Buying a large house and sharing it with others isn't everyone's cup of herbal tea. But for those who opt for the communal life, there are distinct advantages, says Lesley Gillilan
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Describing themselves as "thirtysomething professional musicians with three children, a large brown dog and an interest in organic gardening", Will Hancox and Linda Glen placed a personal ad in a property column seeking like-minded co-habiters. They met Florence and Jonathan and Lucy and Julian. United in a common belief that "It's possible to live more rationally and less wastefully by sharing facilities", they are pioneering an embryonic community project (called "A Community Project"). What they are now looking for is a large, aesthetically pleasing rural property with enough room to house a complex of families and enough land to sustain broods of free- ranging animals and children.

If they find such a property, co- buyers will get to live on a huge estate without bearing all the responsibilities. They will enjoy the pleasures of country life without the isolation - and by cutting out the middle-man, the profit-led developer, they will keep the costs down to an affordable level. As a collective of DIY developers, they will all have a say in how the property is sub-divided and make allowances for different needs and pockets. Sharing cars, washing machines, childcare or home-grown veg may be part of the deal, but each investor will retain an element of autonomous ownership. More yuppy than hippy, this is co- operative, sustainable living with an eye on capital gain.

It sounds good on paper, but is it viable in practice? Theorising, after all, does not allow for the nuances and frictions of group interactions or the bureaucratic headaches of shared decision-making. Experienced flat-sharers, or anyone who has ever rented a holiday cottage with "friends", are entitled to take a jaundiced view. Lenders and bank managers are also likely to be sceptical. "We have had problems overcoming the credibility gap," agrees Will. "If you walk into the average high-street building society and explain your intentions, they look at you as if you've got three heads."

Most of the prejudice is bound up in tabloid perceptions of Seventies- style "communes" and the attendant images of polyfidelitous New Age drop- outs living on vegan nut cutlets, esoteric ideologies and dope. None the less, when Will, Linda and Co recently advertised for potential new members, they got over 70 responses. The group now consists of eight committed members (or eight units of property), all middle-class professionals ranging in age from 25 to 55. They have bashed out a manifesto and done their homework by visiting some of Britain's existing communities. Two of these, Thedden Grange in Hampshire and Canon Frome Court in Herefordshire, have helped frame the complex structures by which A Community Project will stand or fall.

Twenty years ago, when seven families pooled their resources to buy Thedden Grange - a rambling, early 19th-century estate - the driving force behind the communal purchase was pure pragmatism. Local farmers regarded the newcomers as "a bunch of freaks", but although the group may have had some unconventional ideas about the management of their shared 40 acres (planting trees on farmland was considered odd at the time), they have never conformed to any rigid system or ideology. "We stumbled our way into this," says inmate Nick Carey-Thomas. "The community's strength is in accepting as many different visions and ideals as there are people involved." The glue that binds them, he adds, is an "artistic" legal structure which is both firm and flexible.

The group (all architects, except for a structural engineer and a psychotherapist) came together "haphazardly" through mutual contacts. They had already lost one potential property when Thedden Grange - the former seat of philanthropic industrialist, John Wood - came up for sale. Not everyone had immediate access to funds, so those members who had properties to sell bought the Grange in trust for the others. Having completed the sale through a simultaneous exchange of contracts (at a price equivalent to three London houses in 1975), the three principal buyers sold bits of the Grange and its outbuildings to other members.

Nobody squabbled over who had which unit, because the choice was determined by what each could afford. "Two of us spent a couple of hours sketching out a plan for division," says co-buyer Laurence Peskett. "We estimated the purchase price and conversion costs for each property, juggled them around until the figures added up and agreed the whole thing at a meeting. Amazingly, it worked."

An intelligent conversion of the main house created four vertical units, each arranged on two floors. An estate cottage and a former squash court (now a loft-like dwelling) make two more homes. Laurence and Nina Peskett, the only childless members at the time of purchase, took on the conversion of an outbuilding between the stables and the walled kitchen garden. They have since produced four of the 16 children who have been born or bred at Thedden.

In essence, each family owns the freehold of their own self-contained section of the converted house, plus a small plot of private land - in some cases just a few square feet. A handful of ancilliary buildings remain in communal ownership, including a restored Victorian greenhouse which has been turned into a social centre. They occasionally throw parties, but during their monthly meetings they discuss water rates, insurance and internal accounts. All are shareholders in a non-profit-making company and pay a basic quarterly levy to cover maintenance costs.

The 40 acres of land, including nine acres of ornamental garden, are notionally divided into sevenths. "You own a seventh but you can't point it out," says Laurence Peskett. There are no formal boundaries, but a divided view on how the land should be developed has in the past created practical boundaries.

At one time, three members of the group monopolised a plot to run a professional dairy farm. Another had the exclusive use of two acres to grow organic produce on a commercial scale. The rest was run, according to Laurence, on amateur, self-sufficient lines in which members kept a cow and a few pigs and mucked in on an ad hoc basis. The latter approach to farm- ing has proved the more sustainable.

The dairy has now been turned into a workshop and some of the land rented out to neighbouring farmers.

Two members still keep horses and the Pesketts manage a flock of Jacob- Hampshire sheep (18 ewes and two rams), which Laurence describes as a "self-financing lawn-mower". There is enough communal rhubarb in the kitchen garden to feed 10 families.

An informal ecological focus is evident in the construction of a natural reed bed system which processes household sewage. Everyone contributed to the cost. "Nobody does anything without consultation and agreement," says Laurence. An historic disagreement over who should pay how much to maintain the access roads was solved by introducing Thedden's own community car tax, levied according to the number of vehicles owned.

