Can't buy and the rent's too high? There are other options...

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The Independent Online

There have been huge interest rate cuts and the price of property is crashing, but affordable housing is still out of reach for first-time buyers and many people in low- to medium-paid jobs. Meanwhile, more of us are renting as home repossessions soar and those who were trying to buy take a step back to watch and wait – especially as the risk of losing jobs increases. Faced with continued economic uncertainty, it makes sense to get creative when it comes to putting a roof over one's head.

"The credit crunch is definitely making people think more laterally about their living costs and plans," says Louise Cuming, head of mortgages for price comparison site Moneysupermarket.com. "We've noticed a big increase in the number of people who are deciding to live together because of the current economic climate, for example.

"Families particularly are sharing accommodation, but its not just children moving back in with their parents – siblings and close family friends are increasingly likely to live together. And there are other solutions out there. I'd expect there to be more interest in job vacancies that come with accommodation as part of the package, for example."

The more adventurous are looking much further afield for cheap alternatives to the mainstream rental and buying market.

Housesitting

In return for basic housekeeping and maintenance, and often some pet care, housesitting allows you to stay in someone's home for free while they are away on holiday or business. The homeowner gets peace of mind, knowing that responsible people are in their home, deterring potential burglars and responding quickly to any potential maintenance nightmares such as burst pipes and flooding.

Housesitters are often retired, with few obligations to stay in one place, as these contracts are all over the country and the world. But if your job or studies allow you to move around, and you don't mind short-term arrangements living responsibly among other people's possessions – and can water a plant or two, it could be a very cheap option indeed. But bear in mind that contracts vary, and some can include restrictive requests such as not leaving the property unoccupied at night or agreeing to have few visitors.

Many housesitters advertise their services independently online and in print. These opportunities can require real flexibility and a lot of hard work to get going. But there are also a number of agencies that put homeowners in touch with housesitters for a fee, usually paid by the owner. The website www.mindmyhouse.com is a worldwide housesitting agency, with more than 2,000 homeowner members. The site is currently advertising around 60 housesitting opportunities in the UK, New Zealand and the US, for example. But although you could become a serial housesitter for your permanent housing needs, it's far from a consistent solution and many people prefer to treat assignments as cheap holidays.

Office space

"The division between work buildings and residential ones is seemingly being eroded as more people apply to live in offices as tenants because the prices are cheaper," notes Louise Cuming, and it's not only potential tenants who see an opportunity in the market.

The demise of the property market has left large numbers of commercial and other spaces unoccupied or even unfinished and vulnerable to vandals and thieves. But now, a number of European companies have arrived in the UK offering more adventurous home hunters an interesting proposition – as live in "guardians".

In return for a low monthly fee, and a contract to inhabit the property responsibly for several months, groups of tenants get to stay in vacant property ranging from railway stations, pubs, schools and churches to private residences, office blocks and industrial buildings, even sites earmarked for demolition. The owner decides which rooms can be used, and many sites have the full complement of basic facilities such as water and electricity. In sites without those utilities, "living containers" are fitted with a shower, toilet, kitchen and heating, though these contracts are usually given to experienced guardian residents.

"Tenants typically pay just one quarter of the local monthly rental rate to live in our properties," says Paul Cosnett of Camelot ( www.camelot europe.com) the UK's largest security company of this sort. "They start with a three-month tenancy with four weeks' notice after that, but typically remain in the property for around a year. When they do vacate the premises, we try to relocate them in the same area. They have no additional responsibilities apart from living in the property and simply report any maintenance or security problems.

"Tenants must be working professionals, and we find many are doctors, nurses and teachers who have recently moved to an area and are uncertain about the local property market. And since the housing market crash, business has almost doubled as developments are put on hold and repossessions increase. The idea of living in a fire station or an old manor house for such low fees is very appealing."

Squatting

Squatting, known officially as "adverse possession", is a controversial and extreme housing solution, but not illegal if you do it by the book, don't do any damage and don't use the electricity, water or gas. If you live there long enough and under certain conditions, you could eventually claim ownership – but the chances of the owner evicting you from the property or land is high, and the constant threat of eviction could easily keep you awake at night.

But, on the other hand, the argument that there are empty properties in the UK, at the same time as a national shortage of accommodation could prove compelling.

If you are convinced that you wish to pursue this route, find out what the landlord intends to do with the property or land. This applies particularly if there are already any eviction notices on the property as you could be evicted much more quickly in this case. Then look for a squatting group in your local area, as being part of a group is safer.

Eventually, adverse possession can lead to you taking ownership, but it's incredibly complicated and depends on a number of factors. For land and property registered with the Land Registry, the Land Registration Rules 2003 require notice to be served in every case upon the registered owner, who then has 10 years to reclaim their property. But for unregistered land or property, the rules are different. Unregistered doesn't mean there is no legal owner or that the legal owner can't be traced or has abandoned it. It could simply mean that the property hasn't changed hands since owners have had to register their property. Around 40 per cent of the land in England and Wales is currently unregistered, which simply means the identity of the owner can't be demonstrated by the state. In this case, you will have to continuously occupy the property for 12 years before you can claim it.

For unregistered land, you can't simply come along one day and put a flag in the ground. Unless you have demonstrated adverse possession, by, for example, putting a fence up and occupying it without permission for those 12 years, you will have no rights to it at all. For more information about unregistered land in your area go to: www1.landregistry. gov.uk/register_dev.

Council housing

If you're struggling to pay rent in the private rental sector, but don't think you're eligible for council housing, with its lower than market rates, think again. Most permanent UK residents are eligible to apply for council housing, it's just a case of taking your place in the queue, judged according to a scale of priorities. More than 1.7 million households are on the waiting list for council housing.

"This year will be difficult and miserable for British homeowners," says Adam Sampson, chief executive of homelessness charity Shelter. "With repossessions up 92 per cent in the last year, 60,000 new cases of arrears and an estimated 500,000 homes in negative equity, we are, without question, engulfed by a housing crisis worse than the 1990s crash. It's no surprise that as repossessions soar, so, too, does the council house waiting list," Sampson adds, "and little hope of an affordable rented home is compounding the problem."

To apply for council or social housing, fill in an application form, available from your local council. The Directgov website at www.direct.gov.uk/en/Dl1/Directories/Localcouncils/index.htm has a list of councils and details which areas they cover. Most councils have application forms online. Housing officers will assess your application in terms of priority, so if you don't have dependent children or disabilities, the reality is that you will probably be waiting years.

The floating vote: Houseboats and barges

With housing costs a challenge, interest in floating solutions is on the rise. Buying a barge or houseboat can look cheaper than buying a property, and cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester have extensive waterways. A three-cabin barge in the smart London neighbourhood of Chiswick could be less than £300,000, for example, against £450,000 or more for a house.

But costs associated with owning, mooring and maintaining a boat are significant. Mooring fees will depend on location and whether the mooring is permanent. Expect to pay several thousand pounds a year in London, Birmingham or Manchester, but if your powers of persuasion are up to scratch, an occasional bottle of something might do it on a backwater at the bottom of a farmer's field.

Because your boat is constantly damp, maintenance will be expensive and time consuming. Engine maintenance is usually upwards of £150 a year, and boat maintenance from £500. You'll need insurance, £300 or more. Heating may be from gas canisters, oil, or mains electricity, depending on facilities. Emptying the sewage could cost £12 to £14 a time. For details on barges for sale, contact a marina or sites such as www.property finder.com or www.find aproperty.com.

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