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Thrifty 'property guardians' live like kings

Becoming a live-in security guardian of a vacant property - from old schools to redundant warehouses - is fast becoming a cheap and interesting alternative for adventure-hungry renters throughout Europe.

A decorative pink castle in Holland

Property guardians once lived in this former theme park

As housing shortages and sky-high rents plague any potential home seeker, more and more people are turning to an alternative type of living known as 'property guardianship.' The scheme places live-in guardians into vacant standing properties; providing the guardian with cheap rent and the owner with cheap 24-hour security for their building.

Standing Empty

The existence of thousands of vacant properties is an unavoidable fact as buildings become redundant or new developers await planning permission. It is estimated that between 3-5 percent of buildings lie vacant at any particular point in time.

Instead of letting this free space go to waste, companies are beginning to tap into this resource to provide a mutually beneficial service. According to John Mills, UK director of Camelot Property Management, the system provides higher quality security at a fraction of the cost.

"Employing a 24-hour guard to protect your property would set you back 3,000 pounds per week on average," he said. "We will manage your vacant property for around 100 pounds per week, so there's a huge commercial cost saving for property owners. By having people occupying their building, it's also more effective – so we believe our method of protecting buildings is better as well as cheaper than traditional methods."

A view of the historical Delapre Abbey in Northampton

Delapre Abbey in Northampton is inhabited and secured by 'property guardians'

Affordable eccentrity

Due to the inherently 'un-residential' nature of vacant properties, guardians could find themselves in buildings as unusual as castles, old schools or observatories even.

In exchange for protecting these buildings from vandals and squatters, guardians benefit from comparatively cheap rent. Michael Eslami is currently living in a six story town house right in the center of London for around 60 pounds per week.

"I think a studio flat or a one bedroom flat would cost you around 450 pounds per week, excluding bills," he said. "That's when you appreciate what you've got!"

Screening process

Any potential property guardian has to undergo a screening process to ensure they are eligible. This includes a criminal record check as well as a credit rating check.

The facade of a house in central London

Guardianship can help make living in London affordable

Guardians must also take on certain key responsibilities: no parties or large groups of people are allowed, the property cannot be left empty for longer than four days at a time and any damage must be immediately reported.

Guardians can be informed of a vacant property at very short notice, sometimes just 24 hours, and are never sure how long they will be able to stay.

"If you're going to be a guardian, then you have to take on board that you may not be there for more than three months," said Michael Eslami.

"Obviously you can't have pets or children or anything like that and it helps if you are at a crossroads in your life and you can tolerate that level of uncertainty," he continued.

Back to the 70s

The idea for the scheme harks back to 1970s Holland, when a housing crisis meant that illegal squatters were taking over vacant properties in large numbers. The laws surrounding squatting were very much a gray area, making it extremely hard for owners to reclaim their properties. Property guardianship provided a neat and happy solution.

By 1993, the scheme was first introduced to the UK by Camelot Property Management. There are now a handful of companies offering a similar service throughout the UK. "We've found it's a very successful product to take to different countries away from where it started," said John Mills of Camelot. "We've now got offices in France, Belgium, Ireland and we're about to open in Germany and Denmark."

Delapre Abbey in Northampton

The rent may be cheap, but property guardians must be prepared to vacate a premises at short notice

An adventure

As the recession brings about an increase of vacant properties as well as demand for cheaper rent, property guardianship is becoming an ever more alluring alternative to conventional housing. For guardians like Michael Eslami however, taking advantage of the financial benefits of property guardianship was just the tip of the iceberg:

"It's not all Disneyland, but there are some great moments and just cherish that - as if you were traveling across a country. This whole being a guardian is just a journey and if you enjoy that, it's all the things that you would expect to experience in any other type of unconventional setup."

Author: Sarah Stolarz
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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