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The rise of the friendlord

More and more people are paying rent to their mates - but this leaves occupiers unprotected and unsure of their rights. 

January 26 2023, 16.56pm

After a relationship ended, 24-year-old Kemi* urgently needed to move out of the flat she was sharing with her ex-partner – so it seemed somewhat miraculous when she was offered a room by a friend who owned a three-bedroom house. The rent was decent, too, and she could move in pretty much whenever. It seemed too good an offer to pass up. 

“It was nice,” she recalls, “but it was a bit tense.” Understandably so: is bound to change when one friend begins forking over a sizable chunk of their income to the other.

Kemi’s mate is what’s known as a ‘friendlord’. A friendlord is a person who owns a property, occupies it, and rents out their spare room(s) to pals. In the eyes of the law, they’re known as a ‘live-in landlord’. This is a reasonably familiar concept. But what relatively few renters are aware of is that  you rent from a ‘live-in landlord’, you aren’t a tenant - you’re an ‘excluded occupier’, or a lodger. This isn’t just semantics - your legal status and your rights vis-a-vis your landlord change, too, and for the worse. 

There’s limited data on friendlords, but we know the number of homeowners taking in lodgers has tripled in the last ten years. Housing expert Vicky Spratt also notes the proliferation of situations like these in her 2022 book, Tenants: “Troublingly, such agreements are as commonplace as they are flimsy, with homeowners from younger generations renting out rooms to lodgers and friends to cover their mortgages.”

Spratt is right - this appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon among Gen Z and Millennials. This tracks with diminishing homeownership levels among young people: if you’re in the 12% minority of 16-34-year-olds who own a home, you can earn money for the mortgage repayments by renting to a friend. If you’re on the other side of the equation, the prospect of fairer rent and avoiding a rogue landlord is equally appealing. Both the renter and the friendlord get to enjoy the companionship of living with a friend, as many young people do. On the surface, it seems like a win-win for all involved.But, in reality, it’s far more complex. 

“Excluded occupiers – what most people know as lodgers – have surprisingly few rights compared to tenants,” explains Chloe Timperley, author of Generation Rent: Why You Can't Buy A Home (Or Even Rent A Good One). “The big one is security of tenure. The other big one is there is no obligation for the landlord to protect your deposit. If there's a deposit dispute at the end of the tenancy, the landlord holds all the cards – lodgers in this position are usually forced to cut their losses.”

What’s troubling about friendlord situations is that often, neither the landlord nor the occupier know what is expected of them, nor their rights. Many friendlords don’t even know that they’re landlords. It’s certainly evident that Kemi’s landlord had no clue: “They wanted everything to be split equally in terms of responsibility, like us calling plumbers and stuff. That didn’t really make sense because they were the landlord.” Not only does it ‘not make sense’ – as a landlord, legally, it was their responsibility to keep the house in repair.

Live-in landlords also don’t have to send occupiers a Section 21 eviction notice or give them two months to leave. “They can basically drop you a text message,” Timperley says. “Once your ‘reasonable’ notice period is up, you need to go. The resident landlord can even legally change the locks.” Kemi learnt this the hard way, when her friendlord told her and the other lodger in the property to leave shortly before Christmas. “They randomly announced that they didn't want us to live there anymore,” she recalls. Adding insult to injury, Kemi says she realised then that her (so-called) friend had likely lied about how much the mortgage repayments were: “because how can you suddenly afford to live alone in a three bedroom house?”

Granted, not all occupiers will have similar horror stories. After she graduated from university, 24-year-old Imogen* had the opportunity to move into a room in a flat bought by her friend. “It was perfect timing”, she recalls. Similarly, when Molly*, 26, was offered a room by a friendlord, she says she “jumped at the chance”. Five years later, they still live together.

One big benefit for both Imogen and Molly is the fact their living conditions are a far cry from the mold, damp and pests that many private renters grapple with. “I suppose it’s in [my friendlord’s] interest to have nice furniture, do the place up, and see to any repairs immediately, as it’s her primary home,” Molly explains. The biggest advantage, though, is the low rent: both women note that they pay well below the market average for their respective areas. “I was really grateful that he wasn’t absolutely milking us like basically every other landlord,” Imogen says.

22-year-old Joe, meanwhile, is a friendlord. He tells me he only began renting to a friend after they asked him if they could move in. “I never went to uni and moved straight into my own place when I was able to move out of my hometown, so I’ve never experienced the ‘living with friends’ thing. I was really excited to give it a go,” he says. “We just go fifty-fifty on the mortgage cost: that way he gets a good deal on rent and I’m getting something towards the flat.”

There will always be positive examples, but situations like these – where isolated individuals try to create pockets of safety within the hellishness of the private rental market – are still, first and foremost, a symptom of the housing crisis and  the Tories’ unrelenting erosion of the welfare state. David Cameron explained his dream of the ‘Big Society’ in 2010, “a huge culture change where people [...] don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.” At the time, this was a way of guilting private individuals into plugging the yawning gaps left by slashed public spendings – but the mindset (and indeed, the gutting of public services) has never really gone away. “People are prepared to potentially compromise a friendship in pursuit of a basic necessity like shelter [which] illustrates the power imbalances rife in the housing market,” Timperley says. “At all levels of society, property ownership is a major factor dividing the haves and the have nots in modern Britain.”

It’s unsurprising that after 12 consecutive years of Tory rule we’ve ended up in a position where thousands of people are unable to rely on a functioning welfare state, and are forced to pin their hopes on something as flimsy as a friend’s kindness. There may well be situations where an occupier may rent from a friendlord for many months or years and have nothing but good things to say about the experience. But this is still no solution to the issue of the skyrocketing rents and the proliferation of rogue landlords, and we still need protections for renters in situations where their friendlord’s kindness runs out - like what happened with Kemi. 

Despite their positive experiences, Imogen and Molly both acknowledge that there was something unsettling about depending on a friend for a need as basic as shelter. Imogen describes feeling as though she was “walking on eggshells” at times. Molly, meanwhile, “didn't ask for a contract” when she moved in as she was worried she would “seem rude”. “In the back of my mind, I know that she theoretically could evict me or raise my rent at the drop of a hat, but I guess you just have to trust that your best friend wouldn’t do that.”

Their experiences speak volumes about the uncomfortable reality of friendlordism. Most of us would have few qualms about asking a private landlord about repairs, or a new mattress, or a contract, but there’s more at stake if you're asking a friend. A landlord might get frustrated – but if you nag your friendlord, you could risk damaging a years-long relationship (and get evicted almost immediately in the process).

At present, the government is yet to do anything to ensure occupiers have more robust rights. As increasing numbers of people look to take in occupiers and lodgers as a buffer against the cost of living crisis, it’s imperative that the law is reformed sooner rather than later. 

In the meantime, Timperley has this advice for anyone considering moving in with a friendlord. “We should direct the bulk of our anger at the system, and government failures that allow it to perpetuate,” she says. “But if you value your friendship, whether you are a friendlord – or a ‘friendlodger’ – I would personally steer well clear.”