The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Katharine Hibbert, founder of UK property guardianship company Dot Dot Dot.
Journalists might feel passionately about the industry they’re reporting on, but you wouldn’t expect many to start a business in that sector.
But so entrenched was former Sunday Times reporter Katharine Hibbert in the world of empty buildings and squatters, that she moved from penning features and a book on the topic, to setting up a property guardianship firm to help solve some of the issues she came across in her research.
Such a business enables people to legally, and usually cheaply, move into properties that would otherwise sit empty.
“The main thing I realised was that no one wants to see buildings sitting empty,” says the 38-year-old. “There’s quite a lot of talk about evil property owners, but it’s not like that.
“Empty buildings are a massive problem for people who own them, as well as those around them. No one wants a property to be empty as it could be vandalised, people could come in and take drugs, the pipes could freeze, or pigeons might move in.
“People aren’t deliberately keeping buildings empty, they don’t know what to do with them while waiting for a long-term plan.”
The concept of property guardianship had started in the Netherlands in the mid 1990s, when a security company introduced it as a way to prevent squatters. But Katharine didn’t just see Dot Dot Dot as a way to protect properties.
“Everyone was just looking at it as a security solution, but if you give someone a place to live below market rent, you can completely transform what they do with their life,” she says.
Katharine created a business plan whilst working as a producer on the Channel Four series The Great British Property Scandal, and launched Dot Dot Dot in 2010. “There wasn’t any upfront investment needed,” she says. “I kept myself [financially] going with the producer role, and making my money last longer by living frugally.”
The biggest hurdle she faced was securing the first contracts from property owners. “Persuading people to trust you with their valuable assets when you don’t have a long track record was my biggest challenge,” she admits.
How did she win them over? “I think they were excited about the model, and the positive difference [it could make].” This positive difference is Dot Dot Dot’s unique selling point – the company asks all its property guardians to commit to 16 hours volunteering a week, a subject close to Katharine’s heart.
“I personally think a pretty good ambition is to get though life in the most decent way possible. And to try to be kind to people, and give time to causes to help others, and volunteering,” says Katharine, who is a trustee for Headway, a London-based brain injury charity.
Her book – Free: Adventures On The Margins Of A Wasteful Society – also gave Katharine a helpful level of exposure. “I had quite good connections, and a high profile from speaking at conferences, and talking to enough people about my vision of how a property guardian could work.”
The first property that Dot Dot Dot offered was a four-bedroom house in north-west London that was set to be empty for six weeks.
“It was very vulnerable to crime and squatting,” she says. “I agreed to do it, and luckily it was the beginning of summer. A couple of people from university didn’t mind staying somewhere for six weeks, and we made it work.”
Katharine says it is important to always think carefully about who could be accepted to take up the role of a property guardian. “You can’t house the most vulnerable as they have acute problems, and there’s a duty to take care of the building, and that isn’t straightforward if you’re having a difficult time,” she says. “But at the same time you can’t give it to the person who can pay the most. “
Today Dot Dot Dot, which employs about 30 people and is headquartered near Stratford in east London, says it has looked after hundreds of buildings for housing associations, charities, local authorities and private property developers in areas including London, High Wycombe and Cambridge.
The properties are more often unfurnished, and therefore unsuitable for the likes of Airbnb. The guardians sign a contract with Dot Dot Dot.
How Dot Dot Dot makes money varies from building to building, but it usually charges both the property guardian and the owner of the building. If the guardian is required to vacate, he or she is typically given 28 days notice.
Air traffic controller Tim Callaway, 59, has been living in a one-bedroom flat in High Wycombe that he found through Dot Dot Dot five years ago. He pays £280 a month to Dot Dot Dot, and his voluntary work includes helping out at Veterans Aid, a UK charity that offers support to ex-servicemen and women.
“It was the ideal solution,” he says. “It was close to my work and affordable.” While Tim admits there were issues with litter and loud cars on the street when he first moved, he says this has improved in recent years.
Katharine herself was a property guardian herself for six years in Tower Hamlets in London.
“I think one of the nice things about being a property guardian is that when you’re a tenant you have to worry about Blu Tack on walls, damaging the carpet when a bike is in the hallway etc,” she says. “By contrast, if you are a property guardian, and want to paint the walls and decorate, within reason no one minds. You can make the place feel like yours, which is different to being a tenant.”
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Manjot Dhillon, property dispute resolution solicitor at law firm B P Collins, says property guardianship companies like Dot Dot Dot face a few challenges.
She says these include whether guardians could legally argue that they are entitled to longer notice rather than 28 days, and the possibility of guardians causing “substantial” damage to the properties.
Kathrine says that “we vet our guardians very diligently”.
As for the future, Katharine says her number one priority is to make sure that Dot Dot Dot makes as much difference as possible.
“We’re already housing hundreds of people, and supporting them to give tens of thousands of hours of voluntary effort to good causes,” she says. “But there’s potential to do so much more.
“I’d like to see Dot Dot Dot housing twice as many people and supporting twice as much volunteering in the next five years.”