Living low cost in a high cost city

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For me, the test of a good personal finance blog is whether it delivers useful and actionable information.

The readers can then decide for themselves how that information fits into their own life and to how / whether to action that information. That’s because this blog is for grown ups, capable of making their own minds up.

So it is with today’s post where we have one possible solution to the problem of high rents in expensive cities.

One of the biggest challenges for younger FI seekers is to find affordable housing. Property guardianship provides a way of slashing living costs (and therefore massively boosting your savings rate) in a city such as London.

You get super-cheap living accommodation. Property owners get occupants that keep an eye on it.  Its a win-win solution that better utilises a scarce resource (urban living space).

So it’s an interesting addition to your range of living options. It requires a degree of “roughing it” and as such it won’t be for everyone. But if you enjoy a bit of stoicism with your urban bohemia then maybe it could be for you?

I got one of my coaching clients to write about his personal experience of being a property guardian.

Enjoy!

The Escape Artist

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Last year, I hit a roadblock. 

I wanted to get my finances in order. I had been reading all the right books, improving my frugality game and trying to sound like I understood investing at FI meetups

But I was trapped in a tiny London flat, with a flatmate I didn’t like, shelling out over half of my monthly take-home pay in rent. All the little money-saving changes and careful belt-tightening were peanuts next to the enormous chunk of money leaving my account each month. 

When it was time to move out, I knew I needed a change. So I decided to move into an office in a quiet corner of a large industrial estate under a Property Guardian scheme.

Property guardians are generally described something like this: “working professionals who protect unused buildings by occupying them under a temporary licence agreement”. I’d volunteer a shorter, if less PR-friendly, definition: “legal squatter”. 

The business case goes like this. Say you’re a landowner and you have a building and, for whatever reason, it isn’t being used. To keep it out of harm’s way, instead of paying for security guards, you could get Property Guardians to move in. They’ll look after the place, but instead of an invoice you get rent. Amazing.

At one end of our unit we have an enormous, thousand-square-foot living room full of sofas, bean bags, desks, screens and a pool table. At the other is a kitchen with fridges, microwaves, a small plug-in hob and a washing machine. In the bathroom, one of the cubicles is a makeshift shower. In other words, although it’s technically an office (with the strip lighting and carpet tiles to prove it), it’s got everything you need to call it a home. 

And call it home is what I do, along with a handful of other flatmates / guardians. Corners of the original office have been roughly walled off into rooms, one by a large pinboard nailed to the ceiling and propped up by cupboards and lockers. Any internal windows have been pasted over with posters or maps to preserve the occupants’ privacy. 

The rest of the communal space has been furnished with whatever took the occupants’ fancy: six or seven badly clashing rugs on the floor; cloth hangings, posters, pot plants and graffiti on the walls. The overall effect is a cross between living on the set of The Office and living in a commune. In a good way: its actually much more charming than the grotty Ikea furniture and bare walls of many London rentals.

Guardians generally live on a one-month rolling contract, with 30 days’ notice on both sides: the guardian to leave, or the owners to take back the property. The contract is technically not a tenancy but a ‘licence agreement’. So we pay a monthly ‘licence fee’ rather than rent.

When it goes right, there’s so much to recommend about guardianship. Being on an industrial estate, we’ve no immediate neighbours, so when my housemates are out I can blast tunes at nightclub volume with impunity. We haven’t hosted any parties, of course, as the licence agreement doesn’t permit them – but if we had done, I reckon they would have been really good fun.

Besides, I’ve met some awesome people and had some fantastic experiences through the guardianship. The old unpleasantness of not liking my flatmates is gone. When you are together in such an unusual place, it brings you closer than a regular rental would. Also, you have to be a bit bonkers alternative to sign up to living in an industrial estate – and I tend to get on with that kind of person.

I also take great pleasure in people’s reactions when they ask:

“How can you possibly live there?! You must be so uncomfortable!!”

This reminds me of the outrage reserved for people who don’t spend all of their salary every month – for example, the miserable old git who runs this blog who we all know never has ANY FUN EVER 😜.

Speaking of frugality, did I mention that its cheap? VERY CHEAP.

The cost of living in my building ranges from £250 to £400 a month, and that includes all bills (power, water etc). Not bad for half an hour from Trafalgar Square. It means that on an average London salary, I can easily hit a 50% savings rate with enough left over for avocado on toast (otherwise known as “milennial crack”) and craft beer at the weekends.

Too good to be true? Let’s look at the other side of the coin. My first room had no windows and my current one has so many that it’s boiling hot when the sun comes out. There is no insulation, just a bare corrugated iron roof, so in the winter it gets cold (one morning in January I left a pork chop out of the fridge by mistake and it was still good the following evening!). Wearing warm stuff (sometimes known as “clothes”) fixes that problem.

Beyond not being designed for living in, the condition of the buildings is generally poor. It’s this point you’ll find most of the horror stories focus on. My building is at the good end of the spectrum, but there are still windows patched up with Perspex, doors hanging off their hinges, a drain which backs up whenever we run the washing machine and a tap whose head comes off if you look at it the wrong way. And if you want anything fixed, expect a long wait for maintenance – we had no boiler for all of January.

