There is a nomadic lifestyle in Britain that sees around 10,000 people rent in unoccupied properties for a reduced rate.
Kevin Harris, 54, has saved hundreds each month by becoming a property guardian, although he accepts it is not for everyone.
He has lived in seven different properties in the last seven years, including police stations, hunting lodges and ex-hostels, with fellow guardians.
Kevin decided to take on this lifestyle after a bad experience with his landlord when privately renting. You can read his full story below.
Property guardians can stay in a number of buildings including police stations and schools (pictured: a school currently advertised for guardians and Kevin Harris, a guardian)
The biggest expense for most people is their rent or mortgage so cutting this down could be the solution to squirreling away as much savings as possible.
Landlords want renters to stay in the properties so they do not have to mark them as derelict and can avoid having squatters move in.
The coronavirus pandemic has left many more buildings emptier than usual, meaning there are plenty on the market to choose from for those looking to cut down costs.
While it won’t be the ideal situation for everyone, those who are happy to have a temporary stay or are looking to save serious money, might find it to be the perfect solution.
This is Money, with help from the Property Guardian Providers Association, which promotes best practice, safety and standards across the sector, takes a look at what being a property guardian involves, how much you could potentially save and how the pandemic has affected the industry.
What is a property guardian?
A property guardian is someone who provides live-in security for vacant buildings in exchange for affordable accommodation, primarily in central locations.
Empty properties can attract more vandalism, theft, arson and be subject to more weather damage than premises that are occupied.
Therefore, installing property guardians into a building, if managed well, can help people looking for more affordable accommodation with property owners wanting more security for their vacant buildings and for the local business and residential communities.
In return for accommodation, when the building is required for redevelopment, guardians can be given notice to leave within 28 days.
This is because the guardians sign a licence agreement, not a tenancy, so they do not have exclusive rights to the property.
Many vacant properties can be temporarily converted to permit live-in guardians, so long as they adhere to fire, health and safety regulations.
Much of the time guardians will be sharing with fellow housemates in the same position.
‘I’ve lived in a police station before’: One guardian tells of his experience
Kevin Harris has been a property guardian for 7 years and has lived in many homes
Kevin is a model maker and he heard about property guardians when reading an article in a magazine.
He said: ‘I was renting privately and was having problems with the landlord, he was a loose cannon. Being a property guardian got me out of a sticky situation I was in.’
His first guardianship was in Feltham in a Victorian hunting lodge with about six other people there whom he quickly made friends with. The group included a musician, an actor, a tradesman and a policewoman.
‘As a guardian, it is a very transient existence as people move around a lot. Whilst I have known some people to be in a property for over five years, I am usually in a place for 18 months or so.’
Kevin has lived in an array of properties including an ex-hostel and a police station.
‘The police station was very large with lots of space. When choosing guardianship, you do tend to get much more for your money. The station was eventually a victim of government cut backs and was turned into housing.’
Generally, he said, the rooms are empty and guardians take their own furniture and depending on the building, will depend on what facilities are already available.
The size of the building will also determine how many people a guardian will share with generally.
Many guardians main motivations for choosing the lifestyle, he said, is to save money.
‘Renting as a guardian is cheaper than private rent. In general, rents are way lower than what you would expect to pay privately and you get much more space. More often that not, bills are also included as part of what you pay.
‘A common motivation when becoming a guardian is to save for a deposit. Some people are saving for other reasons.’
However, whilst he is enjoying the experience he said there will be a day when he chooses to rent or buy privately again.
‘I don’t want to do it indefinitely. If you’re footloose, fancy free and like adventure, go for it. It is an interesting way to live and you can meet new people and make new friends.
‘However, for others, it can become a very stressful thing to do.’
How much does it cost?
Generally speaking, license fees are around half or slightly more than half the equivalent of the private rental sector in that location, and often include bills and council taxes, making them even better value.
Some firms claim you can save up to 60 per cent on your accommodation by becoming a property guardian.
Prices can be as little as £300 per month, depending on location. This rises somewhat when looking for homes in cities.
In London, property guardians could find somewhere central to stay for just £400 to £500 per month, rather than the thousands it would usually cost.
Many people choose to be property guardians to save money on their rent and other bills
What are their duties?
A guardian has two primary duties: to keep the building safe from squatters and ensure the property doesn’t slip into dereliction.
To avoid squatters, it is vital that at least one guardian is present within a building at any given time.
What are the cons?
Not all of the properties will have the comforts of a normal rented property.
Some landlords want property guardians in their derelict buildings to avoid squatters and as such it may be rundown, potentially with some interior issues and with limited facilities.
Property guardians can always view the place before agreeing to rent there so if not for them, they are under no obligation to accept.
Another con is that you don’t have exclusivity to your room like a normal tenant would and can therefore be given 28 days notice to leave, whereas a tenant has six months.
One of the cons of being a property guardian is that you only have 28 days notice to leave
What sort of properties are there?
There are hundreds of properties available for guardianship up and down the country.
These include former residential homes, office blocks, pubs, police stations, former hospitals, monasteries, hotels and leisure centres.
Like finding a normal rental home, you can have a look at websites online and see the offerings available.
How has coronavirus impacted the industry?
The pandemic has affected everyone in one way or another with millions of people being furloughed or losing work due to the ongoing situation.
There are very large numbers of temporarily vacant buildings in the capital and across the UK, and those spaces are likely to rise through the significant jolt to the economy from the pandemic.
In terms of demand by people wanting to be property guardians, it is more difficult to assess the impact of Covid-19, but research by the Property Guardian Providers Association shows people are understandably more cautious at the moment about shared living and there has been a noticeable tendency to seek out self-contained guardian properties.
However, current guardians have managed to respond to the pandemic in a positive way.
For those affected directly by the virus and can demonstrate they have lost part or all of their income through the coronavirus crisis, and are unable to pay all or part of their monthly licence fees, they will not be served notice to leave if they are currently in a guardianship role.
Graham Sievers, chairman of the Property Guardian Providers Association, spoke to some guardians living in properties during the Covid crisis to find out how they found shared living.
John is 52, a management accountant, who has been a property guardian for a year, living in a former care home in Wellington, Somerset, aid: ‘In my experience here, everyone’s been really diligent about cleaning the communal kitchens, and respectful about social distancing.
Property guardians look after unoccupied buildings and often share with other guardians
‘We’ve supported each other by keeping visitors away, using our own WhatsApp group to notify everyone if we’re expecting a parcel delivery, and just keeping in touch.’
John pays £300 a month, including all bills, for a large double bedroom, right by Wellington Park, a restored Grade II listed Edwardian garden.
Meanwhile, police officer Ross, 42, lives in a former hospital in Central London.
He said: ‘People were switched on from the very start, regularly cleaning the communal areas, keeping socially distant, and pushing the windows open as much as possible to allow good ventilation.
‘The room spaces and the communal areas are so large, it’s been relatively easy to have both some peace and quiet, but also to see each other safely.’
How many property guardians are there?
It is estimated there are over 10,000 property guardians in the UK, but in the Netherlands, where the concept began much earlier, there are over 35,000 guardians.
How can I get involved?
There are a large number of property guardian websites you can visit to browse available properties and find if one is suitable for you.
Plenty of information on what is expected is available and you can always speak to an agent or landlord to help with your decision making.
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