Monday 18 June 2018

Want a decent Dublin city two-bed for €480 a month? Here's how to become a property guardian

Where would you find a Portobello two-bed for €480 a month? Or a Crosshaven convent for less than €200? Tanya Sweeney meets the people who look after properties in return for cheaper rent

Niamh McConnell at the convent in Crosshaven. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Niamh McConnell at the convent in Crosshaven. Photo: Michael MacSweeney

Were you to come across an online advert for a two-bedroom house in Portobello with a rental price of €480 a month, it's likely you'd think it was a mistake. Yet an advert of this very nature, placed a few weeks ago, proved to be genuine

VPS Property Guardians, who placed the ad, perhaps not surprisingly, were inundated with calls, and the property was snapped up promptly by two couples. But the good news is that this isn't a one-off. If you pass muster as a property guardian, you could be looking at a serious chunk of change left over from your monthly rental bill. VPS's properties across Europe run a wide gamut, from office blocks and lighthouses to a prison in Holland (which was turned into a co-working hub).

"We had about 1,700 people respond to the ad," says Doug Edwards, managing director of VPS Guardian Services. "We had such an overwhelming response that we had to take the [Portobello] ad down. The whole thing really comes down to location, location, location. When we advertise a property on the outskirts of cities, the response won't be as much. We have lots of properties with developers, and we do the compliance work and make sure the buildings are completely compliant with legislation, are 100pc safe and we have all the certs. A lot of these large buildings may sit empty for some time and, rather than having an asset costing them thousands in security, they get it secured by us."

Property guardians move into and maintain houses that are in turn looked after by vacant property management companies like VPS Property Guardians or Camelot Europe. Owners of properties hand them over to these companies mainly for security reasons. And because there is an element of upkeep and security involved, the rents are much lower.

"We had Charles Haughey's former home [in Kinsealy] for five years, and guardians lived in there for €270 a month," explains Eoin Brennan, country manager for Camelot Europe. "We also had a castle in Athlone that was built in 1180. Around €170 a month would be considered an average regional price and, as you go up the ladder and closer to Dublin, you wouldn't pay more than about €450. That might be for a two-bedroom house in Dalkey."

Paying Camelot's monthly management fees, guardians can expect costs of anywhere between €31 to €128 per week for a room. They are also asked to put down a fully refundable deposit of €370 for properties in Dublin and €278 for properties elsewhere. Guardians are also obliged to purchase a fire pack and pay a small administration fee. The spec and furnishings vary from one property to the next, but all are safe and comfortable.

Evgeniya Em in Dublin 6. Photo: Tony Gavin
Evgeniya Em in Dublin 6. Photo: Tony Gavin

Those rental prices sound almost too good to be true, and Brennan points out the properties are rented with one or two minor caveats.

"We can't have guardians that are under 18, so that rules out many families right away," he explains. "We also give about four weeks' notice to guardians to end the agreement, so that can be a real sticking point for some. We also do monthly inspections, so if you're a guardian, you can expect someone from the company to be in your house once a month. Still, in the event that a property does get sold, that can mean notice of eight to 12 weeks, and conveyancing can take three months."

As to why a homeowner or building owner might resort to using property guardians as opposed to renting on the mainstream rental market, Brennan notes: "The reality is you're then tied into 12-month leases [in the rental market]. This offers real flexibility for the client. They know that within four weeks, they can get their property back. We can occupy these buildings on their behalf, keep them maintained, clean and secure."

For Niamh McConnell, who volunteers with wildlife rescue groups, it's a small price to pay. She is currently between properties but, until recently, she was living in an empty convent in Crosshaven for three years (€192 a month), enjoying a sea view from her bedroom window. Previously, she lived in Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham (€350 a month), until the Department of Education repurchased the property. Before that, Niamh lived in an old garda station in Dalkey. The low rental rates, she explains, means that she can afford to occasionally work with rescue groups on a voluntary basis.

"I grew up abroad, and came home in my 30s, so this is a very interesting way to county-hop," she says. "It's like a house-share but with much bigger dimensions. You share communal areas like the bathrooms and kitchen, and about half a dozen other guardians live in the place, but you get to meet interesting people.

"Being a guardian gives me a quality of life I wouldn't have in the normal rental market, and I have money to spend on other things," she adds.

She admits that the lack of security can sometimes be a downside, especially if she finds herself in a dream home. And the guardian arrangement is perhaps best for those who tend to travel light.

"That part can be a bit hard. I'd become very fond of living in Crosshaven, for instance," she says. "We were also really attached to Rathfarnham. But in a way it's a reality check - don't get too emotionally attached."

Evgeniya Em, who runs a Dublin tattoo parlour, has been a Camelot guardian for three years and has noticed the ongoing benefits of being a reliable occupier.

She was recently invited to live in a studio apartment in the heart of Dublin 6, where she pays €450 a month (including bills). She resides in the Georgian building with four other professionals, who all live independently from each other. Previously, she had been living in a cottage in Castleknock with three other people; the entire house cost €450 for the four tenants, including bills.

"The [Dublin 6] studio has everything I need," explains Evgeniya. "I'd had really bad experiences with landlords in the past, and I'd paid them a lot of money and not been treated well. Here, if something needs fixing, the guys come in and do it fast. But there are some rules - you have to respect the place, respect the people and have no parties. It's a different mindset.

"To be a guardian you need the mentality to be on the move and willing to go somewhere," she adds. "But I'm glad I get to financially breathe and save for whatever expenses I'll need down the line. I'm glad I'm no longer in the rat race."

In the past, demand for guardian properties has far outstripped supply, but Brennan has noticed a tip in the balance.

"We've often had an issue getting enough properties for all our applicants, but that is being flipped on its head of late," he explains. "We're pretty much signing an extra six buildings a week. Some of the buildings are voluntary hand-backs, where the owners are not in a position to pay, and the banks are prepared to take the property back on a voluntary agreement."

Given the current market, Camelot and VPS have been inundated with people applying for their properties. "Most people love the flexibility of the arrangement, but we have so many stories of people who have come on as guardians for three years, saved the money for a house deposit, and then gone on to buy their own home."

And given that the average rent for a two-bedroom Portobello house can exceed €2,000 a month, the four people who eventually moved into that recently advertised property for €480 felt like they had struck lucky.

"They were over the moon," says Edwards. "Their first reaction was, 'you have no idea how much money I can save. Now I can afford to live a little in this city, rather than just survive'."

  • For information on Camelot Europe's services, see ie.cameloteurope.com. For information on VPS Property Guardians, see vpsgroup.com

How to get bumped up the list

1. Be flexible “It’s about being available at the right time,” says VPS’s Doug Edwards. “We do security, criminal, reference and credit checks, and we make sure people are who they say they are. But flexibility will help to move people to the top of the list.”

2. Sign up for alerts Companies will offer a headstart to applicants who have signed up for email notifications. Expect a few days’ head start on everyone else.

3. Be a dream tenant Keeping a property clean and safe won’t be forgotten by those whose job it is to find guardians. “The waiting list can be really long, but once you’re willing to work hand-in-hand with the [Camelot] guys, they do look after you, especially if you’d like to relocate closer to the city centre, ” notes Evgeniya Em, a guardian living in Dublin 6.

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