Across the UK, but particularly in the vibrant hub of London where property prices soar and availability dwindles, the prospect of living on a houseboat in may beckon to those in pursuit of an affordable and distinctive lifestyle. Before navigating the waters of this increasingly trendy housing option, potential buyers should acquaint themselves with the legal intricacies associated with houseboat ownership.

The Boat

Ranging from purpose-built vessels to ingeniously repurposed barges or motorised crafts, it’s fair to say that boats you can live on come in a range of shapes and sizes. Many traditional houseboats have no self-propulsion, so buyers must think carefully about the hassle of moving a houseboat, if required, as costs will rack up!

Houseboat Moorings

To live on a boat full-time, you need to be either “continuously cruising” or have a “residential mooring”. Securing a suitable mooring presents another potential headache, with demand often outstripping supply in sought-after areas like Brighton, the River Thames or high end marinas such as Chelsea Boatyard or Butlers Wharf. Mooring options span from fixed banks to pontoons or mid-stream swing moorings, each entailing distinct considerations and access prerequisites. It is really important to ensure you have a mooring lined up elsewhere, or that the existing mooring for the vessel is transferable – watch out for those mooring transfer fees as they can be considerable!

Lawyers for Buying a Houseboat

From a legal perspective, houseboats are distinct from land, even if tethered to service media conduits and cables. Procuring a mooring licence from the landowner, boatyard, or marina proves indispensable, with documentation frequently mirroring residential leases, particularly in upscale marinas with communal amenities. Where there is a lease involved, this will increase the legal cost involved with the purchase. It is advisable to use a law firm (like Scott Bailey LLP) with experience in advising on mooring leases and licenses when purchasing or taking over a mooring – it isn’t the same as a residential conveyance, and there are a number of additional issues to consider and address.

That said, similarly to conventional property or business acquisitions, conducting thorough due diligence on your target is important when purchasing a houseboat. This includes checking maintenance and service records and receipts, conveyancing searches, scrutinising mooring agreements, Boat Safety Scheme certificates, ensuring adherence to regulatory mandates, and liability insurance. Despite contrary suggestions, enlisting expert legal advisers to help is advisable given the significant investment at stake.

Financial avenues for houseboats are limited, with a majority of buyers resorting to cash transactions due to various difficulties in securing boat specific loans. However, marine finance is available, and you should speak to a trusted broker in that regard.

We would generally advise undertaking a marine survey, and insurers often stipulate pre-purchase surveys as a prerequisite for coverage. Moreover, insurance coverage should encompass both terrestrial and maritime liabilities to safeguard against unforeseen circumstances such as vessel damage or detachment. There are a number of marine specific insurance brokers out there who are generally happy to advise on the likely requirements before you purchase.

In terms of taxation, houseboat proprietors typically incur council tax obligations, but enjoy exemption from VAT or Stamp Duty Land Tax on the vessel itself. SDLT may apply to mooring agreements granting exclusive berth possession. Either way, it is really important to take appropriate tax advice before leaping into the purchase!

Next steps

Whilst the appeal of this distinctive lifestyle choice is increasingly clear to many, lots of people certainly will never understand it! Nevertheless, a comprehensive grasp of the legal complexities surrounding houseboat ownership is helpful for navigating the transaction and lifestyle calmly. If you are considering buying a houseboat or selling a houseboat, and require legal advice you should contact our commercial law team for a fixed fee quote. Situated in the famous sailing town of Lymington on the Hampshire coast, we are ideally located to advise on boat sales and purchases across England and Wales in a down to earth, and cost effective, manner.