Not everyone is able or willing to purchase a new narrowboat. In this section we consider the benefits and potential pitfalls of the second hand, used narrow boat market.

A narrowboat brokerage in a marina is an ideal venue to view many second hand narrow boats
A walk along the tow path can be useful when looking for a used narrow boat for sale
A brokerage will have a large choice of second hand narrow boats

Buying A Used / Second Hand Boat… Is It The Right Choice For You?

A look through any of the popular narrow boating magazines or a flick through the on-line narrowboat brokerages will reveal a huge amount of used narrow boats. Steel pleasure craft have been built since the 1960’s and there are many of these old boats still in existence in perfectly good order. Add these to the decades of production since and you end up with a huge choice of vessels of all shapes and sizes with huge variations in levels of comfort and sophistication, not to mention price.

Talking of price, this ranges from a few thousand to many tens of thousands and obviously reflects condition and desirability.

As we discussed in the Buying a New Boat chapter, you will have done your personal homework in terms of establishing your budget, reviewed our chapter on running costs and started to formulate a rough idea of what to expect from your narrowboat.

Benefits of Buying Second Hand:

  • Availability
  • Choice
  • Value for money
  • Lower depreciation

Considerations When Buying Second Hand:

  • Unknown repair history
  • Older technology
  • Worn equipment
  • Compromise on layout and specification

Buying A Used / Second Hand Boat… Where To Look?

Now the legwork starts and it is of vital importance that you get out into the market place and see what’s available in your price range. Visit the on-line narrow boat brokerages, water based narrow boat brokerages and boat shows. Don’t forget the owners who are selling their used narrow boats privately without the assistance of a canal boat brokerage.

Brokerages will take a fee for their services, which can be around 6% of the final sales price, so some owners choose to save on this cost and pass a bit on to the buyer. Don’t be off-put by private sales. Our sister website The Sales Pontoon is a great starting point to see advertised boats before you start the buying process properly.

Some people like the perceived security of having a broker guide the process but remember the broker is there to make money from the sale and to act on behalf of the seller. He will mediate and help to overcome any negotiable issues in the interests of the deal but he doesn’t work for you! He or she cannot verify the condition of the hull, the boats fixtures and fittings or have any legal say in what is or is not included in the sale. It matters not whether you decide to have a narrow boat survey or narrow boat valuation report so long as the transaction completes and the broker receives the fee. This may sound a little harsh, but the reality is that you really have to protect your interests so as with anything it’s best to be cautious and informed.

Buying A Used / Second Hand Boat… The Transaction Process

The stages of the transaction should be the same whether you buy a narrowboat from a brokerage or a private seller.

You look, you like, place an offer subject to survey, sign a purchase contract, pay a deposit, arrange the survey/valuation and any finance if required. If you haven’t already done so you will secure a narrowboat mooring if you need them and have in place a valid quotation for insurance that can be activated when ownership passes to you. When the survey report is reviewed and you have decided to proceed, subject to any negotiation for any works considered necessary, you hand over the cash, inform Canal & River Trust of the transfer of ownership and sail happily down the cut to the nearest pub to celebrate. Simple? Well yes and no!

Check It Out…

Apart from the licence registration records administered by the Canal & River Trust there is no DVLA equivalent in the boating world. There are no logbooks to prove or trace legal narrowboat ownership so the onus really is on the buyer to satisfy themselves that the seller is either the owner or has the owners authority to sell. Ask for a bill of sale from the previous owner. Check out the documentation that should be with all craft built post July 1998 which shows compliance to the Recreational Craft Directive. Remember, there will be an owners manual and a paper trail to the original owners. Pick up the phone & speak to them if you are in any way unsure.

Importantly, check for outstanding finance. Marine finance is regulated in the same way as other forms of finance are, so a check for outstanding finance through a credit checking agency is a must. Remember some finance works by the finance company having ownership of the craft until the debt is repaid. Ask to see mooring, insurance & maintenance invoices to build a picture of the integrity of the seller.


