As rents and house prices grow faster than salaries, some people have turned to property guardianship as a way to make city living a viable option.
What is property guardianship?
Properties are often left vacant for one reason or another, even in prime areas. The building might be awaiting redevelopment, or fluctuations in property prices might mean that a developer wants to hold onto newly-developed properties until the market picks up. The owners might have inherited a property they don’t immediately want to occupy or sell, or they might simply be out of the country for a stretch. Whatever the reason, leaving a property empty for a long period of time is asking for trouble, whether from squatters, vandals or looters.
That’s where property guardians come in. For a fee, an agency will place trustworthy live-in guardians in the building. Though they fulfil a security function, it’s a role that’s frequently taken up by young professional people looking for cheap rents in central locations.
What’s in it for the property owners?
Obviously the big draw is the enhanced security provided by live-in guardians. As soon as a broken window isn’t fixed, or it becomes obvious in some other way that the building isn’t occupied, then chances are intruders will follow. Eviction orders for squatters can be a hassle, and the damage caused by vandalism or thieving can far outstrip the cost of placing guardians in the property.
By putting guardians in their properties, building owners might also benefit from cheaper tax rates and insurance costs.
Agencies vet their guardians carefully, and they will usually have to be in full-time employment or be mature students.
What’s in it for the guardians?
Guardians still pay rent, but the amounts are usually much lower than in normal tenancies. The properties are frequently in excellent locations, and many will be in interesting buildings. Notice periods are usually minimal if the guardian wants to move out.
For some people, guardianship is a flexible, unconventional lifestyle choice, and there can be a great sense of community between the guardians living together in a building.
What are the downsides?
Guardians are licensees, not tenants, and this makes them quite vulnerable. Over the years, there’s been a lot of protective legislation written into tenancy agreements, yet guardians enjoy few of these rights. A lot of it is stuff you might take for granted, like deposit protection, eviction processes, landlord visitation rights, or safety equipment. Often there are limitations on having guests at the property too.
In addition, some properties may not be primarily residential (old church halls, former police stations or the like), and the facilities might reflect this. Showers might be temporary, communal affairs, and guardians are unlikely to have working phone lines or internet. If a building is awaiting development, there is very little motivation for the owner to carry out timely repairs where necessary. Guardians may also have to deal with unsavoury tasks like cleaning up after squatters or drug users before they can make themselves at home.
A conventional letting is a far safer option, but there’s been a lot of recent media interest surrounding property guardianship as an alternative option (including articles by the BBC and the Guardian, and a sitcom from Channel 4). In moral terms, it seems like the jury’s still out. Opinion is divided over whether guardianship is a flexible, economical lifestyle choice that maximises the usefulness of urban buildings, or exploitation of how fundamentally unaffordable much of our city-centre housing has become for young working people.