Contractor accommodation: all you need to know but were afraid to ask

The tax and expenses side of contractor accommodation is important but so too is the logistics of it all, or at least that’s what my more than two decades as a freelance IT consultant has taught me. Yes, I’ve had more meals away than you can shake a spoon at!

In that time, writes Alan Watts, an independent service management consultant, I've tried all the major variants of staying away from home to get to various contracts. Apart from the disruption to a peaceful home life, I have always found it a workable, if occasionally painful process. Compared though to the stresses of a long-range commute and the accompanying 13 hour days, it is by far the best way to do it! 

Rules of engagement; what are yours?

One rule I made with my contracts, and would recommend if demand for your skills allows, is to not to drive more than one hour or thereabouts to any client. Anything much further, I’d take the train. That tended to work fine, save for force majeure that I experienced, including a huge pile up on the M4 and an unconscionable train delay. So it always works to have a Plan B – even an idea of where you could stay overnight if you needed to. Generally-speaking, anything more than an hour from home, I recommend staying away for the night, if only for your sanity.

As for where to stay, there are basically three options: stay somewhere such as a hotel or B&B-type guest house, get a room in a house-share with the likes of Airbnb, or rent somewhere full time.

So hotel, house-share or B&B?

For the time-pressed contractor who doesn’t like faff, hotels are probably the easiest and most convenient of the three, being generally well-organised, quite comfortable and always expecting guests. You don’t have to worry about housekeeping or much else once you’re there. On the other hand, they can be impersonal places to stay in, and you will be spending the time on your own. Personally, that doesn’t bother me, but think carefully whether you would find that stressful or draining.

The other two options – a full-time rental or Airbnb house-share-type-arrangement, mean you can leave your things behind when you go home for the weekend. This can be invaluable if you’re the sort of contractor who, for family or other commitments, needs to drop your stuff and go. Oh, and you probably don’t have to eat out at night unless you want to, and potentially have people to keep you company too. If you want that, of course.

On the other hand, when reserving this sort of accommodation, you usually have to buy seven nights a week -- when typically you only really need four. So you will need to do the sums properly. Don’t forget; this is coming out of your pocket, and if you are inside IR35 then you won’t get any tax relief either.

Accommodation doesn't have to be taxing...

Talking of tax relief, if you rent a house, or part of one, for three months (not always possible, incidentally, six months is often the minimum period), HMRC will work on the basis that you have access to full-time accommodation, whereas you only need it for work for four or five days. As a result the weekend costs will be treated as a Benefit-in-Kind, even if you can claim tax on your expenses. And even if you travel up on Sunday evening to be ready for an early Monday start!

And on that subject, I always make a point at interview of saying that I will not be there at 8:00 am on a Monday or much after 4:00 pm on a Friday whenever possible. I have been lucky enough for this not to have been a problem, but it is something you need to agree with the client up front. And since you are stuck up there anyway, it’s easy enough to make up the lost hours using those long, empty evenings.

Know before you go

Finally, your contractor accommodation kit. I’m not talking socks and a toothbrush. I’m referring to what you need on the road to make it all possible, logistically. For me, it’s Skype or Facetime to call home; FreeAgent or similar software to keep an eye on the company funds; a good online bank account and a decent smartphone.

You may well also need access to your home/office systems. The Cloud means you can usually get to files with a little forethought (I would often mirror my own working documents to a folder on my company website, and Google Docs and the like make that even easier). But careful use of VPN and remote access tools mean you can now log-on to your home systems remotely. Just be careful to get the security settings correct! And yes, while I’m on the obvious but important when it comes to staying overnight: don’t forget your toothbrush.

Friday 30th Aug 2019
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Written by Alan Watts

Alan Watts, Independent Service Management Consultant, has been in IT for most of the last 45 years, apart from a short spell in accountancy, eventually turning to Operations Management before going freelance in 1996.
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