A Guide to Boat Ownership

It occurs to me that this section has become rather lengthy over the time I've been writing it, so to begin with here is a very quick summary of the costs of boat ownership as I have experienced them:
  • Boat Licence  2012/13 (12 months)  £710 with prompt payment discount.
  • Mooring (non-residential): £1800 per year for a very basic marina berth (in Cheshire) without power or water but including car parking and rubbish disposal with BW water point/elsan disposal nearby.
  • Insurance: 2012/13 £112 per annum
  • Boat Safety Certificate Work: In 2006 - £560 but nothing more to pay for next four years. In 2010 passed first time so only the cost of the certificate and the surveyor's time: £175
  • Bottom Blacking - About £400 - every 2-3 years
  • River Canal Rescue - £147 (with no claims bonus)
  • Servicing - £130 per annum
These are the bare facts - for more information - and some additional costs - please read on!
Although I had wanted to buy a narrowboat for many years I actually had very little idea of what ownership actually involved, or how it compared with hiring or shared ownership. Having now had the experience of boat purchase and over eight years' ownership I feel I can offer a little advice and guidance to other novices. Starcross was originally fitted out - and used - as permanent accommodation, but I use her exclusively for pleasure cruising. I also have a full-time job which means that my boating is confined to weekends and holidays. The following information, therefore, is presented from that particular standpoint.
1. First find your boat.
Assuming you can afford it you can have a new boat built to order from a specialist boat-builder. This can come either as a basic hull, to which you add engine and cabin; as a "sailaway", which is hull+engine, running gear and unfitted cabin that you fit out yourself or as a fully-fitted boat ready to cruise. Budget for approaching £1,500 per foot for the last of these options. Second-hand boats come cheaper, depending on age and size. All the waterways magazines: Waterways World, Canal Boat, Towpath Talk, etc carry pages of advertisments and there are also websites such as Apollo Duck. You can even buy a boat on e-bay, but I wouldn't really recommend it!  Whatever you do,it is sound advice to have a survey done before agreeing a sale. Any reputable seller will be happy to agree to this and indeed will expect it. Boat surveyors advertise in the magazines mentioned above. A survey will cost several hundred pounds, but could save you thousands!
2. Get a Licence
To keep your boat on the waterways you will need a licence from the relevant authority. "Starcross" is kept on the canal system, which is administered by the Canal & River Trust (CRT) , a charitable trust that has taken over the waterways previously administered by British Waterways. The cost of your licence will vary according to length and there are discounts for advance payment. The current rate for a 50ft boat is £710 per annum if paid in advance. Prices for other lengths are here.  Paying in instalments costs more whereas  late payment incurs a penalty. However, licence fees rise annually, on 1st April each year. This licence allows unrestricted use of the canals, and those rivers controlled by CRT - principally the Severn, the (Bristol) Avon, Yorkshire Ouse and the Trent and limited use of the Bridgewater Canal. It does not include the River Thames, the (Warwickshire) Avon, or the East Anglian rivers controlled by the Environment Agency.
3. Get a Mooring
In order to get a licence you will need a mooring agreement. This is effectively the rental of a berth in a marina or a piece of the canal bank where you can leave your boat on a permanent basis when not in use. Both sorts of moorings are available from CRT or from private operators. The mooring is perhaps the biggest single expense in boat ownership. On-line (i.e. along the banks of the canal) moorings are cheaper and some would say more pleasant but you should take into account where the nearest water points, fuel points and winding holes are likely to be as well as how you will get to and from your boat given that you may need to leave a car behind during the time you are using the boat. A marina mooring will also give you access to boatyard services for repairs, servicing etc which you may be able to arrange to have carried out in your absence, saving you the time and expense of travelling.How important this is for you depends on a) how near you live to your mooring and b) how often you think you'll need a tradesman or engineer to attend to your boat.
The Canal & River Trust auctions off its vacant moorings e-bay style and there is more information available by following this link. Private operators also provide both on and off-line moorings. You may see a boat advertised "with mooring available" but you should always check with the mooring owner (not the boat owner) whether this is the case. 
The cost of a mooring for a 50ft boat can vary from £800 for an on-line towpath mooring with no facilities up to £3,000 for a top of the range marina berth with all mod-cons.  
If you can't get, or don't want a mooring you will have to convince CRT that you are "continuously cruising" and take advantage of the rule that allows you to moor anywhere for up to 14-days. However, under this rule you must progress around the network and can't just shuttle between two places. This is not really an option for someone who is not able to spend the majority of their time on board.
4. Get Insurance
You'd want to do this anyway, but you'll need it to get a licence. Its not expensive. I paid about £112 with full no-claims bonus for 2012/13.
