Providing reassurance to residents in Shoreham-by-Sea

August 18, 2021

We added another seaside location to our portfolio in December 2020 when we partnered with Southern Housing Group, a not for profit housing association, in Shoreham-by-Sea. As Southern Housing Group relocated existing residents of The Mannings estate, Dot Dot Dot took on four flats in late December, housing four guardians for the duration of the six month project. 

A greater sense of safety for existing residents

The Mannings project was unusual in that we were brought in towards the end of the residents’ rehousing. Southern Housing Group had grown concerned that there was one remaining family in an emptied area of the estate that had grown increasingly vulnerable to ASB. We knew from the outset that Southern Housing Group needed to secure the properties quickly. Our experience of housing guardians alongside vulnerable residents and commitment to understanding both the Group’s and the residents’ needs made us best placed to take on the project.

Southern Housing Group’s key consideration was the safety of their residents. Like Dot Dot Dot, they exist to help the communities in which they work, and our aligned values made a strong foundation for the partnership. Residents from the estate were involved in key stages of the selection process, allowing them to have a say in who was appointed.

It was important to Southern Housing Group that any new neighbours would not only be responsible but well-managed. As part of our proposal, we included a profile of Jess, Dot Dot Dot’s relationship coordinator (RC) in charge of property and guardian management at The Mannings, to provide reassurance and a personal touch. With the lowest relationship coordinator to guardian ratio in the sector, our RCs each look after 75 guardians, allowing them to develop supportive relationships and address any issues effectively. 

We also made it clear to our prospective guardians that it was important they built a good relationship with remaining residents in the block. We build good neighbourliness into our model because we know that our guardians, by virtue of their volunteering (each guardian volunteers for 16 hours per month for good causes), make great neighbours and responsible temporary residents.

Our agile approach at Shoreham-by-Sea

We were brought onto the project at The Mannings to provide an effective short-term solution for Southern Housing Group, who needed not only to ensure the safety of the emptying estate, but the safety of their residents as quickly as possible.

Our agile approach allowed us to set out a quick setup plan, bringing four properties up to standard and moving our first guardians in by the end of January, just a month after signing the management agreement. It is testament to the dexterity of our approach and the hard work of the Dot Dot Dot team that we were able to take on a project over Christmas, at the start of a new lockdown and away from our London headquarters with such a quick turnaround.

As we had come onto the project at a late stage in the rehousing process, it was also vital that we could ensure a smooth handover once our service was no longer needed, six months after we moved our first guardian in. Southern Housing Group were impressed with our service, commenting that “Dot Dot Dot were a pleasure to work with from start to finish. All departments and officers were helpful, understanding, and knowledgeable. We didn’t have any issues with the property hand back and there was clear communication and expectations set, which meant it all went smoothly.” 

We set out expectations right from the start, offering transparency and giving our clients peace of mind that we can guarantee vacant possession within 30 days of being given notice, which was particularly important given the short-term and sensitive nature of The Mannings project.

Introducing additional security: Vigilance

As Southern Housing Group continued to rehouse residents in different areas of the estate, more areas started to become vulnerable and there were concerns over an increase in ASB. Due to the condition of the properties, guardianship was not a viable option, but we recommended Vigilance, an ethical security company, to provide hard security services at the estate. Vigilance employs ex-Armed Forces personnel to help them reintegrate back into the workforce, and their commitment to social value both through their work and support for the Gurkha Welfare Trust make us proud to partner with them. 

Our commitment not only to our clients’ needs but also to existing, often vulnerable, residents makes us best placed to navigate sensitive contexts and complex needs in estates like The Mannings. We work closely with our clients through often changing and challenging circumstances, offering alternative solutions like Vigilance in addition to providing property guardianship with purpose. Despite The Mannings project’s short lifespan of six months, we were still able to deliver approximately £608 worth of social value, alongside great neighbours and a greater sense of safety for the remaining families. 

If you want to find out more about how we can cater to complex empty property needs, sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, or contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Property guardianship isn’t just for Londoners: Letchworth Garden City

June 25, 2021

In 2019, we brought our mission to provide safe, affordable housing for those who want to do more good to Letchworth Garden City, the world’s first garden city, in North Hertfordshire. We have partnered with Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF), a self-funded charitable organisation, to secure a block of flats in the town centre, housing 36 guardians in 19 1- and 2-bed flats across the three years. 

Letchworth still upholds its original vision, set out by Ebeneezer Howard before its conception in 1903, that income generated by managing local assets will be reinvested back into the community. LGCHF continues this work today, working to invest in initiatives with its community in mind. 

