Strangers home in for the holidays: Neasa MacErlean looks at the growth of a new army to combat burglaries

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OVER the next few weeks a small army of retired policemen, civil servants and other pensioners will leave their homes to mind the pets and guard the premises of the more affluent members of society.

As the crime statistics increase so does house-sitting. Housewatch was established in Bishop's Stortford eight years ago. Its first aim then was to provide temporary house-sitters who would take care of the family pets while the owners went on holiday. Since then dogs and cats have become more of a secondary issue as householders become concerned that they will be burgled while they are away.

A disturbing reflection of the times is the growth across the house-sitting industry of the probate side of the business. Twice in the past six months Housewatch has had to bring in staff very quickly to homes that had been burgled the day the owner's obituary appeared in the newspaper.

The largest house-sitting agencies will provide people throughout the year, across the country and for any length of time.

Most burglaries take place when the premises are unoccupied. Summer is a period of prolonged opportunity for burglars. As a consequence the insurance companies severely restrict their contents cover when the owners go away. A spokesman for the contents insurance brokers CGA Direct said: 'People should look at their policies. What varies is the length of time for which cover remains unaltered while people go away. In some cases this is 60 days, in others it is 30 days but it can be as short as 15.'

Royal Insurance reduces cover if the householders go away for more than 35 days. After that period it will not pay out on theft claims. However, if the householders bring in a house- sitter, the company will continue to insure against theft - but only if there has been forcible and violent entry. The company has come across several cases where it suspects the house-sitters have stolen the missing possessions, and it will not cover accidental loss or any other kind of theft claim where entry has not been forced. A spokesman said: 'It has to be a reputable house-sitting agency. A lot of people can set up very easily and then they have open sesame to your home.'

The larger, older companies all claim to have strict vetting routines. Universal Aunts, which opened 73 years ago and has 300 people on its books, takes up four references for each house-sitter and interviews them all in person. All its representatives are aged 40 or over.

Housewatch has a minimum age of 50. It takes up two references and also interviews all its house-sitters, many of whom are ex-services personnel. It has 200 people on its register. All the house-sitters have to be homeowners themselves and fit and active. Homesitters, similarly, has interviewed and taken up three references for all its 460 staff, all of whom are aged 40 or over. These are typically retired civil servants, policemen, bank managers and farmers. Its director, Adele Barclay, says all of them will adapt to circumstances: 'If the client says that their dog is in the habit of sleeping on the end of the bed then the sitter has the dog sleeping on the end of the bed.'

For families with more than one pet the cost of bringing in a house-sitter is often less than the cost of sending the animals to kennels. Typical prices in kennels are pounds 8 a day for a dog and pounds 4 for a cat. House-sitters and Housewatch start charging at pounds 19.40 a day, including VAT.

Whereas Homesitters and Housewatch both employ the house-sitters they send out, Universal Aunts is an introduction agency that charges a pounds 40 fee for setting up a typical one- to three-week house-sit. Clients are then expected to pay another pounds 91 per week to the house-sitter.

The companies all talk about the versatility and enthusiasm of their sitters. Milking goats, looking after flocks of sheep, mowing the lawn and even collecting the clients from the airport are all part of the job.

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