All this is starting to sound a bit serious and a bit of work, but it’s a small price to pay when you consider the potential risks of parting with your savings. What if we’ve paid a deposit and it all goes wrong. Well, a narrowboat broker is there to deal with this eventuality should it occur and will probably have informed you of what happens if it does go wrong at the point of sale. If you would be happy to use a legally binding contract with a broker then why not use one with a private sale. This will provide some protection for you as a purchaser and as a seller and will form part of the paper trail to satisfy the next owner. If the seller is reluctant then ask yourself why and consider walking away if necessary. A well drafted contract offers protection to both parties as there are unscrupulous purchasers as well as sellers so it just makes sense.

Sample contracts are available from the internet and members of the Canal Boatbuilders Association have access to standard copies of British Marine Federation contracts.

Out & About

The internet is an invaluable tool in terms of searching out locations of narrow boats for sale. On-line sites such as The Sales Pontoon & e-Bay are good resources but don’t be drawn into an auction where there is time pressure on you to buy unless you are really sure of the consequences of buying without a survey. There really is no substitute to physically visiting brokerages and walking through the narrowboats on display. There should be no pressurised sales as most of the successful brokerages realise that their customers are better informed than ever of what to look for and as such the initial attraction to a particular boat is often emotional. It may be the lines, the colour, the vintage engine and boatman’s cabin or the full width wet room that attracts the purchaser.

Whatever does it for you, the more you see then the better idea you get of what you really want. And more to the point what you can get for your money!


Once you’ve selected one that you’d like to look at in more detail, then what? Well, step back for a few minutes and think about the process we’ve already guided you through. Is there enough theoretical battery power (there never is but that’s another story and one we explore in the Batteries chapter in Electrics & Charging), is there enough storage etc. etc. you get the picture and the point is, try not to compromise too much as there are plenty of boats for sale out there.

Offer & Deposit

It’s time to make an offer if that’s appropriate (you may think the asking price is fair and not need to negotiate). Once the offer is accepted, now is the time to pay a securing deposit. This will be to a stakeholder (the broker), or directly to the seller in the case of a private transaction. It is usual for this to be subject to a number of conditions which protect both the payer and the payee and this is where the contract comes into play. The contract should be witnessed and signed by independent persons on behalf of both parties.


Once the deposit has been made, it is usual to have a survey. Don’t be swayed by the boat having a current BSS certificate. The certificate is valid for really only as long as the examiner is on board. What we mean to say is that as the BSS certificate is valid for 4 years, any number of non-compliant changes could have been made in the time from the issue of the certificate to when you view the boat so, in the spirit of buyer beware, have it done yourself.

Our Marine Survey section will explain in more detail the types of surveys available. However, your local surveyor or BSS examiner will also give you the options available and it’s good practice to have the boat out of the water for a full hull survey at this point.

Be prepared to put right any paint scrapes the examiner may have inflicted as part of the survey. It’s not your narrowboat yet and besides if you do complete the transaction you don’t want rust forming on your hull! Due to the nature of the environment in which our narrow boats sit, the varying qualities of build and the variation in equipment it is important to be prepared for the analysis of the survey report.

Discuss with your surveyor any issues he may have found and if serious enough to affect the valuation relative to purchase price then negotiate with the seller. You will have already invested quite heavily at this point, both financially and emotionally, but consider that the buyer is fortunate to have interest in his boat as there are a lot out there and money is tight! The broker can take the strain here if you are buying from a brokerage but if you are purchasing privately, be reasonable and try and come to a mutually agreeable compromise.

Sail Away….

Once any remedial work has been completed expect to pay the balance as per the terms agreed in the contract, deal with the CRT transfer of ownership forms and off you go.

Buying A Used / Second Hand Boat… Check It Out!

As we say above, at the point of agreeing to a survey you will be investing heavily in the narrow boat. Aside from the things you can’t see and the professional opinion of the surveyor, you can do a lot to confirm that, subject to the survey, the narrowboat is for you.

We would thoroughly recommend a intimate inspection of the narrowboat by you prior to instructing a surveyor, and we do thoroughly recommend the professional services of a qualified marine surveyor. An initial DIY inspection is not so hard, so long as you know what you are looking at, and will help validate your initial thoughts.


