Money natters: Property guardian Michael Tomlinson shares his wisdom

By Natasha Culzac

Property guardian & photographer Michael tells us how he subverts the system & lives in posh London pads on the cheap.

Self-employed Londoner, Michael Tomlinson, 39, doesn’t have a monotonous 9-5. He currently runs a photography business as well as being an actor, film extra, model, event manager, security guard, designer, researcher, film fixer, Taskrabbiteer - and he resides in some of the capital’s most exclusive postcodes, but not in the manner that you might think. Michael is a property guardian, which means that he “protects” empty properties around the city and enjoys heavily discounted rent in return. Property guardians often have to move regularly and can one day be offered a few months’ tenancy in a luxury flat by Buckingham Palace, and then another day have to move to a dilapidated care home in Clapham that stinks of pee and death.


Q: When you were a kid what did you imagine your future would look like?

A: I was always entrepreneurial. I remember looking at the mirror as a kid, brushing my teeth and dreaming about ‘Michael Tomlinson Ltd’ and having an international empire - it was a rival empire to my sister’s. I don’t know if I knew it then, but it was kind of obvious that I would be a lot more motivated being self-employed. I’ve always liked being independent and doing work that was ethically worthwhile. In the late 90s, I worked for an admin company that sent out share books to investors.  It was totally dull and I could easily have been replaced by a machine so I got a bit subversive and started not sending out anything from dodgy companies like British American Tobacco and the nuclear industry.  I got sacked for not turning up one Saturday because I rather go to Reading festival.  Being an employee was not for me.

Q: Are you currently in your ideal job or profession, and if not, what would it look like?

A: Yeah. I love that being a photographer is an excuse to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet and travel the world. But because it can be so sporadic, I fill the quiet spells between assignments with other work like being a film extra, acting or modelling jobs. I love becoming another character and often this work is just fun. Film and TV extra work doesn’t even feel like a job, just an all-day party most of the time. I also sometimes work as a security guard, put on events and do odd jobs through an app called TaskRabbit. I’ve now worked out that this level of variety suits me, but it took a while because I think we can measure our careers against what our friends do and if you’re friends are on really high salaries it can make you feel a bit insecure.


Q: If I gave you £10,000 what would you do with it?

A: I’d probably invest it in my business and spend it on marketing and upgrading equipment, rather than buy a place. That’s only because I’m going to be buying a house in a few months’ time anyway with money that my aunt is lending my sister and I. For my aunt, it was either earn 0.5% interest on her money in a bank account or put it into a property with us and we’ll be able to give her a better return.

Money management

Q: Who financially inspires you and why?

A: I guess companies like John Lewis and Waitrose, because I like the whole partnership thing, where all the employees have a stake in the business instead of just the CEO and shareholders. They’re to some extent ethical, although they do have to compete in a very unethical market, which means they have to compromise their efforts. Also, people like [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick did, too, because she managed to balance being ethical and having a big business, which a lot of businesses can’t manage - they sell out.


Q: On a scale from 1 to 10 how savvy do you think you are with your money?

A: Compared to other people I’d say probably an 8. But in the past, because I had big financial problems when I was much younger, I wasn’t always at that level. It’s all resolved years ago and paid off, but I did get into a lot of debt in my twenties.

When you get your student loan, you kind of have this illusion that you have money, but it’s not real money. Then you’re offered the 0% student overdraft and 0% interest credit cards on top and it all just seems like easy cash and you don’t realise how hard it’s going to be to pay it back. I used to suffer with a bi-polar disorder too which could reduce my earning ability when I had depressions. However, I’ve been through the shit and know the really dark places and how to get out of them. I know who’s there to help and which banks don’t help at all. Credit card companies can be very unhelpful and throw money at you, enticing you into debt, but you’ve just got to know how to handle it.

In my thirties I rebuilt a perfect credit report and have four credit cards and I do this thing called stoozing, which is using the money from 0% credit cards and putting it in high interest savings accounts and some in investments, so you earn a profit on it.  Some credit cards allow you to make a balance transfer into a current account, so you can basically get four or five cards and put all that money into high interest accounts and investments and make 5%+ interest on it. I make a nice £1,000 a year in interest from nothing. I like the idea of taking money from the unethical high street banks and putting in into good places but it’s a dangerous way to earn money because if you take £20,000 and put it into an account, it’s very tempting to spend some of it.

