Wednesday 26 June 2019

'I bought my houseboat for €20,000... before that I needed three jobs to pay my apartment rent'

Architect Megan Willows-Munro (36) was working three jobs just to pay the rent on her city centre apartment when she decided to make an unusual first step on to the property ladder

Sail of the century: Megan's boat is moored at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sail of the century: Megan's boat is moored at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Five years ago I was doing what everyone else my age was doing and renting. I was in a one-bed apartment in Grand Canal Dock near where I work in Dublin city centre. Then I was put on to a three-day week. I suddenly found myself having to work three jobs just to pay the rent for an apartment I was never in because I was working so hard to keep it.

I'd passed by people living in houseboats at the dock and I was curious. I'd grown up around boats and the water so it was something I was interested in. I started chatting to people to find out what was involved. There wasn't much available to rent but then one guy said: "Have you looked at the price of boats? Why don't you buy your own?"

It turned out that, depending on what you want, a houseboat can cost anything from €10,000 to €250,000. I had a bit of money saved and picked up mine for €20,000. She's the size of a studio apartment but for one person, she's perfect and a fraction of the cost I'd have paid for an apartment of the same size on land. Actually a couple of years ago, I looked at buying a one-bed apartment and the bank wouldn't even give me a mortgage.

In terms of expenses, I have to pay one permit to have a boat on the water - that's €150 a year regardless of what boat you have - and then there's a permit to live on board. Until this year, that permit was €250 per annum, but it's just been announced that the new tariff for boats in Dublin city centre will be €3,500. We're not happy about that and trying to fight it, but it's a difficult battle to fight because there's so few of us in the boating community. It's not that we mind paying more, but we feel the rate should have been raised incrementally. It's not fair to expect someone to suddenly be able to afford such a huge sum, especially older boat owners.

Life on a houseboat can be idyllic, but it's definitely not an easy option. You have to be a particular type of person because you don't have a lot of the luxuries that you get with apartment living. There's a lot of work goes into boats: constant maintenance, water tanks you need to fill, tanks connected to the toilet you've to pump out and you have to keep the engine running. Every four or five years you have to lift the boat out of the water and paint underneath. There's only one place you can do that, up the Shannon, which is six days' travel by boat. Usually I don't stray too far from the dock, just up and down a few locks, but later this year I'll have to make that journey straight up the Grand Canal. What you save in rent, you end up putting a portion of that back into the boat. But that's fine - if you look after the boat, the boat will look after you.

The two things I was most concerned about were not knowing enough about boats and being on my own. It's a pretty big lump of machinery and the thought of something breaking was quite overwhelming. I'd only been on her (I definitely feel my boat is a girl) three weeks when my toilet got blocked. One of my neighbours walked by and offered to help fix it and I remember sitting down with him afterwards saying, 'how am I going to do this?'. He said, 'well, I didn't know how to do this until somebody taught me and now I've taught you and you can teach somebody else', and that's really how it's turned out.

Megan has to make do with a small gas hob and oven on her boat. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Megan has to make do with a small gas hob and oven on her boat. Photo: Gerry Mooney

You never feel alone on a boat. When I lived in an apartment, I didn't know my neighbours but, here, there's a very strong sense of community. We have WhatsApp groups and if someone has a question, there's always someone who will respond or come over to try and help. During the Beast from the East everyone went out and got fuel to make sure no one ran out and we kept checking in on each other.

My neighbours range from students and other singles through to retirees and families. We've a few new babies in the dock as well as older people who realised they were spending so much time on their boats that it made more sense to live there and rent their houses out.

The big old Guinness barges are like three-bed apartments but, in general, everything on a boat has to be small and mini. I'm limited to having three of everything and everything has to have its place. If I buy something new, then I have to throw away something old because I just don't have the space. Furniture has to be custom built, but everyone on a boat likes to have one piece of what we call 'real grown-up furniture' like a proper couch to sit on.

I miss having a proper oven. I've just a gas hob and oven and it's not the same for baking. I also miss the luxury of being able to walk into a warm apartment - I always need to come back and light the fire for there to be heat. Both my cooking and water are gas and I use a bottle of gas every three months, which is very economical, but I've to change the gas and get fuel in all the time - it's not as convenient as just flicking a switch.

You're not 'plugged in' on a boat so I've no TV but the move to wireless means if I want to watch something, I can get it on my iPad and get the internet on my phone. Most of the time I prefer to read. Overall, it's definitely a more traditional way of life and you can see why it's appealed to people for hundreds of years.

I still intend to buy on land at some point. The way I look at it, it's like I've bought my holiday home first and I'm living in that for a while, while I save. The plan is that I'm staying on the boat so I can save towards being able to afford a place that has space for a family. But I don't think I could ever sell my boat - I'd love to keep her and move her out to the country as a holiday home.

In conversation with Chrissie Russell

Irish Independent

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