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The improbable rise of landlord influencers: ‘I’m not taking advantage of anybody’

James Coupland started his Instagram account more than 10 years ago, posting unremarkable photos showing him with his mates, or in the gym. After giving up on a career as a footballer, he was studying for a sports performance degree while trying to make a name in fitness. But none of his posts were getting more than a few dozen likes.

Then, in March 2020, came the pivot.

Coupland had by then become a landlord. In 2016, when he was 21, he had bought a £53,000 house in Goole, east Yorkshire, with a £5,300 deposit from his savings and a cheap mortgage. Inspired rather than frustrated by the £95 weekly rent he was paying for a basic student houseshare in Leeds, he thought: “If my landlord can do this, then that’s a way I can make money, too.” He moved in, learned DIY on YouTube and sold the place a year later for £92,500. He invested the profits in the next house and started building a modest buy-to-let portfolio.

Shouting about being a landlord hadn’t occurred to Coupland, but during the first UK pandemic lockdown he began posting photos of his properties and DIY exploits – mostly before-and-after shots and how-tos. These, too, made a modest impact until, in early 2021, someone suggested TikTok.

Coupland, who is 28 and lives in York, was sceptical. “I didn’t think anyone was going to be interested in this stuff,” he says. “But I posted my first video and woke up the next morning to 60,000 views. It just spiralled out of control.”

Thanks to TikTok’s mysterious algorithms and Coupland’s knack for producing fast-cutting clips with snappy captions and dance-music soundtracks, he now has almost 435,000 followers and has racked up 30m views.

His most popular clip, with 7.2m views, is a 52-second tour of a three-bedroom house cut to Darude’s trance track Sandstorm. Coupland had bought the house for £47,000 and was carving out five en suite bedrooms that he was planning to rent at £100 a week each, for a total of £26,000 a year.

Coupland, who added a “kerching” cash-register sound effect to the video every time he said “£100 a week”, is now one of the biggest names in a burgeoning online community – that of the landlord influencer. Across social media apps, landlords with big followings are revealing the tricks of the trade, often using the #PropertyTok hashtag.

Some influencers present themselves as gurus who preach the virtues of wealth creation and “passive income” in expensive training courses. In this world, landlordism is no longer seen as the preserve of moneyed middle-agers with half an eye on retirement, but a lifestyle and route to “financial freedom” for young people who might otherwise feel starved of opportunity.

Other influencers are anxious to challenge perceptions of landlords as agents of avarice who hike rents, skimp on maintenance and drive up house prices. They are keen to point out that they, too, are being squeezed by soaring interest rates, costs and tightening regulation.

But not everyone is inclined to be sympathetic to the purported plight of landlords, or the content being generated by these influencers. Critics accuse these accounts of perpetuating a broken housing market by projecting the image of homes as get-rich-quick assets to a new generation.

“Good landlords have a lot of obligations and responsibilities and I think there’s a risk in selling these models as an easy way to make money,” says Dan Wilson Craw, the deputy director of the campaign group Generation Rent. He is referring to models such as houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), or shared dwellings such as student houses or converted office blocks, and a controversial version of subletting known as “rent to rent”, AKA Rent2Rent.

I get called every name under the sun, leech, scum ...

James Coupland

The National Residential Landlords Association, which has more than 100,000 members, sees a potential reputational threat. “Landlords are not a universally well-perceived group in the first place,” says Chris Norris, its policy director. “And I think what a lot of this content does is highlights the excesses.”

Norris hears echoes of the Inside Track scandal. The firm used ads and mailshots to tempt customers to purchase buy-to-let properties in the UK, the US and Spain; thousands were left out of pocket when it collapsed in 2008. “What’s different now is that TikTok gets these messages out to a wider audience and you’ve got an awful lot of people who may be quite inexperienced and won’t necessarily know how to verify what they see,” Norris says.

He also questions the notion of property ownership as a source of passive income. “It’s not passive if you’re doing it right,” he says.

Coupland is keenly aware of such criticisms and says responsible landlords such as him suffer as a result of the actions of a rogue minority. “I get called every name under the sun,” he says. “Leech, scum … I try to explain that I’m not doing this to take advantage of anybody.”

Coupland, who takes pride in his own HMOs (he says they look a lot nicer than the houseshares for which he paid vast amounts in his 20s), also suggests that throwing open the door to properties via social media is helping to raise standards. “I’ve seen a huge difference in the quality of refurbishments,” he says. Yet even he says his primary goal is to “inspire people to get into property”. He now offers training via his James Property Academy, and has noticed a surge in comments and follows from people as young as 16 – something that he finds heartening. “It’s quite inspiring, because when I was that age I was still kicking a ball around,” he says.

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Samuel Leeds, who grew up in a modest house in Walsall in the West Midlands, is one of the loudest and most controversial voices in landlord influence. He left school at 16 and trained as a plasterer. “We were turning a place into a HMO and I remember the builder telling me how much money the owner was going to make. I thought: ‘Jeez, that’s interesting.’”

