guardian vacant property management guideThey can be called a variety of things; property guardianship or empty-property schemes, live-in accommodation, even house-sitting services.

The essence of each is the same, however; a unique way for individuals to ‘live’ and ‘reside’ on a short-term basis at a property that is not officially available for long-term residential use.

Typically, the type of property involved is an old, perhaps derelict, and possibly unusual commercial building that may be earmarked for future re-development, for example, a nursing home.

The owner will agree to allow ‘occupiers’ to live in the property for some time; the occupier will have their own living space, and in return, they help to look after and guard the property.

The principle originated in Europe many years ago and has become increasingly popular here in the UK over the last decade. The recession and challenging economic and property circumstances make transferring property to new uses time-consuming and expensive (see Guardian article here on growing popularity).

This solution can provide a mutually-beneficial quick-fix for everyone involved, hence the emergence, particularly around London, of specialist companies who often assist the process and offer vacant property services.

An Example of How It Works

Here's an example of property guardian services working out in reality.

Suppose you own a small office block in London, it has become empty, and it needs to have a significant facelift or re-development before you can let it again. It’s a target for vandalism, and even squatters, and left alone, may cost you money.

So for the next 24 months or so, while you plan the re-development, you look at having people on-site - carrying out ‘security services’ 24/7 and generally looking after the place.

You will save money by not having to pay for a security company. In addition, you will receive an income for a property that you couldn’t otherwise do from the very people performing these security services for you.

At the same time, imagine you are a young, single person working in London, wanting to save on accommodation costs for a period to wait and see how a relationship or a job goes, or to save for a deposit.

So you don’t mind living a little rough and ready for a while, and maybe in a quirky, unusual building, and you don’t mind helping out with a few chores around the place.

The property guardianship scheme brings these two worlds together. For cheaper-than-normal living accommodation, a person agrees to carry out ‘security services’ at a property to assist the owner in looking after the building and providing an income for them.

You, therefore, have a licence agreement that allows the individual to carry out security services at the property, with the additional benefit of sleeping over. In doing so, the arrangement does not come under the Residential Tenancy, Planning, Building Control or Taxation legislation.

In addition, there is no employment contract, so you have no Employment legislation to worry about, and you have no long-term formal security services contract and compliance issues.

How to Become a Guardian in 4 Stages

So that’s the theory, now more the practice.

Unfortunately, although at first glance, these schemes appear an ideal mutually-beneficial arrangement for both parties, it can be difficult to arrange.

Firstly, people might find it hard to understand and accept the deal, and secondly, a lot of practical necessities for the two parties must align for an agreement to be reached.

It is an unusual form of occupation, which most people will understandably be sceptical of. Whether you are a potential ‘licensee’ or a potential ‘licensor’, there are practical issues that you need to consider before you enter into such an arrangement. We have grouped these into the 4 ‘P’ Perspective used in the Property Management Guide book – it’s an excellent way to look at different angles of any property issues you have.

1. The Property Perspective

As a potential ‘tenant’ or rather licensee, finding the right property and having it habitable will be tricky; typically, they tend to be old buildings in relatively poor condition that are probably earmarked for future changes.

Although you won’t need things the way you might in a permanent residential situation, you will need certain things, including a minimum level of building safety. This is essential guardian property management. 

Property owners do have an obligation to make their property safe, including strangers and trespassers, so they most definitely have a duty of care to guardians of the property.

Squatting at a commercial property is also not a criminal offence like with residential property, therefore, requiring more complex orders and court involvement to ensure eviction. 

There are also issues such as fire compliance, potential asbestos exposure and water systems to consider. You will require a basic water supply and at least rudimentary washing facilities, even if it’s just a pop-up shower cubicle.

Services will need to be up and running and safe, with appropriate certification as is necessary for the building, particularly for electricity, which can be hazardous in an unsafe environment, and certification of which can be a requirement for insurers. Your safety and security are essential factors to consider, even more so than the property.

2. The People Perspective

There are two primary ‘people’ in the scenario; firstly, the actual guardian, who is typically single, with no family (or pets), and is in an established job with water-tight references.

The second is the property owner, who may be a corporate entity rather than an individual, with various parties making decisions, including external advisors such as managing and letting agents.

There are also potentially third party interests, such as the local authority, which may be involved in clarifying details in any potential planning applications, such as the intention to change the use of the building.

In addition, they, potentially along with the Valuation Office, will be involved in setting any business rates and council tax charges and may need to approve changes between these different regimes (which may be a help or hindrance).

When dealing with bigger schemes, there's is also a risk of an HMO being implied here and all the necessary registration and compliance that the Local Authority will require from the guardian scheme provider. 

The building’s insurers will be interested in the arrangement and are often one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in establishing an agreement. They will ultimately pay if things go wrong in this unconventional occupation scenario.

3. The Paperwork Perspective

Agreeing will generally boil down to forming a licence between the property owner and the guardian, often with a month’s notice required by either party to terminate.

