As the pandemic ripped through the world, it was hard to find any upsides. One small compensation was the schadenfreude of witnessing the demise of many unsympathetic, un-self-aware landlords. On Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, you could watch full-time landlords, Airbnb hosts and corporate property owners panic about their crumbling passive incomes as demand for short-term lets almost disappeared. You could watch repeatedly as property owners – some of whom made all their income from rent – would lose in court for trying to evict tenants while harsh lockdown restrictions were still in force, and then inexplicably posted about the injustice of it online.
But the detriments landlords suffered – often to the benefit of low-income renters – were short-lived. The rental market evened out as the world reopened, and the housing market made up for lost time. UK house prices grew by nearly 11 per cent in the year to August 2021, pushing up rental prices in turn and more than making up for any blows the market suffered in 2020.
Now, with the pandemic having made home ownership even less affordable than it was before, landlordism is not just a major moneymaker, but a brand new content vertical for online platforms. This is most visible on #PropertyTok: a TikTok hashtag largely dedicated to explaining how easily landlords can price-gouge their tenants. Posts span everything from investment advice – “how I bought my first townhouse at 19”-type stories – to instructions on how to develop derelict buildings into luxury flats. Most videos feature landlords discussing how little they bought a home for, the renovation cost (if any), and the high rents they now charge tenants compared to the monthly mortgage – sometimes increasing monthly rental yields on properties by 400 per cent. Some tenants’ advice organisations have tried to make their presence felt in this space, but their videos are vastly outnumbered by those of property owners.
While one-off videos about investing in property can do well on this hashtag, the trend is largely dominated by landlord influencers. Accounts such as those from Samuel Leeds, James Property, and KO Estates have tens of thousands of followers and get millions of views on TikTok and Instagram.
These influencers tend to be young – typically in their 20s or 30s – and appeal to other young people through memes and explanatory videos. They post house tours of abandoned, sometimes derelict homes full of damp and mould and show “before and after” clips of how they’ve refurbished them cheaply, turning sitting rooms into bedrooms or breaking up small homes into duplexes so that they can charge more in rent.
Beyond extolling the virtues of inflating house prices and insisting their audiences can get rich this way too, these influencers also use their platforms to get clients or “mentees”, who then pay them for more tailored advice. Some have “clubs” where their customers can connect with one another.
Why has there been such an increase in landlord content? There are a number of reasons besides the pandemic rental property boom. Undoubtedly, TikTok’s rise since the start of 2020 is key, offering a new way to reach an audience through an algorithm more generous than Instagram’s, which is comparatively rigid. On both TikTok and Instagram, though, bragging landlordism offers a hybrid of aspirational and informative content – a particularly popular combination following the growing popularity of infographics and video explainers in the past year.
But landlord content that instructs others to undertake home refurbs and property investment has a distinct, further appeal. As with influencers’ personal home renovation accounts, these users encourage an envy-driven kind of escapism, particularly for low-paid young viewers. For those with no assets, trying to find steady work in the midst of a recession, there is obvious appeal in a fantasy where they have the disposable income, time and energy to gut and refinish an abandoned building while still paying for their own home.
These viewers are the punchline for the joke that is #PropertyTok. Not only are they the current losers in this economy, and likely paying rent, but by watching such content they inadvertently help the very people making their problems worse.
It’s hard not to consider the rise of landlordism on social media alongside the boom in wealthy young people quitting their jobs after “burning out” and the growing Financially Independent, Retire Early (Fire) movement, where people in well-paid jobs work tirelessly in their youth in order to retire before they hit 40. Those who advocate such trends speak as though their lifestyle choices are accessible to anyone, when in reality, like property investment, they are a way for the already-wealthy to make themselves richer or happier, often at the expense of those who aren’t as fortunate.
Since Covid-19 struck, social media has enabled landlords to position themselves as both victims and saviours. While many were mocked for their tone-deaf outcries after losing money early on, landlords on #PropertyTok often now present themselves as “helpful advocates”. Here they sit, on their enormous piles of money, benevolently giving free advice to the common man and showing that, if only you worked harder and smarter, you could be in the same position.
Thanks to rising house prices – and the unrelenting nature of TikTok’s algorithm – landlordism will only continue to get traction online, as these videos prove how lucrative it can be. This style of content will inevitably make landlord influencers even wealthier, as they create new avenues of income through selling this often useless advice. And struggling viewers will keep watching, hoping that one day, somehow, this road to riches will be open to them, too.