If you’re searching for a new home, why not consider living on a boat? Roberta Cowan talks with ‘live-aboard converts’ about the advantages and disadvantages of life on the Dutch canals.
Sailing ships are, to some people, romantic and rustic symbols of adventure and freedom. One of the special things about life in the Netherlands is that beautiful old ships, some of them a century old, line canals in the centre of cities in the Netherlands: reminders of the days when life was gallant, and much slower.
Today, many ships that once transported wheat and coal on the inland waterways are considered too small for freight. But many have been given a new lease of life and have been converted into Dutch canal homes.
Most of the barges on the Dutch canals are between 14m and 30m long, and 2.5m and 5m wide, drawing between 0.6m and 1.4m, and those with flat bottoms have significant floor space, making the life on board ideal. And, if you fancy sailing your ship, it is possible to travel on inland waterways from the Netherlands through Belgium to the South of France, to Bulgaria, to Russia and down through the Ukraine to the Black and Caspian Seas!
Adventure and advantages of living on Dutch canals
Maria and Helen have lived on a ship on a central canal in Amsterdam for three years.
They are DINKies (double income, no kids), have a dog, fully admit how much work they put into their boat, but none-the-less love life on board. “Living on a boat seemed very adventurous and different. My parents moved onto a boat a few years ago, so we were familiar with boat life, a little,” says Maria. “But I would never have thought of a boat before Maria suggested it. I liked the idea of not having neighbours, and that is clearly an advantage because before we were in an apartment with tenants above and below who partied and made a lot of noise. So, now I take great pleasure in playing my stereo as loud as it will go – with no repercussions,” Helen says.
“We love being outside on the deck and feeding the water birds and watching the tour boats come by. I think we enjoy the outdoors a lot more on the boat than we did when in a flat. Because we have no neighbours we throw parties and for our friends, our boat has become a sort of natural meeting space,” Helen added.
Annelies, who has lived on board for 13 years, also says that the greatest advantage is the privacy she feels on a boat. “One of the most enjoyable things about living on a ship is that we are on our own, fully controlled, quiet island in the city. When coming home or late in the evening we often sit on the waterside, and it’s very quiet, yet we’re in the centre of town,” she said.
But, Annelies didn’t actually choose to live on a boat. “I met my friend and he lived on a boat. I knew if I wanted him I would get the boat too. But I liked it and it is, of course, a ‘different’ life. I like how cosy it is, that you don’t need a lot on the boat and that things need to be very ordered due to the space.
We also have the freedom to make our home the way that we want it.” Structurally it is much easier moving walls or changing the layout inside a boat than it is in a house. Life on deck, replete with ducks, coots and other boats is also different than apartment living.
Disadvantages of living on a Dutch barge?
It’s not all fun and games though because everyone agreed the one disadvantage is that the ongoing work required on a boat is tremendous and can, at times, be stressful, for example, when the water pipes freeze or windows leak. “You have to be into, or at least willing, to do DIY because the roof will need painting, the ropes tightening and the deck and gang plank get very slippery in the winter, and leaves need to be swept away,” said Helen.
“The only disadvantage is the work involved in keeping the boat in a good state,” agreed Annelies who said her husband does a lot of the electric and water work and that they share painting and de-rusting.
The smaller space also presents some downsides. “It’s not a real disadvantage but I miss high ceilings and the ability to hang paintings – wall space is limited in a boat,” Maria said. “And I miss light switches,” Helen added, “our boat was wired by the previous owner and there are no main hanging lights because the ceiling is too low, hence no light switches. We have to scramble in the dark for the table lamps.”
The mortgage and insurance can be slightly more expensive than a house, but that depends on the individual situation. Most think that a boat is a cheaper option and in terms of square metres, it is. But there are additional costs for maintenance, taxes and mooring fees.
There is a monthly mooring cost of about EUR 200 depending on the size of the boat, and there are water taxes, which are minimal, but if you live on a proper steel boat (as opposed to floating concrete or a woonark) it must go to dry dock every 4–5 years, for an assessment of the hull. The survey can cost up to EUR 700. While it’s in dry dock the rust is removed from the hull and a protective layer is painted, which can cost anywhere between EUR 2,000–3000 (including the cost of taking the boat out of the water). The everyday practical costs, like ropes that need replacing, periodic painting of the steel exterior to ensure it stays in good condition, anti slip coating for the deck, to name a few, are estimated at between EUR 1000–3000 a year.
