Alternative City Living: The Cheapest Rentals in London
Hats off to London! This year it overtook Hong Kong and became the most expensive city on earth. City living here is twice as expensive as it is in Sydney and four times as much as in Rio de Janeiro, according to The Guardian. With regards to expats, the most expensive spot for them worked out to be Luanda in Angola. Safe apartments over there are hard to find, and the daily necessities of modern world are all imported from distant lands. Therefore, if you are planning your relocation, London would be the wiser solution of the two.
Jokes aside, unless your dad is the Prince of Monaco or you are a hard-core hippy, it takes inventiveness to survive here. A nerdy economics grad might think: right, London is the financial centre after all, so why don’t I go there, get a lightweight tailored Italian suit and become the next Richard Branson? Forget about it – even if you’re lucky face gets spotted by an investment banking organisation, this city is still going to swallow your bonus before you can say Goldman Sachs.
No matter what your true life position is, turning hipster and seeking alternative ways of surviving seems to be the only way out if you’re in desperate need of accommodation.
I wouldn’t be able to make it in London if it wasn’t for others. I wouldn’t have worked where I work, neither would I have graduated, nor would I be in a good health if it wasn’t for the people who always pulled me up by the collar when I fell.
And my turn to return the favour has come: my beloved mother, an IT engineer, has been made redundant due to the recession back in my hometown in Lithuania. Like hundreds of others, she’s been thanked for her 15 years of committed service and then let out onto the streets of the city where the only disturbers of peace are the cawing crow and a plastic bag blowing in the wind. The future prospects were so obscure that my 50-year-old flamboyant mum, who’s used to her luxuries, asked me: find me anything–I need to get away.
I’ve been inhaling London’s dust now for over six years. The first three were spent wearing out the same blue jeans at university in the day and waiting on tables in bars and restaurants at night. Then another one in various unpaid placements in return for some serious sounding job titles, and finally I’m in my third year of a, so-far successful career. Even though I don’t need to stock up on canned tuna in order to make it until payday anymore, I’m not yet financially able to rent my mum a flat. Not even one in a shanty town.
Legal Squatting, a.k.a. Property Guarding
I quite enjoy my independence as a young professional in London. I’m sure my mum would be a smashing flatmate, although it would be a struggle for us to share a room. Therefore, no matter what your true life position is, turning hipster and seeking alternative ways of surviving seems to be the only way out if you’re in desperate need of accommodation.
You’ve probably heard of squatters, the vagabonds who break into empty properties and inhabit them illegally. Well, nowadays even this method in London isn’t free. Fancy living in that abandoned marshmallow factory in Cockfosters? Become a property guardian! Services like this started mushrooming after certain changes to the law were made and the government decided to criminalise squatting in residential properties but overlooked the same action in commercial ones.
Fancy living in that abandoned marshmallow factory in Cockfosters? Become a property guardian!
Anxious landlords of disused pubs, shops and offices weren’t left to worry. Entrepreneurial property managers spotted the gap in the market and turned potential squatters into property guardian-angels, charging them whatever they can afford in exchange for somewhere to live with minimal security. Banners and posters seduced people with adverts reading: ‘rent a home for 85% below the market price’, but the homes they offered weren’t homely at all.
As a guardian you can get a place to live for as little as £50 a week in an area where the weekly rent for a two-bedroom apartment can reach the £700 mark. But what sort of conditions are we talking about?
I had a look at Camelot and Ad Hoc, two of the most renowned guardian agencies in London. I met up with a bunch of guardians to get the information first hand. One of them was Nancy, a young professional potter, who’s been guarding properties for a number of years and had quite a few sharp words to share with aspiring guardians. Nancy has lived in variety of different commercial buildings. She is a creative industry professional, who is used to not only thinking, but also living, outside the box.
“There are a lot of ‘artist-guardians’ as these buildings aren’t very glamorous and it takes creativity to make them feel homely,” she said. “It might sound like a grand idea, but I only live like this because I’ve got no choice.”
When you are twenty-something, living in a 1000-square-foot room without central heating might seem okay or even fun.
Just like us, I thought, and took out my pen and paper to take down as many details as I could in order to get into guarding ASAP.
‘We are handled very poorly and it feels like property managers deem us as bottom of the barrel. The communication is completely array and seriously disorganised, which means that as a result, guardians face some extremely stressful consequences. The management pay unannounced visits, breach contracts and refuse to help. People are pushed into a corner and they don’t have a voice because they have nowhere else to go.’ It did sound a bit unorthodox, but not just enough to put me off the idea so I listened on.
