just find a boat you could safely marry - find one you could also fall in love with!

Stage four: Taking a proper look

When you find a boat you think you'd like to own, check it over: really go to town on it.  Take someone who knows about boats if you can.  Here are a few key questions to get answered:

  • What's the build?  I.e. Who built it and when; what were the original hull-thicknesses; what engine does it have...?
  • When was it last out of the water for maintenance / blacking the bottom etc.?  If the answer is three years or more, the owner has probably not been looking after it.
  • Does it have a current licence, a Boat Safety Certificate, insurance - will the owner show you these?  (These aren't deal-breakers but if any is lacking you'll want to know why - a boat can't be licensed unless it has a Boat Safety Certificate and insurance.)
  • If the boat is licensed, how many months are left on it and will the owner be willing to transfer the remainder to you (they can also opt to end the licence early)?
  • Is there proof of ownership - can the owner show you this, too?
  • Is there a recent survey by a qualified surveyor (registered with the International Institute of Marine Surveying)?  Recent means in about the last two years.  If so, could you see the survey report?  If the surveyor recommended work, was it done and is this obvious (or if it's not obvious, were receipts kept)?
  • If there's no recent survey, when was a survey last carried out?  If it was more than five years ago for a boat more than ten years old, then the owner has probably not been keeping an eye on the hull thicknesses, which is bad.
  • If you're buying the boat on a permanent mooring, will you be allowed to keep the mooring?  Don't just take the boat-owner's word for this, as most moorings managed by the Canal and River Trust, and a good many others, are not transferable.
  • Is the included mooring 'permanent non-residential' or 'permanent residential'?  If non-residential, you might still be able to live there in practice but you'll need to know the lie of the land first.
  • Get the owner to take you out on the boat for at least half an hour - long enough for a dodgy engine to overheat.
  • Back at home, use the online boat checker to check that the boat is licensed (if it's supposed to be): https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/boating/licensing/boat-check.

Stage five: Making an offer

It's normal to make an initial offer subject to an out-of-the-water survey (called a full condition survey).  If the owner can provide a full survey from the last couple of years, which you trust as genuine and was carried out by a qualified marine surveyor, then you might choose to forego the faff of getting a new survey done, at your own risk.

If you make an offer subject to survey, it's usual for the vendor to take a 10% deposit while the boat is being surveyed.  It's important that you and the vendor are both agreed in advance on the arrangements for the deposit and the conditions under which it would be returned.  After the survey, if you can't agree a final price and you don't want to go ahead with the purchase, then you would normally get the full deposit back, less any costs incurred to the vendor.  There are sample contracts available online, such as this sample contract from the RYA.

To find a surveyor, go to the International Institute of Marine Surveying site, but also get an impartial recommendation if you can (i.e. not from the boat owner).  Some surveyors are much better than others.  When calling your preferred surveyor, ask about a full condition survey and valuation and say which date or dates you would need it doing.  The surveyor will ask you all about the dimensions of the boat in order to quote you a fee, so be ready with the details to hand.

The survey is carried out at your expense, including the vendor's reasonable costs as agreed between you.  The cost of the crane and/or dry dock, plus the surveyor's fee, is likely to be £500-600.  However, the surveyor typically finds fault with the boat (most boats have a few things wrong with them).  You can often use this to haggle down the price and so recover some of the survey costs.  Another advantage is that you probably won't need another survey for between three and five years, depending on the state of the boat.

If you agree to buy the boat and it's still out of the water, it might be possible to keep it there for a week so you can blast and scrape the bottom and re-black it, or have any necessary over-plating done there and then. 

Stage six: Paying

This can be done using a contract (e.g. using the RYA template contract) or a bill of sale.  Either way, make sure that it can't lead to problems!  If you're buying through an established brokerage marina, then the broker handles the relationship between the vendor and buyer.

It's then the vendor's job to tell the navigation authority that you are the new owner.  In the case of the Canal and River Trust, this is done using the 'Change of owner' form on the licensing page of their website.

The vendor can use the same form either to transfer the licence to your name or to end it prematurely and get a refund for the remaining unused months, in which case you'll need to take out a new licence.

Stage seven: Paperwork

To license the boat, it will need a Boat Safety Certificate and insurance.  It might already have both.

