We were so lucky to live rent-free in an old abandoned house for a year!

How we got this house was all down to the incredible kindness of our neighbours.

I live in a three- storey townhouse in a beautiful tree-lined road in south London with my twin sister and my cat.  

P. and I were renting just up the road and when we asked to renew the contract the landlord said: OK great. 

The estate agent said they should check out the market rate – which has massively increased. And then she put the rent up 40%.  

We thought: we can’t afford that any more. 

We were desperately figuring out what to do and considering  maybe moving out of London,  just because  the rent has become so unaffordable.

I had made friends with the people who lived below, a sweet elderly couple, and they  said: ‘girls…we’ve got an abandoned house down the road. Would you like to live there without paying rent?’

We were like: Oh My God. Yes! 

It’s hard to  explain why the house was abandoned.  I think there’s some sort of emotional issue and so it slowly became a place they used just to store stuff. 

We got a lodger’s contract, moved in and cleaned it up. 

A lot of people wouldn’t be able to do this. 

When we first came in there  were mushrooms growing on one of the walls… and  a mouse skeleton. But the landlord was very pro-active when it came to the mushrooms so that was dealt with pretty quickly.  

The house didn’t smell bad. It wasn’t not filthy, just untidy. The decay is more like ..  if you imagine there is some water damage and not properly cleaned up, so there are damp marks.  

It needed a lot of cleaning, a lot of scrubbing.

But once we did the clean-up it is actually fine and we were very impressed with ourselves that we’ve managed to just get on with it.

bathroom sink in rent-free home

The first two weeks there was no shower so we showered at the gym.

The landlord put a shower in for us and we were happy to have hot water. Friends lent us  electric heaters and someone we volunteer with came and put up a curtain for us to keep out some of the draughts. 

Because we’ve so much help from other people it is a very special, meaningful place for us.   

But it makes me wonder: how many houses are there in London that just aren’t being used

I think this house used to be some  sort of office, it’s got very  high ceilings. The building next to it was a book store

It’s quite strangely designed: there are narrow corridors and an extension at the front where the kitchen is, which is  falling apart. But having  said that, the building itself is gorgeous. 

As you go in there is an amazing feature light… the high ceiling makes it very beautiful…and a wooden staircase. 

staircase in high rent area of London

It’s a big draughty  house  with lots of windows that don’t totally  shut. And it  doesn’t have central heating.  

We found winter really hard.

On the walls there is very old paint which actually has lasted very well. You don’t really notice that it needs re-painting – apart from the water marks. The floor has a very scratchy carpet.

It has three bathrooms. One of them is unusable because it had a leak so I use that for the cat litter, which has worked out very nicely.   

It has electricity and a gas heater that doesn’t work. Ultimately, they  want to be zero carbon so they  will be replacing that with a heat pump when they can.  

My sister and I  have two  bedrooms that were cleared out  for our use, but the other three bedrooms are completely full of the owner’s stuff.

There’s a living room and a kitchen and that we can use,  which has very old appliances washing machine.. dishwasher.. fridge..  They were clearly very good  quality because even though the house hasn’t been used in 10 years they still work. 

But it’s such  just an incredible situation that  I never thought could happen.. that did happen. And every day I can’t  believe how lucky I am.

signs of decay on staircase in high rent area London

It’s not going to be forever.

We have until September, which will be a year and a half in the house.   Their plan is to renovate the house, move back in and have carers live here.

Recently they gave us permission to clear the garden. It was very overgrown and my father came in with tools and cleared it. 

It’s concrete but with lots of greenery around and it’s a beautiful place to sit out. My cat really loves it.  

courtyard garden in no-rent home London

The house is quite chaotic – it’s not pristine by any standards – but we feel very relaxed here. I think that’s because it’s an old  house.. it feels lived-in and has high ceilings. 

It didn’t feel spooky. But it kind of felt a bit invasive  being amidst other people’s stuff.  I’m grateful they let us nestle amongst it all for a year.

We are unbelievably grateful just to be here. 

When we moved house from up the road I literally borrowed  a Morrison’s trolley to carry our stuff down.  It was the opposite of  ‘moving in London’ – which is normally  expensive.. unfamiliar.. and comes with lots of fees. 

