Kevin Harris has been a property guardian for eight years
By Egon Cossou
Moving home is an upheaval. Just ask Kevin Harris. He’s done it eight times in the last eight years. But it has meant that he’s lived in some pretty interesting places.
“I’ve woken up and counted myself lucky that I’ve got an amazing place to live in which is a little out of the ordinary,” he says.
That’s an understatement. His homes have included a former children’s nursery, a Victorian hunting lodge and a disused police station.
Today, home is an old EMI building in west London. It’s part of the site where records by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were pressed.
Kevin shares the three-storey building with 30 others. What was once an historic work space is now a living space, with each resident having their own individual room to sleep in. Some enjoy their own showers, while others share. Kitchen facilities are communal.
Residents pay an average of £350 per month, including utility bills.
Kevin is one of the UK’s estimated 10,000 property guardians. He pays a property management company a monthly fee to live in what would otherwise be an empty building.
Guardians are subject to a monthly licence agreement that affords them fewer rights than a full tenancy – they can be given just 28 days’ notice to leave and don’t have the right to exclusive occupation of the property.
Properties are subject to health and safety regulations, so should be kitted out with suitable sleeping, cooking and washing facilities, if they don’t already have them. They must also have functioning water and power supplies and be clean and safe.
The management companies look after the buildings on behalf of the owners. The thinking is that occupied properties are less likely to attract vandals and burglars. It is also cheaper than employing a security firm and avoids the property becoming derelict.
The old EMI building in west London is where records by the Beatles and Pink Floyd were pressed
Demand is on the rise, fuelled by the housing shortage and the cost-of-living crisis.
The Property Guardian Providers Association (PGPA), which represents management companies, says that in 2020-21, some 32,000 people applied to become guardians. It expects that to rise to 50,000 this year.
In fact, the PGPA is warning the sector might not be able to meet demand because of a shortage of owners coming forward. It says they are deterred by having to comply with planning regulations designed for permanent homes when they would only be offering temporary housing.
Kevin first became a guardian eight years ago, after a bad experience with a private landlord and he’s stuck to it ever since.
“The main [advantage] is the cost of guardianship is predominantly cheaper than private renting,” he says. “More often than not you’ll get more space for your money.”
However, he says the downside is “the lack of security”.
He works as a prop builder on movies such as Aliens and Tomb Raider, which means he has a lot of equipment at home on top of the possessions he has acquired over the years. “If someone says to me ‘we need you to move’ it’s a lot of stress having to pack my kit down and move out.”
But despite the transient nature of guardianship Kevin says he has never lived anywhere unsafe or unhygienic.
Matthew and Luciane Whitaker were initially hesitant about becoming property guardians
Kevin is an old hand at guardianship. But 31-year-old cargo inspector Matthew Whitaker and his wife Luciane, 32, are relatively new converts. They moved into a large old vicarage in the grounds of an abandoned Teesside church four months ago. They pay £400 per month for their five-bedroom property.
At first they were hesitant because they didn’t know much about the scheme.
But once again, the prospect of cheap accommodation persuaded them to take the leap.
“With all the prices going up this year, we thought this would be ideal to save a bit of money – maybe buy a house in the next year or two,” Matthew says.
While he admits it would be quite difficult to move at short notice, he’s not put off by the month-to-month living arrangement.
“It’s just one of the risks we decided to take. Hopefully it pays off.”
Graham Sievers from the PGPA says guardians are not security officers
The PGPA is the closest thing the sector has to a governing body and represents management companies covering 60% of property guardians in the UK. It sets out regulations and standards for its members and provides a complaints procedure for guardians.
Graham Sievers, the PGPA’s chair, is keen to clear up one common misconception.
“The security aspect that guardians provide is simply by being in occupation,” he says, reiterating that empty buildings are more likely to attract anti-social behaviour and squatters. “The guardians themselves are not expected to be security officers or patrol the building.”
He insists guardianship is not a last resort for desperate people.
“We’ve had people who are approaching retirement, teachers for example, turning to guardianship so that they can save up money to buy their ideal cottage.”
But he warns it’s not for everyone. “You have to be prepared to have a more outward-looking, communal lifestyle.”
Tenants also need to realise that the management companies keep a close eye on the building. “To ensure the safety of the property is maintained, your room can be inspected,” he says.
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The property guardian movement originated in the 1990s in the Netherlands, where there are now about 100,000 guardians. But it has yet to break into the mainstream in the UK.
Concerns have been raised about living standards. A recent report for the government found that “poor conditions prevail in property guardianship” in England. That’s despite efforts by some companies and the PGPA to professionalise the sector, according to the study.
Graham Sievers says it is important to crack down on bad practice and advises guardians to make sure the companies they deal with are PGPA accredited.
He urges them to contact the authorities if they are experiencing dangerous or unsanitary living conditions. But he also maintains it’s not enough for the sector to be left to police itself. He wants greater support from the government and more robust regulation.
A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We do not endorse or encourage property guardianship as a form of housing. We recognise, however, that people have the right to make their own informed decisions about their housing choices and property guardians and local councils should follow our extensive guidance on their rights and responsibilities.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Whitaker says that for the moment, he and his wife are happy to remain within the system, even if they have to move out of their vicarage at short notice. But they don’t see guardianship as a long-term option.
“Once you have a family it’s time to settle down,” Matthew says. “I think with kids it would be a difficult circumstance.”
The kitchens in the former EMI building in west London are communal
Despite the big savings he has made over the years, Kevin Harris from west London also thinks there is a limit – but for different reasons.
“Through my time as a guardian I have made close friendships,” he says.
“But I’m 55 years old,” he adds. “I can’t imagine doing this forever.”
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