At a property-business networking event, Leeds, who is 31, found mentorship and a sense of belonging. Just before he turned 18, he bought his first property, in a relative’s name (he was too young to get a mortgage). He says he has since been involved in more than 450 property transactions.

Leeds began broadcasting his activity on YouTube in 2016; he joined TikTok in 2020. He has posted hundreds of videos that have scored almost 40m views in total with titles such as: “Rent2Rent Explained for Beginners”; “The Last Book You Will Ever Need to Read” (one of his own); and “23K a Month at 23” (in which he interviews a fellow landlord).

In 2017, Leeds started selling training via his company Property Investors, which hosts £1 live events, including his “Rent to Rent Revolution” tour, and charges up to £12,000 for 12 months of coaching. He describes himself as a kind of class warrior on a mission to democratise property ownership. “I think that message is quite liberating to a lot of people who are earning the minimum wage and struggling with the cost of living crisis,” he says. “My gift, without being arrogant, is that I can make complicated things pretty simple.”

Leeds says his training has reached as many as 20,000 people and he is anxious to point out the positive reviews. But not every customer has been happy; Leeds has been accused of overstating the ease with which students can make money and of using libel law to shut down critics.

The Guardian reported last year that solicitors acting for Leeds had issued legal proceedings or threats of lawsuits against 15 people or property websites who they said were part of a coordinated attack on Leeds. They included Carrie Jones, the sister of Danny Butcher, a soldier from Doncaster who killed himself after paying £13,000 for Leeds’ training. Jones denied making any defamatory comments.

Leeds, who lives in a big house in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, tells me he was “heartbroken” when he learned about Butcher’s death, but adds: “It’s outrageous to try to pinpoint that on the training course. There’s no link.”

Vanessa Warwick, a former MTV presenter who runs Property Tribes, an online platform for landlords, has also been sued by Leeds; she has launched a counterclaim against him for defamation and harassment. Leeds denies these allegations, while Warwick has denied being involved in a Facebook group that has been critical of Leeds.

Warwick, who has been a landlord for 30 years, tells me she has wider concerns about the role of some property influencers. “There are people out there looking for an easy fix, or a way out of a desperate situation, who may be impressionable or naive and will be attracted to these ‘wealth-creation experts’,” she says.

Leeds insists he understands the duty of care he has to his students. “When anyone invests thousands of pounds in their education with my company, that comes with a huge level of responsibility,” he says. “We tell people to only invest in training that they can afford.”

In a video that Leeds posted to YouTube in 2019, he dispenses property advice in a park and boasts about his success. Three curious teenagers appear to interrupt him. During a conversation, Leeds tells them: “Here’s my advice: get out of education, because schools don’t teach you to be rich – they teach you to get a job, which sucks.” Does he stand by that advice? “No,” he says, suggesting now that he was trying to make a point about the lack of financial literacy teaching in schools. The video, which is titled: “Samuel Leeds Tells Kids to ‘Quit School’”, has had more than 10,000 views.

Meanwhile, some sceptical veteran landlords are joining the TikTok party. Rick Gannon, 51, started buying and selling houses in Nottingham 27 years ago. Things ticked along quietly until, in 2011, he quit his job as a police officer to become an HMO specialist. He says he has about 150 tenants in properties worth £8m.

Gannon soon started to notice landlord gurus on Facebook and YouTube. “It was all: ‘How I became a millionaire in a day,’ and people driving around in rented Ferraris and walking on the beach in Dubai, saying: ‘I’ve got all of this through property,’” he says. “I wanted to show people the reality.”

Starting on Facebook in 2015 and TikTok in 2021, Gannon has posted hundreds of videos about life as a landlord, including callouts to leaks and other problems for tenants. “I’m showing people that tenants are our customers and that we’ve got to look after them.”

Gannon is rare among TikTok landlords in talking much about tenants at all, although he doesn’t hesitate to share their misdemeanours (his policing background is evident in videos such as “Party House Busted”). He thinks tenants make up more than half of his audience. “I get inundated with messages from all over the country asking about their rights and whether their landlord has done something illegal,” he says. The overall impression of his feed is that being a landlord is a lot of hard work.

Coupland also comes across as industrious, with plenty of videos of him at work, wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a major tool company (one of his sponsors). Without naming anyone, he says he has little time for some of the “huge egos” with whom he shares a platform. But he is not averse to a bit of bragging.

In one of his latest TikTok videos, he thanks his fans for helping him reach 200,000 followers on Instagram. A dizzying reel of images charts his rise from student to property influencer; it includes shots of him on a jetski, on a sunlounger, and in an HMO room strewn with £10 and £20 notes.

“It’s amazing,” Coupland says when I ask him what it is like to get more than 1m views for a TikTok clip, only a few years after his fitness pics were slipping into the void. “When it first happened, I was going crazy – ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it’ – whereas now, if I don’t hit a million views I get upset.”