To live somewhere this big with  3 floors was  just crazy! It felt very big.  We kept on running up and down the stairs!

When you live in a space that really needs a big renovation it makes  normal cleaning that much harder. The oven has a big steel top and  is so rusty. I’ve cleaned it so many times but it will never be shiny. 

Every time I have a ‘complaint’ in my head I think: you are not paying rent, you have no right to complain.

You would have complaints if you are paying £1000 a month. But here…. oh well. 

large kitchen in old house London

The nice thing about this house is that has a big kitchen.

It is much bigger than any kitchen we have ever had  so I have all the space  for my appliances. I absolutely adore cooking and I bake  so I have a kitchen aid.. an airfryer…. I love having people over for food as well. 

After my dad cleared the garden we had lots of family  over to celebrate our 30th.  with 15-20 people outside.

I’d say I’ve got  enough stuff to half-furnish a house, but I always move into a place that has the basics of a fridge.. freezer and washing machine. 

I brought in  my own furniture.. my bed, my bedside cabinet. And because there is space – even though it is full of their stuff –  we had extra chairs that we just put in one of the bedrooms that  wasn’t being used.  

And I’ve got a desk that I work on at that I bought..  

I slowly gathered together all these things over the past ten years. It’s actually pretty affordable if you get cheap second hand furniture. 

My current bed is actually a present to myself.  

When I had an income, and not paying rent, I decided to buy myself  a king-sized bed.  I have insomnia  so the bedroom is very, very  important. 

bed head board in rent free home London

Most of my stuff comes from antique places.

I really, really like old second-hand furniture. I can’t believe what you get charged at  John Lewis when you could probably buy the equivalent  gorgeous 100 year old wooden wardrobe for the same price as a crappy new one.  I really like wood.. old furniture..

E-Bay is a huge love of mine.

My room is very  ‘undecorated’.

When you have to move every year  I  find it hard to decorate my bedroom each time. So I’m very excited to ( one day) live in a place that I own,  that will be  my room for however many years. I would like to buy   some nice paintings for the walls. All the things you can do when you own a place.  

The problem is when you are renting you get charged for putting stuff on the wall – not this place obviously. There are always  fees because:  “you put this pin on the wall and we have to fill it in”.    

personal belongings on sideboard London home

Although I have all the essential things… bed.. desk… and things I don’t have  any really nice lamps.  When you move every year they break.

Also, I don’t have a sofa because there is usually a sofa when you move in. 

I would be  so excited to be able to buy special something for a specific room, rather than think:  this will ‘do’ because I know it will have to go up three flights of stairs again and  again.

electric clothes horse drying, rent, London

Drying wet washing was terrible.

Doing laundry in winter… … We thought: how are these wet clothes ever going to dry? 

I bought – and again  this was because I wasn’t paying rent and I could justify it –a heated  clothes horse for £250. It felt like a really annoying ‘adult purchase’. But, it has been amazing and really cheap to run. 

You put it on and time it for 8 hours and it is  incredible. Since I bought this wonderful thing drying clothes is not a problem.  You  know your washing will be dry within the day. I can wash my sheets and have them dry that evening. 

Rent in London…. it’s disgusting! 

I first moved to  London 2016/17.  But, in the last three years rent has gone way up. It’s just the fact that the landlord can put it up 40% in one year!

I’m in a job that pays OK and yet I find it really, really hard. It  makes you wonder how everyone else manages. 

I feel like  people have become desensitized to the  rent thing because they have become so used to it. And now it really is insane. 

It will be a great shock when my sister and I move from this rent-free house  to having to pay the ‘new level’ – which we couldn’t afford a year and half ago. 

I haven’t been looking at the rental websites because I haven’t wanted to depress myself.  But, I know if I wanted a one-bed place to rent to live  by myself  – which I’ve never done before  – it  would be at least £1200, for a really crappy studio flat… in Mitcham! 

So… suddenly a salary that felt good at 50k, is not enough! 

It’s very weird. I am aware how lucky I am on so many levels,  but people like me are struggling to live in the city. 