We are proud to support the foundation not only in securing their empty assets, but in their placemaking objectives, assisting them to ‘support, fund and deliver activities to meet [their] charitable commitments for the benefit of our local communities’. Since the project began in 2019, our Letchworth guardians have contributed 4,147 hours of voluntary work to local charitable causes such as Letchworth Foodbank and Love Letchworth.

Not just for Londoners

Property guardianship has typically been associated with cities, and particularly London, and if you asked someone to describe a ‘typical’ guardianship property, they will probably describe an unusual building, likely a pub or a bank, in a desirable location in the heart of the city. In reality, the need for property guardianship is widespread, and there is no such thing as a typical property or a typical guardian. We have taken on a huge variety of residential and commercial properties, and myriad projects in areas beyond the M25, from Shoreham, to Manchester, to Henley-on-Thames. 

Empty properties are not just a problem for London’s housing circles; all over the UK, long-term vacant dwellings are a security risk, a nuisance to the communities that surround them, and a financial burden for their owners. In 2020, there were 268,385 empty buildings in the UK, with 30,548 of those in London. Outside of London, it is a similar story: there were 26,275 empty buildings in the East of England last year, which is almost the population of Letchworth. Our experience has shown that towns are not exempt from the predicament of empty buildings; there is just as much of a need for property guardianship in Letchworth or High Wycombe as there is in London. 

Setting up outside of the city

The age of the Letchworth’s original buildings and its additions in the 60s and 70s has inspired LGCHF’s plans to regenerate several of its assets. The long-term nature of the regeneration has left some buildings empty with an uncertain purpose, leaving them vulnerable to potential security risks. With our broad experience of delivering property guardianship outside of London, we were able to mobilise a management plan quickly, allowing LGCHF the time and space to solidify their plans whilst we secured the building. 

Filling voids in non-traditional property guardianship areas requires a tailored approach. With a different target audience in our smaller, town-based projects, we have to think differently when marketing our properties. Motivations for moving and priorities may differ from those looking to live in a city, people might use different channels to look for their housing, or they may not have heard of property guardianship before.

One thing that all Dot Dot Dot guardians do have in common, however, is that they are interested in giving back to their community. One tactic we employ is to build a base of interest through contacting voluntary organisations, in order to reach volunteers who are looking for housing. This also helps us to establish a network of organisations, to which we can direct our guardians’ voluntary efforts. This was important in Letchworth, where the foundation’s mission is focused on funding charitable initiatives in the area. In a survey we conducted in 2020, 67% of Letchworth Garden City respondents volunteered in the borough. 

Taking care of everything

As property owners well know, there can be a huge number of moving parts to consider when managing empty assets, particularly assets that are empty for unknown lengths of time. In Letchworth Garden City, we took on all of the facilities management for the block, allowing LGCHF to allocate their time and resources elsewhere. As we take each project on a case by case basis, we can build in different levels of management where required.

Property guardianship is not only for property owners in London – wherever they are, we give our clients the time and space to support their future plans whilst we take care of everything in the meantime.

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com or sign up to our newsletter.

Counting the costs of empty properties

May 21, 2021

Many property owners focus on the lost rental revenue when calculating the cost of an empty building, but, says Dot Dot Dot chief executive Peter Brown, there are many more savings to be had when using property guardians.

When a mainstream use of a property comes to an end e.g. because an occupier has left, or the building needs to be redeveloped, the focus on the financial loss to the property owner is usually on lost rental revenue. This is understandable, because those figures usually quickly add up, but there are also significant costs involved with managing and stewarding empty buildings which can hit the property owner’s bottom line. 

In my experience, most organisations will underestimate these costs as they aren’t used to holding property empty. And in larger buildings that have had a commercial tenant, the property owner won’t have been responsible for the building’s day to day costs and so may not even have a sense of the running costs of the building, so won’t have been able to make an assessment for how much the building may cost to keep empty. Every month when we run through our budgets, I never cease to be surprised by how quickly the savings of using guardians, rather than leaving buildings empty, can add up. 

For example, we took responsibility for around 165 Council Tax accounts in the last financial year, saving 14 of our clients more than £220k in Council Tax payments alone. Single accounts ranged from individual studio flats up to our largest 90-person property, and, there were plenty – hundreds – more accounts where the guardians paid Council Tax directly, thereby contributing even more savings. We’re also working up the savings on utilities, maintenance and alternative security options for each of our projects, so we can give our clients a more complete understanding of all the money they’re saving by choosing to work with us.

The costs of empty property that we typically see fall into two categories – direct and indirect. 

Direct costs are things that clients would have had to pay for themselves if the building lay empty – for example:

  • Council tax: discounts and exemptions for empty property have not been available for a number of years, and in some areas policies to incentivise owners to use property means that Council Tax bills can double for longer-term empty property
  • Energy and utilities: even when equipment is switched off, there are often standing charges to pay for
  • Hard security products: many of our clients have historically used third party security products such as metal screens to secure their empty properties. These products are either rented or purchased, and so using guardians removes the need to pay for them
  • Repairs and maintenance: we will often be able to take on some of the routine repairs and maintenance, depending on the building
  • Health and safety, and compliance: even an empty building needs to be managed and kept safe, for visitors and to avoid it becoming a hazard.
  • Depreciation: though it’s hard to measure, an empty building will most likely lose value over time as it becomes more dilapidated. There’s a value in a building that is cared-for and looked after. 

But there are also other costs – indirect ones – that only become relevant once a property is empty:

  • Insurance – many insurers have clauses requiring property to be occupied without long void periods, and some insurers will charge more for empty property given the risks of vandalism or damage going unnoticed and unchecked
  • Theft or vandalism – these costs can be high in terms of both the cleanup and securing the building again. Unfortunately, we’ve seen even the smallest property being the target of metal thieves.
  • Squatters or unauthorised access – the court and bailiff costs associated with removing squatters can easily run into five figures.

So, when faced with an empty building, my advice would be to consider and make provision for a wider set of these costs and not just rent loss.

If you want to get an idea of how much property guardianship could save you, get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

On the ground: Regeneration schemes and gradual decants – build and flex

May 20, 2021

Last month our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explained how we put in place the right support for regeneration schemes and other long, gradual decant programmes. In that first piece, he explained how we like to understand the properties, project and community to deliver a tailored service.  In this follow-up, he explains how tailored workflows and a flexible long-term approach can help our clients to achieve their goals.

Build a workflow that fits around the client

Our careful up-front research gives us a strong chance to hit the ground running in a regeneration or decant project. As well as giving us useful knowledge and a tailored model, we have already engaged in great conversations with our new clients, which helps us to establish working relationships quickly when the work starts.

Part of this preparation is about the detailed work of designing procedures and workflows that fit around our client’s existing operations and teams. This is key to the success of regeneration or decant projects. We need to be able to receive, manage and return properties to the client in a way that fits with their resources and needs.

At an operational level, this means understanding how the client wants to prepare and handle properties before handing them over to us. This usually involves agreeing a clear specification for the client’s voids or maintenance teams to follow. This will cover familiar areas such as:

  • Gas and electrical compliance
  • Clearance
  • Key cutting and locks
  • Fire safety systems

Some clients will do significant work and others will do none – this varies according to each client’s compliance needs, budgets and operational priorities. Our work needs to fit around the agreed specification, filling the gaps and ensuring that the property handover process is smooth and efficient. Getting this ‘recipe’ right is a key step – it gives our clients certainty about their own workflow, it allows us to make detailed plans, and it gives us an insight into the unique pressures and preferences of a new organisation or team.

Beyond that, we will also put in place the tracking, reporting, administrative and compliance elements of our service so that each client can access the right service and the right information in a way that works for them.

As well as the obvious property management issues, each client’s way of working needs to be accommodated. This is not just about ‘receiving’ properties, but also to their ongoing management and maintenance.

  • How are utilities handled and how should we transfer those services effectively?
  • Do operational staff prefer to share documents in paper form, by email or by using shared online drives and documents?
  • Do the client’s teams want us on site so that we can react to a flexible timetable? Or do they want a more structured approach with fixed schedules?
  • Do clients want us to liaise directly with their contractors and suppliers? Or should we work directly via the client’s own representatives?
  • Does the client have specific policy or practical requirements around anniversary or repeat compliance checks?
  • Are there particular elements of housekeeping or maintenance that are particularly important for the client? Perhaps one area or block needs special attention?

These are just some of the factors that we consider, and although this seems like a lot of detail, we are able to get ‘under the hood’ of these requirements quickly by combining our wide experience with good quality client conversations.  We have our own standards for high quality guardians and well-managed housing, and we understand how those can be delivered in a wide variety of operational contexts. We love the challenge of moulding our service so that we become a flexible and low-hassle part of each client’s toolkit.

A lot of this is worked out at the proposal stage before a contract starts, but detailed process-building continues after we are on the ground and working closely together with clients. We like to build high quality relationships with both decision-makers and operational staff within our client organisations. This allows us to respond intelligently and quickly, to find efficiencies, and to pre-empt risks and difficulties. 

Flex and change with the project

Regeneration and decant programmes can change and evolve significantly over time. Our detailed planning is not just about what a client needs now, but also about what could change in the future, and our experience helps us to understand how our service may need to adapt.

We are typically prepared for the changes in size, pace and structure that could affect us, but we are also used to responding flexibly to unforeseen issues. By working collaboratively with our clients, we constantly review the outlook and risks for each project, and we are ready to adjust plans rapidly if needed.

This could mean tweaking a compliance policy to address an area of risk, or overhauling our entire contract to take on a new range of responsibilities. We often have insights and ideas from previous work that will help us and our clients to navigate changes. Although the details of every project will vary, there are common challenges that we are used to addressing:

  • Delays that mean old buildings are kept in use for longer
  • Changes in financial or political priorities meaning that the speed or scale of our work changes quickly or that previous decisions about properties need to be reversed
  • Changes to other suppliers that affect teams, workflows and responsibilities
  • Policy or legislative changes requiring us to evolve alongside our clients
  • Issues or crises in the local area that require us to change the focus of our social impact, resident liaison or other work

These are just a few examples of the issues that we have tackled with clients in the past. Because we can draw on insights from multiple projects and organisations, we can be a useful source of stability and knowledge for teams facing new phases or transitions in their major programmes.  An important part of our approach is that we structure our service to be effective throughout the lifetime of a project, with in-built flexibility and resilience, and a commitment to long-term outcomes.

Working sensitively to support regeneration programmes or the decant of multiple properties has always been a core part of Dot Dot Dot’s work. This experience informs every part of our operations, and we take pride in supporting clients in a tailored way through their most challenging and important programmes. 

 

If you would like to find out more about how we could work with you on a new or existing project, contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

Working with property developers across the country to care for empty buildings and the communities around them

May 20, 2021

With our deep understanding of working in large regeneration contexts, it is unsurprising that some of our client list is made up of housing associations and local councils. Yet the reality is that we have collaborated with a wide variety of clients with varying needs, and we have a broad experience of working with property developers to provide vacant property management through housing guardians, and support their redevelopment processes. This breadth of experience is what makes our model so successful – we are able to draw on all of our past experiences to deliver the best service for our clients.

In this month’s blog, we will be taking a look at how this manifests in our partnerships with property developers, in particular in Marylebone, Cambridgeshire and Purley. We explore how our experience of working with different types of building and a diverse client base has given us the knowledge to best support our clients, not just in their vacant property needs and redevelopment plans but in stakeholder relationship building and fulfilling their CSR objectives.

Supporting relationships with stakeholders

For any client looking to secure an empty building, the needs of all stakeholders – be that local residents, councils or planning authorities – must be taken into account. For property developers in particular, this is key when asking for planning permission from the relevant authorities. 

Working with a social enterprise is valuable for property developers because it can help maintain strong relationships. In 2018, we started working with Dorrington to secure an empty property with plans for redevelopment in Marylebone. Dorrington’s plans were dependent on planning permission from Westminster Council, and thus it was essential that they maintain a good relationship with the council in the interim. 

Due to our holistic approach, we were able to work closely with Dorrington and ensure that the property was well looked after, secure and ready for council inspections.  We were also able to use our varied experience of working with councils to support relationship-building with Westminster.

In Purley, where we worked with Peer Group to secure a large commercial property, we agreed that there would be staff presence on site once a week to provide access to third parties. Maintaining good relationships with third parties ensured that essential works could be carried out to support the redevelopment process, and Peer Group were able to allocate time and resources elsewhere.

A flexible approach

Flexibility is a key component of our work at Dot Dot Dot. For property developers in particular, redevelopment plans can have unknown timeframes and plans can change quickly, so long-term commitments are not always possible. 

In Cambridgeshire, we have partnered with This Land to secure a variety of properties, including residential flats, farmhouses, an education centre and former student accommodation. When plans for the student accommodation came to fruition, we were able to ensure a smooth hand back within 30 days. At the start of each project, a Relationship Coordinator is assigned to deal with any guardian and compliance issues, and this ensures that there is a staff member to manage the hand back process at the end of the contract’s life.

In Cambridge, Marylebone and Purley, our flexible approach to property management and an efficient hand back process ensured that This Land, Dorrington and Peer Group were able to move forwards with their redevelopment plans on the timescale they wanted. 

Supporting our clients’ CSR objectives

This Land has an interest in building social value into their development plans, and we have worked closely with them to support their CSR objectives, including signposting our guardians to voluntary work with homeless people. All of our guardians commit to volunteering for good causes for 16 hours each month, 

Not only do we offer effective security for empty buildings, but we deliver social value in the communities that surround them in line with our clients’ values, and support them in spreading the word to their stakeholders.

Whatever the project – whether large or small, residential or commercial, CSR strategy or not – our extensive experience of working within the public sector bodies bears fruit when working with private developers, because we are so attuned to the positive impact our guardians have on the communities in which they live.

 

If you would like to find out more about how we can support our clients, you can get in touch with the team at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

What does property guardianship free you up to do?

April 16, 2021

Choosing to use property guardianship in buildings that would otherwise lie empty brings a range of benefits to property owners. Each of our clients usually focus on one or two benefits that particularly appeal to them, whether that’s confidence and managing risks better, security of buildings, or creating social value to communicate to stakeholders through Dot Dot Dot’s social impact model. Saving on costs continues to be an important benefit too. 

Our Chief Executive, Peter Brown, explores another benefit that is less obvious but nonetheless important: freeing up our clients to spend their time and attention on priorities other than managing empty properties.

Too much to do, too little time to do it?

We are all busy people, usually with more things on our to-do lists that we’d ideally like. For some of our clients, austerity and cutbacks have also added to pressures on their organisations. And of course, the difficulties and uncertainties of managing assets through Covid-19 have brought a new dimension to work and challenged our focus. Being able to hand over empty buildings and knowing that those assets will be taken care of, and used to house good people on a meanwhile basis and for as long as it’s required, can be a liberating feeling if there’s a high quality service and a trusted relationship in place.

All of the Dot Dot Dot team work hard at creating and sustaining great working relationships and partnerships. We want to enable our clients to specialise in their work whilst we specialise in ours, and find ways to complement and support our clients’ goals.

Bringing in experts so you can focus on other priorities

For example, one of our clients was a national environmental charity which had a surplus office building. The charity was restructuring its operations and wanted a period of time to evaluate its future property needs. It chose to use Dot Dot Dot to manage the building, where we installed 14 guardians for around 18 months. During that time, the charity was able to focus on developing its strategy, rather than diverting resources and costs to managing the building itself. It eventually chose to sell the building, and we moved guardians out to enable them to do so.

Often it’s the case that housing associations and local authorities don’t have a team or individual with specific  responsibility for empty property. When properties are scheduled for demolition or wholesale refurbishment, responsibility for them can fall between different teams. In these scenarios Dot Dot Dot can act as the internal team they wish they had, by providing specialist expertise and experience that can be brought in to manage empty assets.

Several of our long-standing housing association clients have given us feedback that working with a Dot Dot Dot means that they can focus on other complex aspects of regeneration: managing the project and the development, resident engagement and consultation, liaising with residents and negotiating leaseholder buy-backs. They have commented that having Dot Dot Dot involved in the properties that are empty and awaiting redevelopment means that their housing and regeneration teams are freed up to focus on these activities, confident that properties allocated to Dot Dot Dot are being well managed and will be handed back when theie project requires vacant possession. 

If you’re finding that empty property is a distraction and you’d like to find out how we could free up some of your time, please get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

 

Keeping to (ISO9001) standard

March 19, 2021

Dot Dot Dot has just renewed its quality certification to the ISO9001 standard. This means we have demonstrated to an external, independent auditor that we have a consistent way of doing things. Fundamentally it’s about ensuring that we operate in ways which ensure that our services meet our customers’ needs and that our services have a clear standard which we strive to achieve every time. 

So, asks our Chief Executive, Peter Brown, what does this mean in practice and what does it mean for our team? How does this show up if you’re a property owner who has a building managed by Dot Dot Dot?

 

The value of a QMS

Our quality management system is focused on the core of our work: enabling buildings to be safely lived in by carefully-selected property guardians for as long as needed. And having clear processes that mean we can hand buildings back to our clients when those buildings are required for their next purpose. So our quality management system covers the range of tasks and activities that our team use to prepare buildings, to make sure that guardians are always housed safely and to legal standards, and, of course, to hand buildings back when the time comes. 

It’s no surprise that we need to follow the law to make sure that buildings are safely and competently managed, and property guardians are housed safely and in a way that is consistent with legal requirements. But there is value in setting this out clearly, and our quality management system does this, as well as making sure that new legal requirements are understood and embedded into our operating processes. And in some cases we choose to go above and beyond what the law requires, so in those cases, these are included in our processes.

Much of how we ‘do’ quality management happens behind the scenes, and because we have had a quality management system since 2016 is firmly woven into how we already operate. We’ve always done a careful and ethical job and tried to do right by our clients and guardians, and our values have always guided us. So one way to consider our quality management system is that it provides the extra technical detail which our team must follow to make sure that our services are consistently high quality. This reflects in much of our client feedback, which often says that we are a reliable and trustworthy service provider. In turn, this is why we are trusted to manage millions of pounds worth of property assets at any one time.

Practically, our quality management system enables us to:

 

1. Meet our customers’ needs

It’s important to me and to our team that we meet our customers’ needs and expectations. Having a set of clearly defined standards means we can consistently deliver to our clients’ expectations and – just as importantly – we can be clear and transparent about what clients can expect when they work with us. It’s also a principle within the standard that we should be ready to adapt and update our standards in line with our clients’ changing needs or requirements. Through our regular client conversations and account management processes, we are always interested to hear how we can do better and differently, and we consider how to incorporate feedback. Whilst most businesses say they want to adopt continuous improvement, having a systematic way to do this takes it a step further.

 

2. Improve performance

Because we have done the work to clearly and unambiguously set out the standards to which all of our processes should be delivered, it makes it easier to deliver on that commitment every day. All of our team members and managers know the standard to which our core processes should be delivered, and are aware of why this is important to our property owners and to the business more widely. Equally, aspects of this same set of standards show up in how our performance is measured at a senior level and within our governance framework. This all feeds into property owners experiencing a high level of attentive service when they choose to work with Dot Dot Dot.

 

3. Give confidence

I think a big part of choosing to have a quality management system is that it gives confidence – both externally and internally – that we are committed to doing a good job, and that we are working within an established framework to work with and understand quality. And that’s even more important in an industry where we sometimes see corner-cutting and a lack of transparency, especially around safety issues. I hope that the fact that Dot Dot Dot has a quality management system gives all of our stakeholders confidence in our service.

 

4. Contribute to our culture 

The most successful quality management approaches are ones that are firmly embedded in the culture of the organisation. For Dot Dot Dot, we always strive to do a high quality job, so our quality management system helps us assure ourselves and others that we are continuing to do just that. A quality management system that is disconnected with the way an organisation thinks and acts will most likely fail, since it becomes a tick box exercise.

We have been lucky to work with Jennifer, Julia and Bird at ISO Quality Services to look at how we implement quality, improve what we do and to renew our certification.

Dot Dot Dot has held a quality management certification since 2016. Technically, this is known as ISO9001:2015 and is the international standard for quality management.

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

On the ground: inspections and monitoring

March 18, 2021

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores some of the details of how our service works. In our last instalment, we looked at how Dot Dot Dot mobilises in large or complex properties. This month, we look at how we use inspections to monitor properties over the life of a contract.

 

Why inspections matter

When managing voids, an ‘inspection’ is often focused on condition. An ‘inspection’ might be completed in minutes by an operative who is covering a large patch. If you manage residential properties, you might use more intensive inspections that support your compliance regime. In some cases, they might also be part of your system for resident and community liaison.

That last model is more similar to the approach taken by Dot Dot Dot. Although we are managing our clients’ ‘voids’, those properties are also the housing stock that we provide to guardians, and we monitor properties with both of those things in mind.

For Dot Dot Dot, inspections achieve several goals:

  • Regular direct contact with our guardians in their own homes
  • Confirmation of guardian occupation and compliance
  • Actively using our right to enter properties
  • Monitoring property condition or changes
  • Ensuring safety and compliance.

Because inspections are so key to our operation, we rely on our in-house field team for this work. This team works with our properties and guardians at every step, from initial mobilisation to final vacant possession. We use customised software that allows our team to log inspections directly in the field, providing immediate and auditable inspection information back to head office.

 

How we inspect

Our normal approach is to use three types of inspections to monitor our properties:

Monthly space inspections

We use the word ‘space’ to refer to the part of a property that is allocated to one guardian, whether a room or a larger part of a property. Our unannounced monthly inspections involve checking each space for basic condition and safety, including checks of fire and CO alarms. The main focus is to check that each space is being properly and safely occupied by the correct guardian. 

In most cases, inspections are a chance for a positive interaction with our guardians. Our in-house field team means that guardians can have a conversation with a direct and informed member of our team. Inspections also allow us to identify any issues arising from occupation, and we can quickly escalate any concerns:

  • Is there evidence of additional occupants or unaccompanied guests?
  • Has the property been left unoccupied without our knowledge and permission?
  • Are children staying at the property?
  • Might smoking or drug use be happening at the property?
  • Is the guardian keeping the property secure?

 

Monthly property checks

Alongside our space inspections, Dot Dot Dot also carries out a larger monthly set of checks at every property. These checks will be familiar to most residential property managers, and include critical condition and safety checks:

  • Are exit routes clear and safe?
  • Are communal facilities (kitchens, bathrooms, refuse areas) sanitary and in good condition?
  • Are doorways and perimeters secure?
  • Are communal safety systems functioning correctly?
  • Are there evidence of disrepair, vandalism or ASB?

Depending on the property, checks of safety systems could vary from a simple check that shared stairwells are clear, to a full battery of on-site checks covering fire systems, water monitoring, CCTV or other systems. 

In some properties, trained guardians will have specific duties to provide additional monitoring. This could include tasks such as carrying out call-point tests or flushing unused plumbing outlets. Our monthly checks will include checking the guardian logs and escalating any gaps or discrepancies.

These checks are standard across all of our projects, regardless of the formal division of duties between Dot Dot Dot and our clients. This gives us peace of mind that our guardians are in safe homes, and gives our clients the assurance that their properties are being monitored with the diligence required in a residential setting, even if their own records say ‘void’.

 

Quarterly in-depth checks

Every three months, each property is subject to a deep-dive inspection.  This lengthy and detailed inspection includes a rigorous check of compliance, condition, occupation and upkeep.

Taking several hours for our larger properties, these inspections take our staff into every space of a property so that no part of a building is ‘unseen’. We check for changes in property condition, and examine the overall upkeep and hygiene of the property in detail, looking both at guardian activity (such as upkeep of communal areas) and at broader issues such as maintenance needs in gardens or other external areas. We also carry out much more detailed checks of compliance issues, with particular attention to doors, exits, stairways and other structural and safety elements that can deteriorate over time without being easily identified by guardians who live there every day.

Our field software means that our team is guided through each check in detail, and can capture notes and photographs of defects directly into their reports.

These quarterly checks include customised elements where needed, so that we pay special attention to the things that need particular attention for each property. Examples could include accessing client-managed outbuildings, checking ducts or roof spaces, assessing the impact of local ASB, or confirming that contained/managed asbestos remains undisturbed and safe.  

 

Taking a complete view

The three types of inspection described above apply to every area where Dot Dot Dot works. In more complex buildings, they might also be accompanied with other forms of monitoring that the property requires. These can vary from weekly flushing regimes to daily site inspections.

This range of inspections allow us to have a detailed view of each property and of how it is being occupied by our guardians.  It allows us to keep our guardians safe, but also to ensure that our guardians are observing our guidelines. Our team’s visits allow us to develop a good understanding of each project, which can be important in old or unusual properties that might not be a priority for our clients.

As well as monitoring our own performance, our inspections allow us to inform clients of emerging defects or risks, and even to offer insight into issues affecting other local residents that have been hidden from view. The combination of committed guardians, dedicated staff and structured inspections allows us to have a complete view of even the most obscure property.

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

When “security” isn’t actually that secure

February 19, 2021

From our Chief Executive, Peter Brown

Much of our work supports property owners delivering estate regeneration programmes. The complexity and phasing of these schemes often means they take many years. As a result, they tend to be organised in phases across multiple blocks within a wider regeneration zone – with different areas needing to be secured on a phased basis. But security without people involved can mean a double whammy of both expense and ineffectiveness.

Due to the phased nature of regeneration activity, property guardians can be a very useful solution, because the number of properties that arise as empty at any point in time can be hard to predict in advance. A local authority or housing association will want to have a strategy that is flexible and which can mesh carefully alongside its existing regeneration plans. 

Another consideration for local authorities can be the need to use regeneration properties to support homeless families or those in acute housing need, particularly when the regeneration timeframes change and properties are available for longer than initially thought. Property guardianship has the flexibility to allow this because guardians are temporary and can move out with relatively short notice, in ways that other strategies like decommissioning a property and boarding it up do not.

We have seen and worked alongside a variety of security / deterrent measures – some more effective than others…and none, by themselves, as effective as having people on the ground visibly using the property.

Metal void property security screens on doors and windows are common and can be helpful for physical security – particularly when a property is at the end of its life and has been decommissioned. However, they do serve to advertise the fact that a property is empty, so can be counter-productive if owners are worried about attracting ASB.

Remotely-monitored rented alarms specifically designed for void properties have the advantage over security screens by being discrete and not advertising a property as empty.

And there’s always the option of disguise! If the practical risk of damage or unauthorised access is low, then disguising properties can be surprisingly effective. We have clients who have used a simple kit: curtains, a few pot plants and perhaps a light on a timer can go a long way.

It’s important to note that these measures certainly can’t bring any guarantees that properties will stay safe and secure and for an extended period of time. In many cases we’ve seen clients disappointed when they try these measures without property guardianship alongside them, because they have invested money in security only to find it was less effective than they had hoped. 

There can be a range of problems when property is left void, including unauthorised access of the property, break-ins, property being used for unlawful activity and metal stripping and theft. Only the human solution of property guardians can bring both the confidence that a property will be cared-for and protected through occupation.

On the ground: Guardianship that meets your needs

December 18, 2020

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In the first of our ‘On the ground’ series, we explore some of the details of how our service works. In future articles, we’ll look in more detail at how we set up, operate and demobilise our service in different settings. In this article, we describe how Dot Dot Dot creates the right division of property management responsibilities for each client.

How to prepare a property for safe occupation can often seem like the most important question. It’s a critical step (both practically and financially), and we will be exploring the setup phase in future articles. But it is important to think more widely about how property management will function across the lifetime of a guardian contract; in many projects, this is the critical factor that helps guardianship deliver the maximum benefit to property owners. From my experience, this is one of the most pressing questions for clients who have to juggle existing property management budgets and pressures.

 

Matching contract responsibilities to client needs

At Dot Dot Dot, we think it is critical to understand not just the properties, but also the needs and operating environments of our clients. The following examples of issues or pressures are likely to be familiar to all property owners, but we find that each client has a unique set of priorities:

  • Mitigating fixed costs (e.g. council tax, utilities, maintenance contracts)
  • Protection against unauthorised occupants or vandalism
  • Removing day-to-day property management demands (e.g. access, security, repairs)
  • Handling core FM functions such as managing a planned maintenance programme
  • Buffering against occasional costs (e.g. roof repairs, flytipping)
  • Controlling long-term dilapidation and disrepair 
  • Reputational or political pressure around property use

Our goal with any client is to offer contract options that are a good match for their specific needs. We can customise and adjust this very finely, but below are some examples of common approaches.

 

Example 1: Like a lease, but not a lease

Under this model, clients hand over properties at a basic standard, and Dot Dot Dot takes on all of the in-life compliance, repair and management responsibilities. This includes the costs, repairs and maintenance that would normally fall to a leaseholder. Property owners or asset managers retain responsibility for block level maintenance (though we can often assist).

This structure has similarities with a leaseholder arrangement, but there is no lease required. Clients can end our service contract with 30 days’ notice. This model works well in many residential settings, and is particularly useful during ongoing decants with an uncertain pipeline of void properties.

 

Example 2: Shared management 

In larger buildings (commercial or residential), many clients wish to retain their own PPM and compliance regimes. One solution is to share the ongoing management with Dot Dot Dot. We can take on the on-site operations and daily FM responsibilities at the property, including responsive repairs. In major assets, this might include establishing suites of operating procedures and monitoring regimes.

By working with existing safety systems and regimes, we can simplify the cost structure and workload of our client. This leaves them free to focus on predictable upkeep, and on securing the next phase of the building’s life. This is a collaborative approach for hands-on clients. It can be a great solution for complex assets where owners or asset managers want to solve security or FM problems, but need close control of financial and operational risks. 

 

Example 3: Turnkey property management

One of the simplest contract options is for Dot Dot Dot to take on the full breadth of property management. We’ll develop a full management and occupation plan, allowing us to take care of all compliance, maintenance and management in line with the client’s needs.

Clients may choose to take an arm’s length approach and to rely on our reporting and reviews to keep in touch with their property. Others might remain closely involved in monitoring and decision-making. Armed with a detailed understanding of our client’s needs and of the property, Dot Dot Dot can often help clients to navigate uncertain development or sales timelines by assisting with medium-term asset management decisions or projects such as minor works.

This is a good option for clients with multiple competing priorities. It allows owners and asset managers to put assets ‘on hold’, while being reassured properties are secure, managed and maintained until needed.

 

Picking the right approach

Owners and asset managers with experience of guardianship may have a clear view of the service they require, but they do not need to decide in advance which approach will best support them. 

By sharing their priorities and needs, clients enable Dot Dot Dot to identify the right structure. Although guardianship is always at the heart of our service, we recognise that a “one size fits all” approach will limit the value we can offer. Instead, we believe in matching our service to the circumstances and needs of each client.

 

Next in ‘On the ground’ – How we mobilise in large and complex properties.

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