Life in France can be sweet – if pricey – on houseboat
Living on a converted barge moored on the Seine was at one time probably the cheapest address in the Paris area.
With living space of around 100m2 and, in the 1980s, low mooring fees, life on the converted péniche houseboats was sweet.
Especially for those who moored along the Seine inside the city walls, or close to the RER suburban train system.
Many boats were converted by their owners, after being bought for prices that rarely exceeded around €50,000 in modern money.
Most have steel hulls – although there are some built of oak – which are simple to insulate and partition.
In the 1990s, prices rocketed as the secret of living on the water got out, regulations about where you could tie up became stricter, and charges for services grew higher.
These days, houseboats in Paris can command asking prices of more than €1million, and the slightly homemade look of the early boats’ interiors has usually been replaced by professional carpentry and joinery.
In theory, you can moor your boat anywhere along the canal or river as long as you do not tie up to a tree. In practice, things are more complicated, especially with stays of more than 21 days in one place.
Contracts to live in a boat in the public space are assigned to owners by the local authority, be it Voies Navigables de France, Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, the local chamber of commerce, communal port, or a private port.
Known as Cots, for Contrat d’occupation temporaire du domaine public, prices vary from €800 to €7,000 a year, with the higher prices for the places in the centre of Paris.
They do not automatically pass on to new owners, but anyone who buys a boat with a Cot in place has a better chance of getting it renewed.
In compensation, boats generally escape taxe foncière, though the Conseil d’Etat ruled last year that tax offices can consider case by case how fixed and permanent a given boat is.
If it has always been moored in the same place, it will be due. Some communes ask for taxe d’habitation, although administrative courts have in some cases ruled in favour of boat owners who challenged it.
Getting hooked up to services for the first time at a mooring can be difficult. Reportedly, post and telephone are easiest, electricity can be difficult, and water the hardest of all.
Unlike countries to the north, France does not require houseboats to have a separate waste water tank, and many empty waste straight into the river.
However, some places make a waste water tank, and regular trips to have it pumped into the town’s treatment system, a condition of their Cot.
It can simplify things if you buy a boat with already established services.
Another cost to be budgeted for is the compulsory hull inspection every 10 years, at a cost of €700-€2,000.
It checks with a radar that the hull has at least 3.9mm of thickness and must be done in dry dock. The fee for using this is another €1,700-€7,000.
It is recommended that, instead of waiting 10 years, inspections in dry dock are carried out every five years and any small repairs done before the hull is cleaned and painted.
At least one of the residents should also have a péniche captain’s permit, necessary for boats with motors above six horsepower, which requires taking a theory exam and a practical course at a specialised school. British pre-Brexit permits are recognised.
Insurance can be obtained through specialised companies and costs around €1,000 a year for a navigable boat.
Claude Decants, 76, who lives in the north, has just sold for €100,000 the péniche he bought for his life as a batelier (freight carrier) and which he converted into a home in 2008, when he retired. His routes took him all around the north of France and into Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
He and his wife lived on it in Moret-sur-Loing, south-east of Paris, moored on the river.
He said: “I have a leg which does not work as it should and it became difficult to get on and off the boat.
“If it was not for that, we would still be on the water. Life on land in this small house we bought is comfortable and there is less maintenance, but it does not have the same flavour as living on the water, even when you are moored in one place and not moving around.”
His boat had all mod cons, with central heating and hot water from an electric water heater, a kitchen with bottle gas cooking stove, and a shower.
Electricity could be provided from the quay, included in the moorage fee, or from two diesel generators, one of 6kWh and another of 12kWh. “It is because this was a working boat when we started the conversion, so we kept the generators. Often they are removed,” said Mr Decants.
The couple kept the original living quarters and converted most of the holds into living space, giving a total of 105m2.
He said most people he knew who had bought péniches to live in were happy.
“But there are some who just find they do not like it as much as they thought they would. Living on water is different, very different,” he said.
“My father was a batelier before me so I grew up with the life, but for someone who has always lived on the land, it is a big step to take.”
Reader experiences: Living on the water is far away from our old daily grind
After working as house and pet sitters in France, New Zealanders Trish Wills and her partner Tony Culmer (main photo, above) knew they wanted to spend more time in the country, but were not sure how to do it.
One of the things on their to-do list was to holiday on a boat on the waterways, and from that came the idea of buying a houseboat and doing it up. So they bought a 100-year-old 17m Dutch barge called Anneke, which was moored in the port at Moissac, on the Tarn, between Montauban and Agen.
Trish said: “We ended up stripping her out completely and redesigning the interior, which was quite a job, especially as neither of us had worked on boats before. Now we are nearly finished and should be able to go travelling on her this summer.”
Anneke had already been converted into a houseboat, first in the Netherlands and then by the couple they bought from, who worked at the capitainerie of the port in Moissac.
She already had oil- fired central heating, which they have kept, and air conditioning.
After stripping the interior to bare steel, the couple put in insulation and interior walls.
They cut through one bulkhead to make more space in the bedroom, using an angle grinder.
“It took a lot of time and made a lot of noise and mess, but did the job,” said Trish. “With limited tools, you have to use what you have.”
Both Trish and Tony, who say they are aged around 50, gave up corporate jobs in New Zealand to travel – Trish worked in finance and Tony was a building project supervisor.
Last summer, they lived on board during all the work, before renting in the village when it got too cold.
Both have barge captain’s licences, which they took in the UK, as they said doing the tests in France would be complicated.
“Tony started out as a builder so he has good basic skills, and I have always been very practical, which helps,” Trish said.
Their finished boat will have a bedroom, shower and toilet, a large fully-equipped galley and a living area.
It can be hooked up to electricity and has its own water tank. They are also installing solar panels, which should provide a lot of the electricity they use in the summer.
Before they leave on their travels, the boat is booked to go into dry dock for more work and to have the hull painted, which they expect will cost around €7,000. They do not need to have a hull-thickness survey, as that was done before they bought Anneke.
Last summer, they were visited by a Dutch woman whose family had been previous owners.
Trish said: “They used to come down on holiday every year, and before that the boat had been used as a floating supermarket.
“She said that Anneke had also been used in the past as fuel tanker, and a freighter, and in the Second World War had been used to move Jewish people away from the Germans.”
The couple bought the boat for €30,000 and estimate they will have spent another €20,000 doing her up.
“We know we want to travel in her, and then we will see what happens, especially with Brexit,” she said.
“But I can see us staying in France and living on the boat.
“It is something very special, and so far away from the daily grind we had before in our old lives.”