Q: Do you think that you still have areas to improve?

A:  Always. I’m looking at more peer-to-peer lending options and buying shares from Fundsmith, a share investment fund that a friend of mine has recommended. With the help of my aunt I’ll get into property, but that’s a property to live in really. It will save me a lot of money. I’m also interested in alternative investments as well, like personal lending to people and businesses and the benefits of ethical investments. I think nowadays if you don’t make the effort to investigate alternative investment opportunities then you’re missing out on thousands of pounds a year. I don’t have that much trust in financial advisors and most high street banks offer pathetic interest rates.


Q: Where did you learn how to manage your money?

A:  Partly through experience, some of it bad. Partly through speaking to friends that are successful at what they’ve done. I got into the stoozing thing through a financial journalist who said it was a good idea and is very helpful. My parents are reasonably financially savvy, so they helped me a bit in the early days.


Q: Who is the biggest influence on your spending habits? And what does that influence usually look like?

A: People feel politically disempowered, governments are becoming less powerful than corporations, people are beginning to realise that their economic vote has as much influence as their political vote. rates companies, supermarkets, banks and products ethically.  By selecting who you buy from everyday you can make a real difference.  People moan about the main banks causing the financial crisis but still keep their accounts with them.  If we switch from Eon Energy they will not have the money to build the new nuclear power stations planned in the UK.  High streets would look more interesting if people got their fair traid coffee in an independent coffee shop instead of Starbucks who avoid paying tax and the developing would get fair wages.  Imagine how much the world would change. I am inspired by the power of ethical consumerism.  


Q: What is your biggest money weakness?


It’s good quality, organic food and hosting nice dinner parties. I love Waitrose and go almost every day. I like getting the free coffee and newspaper with their loyalty scheme. Also I spend a lot in charity shops. My most recent decadent purchase was an ex-Royal Navy helicopter lifting net for £65 off eBay which is now a high up suspended lounging area.

Money attitude & feelings

Q: If you had to pick three words to describe how you feel about money, what would they be?

A: Power, because money brings you power in terms of influence and what you can do with your life. Dirty, because it’s sad how much power money does have. And freedom, because it does bring you freedom. Let’s face it, if you’re poor or in a developing country you don’t have much freedom because of money.


Q: What if you had to pick three words to describe your future?

A: Glam-erotic, because I’d like my home to become the ultimate bachelor pad, with the Royal Navy helicopter lifting net lounging area, punch bags, sound equipment, cinema, disco balls and a smoke machine for an impromptu dinner party. I love entertaining. If I was private renting I’d only be able to afford a tiny cupboard of a flat and I wouldn’t have the room to host friends. Being a property guardian, sometimes I get 10,000 sq ft properties.

Free-spirited, because I go on holiday when I want. For all of January I might disappear to Morocco or something, which my 9-5 friends can’t do. And insecure, because sometimes I’m given as little as three days notice to move house.

Q: Can you describe your property guardian history? When did you start and how did you get into it?

A: I started in 2009 in a council building in Camden and had the whole second floor to myself. I only had a little camping mattress on the floor and then gradually over the years I’ve built up my furniture collection through charity shops and Freecycle.  You kind of move in and often they look like complete shitholes but I realised the creative interior design potential of it was really exciting. This first one looked a bit like something out of the post-apocalyptic film The Road, because it looked like they’d had big leaving party and then a nuclear bomb had gone off miles away and everybody had to evacuate suddenly leaving their champagne glasses and half empty coffee cups. A friend helped me move in and she was horrified by the idea of living there but then I got cool furniture, wall hangs and stylish lighting.  The next time she visited it she liked it so much she wanted to move in with me. Since then I’ve also lived in a grade 2 listed 200 year old park lodge in Hampstead, a former squat where your feet would go through the floor boards, a community centre which stank of piss when we first moved in and now a £30m house overlooking St. James park by Buckingham Palace. Some people hate the idea of being a property guardian because they think it’s a bit like camping in old buildings.  If you’re creative with space it can be glamorous and bohemian but it’s still nomadic, a lot of people can’t stand the insecurity of not knowing when you next have to move.