As with buying a new narrowboat, it starts with the shell. A good quality shell will hold its value better than a mediocre shell with a comparable internal fit. There are some real bargains out there and consider that over time you may wish to change some of the internal layout anyway. Have a look at the narrow boat around and just below the waterline. Pitting, excessive weed and worn anodes hint at neglect. Not the end of the world but it will cost you to black the boat and have anodes replaced. On the cabin, small areas of rust can be touched in relatively inexpensively. If there is excessive corrosion around the windows then really the only remedy is to remove the windows completely and treat & paint the areas properly. Fortunately this is quite easy to do on a narrow boat and is within the capabilities of most competent diy’ers, with a deep breath first! Check all the bits of shell steel you can see, including in the engine bay, for pitting or rusting.


Water is not only a potential problem to the outside, it can also pay havoc with the insides. Quite a few of the older narrow boats with less efficient insulation and ventilation can suffer quite badly from condensation. This can damage woodwork and upholstery so use your nose and smell for damp or fusty odours. Whilst “sniffing” around, any toilet smells can be an indication of a leaking pump out tank at worst, porous tank waste pipework (yes it can become porous over time) or at best poor hygiene. Dirt, most of us can deal with, but a leaking cesspit is no fun for anyone.

Lights Electrics & Water

Check all the lights and where possible all the electrical outlets. Ask the broker or vendor to demonstrate any equipment you are not familiar with and operate the loo and water taps. We cover all these ancillary components elsewhere in the site and a slow running pump may not be a disaster. It could be low voltage at the batteries where they have not been recharged so it’s worth making a note of things you are unsure of & checking back to the relevant section of the FitOutPontoon to see if it’s worth worrying about. Brown water through the potable system taps means rust in the holding tank. Not the end of the world but potentially a bit of a pain to sort.

Engine Bay

If it’s all clean in the engine bay then it should indicate a well cared for power unit. Owners often run engines whilst the narrow boat is static to provide charge to the batteries to power domestic systems. If the boat has an hour meter, then see if the owner has a maintenance schedule that corresponds with the running hour recommendations for that power plant. Don’t assume all is well though and as with buying a car, some rudimentary checks can give you an idea of what’s happened in the past. Look at the filters so see if they look reasonably new. A cruddy old thing covered in oil has probably been on the engine for a while. Oil and muck in the bilges is probably just poor house keeping but could indicate diesel & oil leaks and maybe excessive water coming in through the stern gland. It’s best to have the engine started from cold. If you arrive for a viewing and the engine is warm, be cautious. If the engine is hard to start from cold it could be due to a number of symptoms, from poor fuel delivery, bad timing, worn piston rings to deficient batteries. Domestic battery arrays can cost from a hundred pounds to over a thousand depending  upon what is fitted so it would be prudent to try and see if the charging system works and the batteries hold a charge. This may be the point at which you call in the canal boat surveyor but if you can do a pre-check it will all add to your understanding of your new narrow boat.

Test Drive

Now you’ve got the narrowboat started it’s time to have a play on the water. An older engine will probably make a bit more vibration than a new unit so don’t be too alarmed. It becomes part of the charm and character of the narrow boat. Be alarmed if it is belching black smoke or if the gearbox doesn’t engage easily when you move from forward to reverse. These marine gearboxes usually just have one forward and one reverse gear with no clutch like we do on the car. Therefore they can get a bit of abuse with rapid forward and reverse changes, especially if the narrow boat is an ex hire craft. Also be alarmed if the engine oil is white and sludgy on the dipstick when you check it. That’s probably a blown head gasket and a world of cost to rectify. A bit of white smoke is not normally an issue, usually clears when the engine is warm and more often than not is condensation water in the exhaust, condensation water in the diesel or a bit of air getting into the inlet side of the diesel pipework. Leaky diesel pipes are easy to spot and sort and a change of diesel filter and drawing off a bit of fuel out of the bottom of the tanks usually removes condensate from the fuel supply.

If you’re happy, pay the deposit and instruct the narrow boat surveyor. Usually within a week or two ownership will have been transferred.

Buying A Used / Second Hand Boat

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