Also, the 30-day kick-out period will affect some more than others. I am fortunate to have backup plans in place: friends and family with whom I could stay if it went wrong, and an emergency fund large enough to get me into some proper housing sharpish.

If you’re up against the wall without these safety nets, I suspect living as a guardian without a financial safety net could result in genuine hardship. In that sense, guardianship is just another example of why everyone needs an emergency fund.

Then there’s the contract you sign: no pets, under 21s, candles, decorations, parties, meetings, overnight guests, or heaters in the communal areas. On paper, if you get caught you’re on the hook for not only being chucked out but some potentially nasty financial penalties which could put a dent in your savings – although I’ve never heard of this contractual sword of Damocles actually dropping on anyone. [TEA note: In practice, you would have legal protection from The Unfair Contract Terms Act]

Of course, things are like this for a reason. Guardian companies treat their guardians without frills because Guardians aren’t customers (the property owner is their customer). Guardians perform a service (living in disused buildings and stopping them turning into crack dens) in exchange for a reward (massively discounted rent). 

Most companies are oversubscribed with wannabe guardians, so if you whinge it’s easy for them to swap you for someone who puts up and shuts up. If you called it a “zero-hours tenancy”, you wouldn’t be far off.

Better to think of property guardianship as like having a side hustle rolled into your accommodation. There is extra work and hassle involved. To borrow a metaphor I learned about from TEA, guardians answer to The Man in their home life as well as at work: in effect, you trade some of your freedom for the lower rent and larger living space.

Thinking of it like this paradoxically makes it much easier to handle. For example, the condition of the building used to annoy me, but now I’ve just got used to it. My red lines are vermin and mould and we don’t have either. I’ve come to feel that anything else that won’t burn you, electrocute you or slice one of your limbs off is just a minor inconvenience. This is stoicism in action and it’s actually a very calming way to think.

Guardianship might even be good for your soul. When I moved in, I was being bullied in a stressful new job, reeling from a devastating bereavement, and (probably as a result) in very poor health. Essentially, I needed a challenge to take my mind off the other challenges. Moving into such a no-frills living space not only gave me this, but built resilience into my life. After getting up in the dark on a frosty December morning, running half-dressed through the kitchen then jumping into a cold shower, you know you can take on anything the world throws at you.

As for the inconveniences involved: yes, they are real. But if you have an emergency fund to protect yourself against the worst risks (sudden homelessness, or being offered somewhere genuinely dangerous) then the potential upside is huge: months or years of bigger, cheaper, and friendlier homes than you’ll ever find in the window of your local property agent. 

Its an option and options are more valuable than most people realise. If at any point it goes wrong, you can just hand in your 30 days notice and get the hell out.

Vegan

You can’t do that if you sign a conventional 12-month rental contract and then discover your new flatmate, who seemed so nice at the viewing, is actually a Nazi / communist / milennial crackhead / aggressively evangelical vegan / <insert your personal nightmare scenario here>.

And with that, I’m heading back to the office.

 


Further reading:


meetupEdinburgh Meet Up : Friday 23 August.

6pm – 11pm at The Shakespeare Pub, 65 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH1.

Come along for drinks and chat…meet other people interested in Financial Independence.

All welcome!

 


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Financial Coaching

 


 

8 comments

  1. isn’t renting a bit like property guardianship – in exchange for the privilege of having a roof over your head you get to look after the place and pay the owner’s mortgage (but not get any tax benefits).
    Seriously though, property guardians in cities like London do make a lot of sense financially and if you can put up with the insecurity, then it’s a great way to save a lot of money and live in a property that you might never even look at buying/renting yourself.
    The cost of living in London (HCOL for LQOL) puts me off living there – but give me a free town house in Kensington and I’ll be down faster than the pound against the dollar!

  2. Great story will pass this on to a couple of my younger colleagues. Are you in the FI London fb group? If not, you are welcome to join, would like to hear more! Keep up the excellently frugal work. Regards, John.

  3. I’ve not been a property guardian myself but the higher potential for camaraderie is appealing. I went to a fun block bbq at a closed down nursing home once…

  4. Hermann · · Reply

    FI people could also try ‘house sitting,’ where you look after people’s second homes, you can travel around Europe, etc, rent free, or paid.

  5. Living in Los Angeles, one of the world’s other most expense cities, I could totally get on board with something like property guardianship. Do the owners have any obligations to the guardians in terms of maintenance? If your toilet breaks or something isn’t working, who is responsible?

    Unfortunately, we have a family of four so this type of deal wouldn’t be an option for us for at least another five years. But we have found a way to rent more than $700 below the average cost of an apartment in our neighborhood, and our apartment is rent controlled, so we’re locked in for a while. It definitely took us some work to find a good spot in an expensive city, but it was totally worth it for the massive savings.

    Cheers,

    Elise

    1. Hi Elise – well done on getting cheap rent for your family. Re your question, the property owners (not the guardians) are responsible for maintenance…but you might have to wait a while for them to get round to it!

  6. […] And an interesting guest post with from someone living low cost in London (26) […]

  7. What a brilliant idea! I don’t know whether they do that in the States, probably in bigger cities…but that’s an awesome way to reduce COL to increase financial savings.

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