Two years ago, Georgia Franklin-Pierce, then a 22-year-old graduate, found herself in “a bit of a pickle”. She wanted to live in London but thought: “How am I going to afford it?”
In 2012, the average price of rent in London for a single household was hovering around £1,000 per month. For recent graduates without a stable income, the prospect of finding somewhere affordable to live in the city seemed like trying to find an empty underground carriage during rush hour.
Then, Franklin-Pierce’s older sister found out about property guardianship schemes – a program that allows property owners to rent out empty spaces to people who will become live-in security and pay affordable rent. A guardian will be allocated a room in a flat, house, office, church, or anything else from a range of empty venues, and start “house-sitting” for the property owner.
The owners push the price down for temporary tenants as a means of keeping squatters out. Such cheap rent, however, comes at a price: a sudden notice of the need to move out for the property to be put back into the market can come unexpectedly. Most companies give two weeks notice before a guardian has to leave, although Franklin-Pierce would be given a month if this were to happen.
Another point to consider is that a guardian is effectively living in someone else’s house; they can make minor alterations to the property – a light coat of paint and decorations here and there – while any major alterations must be approved by the property owner.
Franklin-Pierce and her flatmates accepted a very short-term contract for a house in Hampstead which took them to the top of the “horrendously long” waiting list. Then Franklin-Pierce’s sister was relocated to a spacious, Victorian terraced house in Brockley. The offer sounded perfect to Franklin-Pierce and the other four housemates who wanted to join in – until they realised how much work was needed to redecorate what was a very run-down space.
Her sister thought it was “unthinkable” that they would manage to move in. But Franklin-Pierce knew it was the perfect house and perfect location and was hopeful: “Me and my other housemates were saying ‘Are you sure? Are you positive we can’t dress it up and make it look pretty?’”
Having a housemate who worked as a tradesman helped. They assessed how much work needed to be done to the property, and then decided to take the plunge, investing some money to make their surroundings homely.
“We had quite a lot of work to do. We moved in and painted walls and ripped carpets out, which meant yanking out nails and painting over wallpaper, taking down cupboards. We did a fair bit of work and made it quite homely. It’s been two years and we love it here now.”
Guardians are expected to live in their assigned property full-time, keeping it clean and tidy and reporting any problems to whatever guardianship company gave the assignment. The owners are expected to fix things and pay for water and electricity bills. Gas supply, though, is not included, meaning there is no central heating, but only space heaters: Franklin-Pierce shivers thinking about the long winter of last year.
Companies always have to vet guardians individually, so partners or housemates wanting to stick together in a guardianship may have to deal with separation. “We were lucky, though”, explains Franklin-Pierce, “because they allowed my sister to fill up the house with people she knew – provided they’d been approved”
Calling the rent cheap is an understatement. Guardian rent usually ranges somewhere between £150 to £500 a month. Franklin-Pierce started paying £280 a month for her room, and is now paying a little over £300 after a housemate moved out – and that includes council tax and bills.
She says this allowed her to endure a period of real instability, “It means that even when I went through five months of employment and then five months of serious unemployment, I wasn’t in such a sticky situation. Even now when I have a salary it allows me to spend money on other things.”
For Franklin-Pierce, the most difficult thing to deal with is realising she might be asked to leave at any given time.
“It’s been a slightly difficult thing, never knowing how long you’re going to be in one place. It really changes the kind of effort you put into your surroundings and I think we would have done a lot more if we knew we were going to have a two-year stint. But we gambled and went for it so we’ve been fortunate.”
In fact, their improvements will be left behind in the house and are even likely to have improved the value of the property when it will eventually get sold.
Guardianship companies do endeavour to re-house tenants if they have to leave – but they can only offer what’s available at any given moment. Despite the fast turnover of properties they are not all suitable for living in and, if guardians decline, they might be left without a place to live.
“I would definitely recommend it as a solution, but it does depend on what you get offered, and also what you’re willing to adapt to. It’s not for everyone”, says Franklin-Pierce.
Yet, after having paid so little for a room, it’s difficult to revert to the harsh renting normality. “I don’t have plans to leave, and if we were kicked out tomorrow then I would do my best to try and find another arrangement like this. Paying London rates is kind of unimaginable after this.”
By Chiara Rimella, Daniel McCarthy and Rachael Pells