Buy yourself a barge
Many organisations offer publications for sale on buying a boat. This section of the website is doing the same, but for free. Many pictures are used for illustration. The name of the vessels, used as example, are never mentioned unless it is my own boat.
When writing this article, I took many options and ideas of the Boat Safety Scheme and Belgian survey companies in consideration. I read a lot of forums where people asked questions. Furthermore, I applied for a lot of ads, pretending to look for a boat, suitable for my wife, the kids and me. In my spare time, when not working on my own boat, or before I had my boat all my time was spend repairing boats, converting them, etc...
I wish to thank P. Tobias for creating a checklist and allowing me to publish it on Living Afloat.
This article will be updated on a regular base. Questions can be asked here!
Step 1: Ask yourself some questions
There are many questions you need to ask yourself.
- Why do I want to live on a boat?
- Have I lived on a boat before?
- Where do I want to live on a boat?
Now, let's take every question in detail
Why do I want to live on a boat?
Living on a boat is often living completely different. If you don't have mains power, you need a generator to run. Water is also limited and your boat often needs refilling. Depending on where your boat is moored this can be a hard job. Heating with gas means getting and carrying gas bottles aboard, etc...
The other side of living afloat is being closer to nature, water, birds, etc... You live on a complete different way, you can move if necessary with your house, ...
In many options, a boat is more expensive then a home on land. There are exceptions, depending on how you convert the boat and where you are living. In London, for example, many people choose for a boat these days, since the prices for a property on land is so expensive.
Have I lived on a boat before?
Like described above, there are many issues when living on a boat, you don't have to deal while living on land.
It is recommended that you hire a (room on a) boat and try to live there for a few months. Buying a boat can be expensive, so don't rush to quickly in the adventure.
Where do I want to live on a boat?
You can't live everywhere on a boat. Also you need to think about a mooring before you buy a boat and not after you bought one!
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Step 2: The mooring
See also: Barges & their mooring, a photo gallery
Like described in the question 'where' in step 1, it is always recommended to have or know about a mooring that is available before you buy a boat, unless the boat you buy comes with one!
When you buy a boat that comes with the mooring, make sure it is in the contract and the owner has the mooring papers. If he is renting the mooring, go and inform yourself with the landlord to check if you can continue to rent the mooring.
For example, in Belgium when selling your boat, the new owner needs to re apply for the mooring. It doesn't automatically change from owner like the boat does.
Also important, some moorings require changes to the boat. Here are some rules of a Belgian mooring paper that might require changes on the ship:
- No longer allowed to dump dirty water in the canal or river. You need tanks to store your dirty water or you need a water cleaning system before putting the water back in the canal or river.
- In Bruges, you are no longer allowed to have a satellite dish on your boat, since the city provides television distribution at the moorings.
- You are no longer allowed to run an generator in Bruges, since there is the possibility to get power.
Applying for a mooring (in Belgium)
I didn't follow the above recommendations of buying a boat with a mooring, so I had to apply for one.
In Belgium, there is Ghent, the place for houseboat barges. For over two years, the local council is telling there are no places left. over 250 vessels are moored there. Still people are arriving in Ghent and put there boat there. If you follow the regulations, you get a mooring, if not they tell you that your barge will be towed away (which they legally still can't do).
Barges in Ghent (click on the photo for 25 more pictures of houseboats in Ghent)
Another town Bruges, didn't have any places left at all, as was told. I wrote a letter for permission and mentioned my boat had all certificates and insurances they were expecting. In no time I had a mooring, as long as I paid the guarantee of 5000 Euros.
The conclusion is that if your boat meets their regulations, you get the mooring.
The following text is a translation of the Flemish mooring regulation. This applies to Ghent, Bruges, Nieuwpoort, Kortrijk, .... They are freely translated. To receive the complete documents with all regulations, contact the Flemish Government at the following address:
Waterwegen en Zeekanalen NV
- A guarantee for the mooring needs to be paid
- The mooring is only valid for the owner who applied for its vessel. The mooring is not valid for another vessel of the same owner.
