Help I’m Buying a Canalside Home!

14 May 2022

This page will point you in the direction of the information you may need when buying a canalside property.

How can I find a canalside home?

There is no single central portal for sourcing canalside homes. Without doubt the best place to find them is the Facebook group ‘Canalside Homes‘ which shares canalside property for sale by all agents. You can also conduct keyword searches on Rightmove or Zoopla. There are a few estate agencies which specialise in canal and riverside properties.

Here are five places to look:

  • Sheridan Parsons is the best known estate agent for selling canalside homes. Sheridan is an independent one-woman agent powered by eXp. She runs the popular Facebook group ‘Canalside Homes‘.
  • Waterside Properties is a website by the Waterside Network, a group of estate agents with knowledge and expertise of waterfront homes in their areas. The network also publish a glossy magazine called Waterside Life.
  • Waterside Estate Agents is a local, independent Norfolk Broads estate agency that specialises in the sale of property on or near the water, throughout the area.
  • Water Side Residential specialise in the sale and rental of riverside, island and floating homes on the Thames and its tributaries from Kew to Windsor.
  • Interested in Static Holiday Caravans, Lodges and Park Homes? – Click here!

When house hunting, always look out for issues which often accompany canalside homes, such as no road access or awkward road access, flooding (see below), nearby roads and railways (especially motorways and HS2), workshops (narrowboat marinas can have some very noisy processes such as welding and shot blasting), and factories. See also Noise and Nuisance below.

If you live in the US and you’re thinking of buying a property in the UK you may find this page (on this website) useful: Dreaming of Moving to England.

Canals v Rivers – what’s the difference?

Canals are man-made watercourses. Rivers are natural watercourses. Here is a great information sheet by the Canal & River Trust explaining the difference to children. You will also come across canals which are ‘tamed’ rivers – these can usually be recognised easily by the gentle flow of the water, the type of weeds in the water, the clarity of the water, and the presence of weirs. When you look at Google maps you will often see the name of a river, where in fact you are looking at a navigable ‘canalised’ river, for example the eastern part of the Kennet and Avon Canal is labelled as the River Kennet. This often leads estate agents to misdescribe the waterway on their details.

Every canal and river is administered by a waterway authority, which may be a government department, a business, or a charitable orgaisation. There is a very good list of waterway authorities on the Inland Waterways Association website, or you can check the members’ list on the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities website. Most canals – over 2000 miles of them – are administered by the Canal & River Trust. They have a very good interactive map on their website where you can see routes, information about an area, and nearby facilities on and by the water. Many rivers are administered by the Environment Agency.

Flooding

One of the first things you need to check when buying a canalside property is the flood risk. Canals are man-made channels with carefully managed water levels and generally they do not flood. However, you will find that many of them are fed by natural water courses, and therefore lie near or alongside streams and rivers which present a flood risk.

You can check the flood risk of an area by entering the postcode in the Government’s Long Term Flood Risk interactive map. This includes both surface water (from flash flooding) and flood risk from rising river and sea levels. Make sure that you check both types.

Occasionally canals are built above the surrounding ground level using large embankments. Thankfully breaches in the structure of a canal are very rare, and if they occur it is usually possible to close off a section of canal with locks or stop gates to contain the affected area before any severe damage is done. The risk, such as it is, can be covered by insurance.

Damp

Damp in a canalside property has much in common with any other property, although there are some special cases. There are many buildings along the canal with their ‘feet in the water’, and yet they show no sign of rising damp. That’s because it probably doesn’t exist! Take a look at this article from Heritage House. Some properties are built directly into a canal embankment, with their basement set below water level. In these properties you may find some dampness. As is usual with any basement, they may benefit from tanking membranes.

Noise and Nuisance

I recommend visiting the property at different times of day and at weekends. Are there many passers by? Is there a bridge nearby which rumbles or clangs as cars and lorries go over it? Lockside properties can be especially noisy. Leaky lock gates suffer from the sound of rushing water sound all day long, but brand new gates are silent. Lock gates are generally replaced every 20 to 25 years, with interim repairs as required. How noisy are the paddles? Most cruising is done during the day, but sometimes a boat will pass through a lock at night, when clanking lock gear can seem very noisy indeed! How do you feel about people knocking on your door for assistance? Or peering into your windows? Is the towpath busy with cyclists and fishermen? Or with troublesome drinkers and graffiti artists!