Q: What makes you most curious in relation to money?

A: I find it absurd that we live in a society where if you go to get a mortgage from your bank, they’re allowed to invent that money and then you pay them back interest on that money which they’ve invented. Also, we’re paying an invisible tax as well, which doesn’t get talked about, which is the resulting inflation and massive house price increases over the years. I’m curious about the absurdity of this system we live in and how people haven’t woken up to the reality of how exploited we all are, unnecessarily.

Decisions & influences on them

Q: If there was one decision in your life that you could go back to and change, what would it be and why?

A: I don’t tend to think like that because it’s a huge waste of mental energy, but if there was something I could change, it’d be to go back and meet myself when I was at university and give myself some financial and emotional advice. I had a lot of expectations and I thought I was going to be a rich and famous artist.
Back then I didn’t realise how hard it would be to make a living doing what I wanted to do in London. So many people who went to my art college ended up getting non-art jobs and they’re doing financially well now. Although one friend, who is very savvy, spent around 10 years being a quantity surveyor and he made really good money doing that and then pursued his fine art career. He’s got a studio in Barcelona and a property he owns in Croydon, so he’s worked the system quite well, but other friends you just feel like they’ve had to sell out because of how difficult the system is.


Q: What are you most proud of in your life?

A: The fact that I’ve got really good solid friends. And I feel like I’ve got my priorities right now. I’ve done a lot of things that are worthwhile that I maybe wouldn’t have been able to do as a 9-5 person.

Q: What do you imagine changing in your life in the next two years?

A: I got a bit distracted by all my other incomes, because they’re quite fun, so I want to concentrate a lot harder on just the photography. To make money in photography, it has taken years to establish myself after years of doing free or low-paid work just to get your foot in the door. I went to university for it so it will be satisfying to feel like I’m making a really good income out of it.


Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in life?

A: One fundamental bit of advice I got, I was coming back from a holiday in Newquay, and halfway back to London had stopped in a café, and there was a guy there who looked like kind of homeless vagabond, but he seemed strangley savvy and we got to chatting to him. He said the phrase, which is in some of my fine art paintings, he said: “Some people don’t live, they just exist”. And that made me think a lot. It has made me think a lot. And a lot people are just getting by and not really thinking about who they want to be or where they want to go.  My faith as a Christian has helped me a lot too.


Q: What is the worst advice you’ve ever had?

A: I remember my dad was pretty much like “you need to get a standard job, there’s an employment agency down the road”. This was when I was in financial problems in my twenties, and if I had taken his advice, I’d probably be doing a boring 9-5 job now on Prozac. It would have been a very boring life.


Q: Who has been the wisest or trusted advisor in your life?

A: That’s probably my dad too, actually. His advice is very insightful and he’s quite an inspirational person - he runs art groups for people in mental distress, is involved in tennis recovery groups helping people with mental health problems and ran a swim club for 20 years. I can see why there was a time he told me “forget about photography, it won’t make you much money, settle for a 9-5 job instead”, because I did worry them a lot when I struggled.

Work & lifestyle

Q: What is the most you’ve ever spent on an item for a girlfriend or boyfriend? And did you regret it?

A: I bought a girl I was once dating a Karen Millen dress that was about £170. It was a bit crazy because we were only dating but it just happened to be her birthday. It was a really extravagant gift. I don’t regret it, though, we’re still really good friends now. I really liked her and I wanted to impress her. I’m very comfortable spending on other people - it’s spending on myself that takes more consideration.


Q: What are your top money priorities for the next two years?

A: There’s buying this house and arranging the loan for my aunt - that’s a priority. I would like to start rebuilding my savings again because it’s a good buffer to have. And then continue to diversify the savings and investments that I have, so more peer-to-peer lending and perhaps invest abroad as well, because after Brexit it’ll be safer to do that.


Michael’s website can be found here:


Author Bio: Thanks to a journalistic career history and a childhood at Sylvia Young Theatre School, Natasha has her fingers in a few professional pies, doing her best impression of a model and actor as well as personal finance writer. Outside of work she compulsively watches BBC period dramas and constantly lies to herself that this year will be the year she learns French, once and for all

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