We live in a four-storey townhouse in Finsbury Park for free
We’re not squatting though
It now costs twice the national average rent to live in London, and anyone without rich parents or a best friend with rich parents is spending almost half their salary to keep a roof over their head.
But some people get lucky.
In October, five graduates wound up living in a four-storey stately home with bay windows and high ceilings – and paying nothing for it. Holly, Nancy, Jack, Amy and Sara moved into the house in Finsbury Park as unofficial property guardians in October, and have been living there rent-free ever since.
Clearly, this is no normal housing set-up. Nor was it organised through one of the property guardianship agencies that charge low rent for tenants to guard buildings from squatters while they aren’t in use by the owners. They were in the right place at the right time.
Like property guardians, they are protecting the place from squatters, but due to a contact in the property business, managed to skip the usual fees. And the unconventional agreement brought some unconventional living conditions. The house had belonged to an old woman. She died; when the graduates moved in, everything was left exactly as it was. It looked like nothing had changed since the 1970s.
“Everything was still here, right down to the woman’s overcoat and shoes sitting by a door,” says Holly, a Manchester graduate currently studying for a Masters in the capital says. “We went through and chucked a lot of stuff out to clear space. But most stuff in the basement we’ve just left. We don’t go down there much anyway – it’s a bit eerie.
“It’s weird. You can kind of piece together the people who were here before from what was left. There was all this furniture left in here – we kept a lot of it. There were also clothes, loads of clothes.We found loads of vintage stuff that we washed and put into our wardrobes.”
“It’s like a time warp,” says Jack, another tenant and graduate of Oxford University, who currently works in Events Management. “The shower is coin-operated. At first it never worked and we didn’t know why. Then when we were drunk one night we realised you have to put these old-fashioned 10ps into this old-school vending machine next to the shower to turn the hot water on. And the shower has no light. You can’t see when you’re clean.”
There are old-fashioned range cookers in most of the bedrooms, and a shower in the kitchen.
“I’m pretty sure the woman used to have lodgers,” suggests Amy, who works for a global development company. “Why else would there be cookers on every floor, and a shower in the kitchen? We just use them for bedside tables.”
And unconventional arrangements will remain appealing as prices rise. According to figures by insurance company HomeLet, the average rent increased by 11 per cent in 2015; for many, lawful squatting in an obsolete property is a desirable solution – and most grads must pay to do it.
“We have a waiting list of thousands,” says Danny Schindler, Chief Operating Officer at Live-In Guardians, a company that places people into empty properties with the agreement of the property owners. “With the housing situation getting worse, we’ve seen a huge increase in young people – particularly graduates – signing up to become property guardians, for which they a quarter of what they would pay for normal rent.
“It’s a win-win situation. It benefits the property owner, as it protects their building from squatters, and it benefits the young people who would not be able to afford rent otherwise.”
And certainly, the housemates get kudos for the unconventionality. They’ve been creative with the fixtures and fittings, putting DJ decks in the bedrooms and turning cookers into wardrobe, though the shower in the kitchen stumped them. “Maybe it’s because there were lodgers,” Holly speculates. “We’ve never used it .”
All of them agree they’ve grown “very fond” of their unconventional home, they also concede there are downsides, despite the rent-free set-up.
“Half of the lights don’t work,” Holly continues. “And there’s no central heating. In my room on the top floor, there’s a small hole in the window. The winter has been pretty tough, with hot water bottles every night. I have no electricity plugs up there either.”
The bath runs on a gas heater, which has to be lit in order to get hot water. “I stayed last night and wanted to have a shower this morning,” says a friend of Jack’s. “I decided to have a bath because the shower is so dodgy. But turns out the bath is just as strange. Jack had to get a lighter out to turn it on, and the tap is really high above the bath. Really weird.”
There are plain advantages. “We don’t have to be careful with not breaking things and there’s so much space,” says Jack. “Unlike property guardians who aren’t even allowed visitors, we can have all our mates round — this house has great capacity to have people to stay.”
“We’re not paying, so we have no expectations,” April adds. “It’s funny, it’s a novelty. There’s always something to talk about – a new weird discovery one of us has made.”
Unfortunately , though, their free ride is approaching its end. The company that bought the house wants to start developing it, so the group must move out at the end of the month. They’ll miss it, but they’re ready to leave.
“It’s been an experience”, said Holly. “And it’s given us time to save money. Showering in the dark isn’t fun, though, and I’m looking forward to having central heating.”
Would they do it again? “I wouldn’t opt to be an official property guardian,” Jack hesitates. “I wouldn’t pay money to do what we’re doing now.”
“The legal basis for property guardianship is iffy,” warns Giles Peaker, a solicitor and specialist in housing law. “The guardians are not official tenants – they are simply licence holders. This means that they don’t have the same levels of protection or rights to privacy as a tenant. Many guardians [are] chucked out at little notice, or face difficult living conditions.”
“This is a temporary thing and because it’s free, it made sense,” says Jack. “But those property companies charge people to live in dumps and make a profit from it. That’s not fair.”