Many people have a dream to renovate a property once in their life. Some, however, go on to do it several times. Fiona Brandhorst describes life among the serial renovators.

"We've got the bug," says Katie Swallow, who along with her husband Peter Davies is well on her way to becoming a "serial renovator". Their first project, the conversion of a 1730s farm workers' cottage in a village on the Cambridgeshire/Lincolnshire borders, was completed in a record nine weeks and they moved in on schedule just a week after their first child Sophie was born.

"As we renovated we uncovered more problems," says Katie, "but we learnt so much, we were right at the coal face." And it wasn't without its sticky moments. "The JCB we'd hired to dig a trench for water pipes managed to slice its way through the electricity supply to the whole village."

Unfortunately it was the height of the summer - the village pub was heaving for Sunday lunch and it was men's final's day at Wimbledon. It didn't exactly endear them to the locals.

When they engaged the builders they agreed a total price before work started. Inevitably extra charges were incurred. Their building society, the Woolwich, released the money in two stages, half to buy the property initially and the balance when the job had been inspected.

Approaching a lender sympathetic to renovations can help. The Ecology Building Society is dedicated to bringing derelict or dilapidated housing back into use. Providing the property is structurally sound the society may lend up to 80 per cent of its current market value. As renovations are carried out further sums can be lent against its improved value.

"We had an agreed list of works to complete before the building society would release the second tranche," says Peter. Which was all important, as the builders needed paying.

Time to come clean: Peter does have the advantage of being a chartered surveyor and he surveyed the property and employed the builders, plumbers and electricians himself. "The builders couldn't blind me with science but I had to be one step ahead of them all the time." This often meant meeting them at the cottage at 6am before Peter made the 100-mile train journey to his office in London.

The work continued after they moved in. "It was costing us so much money we almost jacked it in after a year," says Katie. "We even considered buying a brand new house, we were so fed up." However, with the help of another loan, 18 months later it was complete.

By the time their second child, Archie, was born they had "run out of space", so they sold up. "It was sad to leave," says Katie. "But we knew we were moving on to bigger and better things." This time they rented before buying. "We didn't want to be involved in a chain," said Peter, although it took 18 months to find a house. During this time they spent the weekends driving around the villages of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire seeking out long-forgotten old buildings.

Katie turned detective, finding out who owned them by asking at the village shop or petrol station. They bid unsuccessfully at auction for an old dairy outbuilding. "The property developers were one step ahead with the cash," says Peter.

Eventually they went to view an early Georgian farmhouse, empty for 18 years. Once they were through the door they "left the estate agent standing" while they charged around the three storeys taking in original features like the barrel-vaulted cellar, the kitchen's Inglenook fireplace, mahogany hand rails and the not-so-period Sixties tiled mantelpieces.

They liked what they saw and the sale was under way in a matter of hours. This time Peter employed a building surveyor to manage the whole project. "This really took the pressure off but we still had to get the utilities connected. There was no water and the builders were due to start work on Monday."

The Grade II listed building also needed electricity and gas. When the builders had finished, the decorators started, first on the outside and then the interior. Katie and Peter sent the children to grandparents at weekends and set about stripping and varnishing. The results are better than they expected.

Wide dark oak floors and an original flagstone floor in the kitchen. "It was covered with concrete and bitumen, so we got down on our hands and knees, chipped it off and then scrubbed it with acid." Every window in the house has its original shutters including the 9ft-high French windows in the dining room. They have tried to use wall colours as near to the original as possible, choosing paints from the National Trust historical range.

Everything has its price. Peter had to sell his prized TR6 when the budget was finally blown. "We always called it our kitchen on wheels," says Katie, who's a freelance cookery writer and is very serious about her kitchen.

So has their thirst for renovation been quenched? Katie's not sure. "We've still got a lot to do, the garden needs taming. Maybe we'll do it again one day, but not just yet."

Fashion photographer Paul Derrick is about half-way through one of his renovation projects. Last week, he was shooting swimwear in Cape Town, this week he's up to his ankles in brick dust as he strips back the living- room walls of the Victorian home he shares with his wife Jaqui and moggies Ronnie and Reggie in south London.

His other project is the conversion of a former tile factory to photographic studio in Borough High Street near Southwark Bridge in London. "They just happened at the same time," says Paul. "I have pangs of guilt when I'm working on the studio that I should be doing the house or even out there getting some more work to pay for it all."

The removal of an illegally built conservatory was a condition of the mortgage and the house needed to be totally gutted, then rewired and central heating installed. "It was so cold we'd just come home and go to bed for warmth," says Paul. It's been a sharp learning curve and Paul and Jaqui are fortunate enough to have friends and family who are willing to share their time and expertise.

"Jaqui's father's incredible," says Paul. "He'll come down from Cheshire and work solidly for two weeks as long as he gets lots of tea. And my brother's a decorator." Projects are completed if and when they have the money - sash windows are being replaced in stages.

The house was bought at a bargain price 14 months ago just before prices in their corner of south London took off. "We're not in it to make money; it's going to be our home," says Paul.

The studio, covering 2,000 sq ft, is a "real wreck". Paul is one of five partners, including two other photographers, and they are doing all the conversion work themselves. "We don't have the funds to pay people to do it for us," says Paul. "Sometimes when I'm ducking and diving between places I think it's never going to end. But it's all an investment for our future."

The Ecology Building Society (0345 697758).

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