I don’t want to spend more than half my salary on rent when I’m hoping to save to buy a house one day. It just doesn’t make any sense.  

Ultimately  rents will push people like me out.

The best thing about living here is that it is free! 

Normally with a landlord it’s just transactional but our landlord really cares for us and how we are doing.

He will come around for coffee, and because I work in politics, he likes to talk about that.  And  it’s just so nice…. really, really special.  

We will remember him forever. 

close up of urn in garden

When they came in to see how we were settling in they said we will get the bills and let you know what you owe us. I warned him the electricity bill was probably going to be  really high because we have all these electric heaters plugged in.  He said: I’ll  subsidise it. And ever since then he has just paid our bills!

I think they like having someone living in the house.

We drop their mail off because they still get mail to his house. The owners kindly look after my cat when we’re away, and we also look after their cat. 

Landlords can be really funny about pets.

I actually  came to his house with two cats that I got from a rescue home, both quite old; one died in December.  

 I had to work really hard on my last landlord to get her to do it. A cat is really not going to do much damage and if they did you would have to pay for it anyway with the deposit.  

There bill going through Parliament  that will essentially force landlords to allow people to have pets, unless they have a really good reason not to.  

When you have a cat and come to the end of your tenancy,  and don’t have somewhere  to go, you don’t want to just jump into  an expensive year contract –  just because. 

It can seem like quite a small thing… but my cat  just makes such a difference to my daily life. Just  having this  ‘little thing’ here makes the house feel cosier. She makes me happy

Once you have a cat you could never imagine not having that joy every day.  I don’t think I would ever go back now. 

black and white image of cat eating in old kitchen

For the first time ever – because I’m not paying rent – I am able to take a little break. 

I have been working straight since I was 21. 

This house has given me the ability to take  time off from a very stressful job,  which I would never be able to do anywhere else. 

For me, the gift of  ‘financial freedom’ is so much more than money; it has been life-changing.

leaky windows in old rent-free home

The worst thing about living here… is the cold.

I’ve never lived somewhere where you are sitting having breakfast and you can see your breath. 

I’m from Yorkshire and I’ve lived in cold places, but I think  it must be something about the gaps in the windows… the draughts.

In the heart of winter we were going to bed with four blankets and a hoodie and we are still cold. No layers are enough.  

The electric heaters really help.

I bought an electric throw and an electric blanket and they really made a difference.  My sister and I are quite hardy people but if they extended the lease for another winter I would have to think about  whether I would do it. You didn’t really want to have people over because they would be sat in their coats. 

When I tell  friends there is no heating they go: how do you manage? 

It’s pushed past normal levels of a ‘cold house’. My sister  said the whole time she has lived here she has had a blocked nose; it feels  like it is ‘just’ liveable. The flip side is that in the summer it is really nice and cool.

The only reason we got this house was because  I like talking to my neighbours. 

It is very much a Yorkshire thing, but I’m also big extrovert. I really get my energy from other people. 

I’m uncomfortable not knowing who my neighbours are. 

There is something really special  knowing that… there are good things  that come from being friendly. 

Because we lived in the last place for two years, and this place for a year and a half, this is the longest I have ever lived  anywhere outside of Yorkshire. I know I am going to be really, deeply sad to move  from this area. 

kitchen counters and appliances

I have moved pretty much every year of my life since I was 18. 

Now I have had a taste of what it is like to have a ‘community’ and to settle somewhere. We know the people in the bakeries and the coffee shops. So I am going to  be really emotional when that ends. 

I try  not to ‘mind’ moving because it is just essential, it is necessary.  But there is something very special about ‘knowing’ an area –  for three and a half years now. 

Me and my sister have lived in a lot of really crap places. With pay rises we have been slowly upgrading each year. But then they put the rent up- yet again – and you have to move out.

When I first moved to London I lived in Crystal Palace… that  was something like £500 for a really crappy two-bed place. Then  Queen’s Road Peckham… then Deptford –   I really liked Deptford. Then Limehouse.. then Hoxton… then here. It is at least £1-200 more to be north of the river, but I prefer south.

