Would you be a property guardian to save on rent?

Coppetts Wood Hospital, Muswell Hill, Camelot Property Guardians

Coppetts Wood Hospital, Muswell Hill, Camelot Property Guardians - Credit: Nigel Sutton

You could live in an array of unusual and exciting north London buildings with cheap living costs if you choose to become a property guardian, but do the positives outweight the negatives asks Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

Coppetts Wood Hospital, Muswell Hill, Camelot Property Guardians

Coppetts Wood Hospital, Muswell Hill, Camelot Property Guardians - Credit: Nigel Sutton

My decision to become a property guardian was motivated by a terrible experience with an estate agent, which left me virtually homeless. With only a week to find a place to live, property guardianship – providing “security” for vacant properties while living there at a discounted price – suddenly started to look appealing. Within a month I found myself living in a 13-bed former dry house for alcoholics, paying £400 per month to live in a pretty desirable part of central London.

Working from the premise that it’s more affordable to put tenants into vacant property than to pay for security, put simply property guardianship is a type of legal squatting. Guardians don’t have the same rights as normal tenants but do get to pay very cheap “rent” to stay in properties ranging from flats to former hospitals and churches.

In London property guardianship is a burgeoning market and it has certainly taken off north of the river, with dozens of properties being repurposed. Last year Camelot, one of the largest property guardianship companies in the UK, grew by 39 per cent, and it’s estimated that the market as a whole has seen a 40 to 50 per cent increase in recent years.

The story of why I decided to become a property guardian is far from unique, but according to Daniel Walsh, guardian manager at property guardianship company Adhoc, while flexibility and price are a main attraction for most, the reasons why people choose to become property guardians are varied.

Rochester Square Spiritualist Temple, Camden

Rochester Square Spiritualist Temple, Camden - Credit: Nigel Sutton

“We have a lot of couples who are saving for a mortgage or for their wedding,” he says. “Others are saving to start their own business. We also have a lot of men who are going through a separation. They still have to pay the mortgage on their home but need somewhere else to live.”

Adhoc was set up in the Netherlands in 1990 due to their particular problems with squatters, and has since blossomed into a large business with almost 20 branches in the Netherlands and the UK. Other big companies in London include Dot Dot Dot, Live-in Guardians and Guardians of London, but I stayed in an Adhoc property when I was a guardian. In general the process was smooth sailing, certainly eased by the price I was paying.

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Walsh says that the price tag on the properties they look after depends on the type of property that is being marketed and its location. Sometimes, as with my property, bills will be included in the price, and sometimes they won’t.

“For roughly £425 a month you can get a bedroom in a bigger building, and you’re looking at around a £300 to £350 for a small flat,” he says. “We have everything from flats to quirky old schools.

“We’ve got a school in north London where people are living in the classrooms. As you can imagine the classrooms are massive as they’re supposed to house 20 to 30 students. So the tenants have made them into little studios by putting screens across.”

Although Adhoc act as something akin to a landlord, due to the nature of the licence agreement they provide, they are under no obligation to provide any furnishings, and their properties can be very bare. Guardians might be expected to buy everything from beds and dining tables to cookers and fridges.

They do however, have to provide access to hot and cold running water and although there are plenty of horror stories out there, the licensees in the property guardianship I moved into had set it up like a hostel and already sourced all the necessary amenities by the time I moved in.

Critics of property guardianship companies have called out the way they treat their licensees, with some saying that they abuse the fact that they have fewer rights than an average tenant.

Paola, who lives in an Adhoc property in Mill Hill, says that while she has had a generally good experience of property guardianships, she doesn’t think the same applies across the board.

“I only pay £375 a week for a large property but I have friends who pay £400 for just a room. They’re becoming clever, and greedy!” she laughs.

Nevertheless, Walsh still sees property guardianship as a way of helping with the exorbitant London rental market, which is causing so many people to be priced out of living in the capital. North London property prices in particular have seen a surge over the past few years, and last week it was reported that north west postcodes NW3 and NW8 are among the top 10 most expensive in the UK.

“North London is absolutely extortionate and there are a lot of people who can’t afford to rent via traditional letting agents so they will use us instead,” Walsh says. “It’s a win-win situation. We keep it local and we bring the building back to life, as well as providing a suitable housing option.”

Walsh does point out that the negative aspect of property guardianship is that you don’t know how long you’re going to be in the property for and this is a key problem for many guardians. In some cases they are only given two weeks’ notice before they are kicked out of properties, and while this in turn means that they only have to give the companies two weeks notice before they leave, it can be a highly disruptive way of living.

Paola agrees that this is the biggest struggle for property guardians, calling it a “big, big question mark”, and something that is causing her to consider whether she would like a more stable lifestyle.

“It is the worst thing about this way of living. You just don’t know how long you’ve got. A lot of the properties are NHS or council and as soon as they want to do something like sell the property and gentrify the area then you have to leave,” she says.

Property guardianship is ultimately only suited to people who are comfortable with an unusual and unsettled lifestyle, and while it might be helping to ease some of the effects of the housing issues north London faces in the short term, there’s no denying that it’s only a temporary stopgap, rather than a long term solution. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my six months as a property guardian and I might even consider doing it again if I was ever put into a tricky housing situation.