The affordable housing shortage and cost of living crisis have sparked a surge in interest in people becoming property guardians, experts say.
Property guardians help keep temporarily vacant properties secure by occupying them – benefiting the property owner, while enjoying more affordable accommodation for themselves.
The rent paid by guardians is much less than the typical rent for such a property, and guardians often do not have to pay electric or gas bills, saving them thousands of pounds a year.
As food and fuel prices soar, with energy bills expected to top £3,000 in October, analysts say more people are considering this lower-cost-of-living lifestyle.
It mirrors a surge in property guardianships in the UK a decade ago which was similarly driven by a housing crisis, rising rents and living costs – although another factor encouraging the practice at that time was high unemployment, which has fallen since.
i spoke to experts and current property guardians to find out why it is becoming increasingly popular once again, and the pros and cons of living in empty buildings.
What are property guardians?
Property guardians agree to live in a building or part of a building that would otherwise be empty in order to secure and safeguard it. People choose to become a guardian often because of the low costs involved, although the quality and type of building you end up staying in can vary dramatically.
How much does it cost to be a property guardian?
Costs will vary enormously depending on the location and type of building. They can range from about £400 a month, often including utility bills and council tax, to £1,200 a month for prime central London properties.
However, they will be at least 40 per cent cheaper than the private rental equivalent, according to Graham Sievers from Property Guardian Providers. “Guardians are saving tens of thousands of pounds on living expenses annually,” he said.
Are more people turning to guardianship?
More people are now showing interest in the idea due to the cost of living crisis, experts say – although the number of total guardians has not changed much in the past couple of years, due to the pandemic.
This made both potential guardians and property owners more cautious about guardianship, especially concerning properties in communal or multiple-occupied buildings.
However, many guardians already in buildings with shared facilities actually appreciated being able to share the lockdowns with a supportive community that made them feel far less isolated than if they had been on their own.
‘I loved having a space that was mine but let me live in a community’
Kit Collier Woods, 53, decided to become a property guardian five years ago after going through a difficult time in their personal life.
“I was initially lodging in a very uncomfortable environment but I came across this wonderfully big space for a reasonable amount of money if I lived as a property guardian,” he said.
“I loved having a space that was mine but also allowed me to live in a community.”
Kit, an executive assistant, lived in a space in Brighton with 40 other people for four years before moving to London.
“I am now living with experienced guardians with 18 others in a space that used to be a learning centre. I pay £750 in rent, including bills, in Zone Three. When I look online and see what other people are charging for rent, it is scandalous.”
Despite enjoying their current living environment, Kit warns there can be bad practice in the guardian market.
“In one of my former places, they just wanted to keep us in a building and the approach was unethical. After kicking us out, we were told by the property owners there would be another place but it was horrible.”
Overall, Kit says they enjoy being a property guardian but warns that it is not for the faint-hearted.
“My advice is that if you want to do it, go in with your eyes open. It is not rock ‘n’ roll. We are security, we are here to make sure the building isn’t squatted or that it doesn’t deteriorate from lack of use.
“It is a lifestyle. I know I could be moving again in nine months but I’m securely housed, I have people all around me and we keep the property nice, safe and clean.”
Does the Government support the idea?
Mr Sievers said owners and landlords sitting on empty sites have remained cautious about releasing them to be secured via property guardians, because the Government has given no encouragement to local authorities to support the model.
“There are several hurdles and barriers to empty buildings being given another beneficial life of ‘meanwhile use’, and deployed for short-term affordable accommodation,” he said.
“Red tape, planning issues and housing regulations that are geared for residences meant for long-term private tenancies, lasting decades, are applied equally to short-term affordable accommodation meant for use typically for around six to 12 months.”
However, he argued that a well-run property guardian model not only makes good use of the millions of empty offices and commercial buildings, but also helps the local economy, by providing businesses, pubs and restaurants, with an income from the guardians living in what would otherwise be a barren space.
“Here in the UK, we have the absurd situation where hundreds of thousands of people are seeking affordable accommodation, but empty properties are being kept vacant,” he said.
“Whilst the energy and inflationary rises have impacted on the cost of running such properties – and so, consequently, guardians are being asked to cover some of those costs via higher licence fees – there are still significant savings to be made by becoming a property guardian.”
Will property guardianship get even more popular?
Mr Sievers said: “The property guardian model is still a fairly recent phenomenon here in the UK, so about 10 years ago, it would have been less than 1,000 guardians, whereas today it is around 10,000.
“If the UK was to emulate the experience of the more mature guardian sector in the Netherlands, which has been there for three decades or more, then we could see 100,000 people in the UK benefiting from affordable accommodation, whilst securing and putting vacant buildings to good use.
“Another tenfold increase is quite possible, if local authorities and the Government would support the scheme more.”
‘We live in a Grade II listed building in central London for £650 a month’
Viktor, 38, and Krisztina, 37, are property guardians in the same building in central London.
“We’re very lucky, we are in a Grade II listed Georgian property with just five people,” Viktor said.
He has been a guardian since 2017, which he prefers as he likes the large spaces without the extortionate rent.
“I’m a photographer and prefer unconventional spaces to normal flats. The place I’m in now is my third guardianship. Although the price has been increased a little over the past months due to the cost of living, it is still £650, including bills.”
Krisztina, who works in finance, has been in the same building for nearly three years now, her first as a property guardian.
“I wanted to be a guardian for the low cost as well as having a bit of adventure. You also get to live in an unconventional building,” she said.
However, both admit there can be downsides to being a guardian. Viktor said: “The cons are that you might have to leave at very short notice. That is the rule, you will only know 28 days in advance if you have to go.”
Krisztina added: “There can be no drilling as we’re in a listed building which means there is no wifi and we have to pay for our own unlimited mobile data.
“We have also had people try to break in a couple of times plus there is just one shower between five of us.”
Despite this, both believe the pros outweigh the cons and neither have any plans to leave the guardianship life any time soon.
Viktor said: “I haven’t set a deadline, I am really enjoying it and will be doing this for a while.”