Expensive postcode, super cheap rent: Become a live-in property guardian

Photo credit: Daniel Ross

Living on the cheap in London does not usually equal comfort and style. But for a very little sum, or even for free, you can become a caretaker of a landmark property.

‘Room in central London, lots of space, £90 per week. Bills included’. Not an advert you see very often. But there is a way to avoid astronomical rents in London, and yet live in stunning properties – it’s the way of a property guardian.

Daniel Ross, 29, an artist and bartender, lives in a former hospital in Tottenham Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. His private bedroom is an old rheumatologist’s consultancy room, and he shares the kitchen and bathroom facilities with 14 other guardians. He pays £90 per week and pays no bills.

Tottenham Street, where Daniel Ross lived in an old hospital. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a great way to meet people and live cheaply,” he says. “It’s the most central I’ve ever lived, and you get quite used to living so centrally. You don’t really want to go back to commuting and, as I’m working in a pub, it’s not really convenient to be traveling a long way late at night.”

At least four property companies offer live-in guardian opportunities in the UK. The places that need guarding can be normal houses, but they are often old churches, hospitals or schools that can make for interesting and special homes. Some cost as little as £25 per week to live in, including bills.

Why is it so cheap?

Placing a live-in guardian in an empty building is a way for property owners, developers or local authorities to keep it safe from squatters. If a property is listed as uninhabited, it is more difficult to prosecute unwanted guests in court.

Art on the walls of Amy Garvey House, managed by Camelot Property Management. Photo credit: Daniel Ross

“If a property is occupied, squatting is a criminal offence – to squat a property you need to break and enter – so the police will attend. But if it’s an empty property, if the property is left vacant and we’re not involved at all, then squatters can claim a legal process there,” says Cary Barraclough, a business development executive at Camelot Property Management, a company that offers live-in house protection in the UK and the rest of Europe.

What’s the catch?

Being a property guardian is not the same as being a security guard or a janitor, but it does come with responsibilities.

“It’s not just cheap rent, [the tenants] really are responsible for the comings and goings, and any potential vandalism,” says Barraclough. “They have to report maintenance issues and be able to carry out basic maintenance. There is a lot of responsibility for it and that’s why we charge such a low fee to be at the property. It’s a two-way thing.”

At Ambika, a security company, people can become live-in caretakers of a property for the neat sum of £0 – there is no rent and no bills. But the caretakers have to fulfil their part of the agreement. “It’s a barter arrangement,” says managing director Paul Cooke. “Our people have to do a training course with us. And they have to be able to move at 24 hours notice. So you get absolutely free accommodation, often in central London, sometimes in extraordinary places and sometimes in pretty horrible places, but it’s free.”

Amy Garvey House. Photo credit: Daniel Ross

It is not only the short notice that caretakers or live-in guardians have to be aware of. Pets are not allowed, and neither are parties. Guests can also be a problem. At Camelot, live-in guardians can bring back no more than two guests at the time – and no one is allowed to stay over. At Ambika, bringing in any guests during the weekdays is “frowned upon”. But caretakers there might be luckier at night: “Quietly we tell our blokes, if you’ve got a girlfriend over she’s gotta be gone by about half seven in the morning or eight o’clock in the morning,” Cooke says. “So we don’t speak to the client about that, but there you are – one has to be realistic.”

Daniel Ross confirms that there are sometimes downsides to being a live-in guardian. At his current place, the hospital in Tottenham Street, only the rooms are heated. “It’s a bit cold, going to the toilet or the showers, a bit like going to an outdoor toilet or shower,” he says. “But the electricity is included, so with an oil heater the room is warm enough.”

Moving around can also be a problem. “Because you can be given one months’ notice to leave, you have to accept that you don’t know how long you’re going to be able to live there,” says Ross.

“If you have a bad run of luck and you keep having to move every three months, then it would get pretty weary, if you had a lot of personal possessions, to move all the time. Conversely, if you’re suited for the lifestyle because you don’t have a large amount of material possessions, then moving isn’t really such a problem,” he says and adds: “I guess it’s useful to be able to drive.”

Not just a temporary solution

The minimum term of living with Camelot is three months, so some guardians might be forced to move mid-term, if a property is sold or the owner wants it cleared out. But many guardians stay in their homes much longer between moves.

Amy Garvey House was the residence of Marcus Garvey. Photo credit: Daniel Ross

Ross has lived in four different places in the three years he has been a live-in guardian with Camelot. The longest period of time was a year and a half, in a house near Portobello Road.

“It was called Amy Garvey House, named after one of the wives of the black civil rights speaker, Marcus Garvey. We were sharing 11 people in the house. Five people had their own en-suite bathroom and again we had central heating and all our bills included. The house looked a bit like the aftermath of a rave when we moved in, but with a little bit of painting it was much nicer than any other alternative.

And again, if you have a house that has the gas and the central heating and the bills are included it’s incredible. And to live so close to Portobello Road! If you go out on a Saturday and you see how many tourists that are coming especially to see that road that you live maximum five minutes’ walk away from, it feels pretty good.”