Meet the guardians of the property galaxy
- Credit: Archant
London’s renters face sky high rents whilst thousands of buildings remain empty, often requiring expensive security systems. Property guardian schemes offer a solution to both problems, but being a guardian isn’t for everyone
There are almost 20,000 properties lying empty in London, with over 1,000 of them in Camden, according to a study from Property Partner. Some of these will be ‘ghost homes’, left empty to accrue capital, but many are vacant because the owner hasn’t been able to sell them on or decided what to do with them. Then you have the empty offices, the disused police stations, old hospitals and empty schools. There’s so much space going spare in London, if you know where to look.
And yet renting comes at a premium. You’ll get little change for £600 plus pounds a month for renting a room that counts a shoebox as a close cousin, with bills and council tax on top.
Empty properties are a headache for the owners too. Without occupants to deter thieves and vandals lead can be stripped off the roof or copper pipes pinched. Even old fashioned radiators from Grade II listed buildings can go for £1,000 a pop on the black market, making them a tempting target. Hiring guards, installing cameras or getting reinforced steel bolted on to windows is a costly process, and can often highlight the fact that a property is empty.
This is where property guardianship schemes come in, giving London’s beleaguered renters another option and providing a sensible solution for property owners. The model was pioneered in Holland by a Dutch company over a decade ago, before being adopted by companies who saw the potential in London’s haywire housing market. Ad Hoc Property Protection matches empty homes with property guardians, who sign up to occupy empty properties for below market rent in return for keeping an eye on things. In return property owners gain peace of mind and save a pretty penny into the bargain. So is it the perfect short term solution to the housing crisis? Not quite.
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“It is a compromise,” explains Jason Barnard, the area manager for London and the South East at Ad Hoc. Guardians don’t have the same rights as tenants, and there are a few important rules to abide by, such as no pets, no children, and no unaccompanied guests. “The rules are there to protect the property. You can’t go to work and leave three of your mates in the house.” It’s also up to guardians to report things such as cracked or leaking pipes.
The benefits are pretty spectacular. “You get to live in some cracking spaces, and have a tonne of room to yourself,” says Barnard. Guardians living in an old school might get full use of the sports facilities for after work badminton matches, and in one instance he’s seen a guardian who lived in a theatre set their bed up on the stage.
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The eccentric nature of some of the spaces lends itself to a certain type of guardian. Although Barnard says that they have properties to suit every style of living on their books.
“We’ve had everything from a lighthouse to a flat in Hackney,” he says. Standard residential units such as flats and houses appeal to everyone, but the more unusual properties attract creative types such as artists, musicians, actors and dancers. Creative types appreciate the space and the cheap rent, and are able to accommodate the flexibility required by the guardianship schemes.
Because the set ups are always temporary and clients can need a property back at short notice, Ad Hoc are only able to guarantee the space to guardians for 28 days at a time. “Even if the client said to me it was going to be with us for two years I would never set someone’s expectations up because a client could change their mind,” says Barnard. The average time a property is under guardianship is 8 or 9 months, but Barnard has had buildings with the scheme for anywhere between four months and four years.
If they need to vacate a property, guardians have only four weeks to find alternative accommodation, although most of them choose to stay with Ad Hoc by moving to a different location.
“We find that once people are in the scheme they tend to move around with it. As a building comes to its end of life we manage to keep 60 – 70 per cent of guardians within the scheme,” explains Barnard. “Once you’re in the benefits make it well worth staying.” The flexibility cuts both ways, and if a new building comes up that an existing guardian likes the look of they’re free to give 28 days notice on their current room and move across.
With non standard building such as an old police station or an office block Ad Hoc have to make sure the building is habitable first. “Whenever we take on a property that doesn’t fit the mould we have to make it fit before we can use it,” says Barnard. Shower facilities and kitchens are added in, with the maximum ratio of residents to each facility capped at five. It’s a house share setup, but much cheaper.
“It is far, far less expensive than your normal mainstream renting,” says Barnard, with rooms costing between £200 to £800 a month, with all bills and council tax included, and a prime London location. The office space they acquired in Camden recently has already filled every room.
Clearly the set up only suits a certain type of person with a certain lifestyle. You need to be prepared to move at short notice, comfortable with a peripatetic lifestyle and not have any dependants. In exchange for less security and certain responsibility you get cheap digs in a central location with plenty of space. Barnard has guardians who have set up projectors in a spare room to create a makeshift cinema, or installed a full size snooker table.
Would Barnard be prepared to live as a property guardian himself? “Quite often that is my criteria, if I would want to live there,” he says. “It would suit me down to the ground at a different time of my life. Rewind the clock 15 years and I would jump at the chance to live in some of our properties. They are phenomenal.”
Barnard, whose family comes from Muswell Hill and who grew up in the area, would particularly love a house on the Bishops Avenue. “We have had a property there once, oh to be a guardian there!” With their faded grandeur and empty ballrooms one of the empty homes on Billionaires Row would certainly make for a fabulous temporary residence, although it would be a shame about the no parties rule.
Thomas Kent, 32 grew up in St Albans, Hertfordshire, before moving to London. He lives in Hackney with his girlfriend and works in television.
I’ve been with Ad Hoc for five years now. Originally I was in a flat on the Isle of Dogs for about six months, and now I’ve live in a Victorian townhouse by London Fields in Hackney. A friend of mine had been doing it for a couple of years and I hung out at his place all the time. I was starting out in the television industry as a runner and a researcher and I didn’t have very much money so it was a good way to live in London and work my way up in a career. I’d been renting before but being a guardian meant I could take jobs that were good for my career but didn’t pay as well. It was good because it meant I had disposable income and at that point it was quite tight.
I’ve been in this place for four years which is quite unusual. Normally guardians have to move around quite a lot. The place in the Isle of Dogs didn’t have central heating, only electric heaters, which is part of the reason why I moved. There are drawbacks but you accept that as part of it.
If you choose carefully and are a good guardian you can get somewhere that suits your needs. They do look after you and it’s a good system. The price has gone up in the last few years. When I first started it was £250 a month all bills included, although it’s gone up to £525 a month. It’s a really good location though, and I have a large room in a lovely house and my girlfriend lives there as well. If it was on the normal rental market it would be more expensive.
The 28 day thing isn’t a problem. When I first started it was 14 days and that was quite stressful, but now it’s gone up it’s the same as most tenancy agreements. They’re good at finding you new places so it’s just down to luck and what they have next at the time
It’s definitely better than renting privately. I’m getting to the stage where I can afford it and I might rent my own place soon for peace and quiet, but it’s really good when you’re in your twenties.