The property guardian industry, in which you pay cheap rent to live in an empty building as a security guard by another name, has ballooned in recent years. It’s not hard to see why.
Housing charity Shelter recently warned that first-time buyers would need a salary of £64,000 and a deposit of £46,000 to afford an average first-time buyer home by 2020.
And prices only seem to be going up. UK house prices rose by 4.9% year on year in April, according to Nationwide’s latest House Price Index at the time of writing – taking the average price of a home to £202,436.
Saving for that elusive deposit is only made harder by rising rents. In April, the average UK rent stood at £764 a month, according to the latest HomeLet Rental Index. In London, that figure was almost double at £1,543 a month – up by 7.7% compared to last April.
Property guardians, on the other hand, can pay half the market rent.
Yet with horror stories of the conditions some guardians reportedly live in creeping into the pages of the press, Moneywise delves into the industry.
What do property guardians do?
Property guardians stay in vacant properties – often while the building awaits planning permission to be converted into something else. Buildings can range from offices, hotels, police and fire stations, schools and care homes to hospitals, pubs, churches and vicarages.
Property guardians and property owners are matched via agencies, such as Ad Hoc Property Management, Camelot, Dot Dot Dot and Live In Guardians.
But while this may sound like the lifestyle of a peace- loving hippie student, it’s not necessarily the case.
Some agencies won’t accept undergraduate students, children, pets, smoking and parties.
Guardian agency Camelot says a substantial number of its guardians – at 42% – are between the ages of 36 and 65, just 11% are aged between 18 and 25, and 47% are aged between 26 and 35.
Arthur Duke, managing director of Live In Guardians, says: “Our guardians are all young professionals in their first or second job in London – 90% are saving for a deposit to buy their own home, while others don’t want to spend 80% of their salary on rent as they want to live and have a bit of a social life.”
Rex Duis (pictured above), a 35-year-old self-confessed ‘Jack- of all trades’ from New Zealand, has been a guardian for the past six and a half years.
In that time, he’s stayed in about eight properties – including a science lab in a school and office blocks – and used around six different guardian agencies.
Rex, who also runs a Facebook group for guardians – Property Guardians UK – says becoming a guardian was the only way he could afford to live in London without having to share a room with someone. He says the cheap rent and the ability to live in a much larger space than a private rental initially drew him to the scheme.To begin with, he was paying about £300 a month all- inclusive to live in Zone 1 in central London.
However, he says over time there have been fewer positives. “Prices have been forced up. The average price is now around £400 to £500 a month – some properties will include bills and council tax, but others won’t. Buildings also seem to have more guardians in now.”
Rex is campaigning for minimum requirements for guardian companies to adhere to – such as providing at least 28 days’ notice for evictions. He claims one friend was only given 24 hours to leave a guardian property.
What are the advantages?
Hollie Jeffries is a 30-year-old events organiser and property guardian living in London. She says the biggest benefit is the cheap rent, as well as getting to live in an unusual building – she lives in a former almshouse.
“I love the house. It’s small, but it’s cute, and I’ve been able to redecorate it”, she says.
Rex echoes the financial benefit. He says being able to save money is the one thing his friends haven’t been able to do, despite earning more than him.
Peter Brown, chief executive of Dot Dot Dot, says property guardians are generally attracted by the lower costs. “It’s a significant discount compared to private rent. We work with quite a few people who tend to be in artistic or charitable careers who wouldn’t be able to live in London otherwise.”
A former science lab Rex converted into living room
What are the disadvantages?
The biggest negative, and it’s quite a significant one, is that guardians are not actually tenants, meaning they don’t have a tenancy agreement and the rights it comes with – such as being able to stay for a minimum of six months (under assured shorthold tenancies).
Instead, guardians sign a licence agreement to stay in properties. Giles Peaker, a partner in the housing and public law team at law firm Anthony Gold, explains: “A licence comes with far fewer rights than a tenancy, so it’s far more vulnerable for the occupiers.
“They can have their occupation ended at relatively short notice. There’s no fixed term; there’s no particular security; contracts usually say the owner can inspect at will whenever they want; and you can be moved around at short notice and have other people put in the same place at short notice.”
From Hollie’s perspective, this is the bigger downside to being a guardian. She says: “You never know when you have to move out – it’s the unknown factor, which is quite frightening. “You also don’t know or have any say over who you live with, and you can’t have pets.”
Another issue is the condition of some properties. A spokesperson for Shelter says: “We’ve heard worrying reports about properties containing asbestos, and seen first-hand properties being advertised, which are so hazardous that local authorities would be legally obliged to carry out an inspection of the property – if they were aware of it.”
Mr Peaker adds that it can be difficult for guardians to enforce the standards of properties – often the only thing they can do is to complain to the local council if the company won’t help.
However, when it comes to being evicted without being given at least four weeks’ notice in writing, Mr Peaker does believe guardians are protected by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 – and that they could argue this in court.