- The mooring permission doesn't offer the user the right to claim the mooring space as his property.
- The general shipping regulations needs to be followed when the boat is at the mooring.
- The vessel needs to be well maintained and must meet the safety requirements. Therefore the vessel needs to have documents proving the boat is in a good condition. These documents can't be older then five years. In case the vessel changes in the meantime, new documents need to be provided.
- When a mooring permission is given for the vessel, the boat needs to have a purpose (commercial, house boat, office space, ...). This purpose can't be changed. If it must be changed, the owner needs to re apply for the mooring.
- The owner must be registered in the same city as where the boat is moored. The same regulations for a house are being applied to a boat, concerning the living aboard. Rooms can't be rented or shared by other people, not belonging to the family (husband, wife and children).
- The owner of the vessel need to prove his rubbish and waste water are disposed professionally, according to the law. Waste water needs to be collected in a tank aboard the vessel.
- The owner needs to move the boat when the city or the Flemish Governments ask it.
- The owner is responsible for mooring the boat properly and providing enough ropes. The canal water can change and the owner needs to pay attention to this.
- A safe passage to get aboard the vessel is required. The owner takes the steps necessary to realise this.
- The owner and address of the owner needs to be written on the vessel. The letters should have a size of 8 cm height.
The name of the owner and location in letters of 8cm
- If the name of the vessel changes, this must be told at the Flemish Government. If not, the ship looses his mooring permission.
- You are not allowed to make enlighted publicity or to put signs on the mooring for publicity, such as billboards.
- It is not allowed to store gas bottles on the quay or onboard the boat.
- If rubbish is floating on the water, the vessel may not prevent it from floating. The ship can't hold up the rubbish or create a floating collection of rubbish in the water.
An example of floating rubbish, left on the picture near the small boat
- The owner needs to have an insurance for fire and sinking / salvage.
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Step 3: The boat
For many people the most important step, but also he most tricky step. Never believe what the owner says is a basic rule. See it with your own eyes!
Where to look for a boat?
There are many places to look for a boat. You can search on the Internet, go to a broker, or just look around and ask people in the docks, locks, ... The last option can often be the cheapest! Don't forget, a broke wants to make his profit on selling a boat!
Type of boats
There are many different types of house boats available. It is not always easy to choose one that is right for your needs and budget. Answer the following questions
- Do I like a special type of boat (historical, lines, ...)
- Is it for static use?
- Where do I want to sail with here?
- Can I afford the mooring when buying a large boat?
Now, let's take every question in detail
Do I like a special type of boat (historical, lines, ...)
Personally, this was an important reason for me buying the Watergeus. A Luxe Motor is a ship with a nice curve. People often buy a boat because of the look (curves, riveted hull, mast, ...) or because of her history (Service during war, carried special people, ....).
To learn how to recognize a Dutch barge, click here.
Is it for static use?
Depending on whether you shall move the boat or leave her in one place, you could choose for a Dutch floating house with a concrete or metal floating dock. A barge with no engine is suitable as well. Of course, nearly any vessel is suitable for static use.
There is an important note on wooden ships on a mooring that is being influenced by the tide. If a wooden ship gets dry and hits the beach underneath it, after a year or two, the wooden structure of the hull will have severe damage!
Severe damage to a wooden hull on tidal mooring
Be carefully when buying a boat with heating system, connected to the engine. Some barges have a system where the heating system is based on the cooling water of a running engine. If you use he boat statically, this system is no good. As a static house boat, you don't run your main engine continuously.
Where do I want to sail with here?
Depending on whether you would like to sail on French or British Canals, only some vessels have the width for it. French Canals have a width of 5,10 meters, British ones are even smaller.
