This post needs to start with an apology: Kiley and I are sorry for lying to you. Yes, to you—explicitly or implicitly, we’ve been lying to everyone. “Lying about what?” you ask. Well, we don’t actually live in West Hampstead… anymore. That flat (the one with the fox family out back) was another temporary arrangement until we moved into our permanent place. And we just did; on August 25 we moved into our permanent place: our own 42-foot British-built narrowboat!
You read that right, Kiley and I have purchased and are now living aboard our very own boat. I hear the chorus of questions: “What?” “For real?” “Why?” “How?” To answer these, let’s go back to the beginning of the journey, which starts over two months ago on a scenic balcony in Italy…
It was a comfortable evening in Perugia. As we had so many times during our stay in Italy, Kiley and I moved to our beautiful balcony after dinner to enjoy a couple glasses of wine and watch the central Italian sunset. As the sky dimmed, the conversation turned—as it often did—to our impeding arrival in London. On this particular night, Kiley opened one of her many flat-hunting apps and we began searching for our future home. As always, we were quickly struck by the sky-high rent prices and the almost complete lack of available pet-friendly flats. Rather than flounder in depression, we decided to get creative. What alternatives did we have to pouring tens of thousands of dollars over two years into a less-than-stellar rental?
We briefly discussed buying a property; however, the high cost, short timeframe, and dull Brexit outlook did not present a good investment opportunity. With that out, we turned to an idea that often appeared on our housing searches: boats. London has a rich and extensive maritime history, which includes sea-going, river, and canal networks. As such, there is plenty of infrastructure in place to support a range of leisure and residential boaters. And within this environment, many choose to live aboard, either to travel around the country or as an alternative to skyrocketing London property costs.
So we decided to pursue living aboard as an option to complement the flat hunting. Our plan for the first two weeks in London was to split our efforts between flat hunting and boat hunting. And this worked out well, since we could only find a couple (or less) pet-friendly flats to view each day; the rest of the time we were able to spend looking at boats. During this process, the trade-offs became pretty clear pretty quick; a flat would give us convenience and familiarity, whereas a boat would give us savings and a new adventure. But would this boat idea be worth it?
From a cost perspective, we were at the lower end of the liveaboard boat spectrum. As you recall, the three of us came to Europe with just a few bags, so we didn’t need a lot of space. As such, our boat needn’t be very large. In addition, we were looking for a boat that could resemble our house in Indianapolis: something with hidden character and value potential that could be brought out with some work. All and all, getting what we needed in a boat would end up costing less than a single year’s rent—add parts and maintenance over the next two years and we’d still be well short of our total cost for renting a flat during Kiley’s MBA program. And the obvious upside here: we’d own it and get to sell it. In our minds, a crazy idea was planted: with some sweat, a little luck, and the right return, we could live in central London for two years rent-free. Hmmmm…
Around mid-July, it had come time to make a choice. We had been in London for a couple of weeks and the flat options weren’t giving us much hope. In general, landlords only present flats as pet-friendly if they aren’t getting the offers they want, which means they’re either poor quality or overpriced (or both!). At the same time, there was still a lot of uncertainty associated with the boat option. We saw a few that we liked, but nothing that truly forced our hand. Nonetheless, a decision needed to be made; our (first) temporary flat was ending in a couple of weeks and school was around the corner. We decided to take the dive and go for the boat. In the end, the prospect of such a cost savings and the opportunity for yet another adventure won out over the downsides!
So which boat would we choose? There were a few options, but a 42-footer named Suzanne Melody stood out. She had what we needed in terms of size, character, and amenities; however, she was neglected in recent years, so her condition was scaring away some potential buyers… BUT NOT US! Then there was Schaefer’s reaction. We had seen Suzanne twice, and both times Schaefer immediately hopped aboard and jumped onto the bed like he already lived there. Maybe it was the universe sending us a message? Regardless, we decided that Suzanne would be the one, so we jumped into the ring and made an offer.
After several offers and counter-offers that lasted an excruciating TEN DAYS (cutting our temporary flat timeline dangerously close), our price was accepted, pending a full survey of the vessel. The survey had to be done quickly—as the boat was currently out of the water—or we’d have to wait over a month to finalize the sale. A boat survey is very similar to a home inspection; they look everywhere, turn all the knobs, make sure everything’s to code, etc. Having been built in 1992, Suzanne is middle-aged in the narrowboat world, so there were a list of items that needed to be addressed (not surprisingly). So we proceeded to renegotiate with the owners, which took ANOTHER WEEK before we settled on a final price.
Around this time, our (first) temporary flat was coming to an end. Although we were assured that the process should only take another few days, we opted for a three-week stay at one of the flats we viewed previously in West Hampstead. The owners were nice and were transitioning the property from an Airbnb to a long-term rental. Turns out, their new tenants weren’t moving in until the end of August, which would give us plenty of time to take possession of the boat and do the needed work before moving aboard… at least, that’s what we thought. Anyway, we decided to move into our second temporary London flat, and this is where the lies start. OK, I wouldn’t call them “lies,” but Kiley and I were careful with our words so to insinuate to family members that the West Hampstead flat was our permanent home, without actually saying as much. And the misdirection would continue over the next three weeks, which we enjoyed very much (living in West Hampstead—that is—not lying to family). West Hampstead is a very nice area; if we opted for the standard flat, it’s where we would’ve ended up.