The four guardian companies we spoke to are adamant that they perform stringent checks on properties to ensure they’re safe and that the guardians in them are taken care of.
Dot Dot Dot’s Mr Brown says: “I would point to private landlords – there are some who are very good and some who are very poor. It’s the same with property guardianship.”
Simon Finneran, managing director of Ad Hoc Property Management, adds that it has launched a charter calling for the raising of standards across the industry. It wants to ensure “best practice is adhered to at all times”.
But despite calls from the likes of Shelter for the government to clarify the rules for guardians, the Housing and Planning Bill, which is going through the House of Lords at the time of writing, fails to include any specific rights.
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government says: “Our landmark Housing and Planning Bill will deliver the homes that this country needs.
“Empty homes are at their lowest level since records began and we’ve made it easier for councils to convert derelict properties into homes, breathing new life into empty buildings.
“The government does not support property guardianship schemes, as they do not have a tenancy agreement and do not meet the standards expected of residential properties.”
It’s also the day-to-day differences that guardians need to be aware of. Rex says he’s found getting insurance to be tricky, as well as cheap broadband, and in some properties it’s been difficult to get post delivered, or even to register the address to use for bank accounts and to get on the electoral roll.
Hollie Jeffries (pictured above), a 30-year-old events organiser, lives as a guardian in a self-contained one-bed flat in a converted almshouse in London. It’s her first property as a guardian.
Being a guardian was recommended to her by her boyfriend who lived in a “beautiful” town hall as a guardian, while paying “hardly anything”.
Realising she could save around £370 a month compared to her private rental property, Hollie figured it was worth a go. She now pays £630 a month including bills, compared to about £1,000 including bills beforehand.
She says the experience has been “great”, but warns that she saw a few “dives” before finding the place she’s in now.
For others thinking of becoming a guardian, Hollie says: “Make sure you’re flexible and that you’re open to the possibility of having to move at very short notice. Don’t go into it thinking you’re going to be in a place for a very long time. But give it a try if you can, as it’s worth doing and if you’re trying to save money it’s a great opportunity.”
What's in it for property owners?
Agencies claim landlords save thousands on security costs. Ad Hoc Property Management says property owners could save up to 50% compared with boarding- up methods, and as much as 80% compared with security guard services.
Having someone live in the property also helps to deter squatters. Sarah Calvert, commercial director of Camelot, says: “Vacant property is an easy target for vandals, squatters and thieves who present a very real threat to property owners.
“The pro-active property guardian security solution vastly reduces these risks for a fraction of the cost of more traditional methods of security such as manned guarding.”
By having someone in the property, landlords may also be able to avoid paying empty property rates, which are due on certain properties that have been vacant for over three months.
However, depending on the agency, property owners may have to pay a fee to have their building listed. They may also have to pay for maintenance to get the building into a position for guardians to use.
The exterior of Rex’s previous home in a former children’s care unit
Should I become a guardian?
Before becoming a guardian, do your research on the agency and the property, and thoroughly check your licence agreement.
Rex advises: “Check the terms and conditions for 28 days’ notice, as otherwise you’re going to have trouble.“Also look online and Google complaints to find out about companies, and Google the properties to see if any planning permission has been filed – that way you’ll get more of an idea of how long you might be able to stay.”
Mr Peaker adds: “The concept can work. But people need to be fully aware of what they’re going into and shouldn’t see it as a cheap tenancy because you will not have tenancy rights. The standards and conduct of guardian companies varies widely.”
Anyone who needs advice or has concerns about property guardianship can call Shelter on 0808 800 4444.
The interior of Rex’s old home in a former children’s care unit
Property guardian agencies compared (table split into two parts for the sake of readability).
|Availability||UK-wide, plus operates in other European countries||UK-wide, plus operates in other European countries|
|No. of properties||Over 800||Won't disclose|
|Average licence fee 'rent'||£300 a month||Moneywise found rooms from £93/month to £342 a month in London|
|Bills and council tax||"Usually" included in licence fee||"Often" included in licence fee|
|Other guardian fees||£50 registration free plus £350 deposit||A deposit, which varies by region - it's £650 in London, plus £75 fire pack|
|Average time in property||14 months||Three to eight months|
|Notice for guardians to leave||28 days||Minimum 28 days|
|Availability||London and the South East||London and the South East|
|No. of properties||Hundreds||54|
|Average licence fee 'rent'||Ranges from £180 a month to £300 a month||Could be £600 a month for Zone 1, London, to £300 a month elsewhere|
|Bills and council tax||Not included in licence fee||Included in licence fee|
|Other guardian fees||No fees, but guardians are required to do a minimum of 16 hours a month volunteering||£85 admin fee for new guardians, plus £65 fire pack, plus deposit of one month's licence|
|Average time in property||"Depends" on property||Eight to nine months|
|Notice for guardians to leave||Minimum 28 days||Two weeks|
Source: Moneywise as at May 2016