Dream homes for guardian angels

Chiara Cavaglieri finds out how you can live for very little cost in stately homes or empty hospitals, in return for fending off squatters and vandals

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The Independent Online

For a mere £180 a month you could live in a stately home in the Scottish borders, a disused vicarage in Wigan and even a former fire station in Blyth; all just a few of the options currently advertised on various property guardian websites.

Sky-high rents and unaffordable houses have forced people to look for innovative solutions and to shun traditional home ownership for something a little quirkier – babysitting an array of unusual buildings.

Empty buildings all over the UK are being looked after by companies such as Ad Hoc, Camelot and Live-in Guardians, who recruit individuals to live there on a flexible basis. For "guardians" it's an opportunity to find somewhere unusual to live on the cheap, while owners get a constant presence on their property at a fraction of traditional security costs.

"It's a win-win situation – the property is secured and maintained prior to its future use and the guardian has a low-cost home. Not only are we seeing a marked reduction in vandalism and crime in the direct surrounding area, we are also utilising a property that would otherwise be a wasted resource" says Fiona Hanley from Camelot. "The monthly Camelot fee is on average 40 per cent lower than market rental values with large spaces in unique properties available."

Buildings become vacant for any number of reasons including redevelopment, delayed planning applications or simply someone struggling to find buyers. As long as it's safe to inhabit, property guardian agencies will step in to offer their services – namely protection against squatters, vandals, fly tipping and general deterioration – no matter whether it's an empty church, pub, sports hall, hospital, school, or a block of offices.

It has been over six months since the introduction of anti-squatting laws but many property owners still fear they will be at risk. In the downturn, property guardian schemes have seen a surge in popularity with Ad Hoc expanding from London into cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Brighton, while Camelot, which began in the Netherlands in the 1990s, works across Europe.

Matt Hutchinson, from house share website SpareRoom.co.uk, says that they first noticed these companies advertising rooms on their site back in 2011, but in the following year their numbers rose by 145 per cent.

"Renting as a property guardian can be great if you can be flexible. Rents are low and the properties are often beautiful old buildings, ranging from vacant schools and fire stations to cemetery lodges and hospitals. It can be a really sociable way to live as, in many cases, several rooms will be offered in one large building, and tenants share a kitchen and bathrooms," says Mr Hutchinson.

Most companies work along the same lines, charging owners from around £50 per week, taking over the utilities and placing enough guardians inside to create a presence and offer a decent level of security.

Guardians are typically professionals, key workers and employed students, but agencies promise to carefully vet all potential lodgers by checking their passports, proof of income and reference letters from employers and landlords. A head guardian is usually elected to liaise with the agency. Most firms also make random checks to keep an eye on cleanliness, damage and to ensure guardians aren't subletting any other parts of the building.

"The building is lived in and therefore no longer any more vulnerable than any other inhabited and used building. Thus squatters are deterred and it also prevents the theft of copper and lead. It is basically a socially responsible way of protecting vacant properties reliably while providing low cost accommodation," says Zoë Oakes from Ad Hoc.

As a guardian, by far the biggest benefit is low rent, or more accurately management fees which will depend on the building and the location but generally range from £150 to £450 a month. Utility bills are included and security deposits are around £350 but other fees may apply for registration, relocation to a new building, fire safety kits and insurance.

But property guardianship is by no means for everyone. Although you are there to offer security, you aren't offered any in return. There is no lease and you are not a tenant so the rights and responsibilities are different. You sign a temporary occupation licence instead and agencies can terminate the agreement with only 14 days' notice, although they do work hard to relocate you into another building and most say their guardians stay for an average of six months.

You will only be provided with basic, unfurnished living requirements – a bathroom, kitchenette, water, heating and electricity – and communal areas such as kitchens are shared with other guardians. It is also unlikely you will have internet and telephone connections.

You may also need written permission to redecorate, and in buildings split into units you may need to dig into your own pocket to install locks, giving a copy of the keys to the agency so they can carry out inspections. Above all, you are expected to keep an eye on the property and report any leaks or broken windows and abide by the agency's house rules.

Yet if you fancy an adventure and are prepared to move at the drop of a hat, this could be the best way to live somewhere you could only otherwise dream.

'An 18th century estate with views over the loch...'

Few people could hope to live in the stunning 18th-century Haining Estate in Selkirk, but this is where Stephen Baigrie, right, a 37-year-old call centre worker and part-time student, has called home for 15 months.

The stately home is under the management of Ad Hoc until a regeneration project starts later this year and Stephen was one of three guardians chosen to move in, paying just £180 per month including all bills.

"The room is large and looks out over the loch. The house and grounds are spectacular and it is very peaceful," says Stephen. He is, however, clear this lifestyle is better suited to single people without dependents.

"The building is used a lot by the local community. I woke one essay-deadline day to the sound of a brass band practising outside my window!"