You may well find more comprehensive answers to your question in our Barge Buyers Handbook, available in the shop.
For our purposes, a barge is a vessel originally designed for freight-carrying primarily in inland or estuarial waters, or a similar modern vessel, designed for living in.
Compared to almost all other types of vessel, a converted barge can provide by far the best value-for-money and most usable accommodation (floor space) afloat. No vessel is cheap to own, but barges are comparatively less expensive to maintain and operate than most other craft of their size.
As a result, they are very suitable for living in, and for cruising the vast networks of inland waterways in Europe (and elsewhere). However, most are not suitable for seagoing, except for short trips (e.g. crossing the English Channel) in benign weather (i.e. minimal swell, and winds no more than Force 4, beyond which most barge insurance becomes invalid).
The barges we are interested in are mostly too small to be used economically for freight any more. Although some may be as long as 38 m (or more), most are between 14 m and 30 m long, and 2.5 m and 5 m wide, drawing between 0.6 m and 1.4 m.
A barge almost always has a steel hull, with a flat bottom. It may now have, or once have had, an engine, or a sailing rig, or both, or neither. Barges come in a great variety of styles and sizes, depending on where they were built, what they were built for, and how (and whether) they have been converted. Except for replicas, few have a hull built after 1930. By a quirk of history, the majority (but by no means all) were built in the Netherlands.
Barges can be beautiful, and have great historic interest. Most have a distinct character. No two are the same.
Their maximum speed is seldom much more than 12 kilometres per hour, but the average cruising speed is normally 6 km/h or less. (Inland waterway speeds are usually measured in km/h. 1 km/h is about 0.5 knot). They typically consume about 5 litres of diesel fuel per hour or less when under way.
Barges are not difficult to handle, but some initial instruction is highly recommended. It is even possible to navigate solo in the right conditions, but a minimum one crew in addition to the steerer is easier and safer, and sometimes legally required. Most countries (in Europe, the UK is a notable exception) require the steerer to hold official qualifications, but these are in general not onerous to acquire.
Barge prices vary greatly, from about £30,000 up. At the bottom of the range, though, the barge may be unconverted, in poor condition, rather small, or all of these. A barge measuring about 20 m x 4 m, reasonably well converted, in reasonable condition, and reasonably attractive overall, is likely to sell for at least £60,000; a nicer one for perhaps £100,000 or more.
The costs of owning a barge include (but are not limited to):
This can vary from free to over £300/year per metre of length, depending on location, facilities, and general desirability. Most barges will need a paid mooring, even if much of the year is spent cruising.
Usually the premium is between 0.75% and 1% of the value of the vessel per year to cover the hull, equipment, and public liability, plus about 2% of the value of the contents (furnishings, personal possessions, etc.) per year.
Most inland navigation authorities make a charge for a barge to be on their waters. Typically this might be £500/year, but could be considerably more (or less).
This varies considerably from barge to barge. 3% to 5% of value per year is a rule of thumb. The barge will need to be dry-docked every three to five years, for inspection and for repairs to under-water plating, steering, and stern gear (propeller, shaft, and stern gland), for which at least £3,000 should be budgeted.
There are of course regulations and paperwork involved in owning and using a barge. Depending on the country and waterways concerned, these can include registration of ownership, registration with the navigation authority, safety and insurance certification, permission to use the barge for residence and registration for local residential taxation, and qualification for the steerer.
For the newcomer, the amount one needs to know to buy, own, and enjoy a barge can seem very daunting or even overwhelming. However, although the initial learning curve is indeed rather steep, all current owners had to overcome it (with varying degrees of success!), which proves that it can be done by the average person. Reassuringly, there is a lot of sympathetic help available, not the least from the DBA.