Londoners now spend a reported two-thirds of their income on rent, but there are still some cheaper options available. Becoming a property guardian is one such option. In exchange for low rent, property guardians are offered to live in an otherwise vacant space—with the objective of discouraging squatters and/or damage to the property. It’s not a new concept by any means (Camelot started in the Netherlands in the 90s), but it’s one that is fast-growing in London, with around 28 companies operating. It’s even the subject of the sitcom Crashing. Fees vary between companies and property types, but is possible to save as much as a third of the cost of the average market rent. Property types are a mix of commercial and residential. In theory, you can live like a pauper but reside in a castle! Of course, most places won’t be castles, but they might be schools, office buildings, cinemas, and unoccupied residential homes.
So what makes someone choose to be a guardian in the first place? Well, saving cash, ultimately.
Fees And Admin
Camelot Europe went into administration after being prosecuted for breaching HMO regulations and reformed as) Watchtower Property Management, DotDotDot, AdHoc, and Lowe’s are some of the major property guardian companies. Most places will ask for references, and will not allow dependents or pets. As with private rental, you’ll need a bit cash up front, on top of your weekly costs.
Deposit: Around £300-£600
Admin Fees: £60-£100
Fire Safety Pack: £60-£80
Weekly: Around £35-£150 pw depending on property type
Bills: Variable, some properties are inclusive
For some, like Lee Anderson and his wife, it’s enabled savings to the tune of getting on the ever-elusive property ladder. The couple spent around five years, living in different residential and commercial properties. Their stints ranged from a few months to a couple years through AdHoc. So where did they end up on their property-hopping? “ Mainly dilapidated council flats, but we once lived in an old school hall near the Thames – we probably had the biggest bedroom in London. The other highlight was architect Ernő Goldfinger’s Carradale House in Poplar, a precursor to Kensington’s infinitely more famous Trellick Tower.”
Guy Erskine is another long-term guardian, also through AdHoc. He became one four years ago, after his friends had tried it. “A couple of good friends of mine had been in the system for a year or so, and were both having good experiences. One in a town hall which sounded great and the other in a nursing home, which was not so great. I was looking for ways of reducing my outgoings and with rent 25-50% lower than the market rate it was a no brainer”
It can help create a sense community, which is valuable in the city, as Guy notes of his current place, a former care home: “Thankfully there are some great people in the building and we’ve got our own whatsapp group, and have parties on a regular basis. Just what you need when living in a place like Kew”.
Even long-term guardians don’t like to rose tint their experiences, but how does it compare with the alternative?
“Overall living in these places is really fun, and being able to afford to live so central to London is great. I have had a lot less to complain about than most people I know who rent in London! You can get screwed over by these guardianship contracts, but I think renting in London is often a similar circus, and it leaves you with a lot less left over from your salary at the end of the month” – London guardian.
The main motivator is cost, and saving rent money, but it has to be weighed up against other factors. It’s not going to be for everyone, you may have to pack up and move on quickly. Most places are unfurnished too, so be prepared to source things. So, if you play the harp or have tonnes of gadgets in tow, you might need to get minimal first. Utilities and council tax payments also have to be set up each time you enter a new property, which is a perfect reason to befriend your fellow guardians, and share the load.
There are also questions over rights. In fact, the term ‘rent’ isn’t used by the companies, guardians are ‘licencees’. Property guardianship companies do not have to adhere to the same rules as private landlords, so there are no tenancy agreements. However, they should operate with licence agreement outlining the exact terms and conditions, including notice period. Most should endeavor to re-house their guardians when notice is given on their existing property.
“My advice would be to think very carefully about it. Especially considering you will need to buy furniture and white goods. Being given a week’s notice to move out isn’t much fun, either.” warns Lee Anderson.
But even in the private rental sector, accommodation can be transient, and it’s not at all unusual for people to move multiple times, in a reasonably short space of time. Many renters also club together in huge house shares, with limited communal space. So while guardianship is far from risk-free, neither is private rental.
And if you’re really broke or new in town, house-sitting is a option that will give you rent-free accommodation for a while, you will just need to pay for bills during your stay. Lauren O’Connor returned to London in December from LA with very little cash, and new job starting in January. She found a place through Trusted Housesitters for three months, and her experience has been a positive one. “For me, it’s enabled me to get back into work and start paying off some things while saving some for rent for when I move out in March. It also tests the area you’re living in too. A trial run.” Just be wary of housemates of a four-legged variety, she warns, “ They had a dog, and on Christmas Day, it ran out of the house into a main road… so my sister and I had to chase after it. Thankfully the cars slowed down avoiding any accidents. Then the dog got bored and ran home!” Despite that hairy situation, not all house-sitting means you have to mind pets too, so fear not, allergy-suffering cheapos.
Advice For Potential Guardians
For anyone considering guardianship, be aware that conditions, costs and rules will differ between property companies. It’s always useful to have someone ‘in the know’, so if you can, reach out to other guardians and find out what their experiences have been like. If not, then do your research and read testimonials to make sure that the options on offer are right for you.
“You need to be flexible, and happy with some shitty conditions, and often not knowing who you’ll be living with. Check the properties carefully before you sign up and make sure you know which room you’re getting.” – London guardian
Before you get going, here are a few things to consider:
- Location: Where do you want to live? Are you flexible about areas?
- Communal Living: Are you alone and looking to share, or in a couple or existing group-share?
- Comfort: Most places will be unfurnished and facilities will vary from property to property, and conditions won’t always be great.
- Security: Although you’re occupying as guardian, and part of that is to protect the building, your property company should always have appropriate security measures and contacts in place.
- Eligibility: Some companies give priority to key workers.
- Moving at short notice: You may end up having to pack up and vacate at a week’s notice.
- Shop around: Registering with multiple agencies will give you a larger selection to choose from, and allows you to find terms that best suit your needs.
Responsibilities: Make sure you check the contract thoroughly, some schemes outline what kind of upkeep falls to the guardians. Guardianship through DotDotDot includes 16 hrs per month of voluntary work.
Experiences vary, and it’s not necessarily going to solve your rental situation for years on end, but if you’re prepared for some unusual living arrangements for a little while, you might just save enough for somewhere longer term.