Having got the boat, the licence, the mooring and the insurance you can, at last go cruising! However, there are a few other costs to budget for -
Boat Safety Certificate: The equivalent of an MoT for a car, although concerned more with the safety of internal systems such as gas and electrics rather than brakes and steering! You will need a new certificate every four years and without a current certificate you won't be able to renew your licence. Your insurance company and probably your mooring provider will also want to make sure you are certified "safe".
To get the certificate you will need a test undertaken by an appointed examiner. The test certificate costs £95+VAT but, of course, you'd be very lucky to get away without having any work done, particularly as the requirements are often updated. Like most other boating costs this one is due to rise sharply in the near future. Starcross' previous certificate cost us £567 (but this should be taken over four years). To see what we needed to have done follow this link.
For the next examination, in May 2010 we did a lot more preparation, especially as far as the gas systems and gas locker were concerned and were rewarded with a first time pass.
Regular Maintenance: Like any machinery, your diesel engine will need a regular service - at least once a year. Expect about £150 - £200 at a boatyard assuming there's nothing major wrong with it, although many boaters do it themselves to save money. River Canal Rescue (see below) also offer this service to members: a service costs £130. Every two to three years or so you will need the bottom blacked. The cost of this varies according to whether you do it yourself or have it done for you and whether you hire a dry dock or have the boat craned out. A boatyard will charge about £6 - £7 a foot plus the cost of the dock or the crane and, of course, "plus VAT".  We've  had Starcross done twice so far, once by a boatyard using a crane which came to £600 and, more recently at Norbury Wharf at a cost of £412.50 for the blacking and £100 docking fee.
Rescue Service
My mechanical knowledge and ability is very limited and I don't have the confidence that I could fix anything other than the most basic technical problem. I was therefore very pleased to learn about River Canal Rescue which offers a range of levels of cover similar to that provided to motorists by the likes of the AA or RAC  from £55. My experience of them, having called them out four times in total to date has been very positive and I am happy to recommend them.
One Off Items: As all machinery ages, the cost of running it increases. Starcross is 25 years old and beginning to show its age. So far, we have needed to replace two ropes (£10 each), the pump for the domestic water system (cost not known - there was a spare on board and Hugh fitted it) the alternator (£111),and  the firebricks in the coal-fired stove (£20?). We've also bought a (very) small 12v fridge (£40) to replace the fitted gas fridge that wasn't working when we bought her and a radio/cd player (£22) to replace the fitted one which we didn't like and which used a lot of battery power. Another  problem was with the engine cold start. We needed new switches and relays and, together with a mechanical job to ensure the cabin doors could be secured the cost came to £113.
Last time I had the bottom blacked I opted to get the tunnel bands, the red and white curved areas behind the counter, repainted, which cost £85. I also needed at new bottom rudder bracket at £125 including installation and some repair work on the exhaust at £102.50. Inside the cabin, the flue pipe of the coal-fired stove needed replacing, as did the collar (where the pipe goes through the roof) which was cracked and leaking. I also asked for the stove itself to be looked at as the bolts holding the glass door in place were stripped and we were having to use fuse wire to hold the glass in. A previous owner appeared to have had a slight accident with the stove, which had resulted in scorching around an area of the ceiling and this was disguised by fitting a wooden cover and brass collar trim. The whole job on the stove, including 9 hours labour and VAT came to £443.65.  As I had had this work done at the same time as the bottom blacking, painting, exhaust and rudder repairs the total bill came to over £1200.
By 2008 the cabin paintwork was looking decidedly shabby and the rust around the windows was getting worse:it was time for a repaint. I had the job done at Canal Transport Servicesat Norton Canes on the Cannock Extension Canal. The job took them six weeks and cost about £6,500 but that did include blacking the hull, which would otherwise have had to be done the following year.
In early 2010 the throttle lever was coming away from its mounting, which cost £75 to fix.  When it worked loose again a few months later I worked out how to fix it myself for nothing! A burst pipe, victim of the cold winter, was put right for a bargain "cash in hand" £25. 