However, there has been a more recent legal case of guardians claiming that they are effectively residential tenants and all the possession rights and claims that come with this. Even though an agreement may say otherwise, be careful it isn't been legally implied another way. 

Plus, if you have middle-men guardian providers, they will be involved, maybe with broader lease interests in a property that allows them to act as the immediate licensor.

There are also the initial reference checks, which are similar to those required for letting residential property, and all the health and safety paperwork requirements, which in some ways, are more critical in this instance than in the situation of a conventional rental agreement.

The health and safety requirement will often be dictated by the building’s insurers, general legislation, the council, and potentially even the funders of the property.

4. The Payments Perspective

The popular monthly licence fee should be lower than regular residential properties in the area but high enough for the guardians to take seriously and reward the property owner and cover their costs.

So technically, there will be a licence fee paid, rather than formal rent, and it will typically be paid a month in advance, with a month’s deposit also paid upfront.

As a potential guardian, also watch out for application costs, as well as packs of items that you ‘need’ to purchase, with goodies such as smoke detectors, fire blankets, and attach alarms.

From the property owner’s perspective, look out for your costs increasing, particularly your insurance premium, which could go either way depending upon how open your building insurers are to the guardian idea.

Utilities such as electricity, water and gas will need to be covered, potentially along with some extras such as a TV licence, and a phone and internet line.

You also need to watch out for business rates or council tax charges which, again, could go up or down, depending on whether or not the use of the building is deemed to have changed.

How to Make It Happen

Suppose this arrangement is something you’re interested in. In that case, the good news is that it’s an excellent and fresh-out-the-box way of thinking for people to occupy properties for the short term that benefits both individuals and property owners and is a practical way to help provide affordable accommodation.

The bad news is that it does take effort and lots of needs converging for it to work. If the focus was on ensuring that it is planned safely and correctly, more people who could benefit from it might see it as a viable short-term housing option – temporary, cheap, with no frills or housing-tenancy rights.

If you want to progress further, then think through the four perspectives, and before you decide, make sure you speak with someone who knows the reality of arranging successful property guardian schemes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can students become property guardians?

In theory, yes, although in reality, this will be difficult unless they’re ‘professional’ ones, maybe alongside work, rather than say a bunch of full-time young students in the building as uni digs.

There is often a high test to first be accepted, and then restrictions on things like visitors and behaviour.

How do you become a property guardian?

The easiest way is to go through a guardian scheme and sign a licence or agreement to ‘occupy’ the property as you technically complete security services there. This is after successfully applying and abiding by the restrictions and sacrifices for basically having cheap accommodation.

What does guardian of property mean?

Property guardians mean that you’re guarding the property against security risks like break-ins, squatters, and disrepairs. You’re the eye on the ground to spot these things, and although not necessarily take action yourself, to at least report them.

Why become a property guardian?

From an individual’s perspective, it can be quirky, flexible, and cheap accommodation to ‘reside’ at. From a property owner’s perspective, you have someone looking after the vacant property while longer-term plans emerge, and hopefully some income as well.

What is a property guardian scheme?

This is a middle-man scheme to help organise individual guardians with the property owner at a property. They oversee the organisation and responsibility of this set up.

What does a property guardian do?

Technically they’re there to carry out security services at the property and watch put for problems such as break-ins, disrepair, and people hanging around who shouldn’t do.

Unofficially, they end up having a bed and effectively residing there whilst they carry out these duties ad hoc during the day or week.
Is being a property guardian safe?

It should be set up as so, with an individual’s Lone Worker issues carefully addressed. However, in reality, it will be riskier than usual residential properties, and therefore, specific age ranges, experience, and sex may be needed for an individual property.

What are the best property guardians companies in the UK?

The two leading operators are Ad Hoc and Camelot, although smaller operators in larger areas like London.

Look carefully at the reviews, and delve into how long and effective they have been operating.

How do you find property guardian vacancies to rent or for sale?

Try the leading operators as above, and a general internet search in the area you’re researching.

It might also be worth contacting other local property experts for their feedback, and maybe even Local Authorities who may be supplying properties themselves for these schemes.

How can property guardians help with asset management?

It can be a good asset management solution when managing property to help secure an income whilst reducing costs and risk at the property.

It needs to be balanced with more longer term plans for the property, and the legal and other hurdles like with the insurers and Local Authority to effectively secure.

Are pets allowed in a property guardian scheme?

In most cases, probably not, but a possibility for some smaller and grander scheme.

What rent does a property guardian pay, and when it is reviewed?

It’s often lower than usual residential accommodation, whether PRS or shared accommodation. It depends on the local market and other local guardian schemes and also on the ‘quality’ of property and space there.

Often this is a set rent (or licence fee) without future increases, but still to be checked.

What rights do property guardians have?

This will need carefully looking into and clarifying. Technically not as many residential tenants are protected by such legislation, but still an essential duty of being safe and having certain freedoms.

What is a property guardian contract?

The agreement is signed between the individual guardian and owner of the property or guardian scheme. It defines who they can stay at the property whilst carrying out security duties and paying a form of the licence fee.

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