Richard Hagan knows exactly why he likes living on a narrowboat on London’s canals. “It’s the sense of community. You can ask anybody around you, at any particular time, for anything, and they will happily help you out.”
The 32-year-old South African bought his 36ft-narrowboat six years ago for £14,000 as a way out of London’s rental trap. “My parents cashed in some shares and gave me the money to buy outright. I went from paying £80 a week in rent and sharing a room with a friend in Finsbury Park to having my own place.”
Each morning he wakes up to the sound of water lapping outside his window and checks the progress the local ducks have made on their nest. His boat is moored in Mile End, east London, where a small one-bedroom flat with a view of the canal costs at least £400,000: more than 28 times the price Hagan paid for his watery view.
He is by no means the only Londoner managing to live both rent and mortgage free on the capital’s canals.
Since 2012 the number of boats without home moorings in central and east London has increased by 171% and 182% respectively, according to the Canal & River Trust (CRT), the charity that looks after England and Wales’s 2,000 miles of waterways. Nationally the figure has gone up by 33%.
But London prices still take their toll. In many parts of the UK, a permanent mooring along a canal towpath costs as little as £2,000 a year – but in London and other cities, the typical cost is at least £6,000 a year, and well over £10,000 in east London and other central locations.
This is why Hagan has chosen to be a “continuous” cruiser. It means he has to move his boat to a new neighbourhood at least once a fortnight, along a route with a range of at least 20 miles, but this way he pays nothing.
It’s not hard to figure out what is fuelling this trend. Research from lettings agent Countrywide indicates the average London landlord charges between £1,289 and £2,318 a month, while Nationwide says the typical first-time buyer needs a £65,600 deposit to get a foot on the property ladder. By contrast, old narrowboats at the bottom end of the market are being sold on sites such as Waterways World, Canal Boat and Apollo Duck for £25,000 or less.
Lyndon Jones bought a canal boat with his wife, Jess, for £36,000 using a loan which they pay off each month. Like Hagan, they couldn’t afford a mooring, so live an itinerant London lifestyle on a continuous cruising licence, moving every two weeks. Jones is a final year architecture student and his wife is a teaching assistant specialising in speech and language. “For us, owning our own home in London is an unachievable aspiration – it was this or move out of London,” he says. “It’s a way of living – it’s definitely not for everyone, but it is a viable alternative.”
However, maintaining a boat – especially one bought for only £14,000 – is expensive. Hagan, a plumber by trade, typically spends £1,000 a year on repairs and…