Living outside
the box

From canal boats to disused primary schools, people are choosing a number of alternatives to buying or renting costly houses

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“I have seen an increase with unease. Many new boaters are choosing this lifestyle because they think it’s a cheap way of buying accommodation. It isn’t,” says Alan Hodgkinson who lives with his wife Noreen on a canal boat in West Lancashire.

The couple, in their sixties, sold their Yorkshire cottage eight years ago to move to Rufford, swapping their “normal life” for a purpose-built 60-foot canal boat, costing £97,000 – significantly less than the average first-time home does today, which stands at over £260,000.

The growth in the number of people living on boats is just one facet of alternative accommodation in the UK, as house prices and rents continue to rise. Adults are making difficult choices, with some even returning to live in shared accommodation, in order to make their money go further.

The Hodgkinsons paid for their home in instalments while waiting for their cottage to be sold. Now fully integrated into the boating community, Hodgkinson describes it as a “community of like-minded people, where everyone will lend a hand”.

But he warns that although living in such a small space may seem cheaper, there are hidden costs to consider. “Overall, the fuel bills are cheaper, but the rest is comparative to our pre-boat costs. We pay an annual fee of £2,100 for a residential mooring.”

This provides the couple with a base during the winter months and freedom to cruise during the summer, safe in the knowledge they have a place called home to come back to.

A member of the Resident Boat Owners Association, Hodgkinson says life on a canal is not easy and advises people to do their sums. “I know a couple who bought a boat because they worked in Manchester and couldn’t afford the house prices. They thought they could buy a decent boat without paying for a residential mooring fee, but if you do that, you can only moor in one place for a maximum of 14 days and then you have to move. It wasn’t the life they intended.”

This message has been echoed by the Canal & River Trust, which has reported a rise year-on-year of boat licenses since 2005, with an estimated 15,000 people now living on boats across England.

“Popularity is certainly increasing. In London in particular we have seen a huge rise in the number of boats. Many people see it as a cheaper alternative to rising house and rent prices,” says Matthew Symonds, the trust’s boating policy manager.

Elsewhere, some are choosing to live in disused buildings for short periods, paying a fraction of market rents because the owners value the security they can provide. These guardians live in properties ranging from empty schools to disused fire stations, hospitals and stately homes, while sharing the space with others.

“I’m paying about a quarter of what I was paying when I had a house.”

Ad Hoc Property, which matches would-be guardians to properties, reports a 25 per cent rise in business since last year, with over 300 guardians now based in the North West alone.

Paula Sedbury, 41, from Blackburn, Lancashire, became a property guardian three years ago. A data quality officer in the National Health Service, Sedbury was a private tenant in Cumbria before making the switch.

“I was on a lower wage and most of my outgoings went on rent and bills, which left me with very little disposable income each month, so I began looking for cheaper options.

“I came across the scheme and saw the costs were significantly less – at just £225 per month, with no bills. Financially I’m paying about a quarter of what I was paying when I had a house. I like to travel and I have the finances now to be able to do that.

“I now live in a former primary school dating from the 1970s. I have a full-sized classroom to myself. I share the kitchen, car park and playground with six other people. It’s a mixed group, aged from 20 upwards. One is a DJ and a teacher.”

The code of conduct for guardians means no parties and no pets, but residents can have guests over. All guardians must also undergo essential checks before entering the scheme.
Sedbury says: “We all play our part to fix things and you have to ensure you don’t overuse things like electricity. People find it interesting and curious that I live here, but the cost savings far outweigh the disadvantages of having to share a space.”

Shared living is also the basis of an environmentally aware housing concept growing in popularity but originating in the 1960s. Co-housing is based on a Danish model, bringing together private tenants in an purpose-built affordable housing scheme, where they commit to sharing their time and resources with fellow residents in order to cut down on environmental impact. They also collectively make decisions for the development of their community. There are now over 70 co-housing projects in development across England.

The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC), in Bramley, West Leeds, claims to be the UK’s first example of affordable eco-living. Described as “a new tradition of community living”, it was created by architects White Design Associates.

Houses are built using timber frames and straw bale interiors, making them carbon negative, with the ability to provide optimum insulation in winter and deflect heat in summer, reducing energy usage and costs.

The £3 million project provided for 20 houses, with a three bedroom house costing on average £160,000. The design lends itself to social interaction, with features such as a shared on-site allotment, food pantry, dining hall, carpool and tool shed. All residents pay a fee and own shares in the community land trust.

Playing an active part in the community and the eco-friendly aspects both have great appeal for residents such as Clive Lord. A founding member of the Green Party, Lord, 81, moved to LILAC two years ago – the eighth resident to move in with his partner.

Lord says: “After reading Creating A Life Together by Diana Leafe, a book which influenced my decision, I went along to an event and met some of the residents who live here.

“I thought – good idea, but I am OK, in my home of 44 years. But I feel it should be occupied by another growing family.

“There’s always someone around to help here. It’s difficult to put in a nutshell but I wouldn’t want to go back to just having two random neighbours.”

“The financial arrangements are quite complex, but we are in effect both tenants and landlords of everybody else. The total annual fuel bill is just over £300 per year, but we are careful.

“The eco-aspects are important. I had already installed solar panels in my own home but I also realised that without a sea change in the market, this meant a gradual erosion of the capital value of houses.”

Photo: Paula Sedbury by Stuart Turner

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