Running Costs
Most of the cost of boat ownership is "fixed cost" i.e. items such as licence, mooring etc which don't vary with use and which you therefore incur whether or not you actually use your boat. The running costs themselves are very low, being limited to :
Fuel - this is gas oil - commonly referred to as "red diesel". Canal boaters pay a lower rate of tax and duty on fuel as these are only levied at the full rate on fuel used to move the boat. Diesel is also used to generate electricity - and in some cases for heating - and this use is taxed at a lower rate. It's up to individual boaters to declare the different proportions when buying fuel but HM Revenue and Customs suggests that a 60/40 split is reasonable. In April 2014  the basic price for fuel at Norbury Junction was 80p a litre to which must be added about 53p a litre duty on the 60% "propulsion" element, making the actual price for that element 133p/litre. Its all a lot more complicated than it used to be!  Boat engines are very economical and Starcross' new engine seems to have settled down at about 1.25 hours per litre - which is the usual way of measuring fuel use on the canals. Gas - This is only needed for cooking and hot water on Starcross and we get through about 3 cylinders a year at about £24 each.
Electricity - for lighting, fridge etc is provided from the batteries which are charged by the engine. Whilst there is obviously a cost here in extra fuel used I am unable to quantify it and therefore ignore it. In April 2008 the batteries that power the "domestic" systems (lighting, water pump etc, needed replacing. There are two of them and they cost £75 each. I also paid for an hour's labour (£35) for the boatyard to fit them and dispose of the old ones, but that was just laziness on my part - it's an easy enough job). I replaced them again in January 2013 at a similar cost and I have replaced some of the cabin bulbs with LEDs that give out almost as much light whilst using far less power.
Coal - Starcross has a solid fuel fired stove which burns coal and smokeless fuel which you can get from boatyards or garages. The stove also burns wood, which you can often find on the bank for nothing! Over time the condition of the flue and chimney deteriorates due to the gasses emitted by the fuel. There are other "consumables" to budget for including a replacement chimney from time to time (about £40) and we recently managed to break the glass in the stove door and a replacement was another £15 or so. Its important that this work is not neglected as coal fired stoves produce carbon monoxide, which can kill you if its not vented properly. I have therefore fitted a "Fire Angel" CO detector (about £25) and a smoke alarm (£12).
The only other costs involved in using the boat are those associated with getting to and from it (by car or public transport) and items such as food and drink - but you'd be buying those if you stayed at home. The ratio of fixed to variable cost is a great incentive to use the boat as often as possible and so bring down the average cost per trip by spreading the fixed costs over as many days afloat as possible.
How does it compare with hiring?
Undoubtedly, if all you want is a fortnight's holiday on the cut every year you should stick to hiring, which will also give you a choice of boats and starting places. Just taking the licence, moorings and insurance adds up to over £2,000 per annum for which you could choose from a wide range of hire boats for a fortnight in high summer. What you can't - or at least don't - do without your own boat is to enjoy the ad hoc weekends or even days afloat (which can effectively cost you almost nothing) throughout the year. We also sometimes use Starcross as a "country cottage" - i.e. just using her for overnight accommodation whilst exploring the local area on foot or by bike, without actually taking her off the mooring.
In our case, we feel that these extra trips more than justify the high fixed costs and, in particular, the ability to have a boat trip at a day's notice if we feel like it outweighs the cost.
Expect the Unexpected!
In August 2007, Starcross suffered a major engine failure. I was quoted £1500 (as a "guess") for a repair and advised that the engine was in a condition whereby I might like to consider a total replacement. I opted for a new Isuzu engine which, fitted and working came to £7,800 - but that did include a "Python Drive" flexible coupling, which has been fantastic in cutting down noise and eliminating vibration throughout the boat. However, the Python Drive itself failed in 2013. To supply and fit a new one would have cost approaching £1,000 but my River Canal Rescue subscription included replacement parts cover for just a £50 excess.
When I had Starcross "blacked" again in July 2013 some pitting was discovered in the hull. I had a full hull survey done to assess the extent (cost £300). The pitting was found not to be too extensive and the surveyor gave a generally positive report, whilst making some recommendations for work to be carried out. The necessary welding was undertaken as part of the bottom-blacking, which as I had opted for the more-expensive-but longer-lasting 2-pack epoxy coating came to £1500. I also needed to strip and re-rustproof the gunwales, which I did myself over a week at minimal cost.
When its time to sell
In January 2014 I decided to sell Starcross. The list of "little" jobs that needed doing together with the need for a serious re-fit of the living accommodation became too much to contemplate. There were also a number of personal factors that led to the decision not necessarily connected with the boat itself.
I decided to sell via brokerage at Norbury Wharf. Partly because they knew the boat and could vouch for the maintenance I'd had done and partly because they seem to specisalise in the sale of boats in Starcross' age and price range. This meant that the boat didn't stand out as either too expensive or too old and tatty. I achieved a sale at 90% of the asking price within two months. The buyer opted not to have his own survey, presumably on the basis that I had made my hull survey available to him.
Norbury Wharf charged 5% +VAT commission on the sale with no mooring fee.