Property: Say hello to the cat, live in the lap of luxury, and then get paid

House Sitting
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fancy living in the lap of luxury without spending a bean? Even better, how about actually getting paid for it? For a small band of people this is one of the perks of their job. Except that, as Fiona Brandhorst discovers, you will have to move out after a while. And not every property carries that exclusive cachet.

Working for the stars is almost as good as being one. At least that is what Phil Swaine, an "executive house sitter", lists as one of the perks of his successful business. Along with his partner, Alison Verity, he spends his days looking after secluded luxury homes when the owners are away on business or holiday.

"When potential clients see our portfolio their eyes light up," says Mr Swaine, whose references read like television credits. Ms Verity has a way with horses so they pull in a lot of work from the show-jumping world, as well as the likes of Dennis Waterman and Bob Monkhouse.

"It's a 24-hour job at times," he says, "but we work together so it's not restricting." But is it tempting to spend hours soaking in the indoor swimming pool or Jacuzzi? "You soon get fed up with all that," Mr Swaine says. "When you've been up since 5am surveying the estate, all you want to do is lock up and go to bed."

On behalf of his Yorkshire-based firm, ASG Executive Security, he visits all his clients before taking on the work and charges by the week, starting at around pounds 500 depending on the size of the property and work required when he is there. Living in such year-round luxury, Phil and Alison take only the odd day out on their less-than-palatial narrowboat.

"We could be in a huge farmhouse one week and a pounds 5m property the next, so there's no point in going away on a proper holiday ourselves." Do they get the chance to network with the stars? "Sometimes we get invited to our clients' social events and we never know who's going to be there - I have to admit, we enjoy that."

Unlike Mr Swaine's clients, William Lewis's live in council flats as well as country homes. Since starting Home and Pet Care around 10 years ago, he concludes that people are more concerned about their pets than their home when they go away.

And it can mean more than just feeding and stroking the cat, Mr Lewis says. "One of my most experienced sitters looked after a large property in Gloucestershire. On day one there were 165 animals to care for, including five expensive dogs, horses and goats. But as the days went by, animals started giving birth so the numbers were rising by about 10 a day."

Mr Lewis now has 250 people working for him all round the country, from St Ives to Inverness. He was not sure how to get in touch with possible sitters when he started, so he advertised in retirement magazines and church newspapers. It paid off: most of his sitters are Saga types, generally former pet owners, trying to fill the big hole in their lives that retirement has brought. Predictably, Mr Lewis has a Mr and Mrs Woof on his books and a dog that needs a bilingual companion as it only understands French.

Mr Lewis's house sitters always meet their intended clients beforehand and there is no commitment on either side. The cost is from pounds 17 a day. "Not only are people's pets looked after in their own home but no one with a sitter has been burgled either," he says. With that in mind, he is is careful about who he takes on to his books and checks work records going back 20 years, following up all references. Ageism is not a word he knows. "All my sitters are over 50 - they're just more reliable."

Helen Wright's approach is decidedly more casual. She generally sits for friends of friends and has been lucky enough to be asked when she has been homeless between flats. But before anyone starts ear-marking short-stay addresses, they should consider her hidden expenses.

"I made the most of living in a five-bed luxury family home and had friends round for dinner practically every night for five weeks," she says. "I may have saved my rent but I blew it all on entertaining." The next time she house-sat she cut the dinner parties but still invited friends over just to have a look. "It was owned by a really wacky couple who had loads of 60s and 70s stuff. The funniest thing was a four-tiered shelf unit covered with nodding dogs, lions and elephants. Every time I came down the stairs the whole lot started going."

Insurance companies generally do not ask questions about who is staying in your house when you are away, unless it is going to be for more than 30 days. Then the excess payable on any claim can increase considerably.

While most of us rely on neighbours to keep an eye on things while we are away, when there is more at stake it is time to call in the professionals. JPB Security Services provides rapid response security guards to patrol houses deep in the Surrey stockbroker belt. "When there is pounds 100,000 worth of antiques in a property, people have to take security seriously," says JPB's managing director John Berry.

Even for an ex-police dog handler it can be a scary business. "I had a client who'd been given a death threat written in blood. I had to personally go and stay with his wife and family in a very secluded property when he went away on business. It did get a bit tricky." Mr Berry advises people to only use security companies that are members of trade associations. "You can be sure they'll follow strict codes of training and operation."

A house sitter may feel confident when left in a strange house with a trusty list of emergency telephone numbers pinned to the noticeboard, but it is what the owners do not tell them that can be most worrying.

Vicky Magill house-sat for a friend this summer. The house had all the usual accessories - electric gates, heated swimming pool, sauna and gym. But by the end of the three weeks she was convinced about something else. In the middle of the night one of the televisions would mysteriously turn itself on. She checked for a time switch or a remote control but could only come to one conclusion. She was also looking after a ghost.

ASG Executive Security (01943 871 813); Home and Pet Care (016974 78515); JPB Security Services (01483 776999)