Aside from the legal structure, the Pesketts believe the success of the project depends on a finely balanced combination of the right people, the right house and the right price. "There is always a fear that if one of us had to sell, some opportunist would come in and subvert the whole thing to its detriment," says Laurence. "We've never had to put it to the test." Thedden has been through three divorces (reflecting, perhaps, the national average) but otherwise the original group remains.

Conversely, Canon Frome Court in Herefordshire - which is home to the Windflower Housing Association - has undergone several personality changes since the farm-based collective was founded in 1978. "The more communal the system, the higher the turnover of people," says member Jan Doran. "People usually sell up and move on because they want to return to a more independent lifestyle and make their own decisions about where they plant their plum trees." The structure here is more demanding than Thedden's.

The converted 18th-century house and stable block houses 52 people (aged between six months and 85 years) in 14 flats and houses. Each member has bought the leasehold of their self-contained space and has a share in 35 acres of mixed farmland, several cows, sheep, chickens and goats, an organic vegetable garden and various communal buildings. All are directors of the housing association, and members of a farming co-op. Each pays a monthly charge of pounds 24 per adult and pounds 12 per child to cover the cost of vet's bills, seed and machinery. On top of that, they pay a service charge relating to the size of the units - and everyone is expected to do their bit on the farm. "People give what time and energy they can afford and take what they need," says Jan.

Canon Frome has never had a problem finding new members, and most have managed to raise a mortgage. It has not been easy, however, for individual vendors to sell their 999-year leases at an appropriate market price to a buyer who meets the approval of the whole community. "Suitable people may not be able to afford the available property and those who can are more likely to have professsional commitments," says Jan. "Inevitably, the group has become wealthier and less self- sufficient than it was 20 years ago."

One wonders why Will, Linda and Co don't buy into Canon Frome Court (there is room for three families at the moment). Will says they want to be in on the planning stages rather than "buying a community off the shelf." In addition, most members want to live within reasonable commuting distance of London. So far, they have drawn a blank. "We knew it would be difficult to find a property that would suit everybody," says Will. "There is never going to be the perfect house." Despairing of finding a rustic period property, they are now looking at redundant local authority and Government buildings.

Estate agent Mark Rynell, of Humberts, thinks they will have problems finding anything, unless they can raise pounds 1m or make compromises on location. Unlike in the Seventies, the countryside is no longer littered with crumbling mansions and farming estates at giveaway prices. Those that are suitable for conversion will also interest developers.

"Developers can make a clean, unconditional cash offer, regardless of the property's existing planning status," says Mark. "Private buyers would have to agree planning consent before exchanging contracts; when it's a collective group, they are unable to make a snap decision without endless group consultation." When everyone has homes to sell, the problems are even greater. He has dealt with several group purchasers with serious intentions, but has never seen one complete a sale.

"This sort of purchase is a minority sport these days," says solicitor James Sinclair Taylor, who advises on community structures. "It's a long and complicated road to take." But he points out that DIY developers don't have to go for vast country mansions. For those who have the staying power, the principles of co-operative buying could just as easily be applied to large terraced townhouses with room for four.

DIY COMMUNITIES The first step to establishing a successful residential community is to work out a finely-tuned legal structure. This could take the form of a housing association, a housing co-op or a registered private company. Solicitor James Sinclair Taylor (0181 969 3667) says setting up a form of trust is the simplest route. Other legal experts include the Leeds- based Industrial Common Ownership Movement (0113 246 1737). Group buyers should also work out a business plan to facilitate finances. One suggestion is to raise a development loan which will later convert to a mortgage.

Among books on the subject, try Buying Your Home With Other People by David Trainer (published by Shelter and the National Federation of Housing Associations, 88 Old Street, London EC1). The communards' bible is Diggers and Dreamers, the 1996/97 Guide to Co-operative Living (D&D Publications). Copies are available from bookshops (pounds 9.50) or by mail order (pounds 10.50) from Edge of Time, PO Box 1808, Winslow, Bucks (07000 780536).

Most of Britain's communities were founded in the 1970s. Many are based on a distinct ideological focus, whether ecumenical, ecological, eco- pagan, Buddhist or gay. Co-existence might entail income sharing, communal cooking, meditation or daily prayers. Many welcome visitors or host WOOFs (Weekends on Organic Farms) and some are seeking new members.

Old Hall in Essex (01206 298045) is offering the opportunity to live with 60 people in a 120-room house, help farm 65 acres (fruit, veg, grain, livestock) and share the cooking. A self-contained four-room living space (no kitchen) and a share in the housing association is offered at pounds 60,000. Smaller spaces are cheaper, but you need cash. Mortgages are not appropriate.

Canon Frome Court (01531 670729) in Herefordshire (main story) is offering a four-bedroom flat on the first floor of the main house - guide price pounds 80,000 - and two shell units (DIY conversions, pounds 37,500 for a three-bed and pounds 27,500 for a one-bed) housed in the former school's gym. If you are interested in joining the embryonic Community Project (main story) telephone 0171 737 4403.

Savills' Hereford office (01432 354343) is selling Mount Ballan ("an imposing Victorian residence" near Chepstow, Gwent) with a guide price of pounds 400,000. It includes 10 bedrooms, five receptions, a caretaker's flat, attics, cellars, office space, outbuildings and 3.75 acres. Geltsdale in Wetheral, near Carlisle - a mock- Jacobean, Victorian house in use as a corporate HQ - is on the market due to relocation. The three-storey, 45-room property comes with 8.6 acres of woodland, gardens and paddock. Cluttons' (01228 74792) is seeking offers in the region of pounds 325,000.

Wannabe communal buyers should try local health and education authorities, the Ministry of Defence and commercial estate agents for details of redundant hospitals, schools, military buildings and hotels which might be suitable for change of use. The cost of converting non-residential buildings into dwellings is VAT-free.