Boat Safety Certificate

Boat Safety Certificates are issued by email these days.  If the boat already has one then the current owner ought to be able to show you it by forwarding you the certificate email from the Boat Safety Scheme.  You don't need to worry about transferring it to your name as it's based on the boat, not the owner.  Note the expiry date.

If the boat has no Certificate, you can find a qualified examiner via the Boat Safety Scheme website (your surveyor might well also be a qualified Boat Safety Examiner).  

Usually the examination can be arranged within about a fortnight and often more quickly if necessary.  It usually takes about an hour if there are no problems, or a couple of hours if there are.  If it takes less than an hour then you've probably hired a charlatan!  You'll need to have a gas bottle with gas in it if you have gas appliances, so these can be tested, but you won't need to run the engine.

You'll shell out about £120-£150 for this.

If there are any outstanding problems the examiner will come back in a week or two to check you've done the work.  To give your boat the best chance of passing first time, look through the Boat Safety Scheme website first to see what's covered.  The Certificate expires after four years.

A Boat Safety Certificate won't tell you that your boat is about to sink, so don't think of it as an alternative to a survey because it's completely different.

Insurance

You'll need a new marine insurance policy in your own name.  Basic insurance usually covers you for third party, fire, sinking and assorted disasters.

Insurers usually need to see a recent survey or a Boat Safety Certificate - check with them.  Since the Certificate is often much easier to come by than a recent survey, you might want to choose your insurer accordingly!  They'll charge you about £150-350, depending on the value of your boat.

Your basic insurance policy excludes the boat's contents but this is not needed for licensing purposes.  Insuring contents can be expensive so many boaters don't bother and just take their chances.  If you (or your parents) have house insurance which covers stuff like bicycles, it might also cover your new boat's contents - it's worth checking.

Licence

Once you have insurance and a Boat Safety Certificate, you can apply for a licence.

Before handing over the licence, the Canal and River Trust checks online that you have the Boat Safety Certificate.  They don't check that you have insurance any more, but it's part of the terms and conditions of the licence and they carry out random spot checks.

The Trust is required by law to issue you with a licence if you meet these conditions, and has to renew the licence if you abide by its terms and conditions.  These include rules for 'continuous cruising' if you have no home mooring - see Moving and mooring for more details.  CRT is increasingly refusing to renew licences to those without a home mooring who are not on a 'bona fide journey'.

Since most of Britain's canals and rivers are managed by the Canal and River Trust (but not the Thames, Medway, Nene or Scottish canals), you'll most likely be wanting a regular CRT licence.  But there are some exceptions:

  • If you only want to cruise on CRT rivers then you can get a cheaper rivers-only licence.
  • The 'Gold Licence' from CRT gives you access to almost all canals and rivers in England and Wales, including the Thames and Nene.
  • If you only want to cruise on the Thames, Medway, Nene or certain other rivers, then you get your licence from the Environment Agency.
  • If your boat is going on the Norfolk Broads then visit the Broads Authority for a licence.
  • If you want a licence for the Scottish system, visit scottishcanals.co.uk and good luck finding the page about licensing, because we can't.

Stage eight: Sailing away!

Before you turn the key and speed away, make sure you have these few essentials, all of which you can get from a chandlery:

  1. A BW key.  This key gives you access to the facilities points, various locked gates, locked locks and other unexpected hurdles.  The chandlery might ask to see your licence before selling you one (for about a fiver).  (BW stands for British Waterways, now the Canal and River Trust, but the keys have kept their old name.)
  2. A windlass (also called a lock handle or lock key).  This is the windy handle thing you need to work locks.  You'll probably need at least two.
  3. A barge pole.  If you break down, how will you get to the side?
  4. The Nicholson's waterways guide for your area, so you know which direction to head in (either this way or that way, usually).

Your boat might well have all these things already.

If you thought buying your boat was scary, just try steering for the first time!  Zig.... zag.... zig.... zag......

Costs and timescale

The whole process is likely to take a couple of months, though it can be done in as little as a month if everything's straightforward.

It's likely to cost about £2,000, including costs of travel, survey and paperwork.  To this you need to add the cost of your own time.

If you go through this process, you will:

  • Be set up for your first year's licence and insurance.
  • Know what issues the boat has (there's always something).
  • Know that your boat is reasonably safe in certain important ways (your Boat Safety Certificate will last you for four years).
  • Have a survey that you can use to make it easier to sell the boat on within the next couple of years.
  • Have the best chance of being able to sell the boat on at more or less the same price you paid for it.