Rules and regulations
There are regulations and paperwork involved in owning and using a boat. The red tape depends on the waterway where you choose to live. So if you buy a boat here then move it to France you will need to check out regulations there. The general regulations cover everything from registration of ownership, registration with the navigation authority, safety and insurance certification, permission to use the barge for residence, registration for local residential taxation, and qualification for the person who is going to steer the barge.
For the Netherlands, check out the websites below, including those of associations, agents and regulators involved in buying, registering and mooring a vessel. If your dream is to sail your boat away, you will need to get a vaarbewijs (licence), providing your vessel is more than 15m in length or does more than 15km/hr. The exams are run by the Royal Dutch Touring Club ANWB and there are regular classes at the Volksuniversieit and other private sailing schools.
The amount of information can be overwhelming to the neophyte, but don’t despair. Find a real estate agent that has experience with ships and they should lead you through the process but also talk to other boat owners. You will discover that ‘boat people’ can be friendly and helpful when it comes to boating.
For Maria and Helen the only concern they had was with the mooring permit. “It is issued by the municipal government but because the permit has the name of the owner, there is no guarantee that it will be re-issued when you buy the boat. It’s best to find out if there are any objections to reissuing a permit for your boat. Things to look for are the distance between other boats (must be 2m between boats), the distance from a bridge (must be 7m away) and if your boat is second off the quay, or moored up alongside another boat,” said Maria.
If the boat adheres to all the rules, then the permit is not usually a problem. When buying a boat with the mooring, you do not actually own the spot but you are the only one who can moor there. Should you leave your spot for a year then the city can reclaim it.
Out of the Dutch main banks, as of 2016 only Rabobank does mortgages for houseboats in the Netherlands (watervillahypotheek) and they may want to see the mooring permit beforehand and a deposit is usually required – 100 percent mortgages for house boats are not typically offered. You may also be able to find smaller financial providers offering mortgages for buying a house boat. It is important to have a recent dry dock report, and to have the boat assessed properly by someone who knows about boats. This is also necessary for getting a mortgage, but remember these costs are tax deductible.
Limitations of life on the water
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but here, but there are a few limitations,” said Maria, “we can’t change anything outside without asking the municipal government.” Also if one boat owner wanted to swap mooring with another, the city aesthetic committee would have to approve the swap.
It’s the street parties that concern Helen more. “We need to be on the boat for every big occasion, like Gay Pride Day, Queen’s Day and the Prinsengracht Concert, otherwise hundreds of people – strangers – will clamber all over the roof potentially collapsing it. They leap and scramble onto our home to get a good view of the canal parades.
Should the Dutch football team win a major event, we would need to get home ASAP because if they did a canal tour, the same situation would apply and we’d have to ‘guard our ship,’” Helen said.
Annelies said she doesn’t feel limited at all. “I do not miss anything any more, I used to miss the certainty of a house, but that is long gone.”
- Dutch Barge Association: www.barges.org
- Boat house sales: www.waterwonen.nl – searching by hull type gives you a whole load of floating objects that are for sale, from ships through to concrete bungalows.
- Scheepsmakelaar (Ships Real Estate Agent): www.hofman-schepen.nl – friendly people in Amsterdam, who may also represent you if you’re buying a ship through another makelaar.
- The site for buying boats: www.botentekoop.nl – in the drop-down menu, select ‘woonboten’ to see house boats that are for sale. Not all of these have a ligplaats/mooring included. Boats/ships also sold.
- www.marktplaats.nl: Check ‘watersport en Boten’ for private sales.
- Schepen Binnenstad Amsterdam: www.sba2000.dds.nl – an owners’ association representing the interests of boat-livers in the centre of Amsterdam.
- Waternet: www.waternet.nl – they administer all the moorings etc.. Get an idea of prices in Amsterdam, or download their useful app that offers all the information you need for navigating Amsterdam’s canals.
- Scheepsmakelaardij Enkhuizen: www.scheepsmakelaardij.nl – once renown for selling traditional-style barges and other crafts, now offering advice, valuations and help with sales negiotiations and transactions.
- Amsterdam Houseboat Rentals: www.amsterdamhouseboats.nl – expert advice in buying, selling, renovating, and renting out houseboats.