If you’re searching for a new home, why not consider living on a boat? Learn about living on a Dutch barge from 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 center of cities in the Netherlands. These are 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 as 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. Those with flat bottoms have significant floor space, making the life onboard ideal. And, if you fancy sailing your ship, it’s possible to travel on inland waterways from the Netherlands through Belgium to southern France, Bulgaria, Russia, and down through Ukraine to the Black and Caspian Seas!
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Adventure and advantages of living on a Dutch barge
Maria and Helen have lived on a Dutch barge 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 neighbors. 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 neighbors we throw parties. For our friends, our boat has become a sort of natural meeting space,” Helen added.
Annelies, who has lived onboard for 13 years, also says that the greatest advantage is the privacy. “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. It’s very quiet, yet we’re in the center 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 like it and it is, of course, a different life. I like how cozy 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. 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. Everyone agreed the one disadvantage is that the ongoing work necessary on a boat is tremendous. It 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. The roof will need painting. The ropes tightening. The deck and gangplank get very slippery in the winter. 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. 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 €200 depending on the size of the boat. 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 €700. While it’s in dry dock, the rust is removed from the hull and a protective layer is painted; this can cost anywhere between €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 €1,000–3,000 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 Dutch 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 need a vaarbewijs (license), providing your vessel is more than 15m in length or does more than 15km/hr. The Royal Dutch Touring Club ANWB runs the exams. 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; 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. “The municipal government issues the permit. 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). They may want to see the mooring permit beforehand and a deposit is usually necessary – 100% mortgages for houseboats are not generally available. You may also be able to find smaller financial providers offering mortgages for buying a houseboat. 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. 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 must 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, King’s Day, and the Prinsengracht Concert. Otherwise, hundreds of people – strangers – 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. 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 anymore. I missed the certainty of a house, but that is long gone.”
- You can sometimes find houseboats to rent on platforms such as Huurwoningen.
- 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 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 houseboats 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 center of Amsterdam.
- Waternet: www.waternet.nl – they administer all the moorings etc. 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 negotiations and transactions.
- Amsterdam Houseboat Rentals: www.amsterdamhouseboats.nl – expert advice in buying, selling, renovating, and renting out houseboats.