The essential guide to buying a Narrowboat

A narrowboat is more than just a possession – it’s your floating home – but if you are thinking of embarking on a journey to acquire your very own aquatic haven then, just like any house purchase, it is a good idea to educate yourself on the challenges (and joys) of narrowboat ownership and undertake some careful due diligence on your new pride and joy. If you are a new boatie (or even an old hand), it can be hard to navigate a purchase but our good friend Peter Clark, from C Claims Adjusters has prepared this brilliant guide to help you weather any storms. This comprehensive check list will help equip you with the knowledge needed to steer clear of pany otential pitfalls before you set sail on your grand adventure.

1. Chart the History

Firstly, it is vital to ensure that you check Title in the boat. This means asking the vendor for
evidence that they have lawful title in the boat. This evidence should at the minimum comprise of a Bill of Sale to the vendor which should be checked and verified. If a yacht broker has been involved, it is worth also checking and verifying with them that they have the history of the boat available to you to check. Remember if you buy a stolen boat, you will have no right to retain it should it be identified as stolen. Similarly, if there is a mortgage or loan on the boat that loan remains with the boat, you could be liable for it’s re-payment.

Boat Safety Scheme status
It is important to establish whether the boat has a current Boat Safety Scheme certificate and to establish how long this certificate will be valid for. If it is due to expire, the Vendor should be asked to obtain a new Boat Safety Scheme certificate which will have a duration of four years from the time the boat has passed the examination.

2. Weathering the Survey

It is important to obtain your own survey on the boat with the underwater sections of the hull being thoroughly examined and checked for plate thickness. If the boat is suffering advanced corrosion, it will require major work re-plating the hull – a factor that could cost thousands of pounds. Similarly, all other aspects of the boat require detailed examination and checks including the domestic electrics, the engine electrics, the water pipes and tanks, the toilet system, the inboard engine etc. If necessary, it may be advisable to separately ask an experienced engineer to examine the machinery on board. Not all marine surveyors are competent engineers!

3. Inspect the Hull Truth


Check the type of insulation on the hull & superstructure. If the insulation comprises polystyrene (white lightweight plastic material) then be aware that this is highly inflammable and dangerous. It should be removed and replaced by preferably rockwool material which is completely fire resistant. However, the caveat is that open unprotected rockwool is likely to absorb condensation in time and may become ‘smelly’.

Polyurethane spray foam is very popular as an insulating material and is mostly fire retardant. However, fire retardant is not fireproof, and it is important to understand it’s limitations. Whilst understanding that it is a very efficient insulation material notwithstanding. Any welding work on the hull where any insulation material is involved poses a severe risk of fire internally and precautions must be taken to prevent such an eventuality.


Narrowboats are often equipped with a simple central heating type of system with radiators. The hot water is usually sourced from a gas heater for both the heating as well as the hot water on board. Some boat use a hot air system usually using a diesel heater or similar device. All of these require regular servicing and checks by qualified engineers. Whilst the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) addresses some of the issues, BSS Examiners are not allowed to consider passing such a gas system for the BSS standard. A qualified ‘Gas Safe’ engineer must be used for any gas system checks. Solid fuel stoves are popular on inland waterways boats as they offer a good background heat on board. However, it is vital to check around such a stove for safety issues such as a sufficient debris catchment area around the stove, and to ensure that the heat protection material between the stove and the hull are sufficient and safe. All too often, unseen long term heat deterioration in the wood behind the stove and heat protection can result in the battens becoming pyrolised and eventually catching alight. Pyrolisation is the process by which wood gradually turns into charcoal and becomes susceptible to auto ignition – charcoal can auto ignite at just circa 50 degrees C! In addition, any flue involved with a solid fuel stove must be checked and similarly any insulation close to the flue in the ‘deck head’ (ceiling) needs to thoroughly checked.

4. Under your Watch

General interior observations
Whilst the BSS takes care of basic safety issues all too often Owners do silly things such as having curtains adjacent to a gas stove in the galley area. The stove must have either stainless steel, aluminium, or tiled surroundings adjacent to and above the stove to ensure maximum fire resistance in the surrounding area to mitigate against such things as frying pan fires. Fridges are a very important consideration when living on board. Many fridges run on both electricity and gas. However, be certain to ensure these are thoroughly checked by a qualified engineer.