Getting Involved – Adults

Once you’ve moved into your canalside home, there are many ways to get involved with your local canal, including sports like paddleboarding, cycling, and fishing. If you prefer to contribute your leisure time to the work of the Canal & River Trust, volunteer opportunities are advertised on their website. Typical volunteer opportunities include being a lock keeper, manning an information point, leading walks, being a ranger along a stretch of canal, being a boat data collector, helping at a museum, working with children on Explorers activities, or joining a local towpath taskforce, who help to clear and refresh the canal areas and improve wildlife habitats. If you want to do something really physical, there are restoration projects around the country where volunteers are welcome. The Inland Waterways Association has a volunteering page where you can find out about local branch opportunities, such as clean-ups and work parties, as well as administrative tasks and campaigning projects you could get involved with. If you are interested in the wildlife commonly found in canal habitats, the Canal & River Trust has a useful Spotter’s Waterways Wildlife Guide with links to pages about many of the animals which benefit from a canal habitat (but not fish!)

Getting Involved – Children

There are lots of resources and printables for families and schools on the Canal & River Trust’s Explorers pages to engage children with canals. You can search for individual sheets and activities on this resources page. Here are some of my favourites:

  • All about Canals is a great introductory printable for children
  • How a Lock works is an excellent YouTube video suitable for children
  • Build a Canal is a very easy history printable for younger children
  • The Build a Canal game is probably the best children’s game on the Canal & River Trust website in terms of performance and educational content.
  • Waterways Today is a downloadable printable for children
  • Canal Boats – a printable about the different boats using the canals, past and present.

Planning to Buy a Boat

If you are buying a canalside house you may also be thinking of buying a boat for the first time. Let’s start by clearing the terminology up before a boater glares at you or grimaces at you smugly for getting it wrong – it will happen!

  1. Narrowboats are usually between 6′ 10″ and 7 feet wide. They are designed to navigate narrow canals, and can cruse on the majority of inland waterways. When you see tv programmes like “Celebrities go Barging” they are in a narrowboat, not a barge! I’m afraid experienced narrowboaters often cringe and shout at the telly during those programmes!
  2. Widebeams are extra wide versions of narowboats. They come in various widths up to about 14 feet. They cannot cruise on narrow waterways and will not fit in narrow locks. They do provide lots of interior space, but you may find that narrowboaters look down on you. This is not snobbery – widebeams can cause damage to the canal bed, and often cause obstructions. You can find out more about the pros and cons of widebeams on the CRT website.
  3. Barges are commercial narrowboats or widebeams. They normally have some sort of cargo hold.
  4. Dutch barges are traditional flat-bottomed cargo boats which often have a higher wheelhouse to the rear (the stern). They come in various widths from Dutch barge style narrowboats up to monsters of about 20 feet. They may be commercial or leisure boats. They are often used as houseboats.
  5. Butties are normally unpowered boats designed to be pulled by a narrowboat or tug. You must give way to a butty as it can’t stop!

If you are new to boating I highly recommend watching this Boater’s Handbook playlist of YouTube videos from the Canal and River Trust, which includes an excellent description of How a Lock Works from a boater’s perspective. For more resources, the Trust have an excellent page for those who are new to boating.

I would strongly advise that you NEVER buy a boat without hiring one first, for at least a week, or possibly two. There is no substitute for hands on experience. If you are very nervous about boating, then you can have a boat holiday with a skipper. This provides an excellent opportunity to ease in slowly, and to pick the skipper’s brains!

I would also strongly recommend that if you are a novice boater you should take an RYA Helmsman’s course for skippers on the inland waterways. You can search for available courses on the RYA Website. Some of these courses span several days and include a night or two sleeping on the boat!

You should also check out the social media section below.