The Luxe Motor Watergeus with a width of 5,29 meters and the steilsteven Harte 1 with a width of 5,05 meters.
Can I afford the mooring when buying a large boat?
It is nice to have a large boat with lot's of space, but most moorings are rented by the dimension of the boat. So the longer the boat, the more expensive.
Quality of the boat
Like said in the beginning, never believe the seller. Have a look yourself. If you don't have enough knowledge go for an expert. It i worth it!
Hull (of a barge)
The most important and most expensive part of the boat is the hull. Your whole adventure starts with a sound hull.
Report on the thickness of the hull of a spits barge (click on the picture to see a bigger image)
Most ships in Belgium and the Netherlands have paperwork on the hull with the thickness of the plates. In Belgium a minimum of 3,9mm is required for a houseboat. It is recommended not to buy a boat beneath the 4mm thickness.
Looking at the hull from the outside , pay special attention to the waterline.
An example of a bad waterline on a Spits barge (this boat is for sale ;->)
There are several forms of rust. You have the pitting, you have big scales of rust, ...
Another important issue are windows in the hull. In the lower part of the hull (underneath the gangways) it isn't recommended putting windows. If the window breaks while sailing, a wave can come in and cause a lot of problems. If the windows can open it is even worse. You leave the window open, the hose of the washing machine breaks and the hold gets filled with water. After a while the window becomes the waterline and water enters by the windows...
Window and air ventilation at the water, not very recommended
Looking at the inside, watch the bilges carefully. Also have a look on the sides of the ship if there is a waterline on the inside, indicating water was in the vessel.
Watermarks on the inside plating of the Watergeus, indicating there has been water inside the boat at several occasions.
If there is a lot of dust in the bilges, you can assume no water has been in for a while, which is a good sign.
Water and rust in the bilges is not a good sign
Be very carefully with boats having a fixed floor and no way to look at the bottom of the boat. Boats with concrete in the hull have less value. Those days they don't recommend putting concrete in the bilges. Since it does not only hide the eventual problems, but when there is one, you can't reach it.
In the Netherlands, there is a typical houseboat that exists of a concrete hull with a wooden living space built on top of it. This non self propelling house platform is also categorized as a houseboat. I don't have many experience with these constructions, but certainly have a look at the concrete construction for possible damage, corrosion or cracks.
Have a look at the hatches, special in corners and around the bollards. Look for any possible holes. Roofing felt melted on a deck is often a sign of a leak. I have seen it many times on barges and it is definitely not the right way to fix such a problem.
When buying a commercial barge for conversion, make sure you have enough headroom in the cargo hold for living. Adding some more headroom is expensive, since the den needs to be altered.
A lot of barges come with hatches. There is not much talk on hatches. You can see straight away in what condition there are. Be very careful with wooden hatches and hatches with windows in it. They can start leaking after a while.
The hatches in the middle are covered with a special blanket for hatches
If the hatches are covered, ask the owner to remove the cover, so you can see the condition of these hatches!
When buying an ex-commercial ship where the hatches are in a pile at the end or front of the boat, lay them open. You can see if there enough hatches and if they are in good condition.
Lay the hatches in position to look if there are enough to cover the cargo hold.
Other deck constructions
These days, many barges have been converted into houseboats. Often people build on top of the boat a new construction. Be careful. At first sight it looks very practical, but often when building those constructions, the people never taught on moving the boat. So it could be in the way to have a view from the wheelhouse, or it is to high to fit under bridges, etc...
With this construction, the skipper can't see where he is sailing
Constructions build on top of the deck shouldn't start in wood. Wooden constructions are not necessarily a problem, as long as there is first a piece of metal. Since water can stay on a deck, the wood on the deck will rot very quickly. If there is first a strip of metal, your wood is better protected for water.
This wasn't the case on my boat, so water started leaking into the cargo hold. Therefore the metal construction was build between September-December 2006.