Fire extinguishers
It is vital to have a good number of fire extinguishers on board all of which must be in date. A
combination of powder, CO2, foam extinguishers are worth considering to ensure there is broad
protection on board. Similarly, at least one automatic fire extinguisher of suitable capacity should be
correctly fitted in the engine space to give good protection.


It is important to fit both gas leakage alarms in the bilges as well as bilge water alarms. If possible, it may be worthwhile connecting these to a mobile phone system which communicates with an App on your phone. In that same vein a tracker device on your boat will give added confidence that should your boat be moved by thieves it can be tracked and recovered quickly. It is important to ensure all alarms fitted are checked regularly for functionality. The most important alarm systems to have inside the boat is a Carbon monoxide alarm and a smoke alarm. These are fundamental to your security on board. Do regularly check that the batteries are up to date and that the alarms work.

Electrical charging
These days it is very worthwhile considering the fitting of good quality solar panels to keep batteries on board fully charged. If your boat is not on a fixed home base mooring and has only occasional access to mains power, having alternative charging on a constant basis is a good safeguard for all of the systems on board.

Bilge pumps
All too often inland waterways boats have only one bilge pump fitted usually aft. However, it is a simple matter to equip a boat with at least one more forwards and perhaps a further one amidships. Ideally all of these should be fitted with automatic float switches. Once again it is sensible to check these are all working properly occasionally.

Space on board a narrowboat is at a premium. Every storage space needs to fulfil precisely what you need when living on board. There can be no room for anything unnecessary to day to day living.

Storage of hazardous materials
Many boat owners will store such things as paints, thinners and even petrol on board – usually in aft lockers. Remember that anything inflammable must be kept very securely. Moreover, such items as petrol cans should be stored only in vented overboard lockers – just as the gas locker is vented overboard. This is because propane gas, butane, petrol etc have vapours which are all heavier than air. These gases will inevitably sink to the bilges where they become a fire and explosion hazard. For this reason, a gas alarm fitted in the bilges is a very important item of equipment to fit and maintain on board.
External portable electrical generators
All too often we see portable petrol generators carried on board and although they may be used safely outside the boat, they represent a hazard all the while they are stored internally because they have a petrol tank which potentially can be the source of petrol vapour leakage into the bilges. Diesel generators are generally much heavier and usually are fitted within the engine compartment. Diesel fuel leakage poses much less of a threat to the boat fortunately.

5. Moorings Matter

Whilst there are many inland waterways mooring facilities available throughout the UK the one factor which many boat owners are very much aware of is the cost of such moorings. If you choose to become a permanent ‘cruiser’ i.e. not having any fixed base, then security of your boat becomes all the more important. Hence good locks, regular checks and perhaps the fitting of a tracker on board are wise precautions.

Even in the dead of winter it is very important to act responsibly and regularly go and check your boat if it is left moored and unattended. Whilst Insurers are there to provide indemnity to the boat owner in case of a mishap, blatant disregard for the boat’s security (both physical and general) are an Owner’s responsibility. Acting with due diligence is a condition of every Insurance policy.

6. Stock up on your Insurance Provisions

Whilst every boat owner must have at least minimum third-party insurance cover in place to own and run a boat on the inland waterways, for very little more most Insurers offer ‘comprehensive’ cover which clearly has a significant advantage. Do shop around, but as a general rule it is usually better to go with a recognised ‘main line’ Insurer rather than an obscure name that has little history in the market.

Remember to insure everything you keep on board permanently such as your personal effects (clothing, electronic items, tools etc). Whilst you will insure the hull, generally these ‘add ons’ are often overlooked. Whilst you may have a household policy which insures personal items away from the home those policies may not cover you for use on the boat.

Peter’s essential guide to buying a narrowboat is sure to set you off on a steady course, but if we had to add one last tip it is to embrace the wonderful community of boaters who all share your passion for life on the cut. There are fantastic facebook forums where you can interact and get first-hand knowledge of what owning a boat is all about or our good friends Fran and Rich from @Floatingourboat “Floating Our Boat” have documented what life is truly like when you give it all up for a life afloat.

Happy Cruising!

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