Boaters on Social Media

I strongly recommend subscribing to YouTube and following some narrowboating channels. There are literally hundreds to choose from, depending on your particular interests. Three of my favourites are Jo and Vic, a young and quirky couple with a baby on Holly the Cafe Boat, Fran and Rich, who enjoy the natural pleasures of rambling, foraging and weaving on Floating Our Boat, and David Johns, a superb journalist offering cruising videos, maintenance, documentaries and more on Cruising the Cut. Some YouTube narrowboaters have successfully transitioned their footage to television, such as Robbie Cumming. You will also find many boaters on Instagram and Twitter, including the legend that is Boating David. If you intend to be a solo boater, it is well worth following these three chaps, as you will quickly get a feel for the pains and pleasures of solo boating.

Buying a Boat

There are over 34,000 boats on Canal & River Trust waters. Good places to find boats for sale are marinas which may have private sales and with brokerages, and the Apollo Duck website. You will also find listings in canal magazines and newspapers. Most boat builders advertise in canal magazines. It is also a good idea to visit a boat show where there are show boats to explore. The biggest of these is the famous Crick Boat Show which is held annually in Crick.

Buy your boat with caution, and ALWAYS GET AN INDEPENDENT SURVEY from a qualified marine surveyor. The main marine surveyors’ associations are the International Institute of Marine Surveying and the Yacht Designers and Surveyors Association. Other official qualifications are the IMarEST, the Dip.MarSur, the ABSSE, and the IEng. Remember the most important aspects are the hull and the engine. Don’t be swayed by a pretty fit-out. A survey will probably cost between £400 and £700, plus any craneage or dry docking charges to take the boat out of the water. Trust me, it’s money well spent. I also recommend that you attend the survey. A good surveyor will teach you many useful things during the process, which adds considerably to the value of the survey.

The cost of narrowboats has gone up astronomically during the covid pandemic and may take a while to settle. As a rough guide, if you see a boat under £25k, with a few exceptions, you may have major cause for concern. From £25k to £60k there will be a wide range of acceptable boats available, but some, especially at the lower end, may require works to bring them up to standard. From £60k to £100k you should be getting a decent and reliable boat. At the bottom end of that bracket the boat may be a few years old, a bit jaded, and need some attention, but at top end you’ll even find some basic new boats.

Decent new boats (other than tiny boats and fibreglass boats) will generally cost over £100k, and the sky’s the limit thereafter! You may have to wait a year or more for a building slot, and this too has forced up the price of a second hand boat. You may even see second hand boats more expensive than their brand new counterparts! The big advantage of a new build, though, is that you can specify every detail and adaptation to your own taste.

Licencing

All boats using inland canals and rivers must be licenced, and that includes both powered and unpowered vessels of any size, from a paddleboard to a barge. Boat licences are issued by the respective waterway’s authority. You can learn about boat licenses on the Canal & River trust website.

Mooring

In addition to the boat licence, you will probably require a permanent mooring on the water. Mooring fees depend on size and location, and are payable either to the respective waterway’s authority, or to the marina or boat club. All moorings will have been granted a specific status, for Leisure use (you cannot live aboard), Business or Commercial use, or Residential use. Some moorings will have part-residential status with some limitations (similar to static holiday caravans).

There are some exceptions to the requirement to pay for a permanent mooring, for example, if you cruise continually, if you own a freehold mooring space within your curtilage, if your property is on a river and has riparian rights, or if your boat is an unpowered, portable tender to a larger vessel.

You can find out about licencing a mooring against your the bank at your property on this page: End of Garden Moorings.

If you do not have a permanent mooring, by default you will be subject to the continuous cruising terms and conditions.

Cruising

Canal time should always be relaxed and unhurried. You default speed should be LESS THAN WALKING PACE! Maybe a little more on open water, but a little less when passing moored boats. Most people soon adjust to this pace of life, so before long you’ll be laughing scornfully at the cars you see hurtling over the motorway bridges.

Your cruising options will depend on the width and length of your boat. The canals frequently undergo both scheduled and unplanned repairs and maintenance, such as lock repairs and clearing fallen trees, so you should make a habit of checking for stoppages along your route, and sign up for alerts. The majority of planned works take place during the winter, so it is always important to check that you can get back to your home mooring before it’s too late!

Your first decision when planning a cruise is whether to go out and back, or round in a ‘ring’. Ring routes are very popular, as you don’t have to revisit the same canal on the way back, but do be careful not to overstretch yourself with too large a ring in the time available. There are many useful resources for planning a route. Look out for: