Co-living spaces: The future of London housing or an overpriced hostel?

Reporter Jessica Frank-Keyes spent the night in the capital’s newest co-living space, Folk at the Palm House, in Harrow, to find out whether they really are the future of city living.

From school trips to hospital stays, there are certain stages in life when we accept we’ll be sleeping side-by-side with others.

But for some, young adulthood - a promised time of freedom and connection - can often be anything but.

With a housing crisis inflating mortgages and rental payments, and a cost of living hike swallowing up salaries, is it time for a rethink of city living?

Co-living spaces are increasingly touted as one such answer to this question.

One of the Folk studio bedrooms. Photo: Folk

Billed as a shared lifestyle with communal joint spaces, the core concept is a (small) rented studio flat, in a large building, with facilities shared collectively with the other residents.

More, and better, for your money, proponents say, with built in friends and neighbours on tap.

What’s not to like?

Reporter Jessica Frank-Keyes spent the night in the capital’s newest co-living space, Folk at the Palm House, in Harrow, north London, to find out more.

First impressions

Arriving at Folk feels much like checking in at a hotel - with friendly reception staff and a party going on in the bar.

Located close to the Tube, it’s certainly a handy spot for commuters.

Run by Folk, The Palm House is the company’s first property - with more coming soon in Earlsfield and Battersea.

My friend and I are given key cards and shown upstairs to our studio ‘flat’.

A narrow-ish L-shaped room, like a hotel, it’s more than enough space for a short break.

Our room at The Palm House. Photo: Folk

But I’m immediately doubtful about the practicality of living here full time.

And unless you want to be pretty much constantly on top of each other, a couple sharing the space feels ambitious.

“This is what I thought hostels were like before I went to a hostel,” my friend admits.

However, the room is clean and comfy, with a decent amount of storage space (although no coat hangers), a cosy bed and a big window.

We’ve even been left some welcome goodies - mini shampoo and conditioner, a packet of bark tea, and some vegan protein and chocolate bars - all adding to the ‘hotelier’ vibe.

Time for the tour

After grabbing a drink from Mule, the downstairs bar at Folk, which serves tasty cocktails and food up to residents and guests, we’re shown around by lettings manager Rajan Hunjan.

Aged 24, he’s newly graduated and enthusiastic about all the potential for Folk’s renters.

Folk boasts a carpeted gym, coworking area, movie room for films or TV, library, Bake-Off style shared kitchen, and even a pool table by the laundry room, while a PS5 is on order.

The floor plan and dining room at Folk. Photo: LW/Folk

Despite trailing greenery and pastel pink palette, there’s a slightly impersonal feel.

Although it’s more glamorous than most halls of residence, surely the same issues crop up.

What happens if someone leaves damp clothes to stink out the washing machine for days?

The library at the Palm House. Photo: LondonWorld

Rajan says there are no passive-aggressive notes to worry about. Instead, management sends out a mass email and the offending laundry is moved to the basement for collection.

It’s an interesting approach - but one that could leave you feeling you’re being monitored.

And while the outside space and skyline views are obvious bonuses, there are strict smoking and non-smoking zones, and a general expectation to be considerate of other users.

The Palm House built-in gym. Photo: LondonWorld

Not quite the kick-your-feet-up-and-relax atmosphere you’d have in your own home.

As well as smoking rules, Folk also has a “no pets, no kids” policy and doesn’t offer parking.

“If you guys applied, we’d give you a whole qualifier to make sure there are no nasty surprises,” Rajan says.

The pool table and co-working space. Photo: LondonWorld

Although we’re told one resident is in her 60s, most Folk residents seem to be a certain archetype - predominantly young, relatively wealthy, and probably single.

Rajan says the mixture of “like minded people” means Folk “fixes a societal issue”.

But despite the glossy surfaces there’s a definite absence of socialising.

Expert view

Housing market expert Graham Hayward, who works at Housing Hand, tells me the boom in co-living spaces is linked to the UK’s popularity as an investment location.

“The UK was one of the first G8 economies to begin coming out of the pandemic,” he says.

“The government is property friendly and build-to-rent is seen as a great area to invest in.”

The boom, he says, is similar to purpose-built student accommodation arriving in a university town, often leaving local landlords “pushed out”.

He adds: “It’s the same discussion when you have a build-to-rent come into town - they’re in much more attractive locations with better facilities.”

The dining room and terrace space. Photo: LondonWorld

The financial side is another aspect where co-living is often criticised - as overpriced, and out-of-reach for the average Londoner.

Folk says a studio in their building, based on the cheapest bedroom size, will set you back from £1,298 a month.

The figure includes rent, bills, wi-fi, council tax, a gym, and a coworking space.

But it’s estimate of how much you’d save, is based on assuming you’d pay £900 in rent, as well as £60 for a gym, and £200 on a coworking space membership, events and activities.

The Folk price comparison. Photo: Folk website

It’s far cry from rental site Spare Room’s calculations of the average rent for a room in the capital, which it puts at £794.

While an average London gym is £40 a month, with more affordable options at under £30.

“I think it will get cheaper over time,” Graham forecasts.

“My sense is that it comes once you have the initial burst, which is clearly happening now.”

Pros and cons

So could co-living really be the future of city living? Some residents are clearly very happy.

Designer Giuliana, who has rented in other co-living spaces before, tells me she likes the privacy at Folk, choosing it over rival provider Gravity.

“There’s enough space but it does feel a little bit like a hotel,” the 33-year-old says.

“I lost my key in the last one I lived in and it’s good they have someone here to let you up.

“People are sociable - I was worried I might be the oldest one here, but I’m about average.”

Lettings manager Rajan Hunjan. Photo: LondonWorld

While Rona Belle Pronto, 39, a nursing home manager, and her partner Florentine, 26, have just moved out of a Vonder, another co-living provider, property, into a flat in Wembley.

Of the previous Vonder rental, in Rayners Lane, the new mum, who lived there for a year, said: “It was nice. The flat we were in was all furnished, we didn’t have to bring anything.

“We managed to move in quickly - within a week - and everything was done fast.”

However, it was location and a desire for privacy that prompted her to choose Vonder above a typical rental - a world away from the aspirational sociable utopia often advertised.

While she also recalled wi-fi issues within the all-inclusive price during their contract length.

Rona Belle Pronto, front, with partner Florentine and their daughter. Photo: Rona Belle Pronto

“We didn’t really know who to go to,” she said.

“It worked on and off but we didn’t really bother in the end, we just used our mobile data. I would recommend co-living but the service needs to improve.”

Even in Graham’s verdict, he admits it isn’t “for everyone” and can be “invasive”.

He tells me: “It is a journey. Not everyone is going to go and live in these - it is a lifestyle.

“You’re typically going to find co-living in nicer locations, areas that are easier to travel to.

“You’ve got the facilities shared with a lot of other people - which can be where the invasiveness comes in.”

‘Feels like I’m in school’

While Folk has no reviews on its Facebook page so far, a peek into renters’ feedback on other London co-living brands, reveals some interesting insights into disgruntled tenants.

Gravity Co-Living, which has homes in Camden, Finsbury Park, Hounslow and Reading, boasts a glut of glowing reviews from 2020 and 2021.

“We massively love this place! And we simply couldn’t recommend it enough,” enthuses Charlotte Cini, a full-time traveller.

The brand was also dubbed “a brilliant home away from home” and “absolutely perfect”.

However, it seems the majority of positive takes are from short-term stays and self-described “digital nomads”, like Charlotte.

While Vonder, a self-described “global co-living brand” whose locations include Wembley, Shoreditch, Highgate and Brentford, appears to be less lucky.

One review on Facebook said: “Horrible experience. This place is still a joke.

“Imagine paying £15,000-a-year to receive emails such as ‘refrain from speaking loudly or yelling in corridors’. It feels like I’m in school instead of a professional rental space.”

The Folk studio bedrooms. Photo: Folk

Another disgruntled prospective renter claimed they had issues with their deposit.

Vonder has been approached for comment.

LondonWorld’s verdict

Overall, my stay at Folk felt like a luxurious experience.

The team were friendly and welcoming and the food and glamorous decor were a joy to Instagram.

Sadly, financially, it’s not in my budget, and spacewise, I wouldn’t choose to share the studio with another person, so it’s unlikely I’ll be returning, at least for now.

However, if you can afford it, and think it will suit your personality, it’s clear the trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.