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Home » Product & Planning Guide » Buying Guide » Buying a New Canal Boat or Narrowboat


Having previously considered the budget and costs associated with boat ownership, in this section we take a look at buying a narrowboat.

From selecting your builder, accounting for timescale, to considering post purchase administration, we will explore the essential topics associated with owning a brand new craft.

Now to the somewhat bewildering task of understanding your options regarding buying new canal boat. We’ve suggested you get out and about to do your research as to what type of boat will suit your lifestyle.

You’ve decided on whether it’s a travelling widebeam apartment of the right length to cruise all the waterways you’d like to see, or a narrowboat with a particular stern and length. The budget has been deliberated and you’ve decided whether you need canal boat finance and made some initial enquiries. Moorings have been investigated if you’ve decided not to travel continuously. After all this legwork will come on of the most important decisions regarding boat ownership, and that is how to choose your canal boat builder.

A flick through any publication related to the inland waterways will initially offer a great many prospects listed under the category of “canal boat builder”. Some canal boat builders will just build shells. Others specialise in the design and construction of the shell and will also fit the boat out to provide a turn-key product. More canal boat builders still will buy in their shells and offer fitting out services showcasing their specialist joinery skills whilst leaving the steelwork to others. All boat builders have to be compliant to the Recreational Craft Directive

It’s potentially overwhelming at first glance and if you’ve walked the towpaths and marinas canvassing people for their opinions, you will probably have collected as many opinions as you’ve had conversations. As a start, in our Products and Services Directory we’ve got listings for both canal boat builders manufacturing shells, many of whom offer great fit outs, and canal boat fitters, many of whom use great shells.

Alternatively, you may have decided that a more cost effective way of having a new canal boat is to buy a partially constructed canal boat shell and complete the fit out yourself. Many of the most imaginative and innovative craft on the waterways have been built by the DIY owner. More often than not innovation is driven by owners with specialist knowledge in fields such as electric or hydraulic propulsion who have designed and fitted their own boats to cater for their specific requirements.

If you feel like having a go, the way to start is by buying either a canal boat shell or what is known as a sailaway.
RCD Compliant
Available with the latest technology
Standard or bespoke layout options
Enjoy the excitement & satisfaction of a new product
Customise soft furnishings, paint colour & name as part of the package
Take advantage of boat builder & ancillary equipment warranty

You may need finance to part fund the purchase
Possible additional costs such as crane hire & transport
Are you prepared for the bumps & scrapes?
It will be emotional

Often the decision on whether to purchase a hull/sailaway or a fully fitted canal boat will come down to three key points: Budget; Time; Skill .........

Although it is increasingly possible to buy fixtures and fittings from your local DIY store to use on the fit out, there will still be a high degree of woodwork to master.  You will need to be proficient with hand and electric tools and you will need a lot of tools. Cheap DIY tools are unlikely to be up to the job, so you may need to invest in professional standard equipment which can be costly. 

Basic plumbing is not usually an issue for an ametuer DIY'er, particularly if the water outlets have already been put in place by the boat builder. 

A good grasp of electrics is essential if you take the DIY route, or you may need to find a marine engineer to complete the electrical work for you. 230v electrics is dangerous and shouldn't be undertaken lightly. 

Any gas related installations need to be completed by a professional with the correct qualifications (including LPG systems on marine craft, which is different to household installations). 

Often boaters will paint their canal boats themselves but it is a very skilled trade to undertake sign writing, so again, this would be a job for the professionals. 

Fitting out a hull or sailaway can take a considerable amount of time, depending upon your own skills and the reliance on professional trades people, however, there is no doubt that the sense of achievment once complete will make the time and effort worth every minute of the project. 
There’s not much to say here really. Common sense dictates that the only way to choose is to get out into the market and visit the canal boat builders in person. Visit premises, boat yards, boat shows and talk to owners along the towpath. This is not so easy with overseas canal boat manufacturers but often inspection trips are offered to serious buyers. Ask the question but expect to have already paid a deposit and committed to a purchase. If this is the case, really the only way to validate your choice is to talk to current owners and canvass their opinions and experiences of the buying process.

With UK based canal boat builders it is obviously logistically easier to physically visit their manufacturing premises. Do so. When you do, though, go along with an idea of what you want. This is why we say the key area in boat buying is research. Have as clear an idea as possible of what you want to do with your boat  and what you want on it. Draw up and print off a list of requirements and sit down with the canal boat builder and discuss them. Use the FitOutPontoon for help with ideas and options as we not only offer a directory of who does what and where, we also discuss layout, design and equipment specification.

During your meetings you will soon get an idea if you can work with the person you are trusting to realise your dreams. Establish that he will be happy to let you review progress over the phone, via a pictorail build diary or by dropping into the yard at appointed times to check that your visions have been interpreted correctly. If it is not possible to visit regularly, maybe you are an overseas resident or your canal boat builder is at other end of the country, then consider appointing a surveyor to oversee the build. Remember the same level of trust will have to be established with your representative as with your canal boat builder. Communication is the key and expect there to be issues and complications, especially with a sophisticated build.

Unless you have already decided to go for a very specific shell/fit out combination that is unique to one firm, then shortlist your canal boat builder choice down to 3 or 4 companies. Use testimonials from current owners and the internet based boating forums to crystallise your decision.

Not all canal boat builders are members of the trade organisations such as the Canal Boatbuilders Association but those that are will have access to the standard contracts issued by the British Marine Federation. If you are in any way unsure of contractual terms then ask for a copy of the contract and take it to your solicitor for review.

As a final note, if you expect your builder to meet deadlines, interpret your designs accurately and to bring the project in on budget, then be reasonable in your demands, keep up to date with any payment structure you have agreed and be understanding if unforeseen problems arise.
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