An example of wood straight on the deck. After a couple of months water was leaking between the wood and the deck.
Another important reason to be careful with constructions is the look of the vessel. Many cities become more difficult when it concerns the look of a vessel. If the vessel doesn't look original or nicely curved, the don’t allow it.
It is always nice to have as much space as possible. Therefore bulkheads are often removed from barges. This is not recommended. After the inspection in May 2006, the ordered me to repair the bulkhead or to build a new one. This has more to do with safety, so I build a new one.
A ship should always have a minimum of two bulkheads, one to separate the engine room from the cargo hold and one to separate the bow from the cargo hold. A few good reasons for bulkheads are:
- After a collision, water can only flood a part of the boat, not the whole ship
- Fuel from the engine room can't leak into the other areas, reducing the risk of fire or a bad smell.
The engine is a more difficult part to inspect, even often not included in the surveys. Let the engine run for at least an hour, preferably in engaged state (forward and backward). Listen to the engine and have a look at the exhaust pipe.
Have a look at the fuel tanks to see if they are in acceptable condition with no leaks or holes.
Wholes in a fuel tank. At first sight not a problem since they are at the top of the tank, but dust and water (condense) can easily enter and contaminate your fuel.
The less fuel and water in the bilges of the engine room the better. It is very expensive to dispose the contaminated water.
Turn the steering wheel and have a look if the rudder is moving. Check if navigation lights are working. If there is a radio, put it on a free channel and try to speak and listen.
It is recommended to have to power circuits, a 24v and a 220v one. The last one can be on an inverter (converting 24 tot 220). If he batteries are charged, it is easy to test by switching one some lights or try a pump (toilet, kitchen, etc...).
Made for sailing...
If you bought with the idea of sailing, please bear in mind that not only what described above is of importance but also the following rules / issues:
Very often a VHF radio is on board of the barge. it is recommended to ask if the radio has been adjusted to the latest regulations, which reduce the transmission strength on various channels (1 watt) and the addition of an ATIS code.
Any sailing boat needs navigation lights (a green, red and two white lights). Not every light is allowed these days. The side lights (red and green) can only shine sideways, not completely around.
An example of a navigation light that is no longer correct in accordance of the maritime regulations
Anchors are for a sailing barge important. Many people don't know when buying a boat for sailing what to look at if it concerns the anchors. First of all, a working winch, preferable with (electric) engine. Chains with at least the length of the boat and anchors.
The anchor chain on the Watergeus is twice the length of the boat.
A decent barge needs at least three anchors, two in the front and one in the back. For a 38 meters length boat make sure the anchors have at least a weight of 150 kgs. The weight is normally written on the anchor.
Anchors on a spits barge, two in the front and one in the back
While sailing, you don't want to keep running your generator. therefore make sure the boat contains some 24v equipment and lights. While your engine is running, batteries are being charged by the alternator. If there are 24v lights in the living accommodation, you can have light while sailing and not running the generator. For this reason, most navigation equipment, such as the vhf, radar, auto-pilot, ... are 24v.
One time crossing to United Kingdom
These days, many barges are bought to be used as a house boat in the UK. The ship needs to make one more trip, the crossing.
Choose the correct weather
Since a barge isn't made for going at sea (there are few exceptions), choose a nice day to sail. If the weather is bad, wait a couple of days. The boat might hold the bad weather, but if something goes wong, I don't want to be aboard.
For example, the bad weather shakes the boat, dirt from the bottom of the fuel tanks gets into the engine. The engines stops running. In a normal weather, you can clean the fuel injectors and the engine. In case of bad weather, try to stay in the engine room of barge cleaning the injectors... Everything moves in a storm, not just your tools!
Choose the right person to sail
When choosing somebody to make the crossing, take a professional skipper, but also a person that you can trust. Don't take somebody who wants to be back at five o'clock in the evening, if you know what I mean. It is better to have skipper who understands an old barge and who is willing to make the trip when the weather is good,somebody who doesn't have strict agenda.