Shortly after moving into the West Hampstead flat, we entered the final stage of the sale process; the Bill of Sale. However, that would prove easier said than done. You see, Suzanne was recently passed on from an elderly couple to their four children, one of which was charged with executing the sale. Since they all had a legal stake in the boat, the broker had to get signed paperwork from all four—by mail—before the sale could be finalized. Here’s the kicker: one of the kids was on vacation and another lives in Australia. As such, it took OVER TWO WEEKS to receive the necessary paperwork to finalize the sale. That nice long buffer that we built into our West Hampstead lease—the time we wanted to work on the boat before moving in—dried up completely. In fact, we actually needed to move aboard one day before the paperwork was legally executed to avoid having to stay in YET ANOTHER temporary accommodation. But we did move aboard. Finally, we thought, we were officially home.
How has it been?
Well, the first few days were a little rough. While we did feel immense relief knowing that we were finally done schlepping all of our possessions around Europe, we’ve also had a few bouts of the ‘WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!?!?’ fever. I’d say the first four days were a manic roller coaster between those two extremes; however, this was mostly caused by the fact that our plan to work on the boat and gradually move aboard was blown up by the longer-than-expected sale process. This was exacerbated by Kiley’s school schedule kicking into high gear at the same time. However, things are getting better every day. We’ve done a LOT of cleaning and now that the boat is in a livable condition, we feel much better. We are also getting into a solid school/work/boat routine that helps.
Where are you moored?
We are currently moored at High Line Yachting in Iver, about a ten-minute walk from the Langley train station, which gets Kiley to school in about 45 minutes. The marina is located along the Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal, which is the main canal artery in England. The marina has a shop, workspace, facilities, and full hookups that will allow us to work on the boat while getting acclimated to living aboard. The plan is to remain here for a month while we do our initial work on the boat.
Where are you going next?
Once we are ready, we plan to set off for central London, which will take about six hours in total (narrowboats are REAL slow). Our plan is to “continuously cruise” around the London area, which means that we don’t plan to have a permanent home mooring. Canal rules allow “continuous cruisers” to moor almost anywhere on the canal network, as long as they are navigating to a new position every two weeks. Since I work from home (courtesy of my new personal hotspot), our goal will be to keep Kiley a reasonable distance from school as we experience different areas of London over the next two years.
What is a narrowboat?
A narrowboat is a style of vessel designed specifically for the UK canal system; however, they can travel on rivers, with the right planning. As the name implies, narrowboats are… well… narrow; traditional narrowboats can’t be wider than 7 feet or longer than 58 feet to use the whole UK canal system. Any wider or longer, they risk not fitting into canals or through the locks. That being said, there are plenty of wide-beam (around 12 feet wide) and super-long (70ish feet long) narrowboats and they tend to navigate most of the canal system just fine. As much as I’d like to dive into a full history of narrowboats (history junky, after all), I’ll save you the headache. Similar to RVs in the States, there’s a huge narrowboat culture here in the UK. I encourage you to do some internet searches to see the vast scale of amenities, prices, etc. available for narrowboats.
Tell us more about your boat!
The Suzanne Melody (as she’s currently called—we’re considering renaming her) is a 42-foot steel narrowboat. She’s got four berths (rooms); one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. There are small decks on the front and back of the boat for a little outdoor space and to house some of the systems/gear. Suzanne has 4 leisure batteries (to run the onboard gadgets) and one starter battery. The batteries produce 12v power for most of the internal systems (fridge, water pumps, some outlets), but she does have an inverter/charger that converts 12v to 240v, allowing us to use regular electronics/appliances in several standard UK sockets scattered around the boat. She has a mains power hookup, an onboard generator, and solar panels to charge the batteries (we can also run the engine, just like a car/RV). She actually came with a washer and a microwave, though we’ve since thrown out the latter (we haven’t had a microwave since DC and it took up too much counter space).
For heat, we have a traditional narrowboat multi-fuel stove, which everyone says provides more than enough heat in the winter (it’s common to see windows open when the stove is going). We also have a couple of radiators that hook into our onboard gas cans (which also power the kitchen oven). Suzanne has two water heaters: an electric water tank (when you’re hooked up) and a gas-fired instant water heater (when you’re “on the cut,” as they say). And finally, the engine! Suzanne has a 24hp diesel engine that thrusts her at an eye-watering 4 miles per hour (the standard canal maximum speed). At that rate, it’ll take us over six hours to get into central London from our marina J.
What work are you going to do on the boat?
In the short-term, the goal is just to clean her up and get familiar with all her systems. While the carpel-tunnel-inducing section above might make you think she’s a swanky boat, you’d be wrong. She was probably swanky once, but all those systems had shoddy installation (the solar panels had to be disconnected to meet code). In addition, she just hasn’t been maintained well in recent years, so there’s a lot of cleaning and tuning and rewiring and a ton of other work to be done for us to feel comfortable out on the canals.
As we are doing that, the plan is to do some redecorating; the couch cushions, pillows, and window treatments MUST ALL DIE. In fact, many of them already have. The flowery patterns will be replaced by something more modern and more our style. We may do some painting to brighten her up on the inside, but we will NOT touch the beautiful tongue-and-groove wood on our walls. Longer-term, we might replace the oven and sink, but that’s a ways off. Same thing with the exterior; we’d love to give her a fresh paint job, but we’ll see.
The only major work in the cards in the near future is the bathroom. It’s great in terms of features (full washer, small tub shower), but the tile is in bad shape and there’s just not enough room to accommodate everything. So we’re definitely going to replace the tile, probably with something synthetic that won’t crack when the boat expands and contracts, and try to implement a different layout (if possible). A lot of that latter point depends on whether we want to keep or sell the washer, so stay tuned!
Are you guys crazy?
It’s possible. But if it’s crazy to save money while exploring our new city and having a grand adventure, then we’ll take it.
Did you make the right decision?
Ultimately, only time will tell. There will no doubt be rough patches and steep learning curves; however, we are optimistic considering all the upsides. However it turns out, we’ll keep everyone along for the ride!