Magazine article The Spectator

Bargain Basements

Magazine article The Spectator

Bargain Basements

Article excerpt

The most alarming aspect of living in London, for many people, is the extortionate cost of renting or buying somewhere to live. On the open market, it is difficult to rent a room anywhere for less than £70 a week, or to buy a modest family house for less than £350,000.

You are bound to wonder if there is some way round this inconvenience. You may even wonder whether it might be possible to change career and become, say, a vicar, the Dean of St Paul's, a housekeeper, an au pair girl or a teacher at a private school which gives its staff accommodation. Or you simply move to a charming but upand-coming area where prices are lower but it soon becomes clear that most areas, including some which are not very charming, have already up and come. Those that haven't are priced by landlords and estate agents as if they have.

So how did my friend Charles live for free, and in luxury too, in a flat in Hyde Park Square? The answer was house-sitting. 'I lived in an Arabian sort of luxury,' he says smugly. 'Ridiculously thick carpets and silk curtains.' The only drawback was working out a rota with the men in the four other flats in the block so they didn't leave the property unprotected.

Charles got the flat through a firm called Ambika Security, run by Paul Cooke, who in 1988 started getting his friends to live in empty flats belonging to the Crown Estate in Regent's Park: They had a massive problem with squatters at that time.'

Ambika now looks after properties not only for the Crown Estate but also for developers, local councils and housing associations all over London and parts of the South-east. The contracts vary from a month to several years, but the caretakers - who are mostly male and all work in teams - will usually be found another place if they want one. New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans and a few Brits live in these places, and you can only join Mr Cooke's list by personal recommendation. Once in you can stay for a while: 'There are guys who've been with us for seven or eight years, whether living in a palace or a knackered pub.'

It may be worse than a knackered pub. Mr Cooke described his contract with Camden council, which employed him to clear a block, Gray's Inn Buildings, that they wanted to redevelop. 'There were 140 flats and four crack dens. They were evicting people from the flats and putting up steel doors. Dealers pulled them down and made safe rooms with them. We put 50 Kiwis in these blocks. At the end of the contract we had freed up the whole thing.'

While living for free like this might let you save for a mortgage, or at least another stretch of backpacking, it does mean you have to be at home quite a lot of the time. The other sort of cheap accommodation available in London means hardly being at home at all. Fabricio Manica advertised the cheapest bed in Loot on 20 March. He is an Italian student working in pubs in London and was looking for a third guy to share a room in Lewisham, which he already shares with a friend. The rent is £43 a week. 'We never see each other,' he insists. 'We work, we study.' There are two other rooms in the house, with two girls in one and three boys in the other, including people from Brazil, France and the Czech Republic. There's a big kitchen, Sky TV and a cleaner who comes twice a week. 'It's very nice,' said Fabricio. I asked him what he does if he wants to take a girl back. He laughed. …

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