What you need for a one time crossing
Make sure you have your generator running when making the crossing. At least two good pumps, in case the worst is happening. Enough safety equipment, such as life jackets, a lifeboat, for in case a pump doesn't help.
A VHF-radio is very practical, since a mobile phone doesn't work everywhere at sea.
Paperwork of he barge. When arriving, be sure you are going to have a visit of the Custom Services.
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Step 4: Buying the boat
Financial background of the vessel
In many countries a debt on vessel stays on the vessel, not the owner. This means if the previous owner had a loan on the boat, when you buy it the bank can still take the boat, that in the meantime has become your boat. Therefore always make sure when buying a boat, the following is mentioned on the contract: the ship is free of any debts.
The Right price
A question, very often asked, is what did you pay for your boat? I once read on a website what you should pay for a barge, depending on how far she was already converted into a houseboat. I completely disagree with this rule.
The basic rule, I believe, is: If you think the price is right and the ship meets the quality you were expecting or you needs, then buy it!
Very often, it is not like that and then you have to look a bit more closely...
One thing is fore sure these days. It is no longer cheaper then buying a house (with a few exceptions of course). People used to live on boats because it was much cheaper. Regulations and the hypes of the last couple of years made everything more expensive then before. I remember in 1998 when you could still buy a barge that just left commercial service for 20.000 euros. These days, it is around 50.000 euros.
Recently, I found two Spits barges for sale on the Internet, once asked 20.000 euros and the 25.000 euros. None of them had an engine, neither a hull report. Both were dry-docked and the bottom needed to be replaced. This job costs around 50.000 euros on a shipyard. Conclusion, after the works were done, your barge will have cost 70.000 euros and you were still having an empty hull with no interior and engine. So, to expensive.
A Luxe Motor was sold for 30.000 euros. there was no report of the hull and no interior. Engine was working, there was a very small back-accommodation and the vessel was nicely painted. After dry-docking and doing some repairs, he paid the yard 10.000 euros. Now the boats is completely certified. Was this a good price? Yes, but it was a high risk buying ab boat without paperwork...
Where I used to be moored, A katwijker was for sale for 150.000 euros. The boat had a running engine, two generators and was, besides the wheelhouse, completely finished. Interior was done nicely, the den was rebuild and there was a complete metal roof. The ship had a survey and was nicely painted. It is a lot of money, but for people who don't want to convert a barge, or don't know how to convert a barge, it might be the right boat.
I can give you plenty more of examples, but as you can see, all depends on whether you want to do a lot of work, or just want to put your furniture in and start living.
What does rise the price of a ship
- A survey for the hull that shows the vessel is in good condition.
- A mooring
- The vessel still looks original (historical) or it is an unique type of ship
- All navigation equipment is on board and in working condition
What does lower the price of a ship
- No engine
- Concrete in the hull
- Rust, no maintenance for the last couple of years
- Completely no paper work
- No interior
Don't pay more because the owner has traced the history of the ship. I found this argument in my ads on the Internet. I can assure you it is not that hard finding the history of your boat. If it is a Dutch barge, I'm willing to help freely finding it for you!
Recently, somebody asked me if a spits is worth less then any other Dutch built barge. This is a question I won't answer. He asked me this question, since spits-vessels were built with 5mm plate and the requirements these days are 3.9 or 4mm. What I can tell is that the scrapyard doesn't pay too much for a Spits barge. Of course, when a spits has a nice interior or the right certifications, she is as valuable as any other houseboat barge.
Still doubting on buying the boat because of the hull...
Like mentioned before, a hull survey is very important. If you doubt on the boat, but still are interested in it, you can make a deal on the price. You dry dock the ship on your costs and let make a survey, also on your cost. The repair costs are paid by the seller or split in two.
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(v: $0.09a$ ; a: Frederic Logghe)