If the rent situation   wasn’t so crazy then I know I would try to find another flat in this area. But I can’t  be that specific.  I know I’m going to have to look anywhere that is vaguely affordable.

old fireplace and artwork in rent free home

There is no way on earth I would ever be able to buy in this area.

P. and I think how on earth did we manage to end up on such a fancy road? That’s the nice thing  about living on this street. If my friend said they had bought a flat here I would assume they had won the lottery.

I looked up the price of the last flat  where I lived and it was  £600,000! For a one bed flat with a shared garden. It’s just sickening.

I regularly think to myself: who is buying here? 

Even the people  I know who have really, really good jobs are still going to buy in… Wimbledon… and it will be a  one-bed flat. 

Who does London serve any more?

On a normal working week I usually work three days in the office and Monday and Friday working from home.   On the days I go to the office I get up at 8.00am leave at 9.00am cycle into the office for 9.30am. In the mornings I just have a  cup of coffee, read the news, have a shower cycle in… come back. Usually I have evening plans but if I don’t I make dinner read my book maybe watch a film. On a working day I will be in bed by 11 pm. 

I worked in Soho first –  that  was a half hour cycle – and more recently in Waterloo, which is a 20 minute cycle. That’s another thing that  I really love: it made London feel really small. A 20 minute commute by bike is fabulous!

antique desk and 2 bicycles

My sister and I cycle everywhere.  

Now they’ve pushed all the trucks  out of central London cycling is much safer than it was. But for me it’s a cost thing. It’s free! 

For 10 years of my life I was happy to live with strangers– but not now.

Because I’m  30 I don’t want to live with strangers.

I’ve mostly lived with partners and more recently  with my sister. Before I lived before London I lived in Berlin. If I was doing the same job in Berlin I could afford a two-bedroomed place to myself easily!

I really despise that London  makes you feel that living alone is this ‘huge luxury’.   

motley  kitchen furniture

We met the couple who moved into our old flat  when it went up 40% and obviously they must be people who have much better paid jobs than us because they jumped at the chance to rent. Whereas we were like: who would pay that? 

In every other house in this street  – bar the  rich people  – you only have access to the one floor that you share with  housemates. 

When we met our  neighbour on the other side he described how each floor is separated into flats A,B, C and  in each of those flats there are 2-3 people.  I almost felt embarrassed to say there ‘s just two of us…  in the whole building!  Admittedly we don’t use all those rooms, but we have the key to a whole house. 

I just wished that ‘lodging’ was more of a thing

In London it doesn’t feel like there are any other options to  paying ‘a lot’ to live with  strangers, other than a few things like property guardianships –  which  are very hard to come by and  varying in quality.  

I did meet someone who has a guardianship in like an old retirement home but it’s kind of  like a student dorms with one bathroom for the whole floor.  

In this area there is a huge amount of wealth. On this street it’s mostly  older people and yuppies who tend to be wealthy. 

There is an  massive amount of inequality. Even in the three years we have been here  you can see  homeless people…  vulnerable people who clearly need some sort of support.

view from garden to kitchen through patio doors

It is weird to live in an area that is such a paradox. 

There are incredible ‘bougie’  coffee shops and it’s definitely gentrifying. A dairy opened up recently,  the kind of place where you pay £5 for some butter! Who is this for? I can’t afford  this and I’m one of the yuppies who have moved in here!  

It’s difficult because you want there to  economic uplift but  when there are no controls it kicks local people out of the area..

It comes down to supply and demand

Hopefully with Labour coming in  there will be rent controls or more housebuilding.  I know our landlords are Labour and I’m sure there was a moment when they realised  they could help out because they have this house that isn’t being used.

One of the reasons I quit my job is that I have been working with NGO’s  but they don’t pay amazingly well.

Before this I have been privileged to never really think about money before, I just cared about  the cause that I work on. Now, for the first time  in my life when I am looking at jobs and thinking: they don’t pay  enough. 

I see  hundreds of great jobs  working for charities  in  interesting areas but I would have to live somewhere unbelievably crap. There are  some remote jobs but I think I would find that difficult.  

I’m in love with London and I love it here… but it’s just not  affordable any more. And that is something I am slowly coming to terms with. 

Ultimately I will have to move out of London. But I am very grateful that I had this for a year.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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