“Many guardians have experienced high levels of stress, even being in floods of tears and at war with their guardian companies. When you are asked to vacate a property, relocation is never the smoothest transition with guardianship. They can often leave you in the unknown for months, which can be difficult. However, funnily enough it’s not the moving or waiting that will frustrate you the most, it’s the communication between guardian managers and guardians–painful–as the problem is these companies are growing too big too quickly and do not have enough resources to manage a coherent operation.”
I got it. It’s a certain lifestyle that can only be handled at a certain age. When you are twenty-something, living in a 1000-square-foot room without central heating might seem okay or even fun. A sip of whiskey and coke and a sleeping bag will do the trick. But if you’ve past the rock-n-roll period, living this way will proably wear you out. However, if the above didn’t change your mind, here are three more tips from Nancy:
1. Get used to communal living, as you might end up sharing a space with 20 people. Be prepared–you might meet some rather odd people along with the nice ones.
2. Pack light – don’t carry too much valuable stuff with you as it can be stolen.
3. Expect it to be very cold–below freezing sometimes, so invest in some good heaters and ski gear.
Warehouses and Industrial Units
Beggars are not choosers, so rather than giving up on the idea of ‘hipster living’ we thought of ways to optimise it. If only to avoid random relocations, invasive inspections and suspicious housemates, the idea of living in a disused warehouse sounded more bearable. Costs for such spaces can be as low as £400-700 per month, about the same price as a double room – so unless you find somewhere which works out at the lower end of the price range, you could end up saving a few hundred pounds a month.
It seems that to truly benefit from lower rents by living in disused industrial and office buildings you need to find one yourself, already converted spaces can work out to be just as expensive as a simple flat or house. A great place to start looking is Spaced Up, which lists a huge selection of unconverted and partially converted warehouses and alternative living spaces available for rent. Another good place to look is good old Gumtree.
Is it going to cost a fortune to refurbish it? Not exactly as landlords are often willing to take offers or give a few months’ rent for free if you undertake some of the conversion work yourself.
The truth is, to get the best deal you have to be up for doing the legwork yourself. So we got out there and started hunting for a disused building. It’s not easy, but its doable. Just think of any area which used to be industrial in the past and study London. When you spot a potential building, find out who owns by checking the land registry, and then approach the owners. Chances are they’ll be quite open to the idea of giving the place a new lease of life–especially if the property has been empty for some time.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is what to do with the rotten tomb that is now your home? Is it going to cost a fortune to refurbish it? Not exactly as landlords are often willing to take offers or give a few months’ rent for free if you undertake some of the conversion work yourself. Moreover you can furnish the place with minimum expenditure by using a service like Freecycle, a hub for people who are recycling their goods, where you might snap up a lovely oak cupboard. Finally if you’re not into hammers and nails, furniture assembling and wall painting can also be done cheaply. Handymen also often run promotions in this saturated market, e.g. 25% off at Handy.com.
To get a feel for warehouse living we popped into one in Bethnal Green. Whenever you are trying to change your life drastically, whether it’s your career or living conditions, it’s good to see the extreme of it beforehand, just to figure out how far you are prepared to go. The inhabitants of the Bethnal Green space chose their unconventional lifestyle intentionally. Living there is a group of seven young people, including three members of an indie rock band Novonada.
“It is of course a cheaper option, but the main thing is that I like living this way,” said one of the band members. “I do like to be surrounded by people. I could live like this my entire life.”
What differentiates these people from property guardians is the fact that they have found and created their own unconventional living space. It also seems like they are sharing this space while enjoying the things they do in it together.
You can call it neither a comfortable nor a stylish place: the bathroom is mouldy, the walls are covered with graffiti, and the bedrooms are only 4 feet high and are separated from each other with plywood walls. But it must be said that there is some kind of romance in the situation if you feel like hanging out there for a bit longer.
The studio living room is filled with drums, speakers and other musical equipment. The band warned me that there was also a party planned for that night and guests would be arriving shortly. I assumed it was time to go, so I asked my final question, what three pieces of advice would they give to a rookie warehouse hunter? They said:
1. Be ready to forgo a few home comforts in exchange for space.
2. Heating a huge space like an old factory is going to cost a fortune, so you’ll have think creatively and frugally to ensure energy costs are not astronomical.
3. Own a pair of earplugs!
There is no doubt that both ways of city living sound bizarre, especially when considering them for someone of an older age group, a non-artist, who has never shared a flat with a stranger. It could turn out disastrously in so many ways, but let’s face it: nothing feels worse than seeing the world you’ve been successfully building for almost two decades collapse in one year. This includes your colleagues and your close friends moving away in search for a better life abroad, turning your city, once bursting with joy and youth, into a gloomy desert. It’s always easier to compromise when you know that a sacrifice you make now could help to build you a better life in the future.
Alternative City Living: The Cheapest Rentals in London