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Life Afloat: Meet the People Living Off-Grid as the Cost of Living Soars

Charlie Duffield speaks to citizens exploring alternative ways of living as the linked crises of housing and the economy become a way of life

Narrow house boats on London’s Grand Union Canal. Photo: CG7 Images/Alamy

Life AfloatMeet the People Living Off-Grid as the Cost of Living Soars

Charlie Duffield speaks to citizens exploring alternative ways of living as the linked crises of housing and the economy become a way of life

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After two years of pandemic living and an escalating cost of living crisis, more people than ever before are moving away from traditional bricks and mortar to live off-grid, in a stark reflection of the ever-worsening housing crisis.

According to the UK financial services provider Legal & General, 79% of UK adults say that the cost of living crisis has made them concerned about the costs of running their home.

Even the recent introduction of 100% mortgages has proved a damp squib, with concerns that these will not be of any use to those living where the housing crisis is most acute. 

Additionally, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that a third of the 11.6 million households earning £25,000 or less are being pushed into arrears on their rent or mortgage. 

It’s therefore unsurprising that some citizens are considering alternative ways of life. 

When single parent Ailsa was evicted from her rental home with just six weeks’ notice, and after a house purchase fell through, she decided to buy a houseboat in Cheshire instead.

“Since I separated from the kids’ dad about six years ago, I’ve rented,” the 42-year-old told Byline Times. “When we got our eviction notice, I looked for rentals in the area but the prices had gone up significantly post-COVID.

“For the first time ever, I considered getting a mortgage as it would cut my monthly outgoings in half. So I applied with my bank. It was complicated and long-winded, as being single and self-employed are not attractive things for money-lending. I did eventually get one, and found a house I thought I wanted, although out of the area that we’d been living in for all of the kids’ lives. But, at the last minute, the house fell through. I was gutted. 

“It occurred to me that I was trying to put myself in debt to live somewhere I didn’t want, which made no sense to me. For years now I’ve had a hankering to live alternatively. So I ended up buying a houseboat.”

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For Ailsa, “life is simplified” and she feels safe, secure and cosy. 

“It feels like escapism, even without sailing anywhere,” she said. “Obviously food and fuel cost increases have affected us like everyone else, but it’s much cheaper than renting. We use less energy and we don’t have a TV or phone line.

“Mooring fees are approximately £2,500 a year, but that varies depending on the area. I was very fortunate to be able to afford the boat, otherwise I would be really struggling to make ends meet.” 

According to the Canal and River Trust, last year, 21% of boaters described their boat as their permanent residence. But the lifestyle may not suit everyone. 

“Boat living can be a fantastic way of life which many people love, but it comes with its own challenges – having to fill up with water, empty your toilets, do lots of hands-on maintenance and, if you don’t have a home mooring, moving your boat every 14 days to somewhere new,” according to Fran Read, a spokesperson for the charity.

“This can almost be like a part-time job. Sometimes people can get a bit of a shock, especially in winter, when they realise it’s not just a floating house.”

Nevertheless, Ian Watkins, director of Water Lodge – a luxury purveyor of floating apartments – has noticed a surge in sales ever since the advent of remote working, driven as much by the desire for a new lifestyle as the chance to save money.

“Moving away from traditional bricks and mortar has enabled people to bank the cash from their homes,” he told Byline Times. “On that basis, I suspect that this has given them a financial cushion to help soften the blow of rising living costs, and our products are designed to be highly energy-efficient, which saves on utility bills.” 

For Silvia Sirit and her husband, it made sense for them to sell their home to afford their bills, and transition to a luxury boat life on the River Thames instead. 

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Large mortgage payments and the necessity of sharing their home with others spurred the decision, although they have found boat maintenance to still be costly.

“We radically downsized and live off-grid as much as possible, and now we can afford our bills,” Silvia said. “It’s not a cheap way to live, but it is cheaper. We have noticed a rising interest on the waterways in this way of life, from others who are keen to live more frugally.”

In fact, the Inland Waterways Association now estimates there are 80,000 powered boats across England, Scotland and Wales. 

Leading marine finance lender, Promarine Finance, has witnessed an increase in demand – particularly among younger customers, with a 65% increase in the number of sales in 2022, when the cost of living crisis worsened, compared to 2019. 

“In the UK, the average monthly salary for an individual is £1,950 per month, UK rent is £1,171 per month, with utility bills on top of that – it does not leave much room to be able to save towards a mortgage and get on the property ladder,” the company’s director Stuart Austin said.

“Canal boats provide an affordable alternative to renting with the average canal boat price being £57,000. At Promarine Finance, we require a minimum of 20% deposit and, if you have selected a term of 10 years for example, the current monthly repayment would be £749.71. This is much cheaper than renting a property, as getting finance on a canal boat will help you pay towards something which at the end you will own.”

With off-grid households included in the Government’s energy bills support scheme – and with the housing crisis showing no signs of abating – life afloat continues to hold increasing appeal for many. 

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