More and more property owners are choosing to pay for professional housesitters to live in their homes while they are away, to keep burglars at bay. These sitters are often expected to be multi-skilled and competent carers for animals and plants, ensuring that holidaymakers can return to houses which are not only intact, but also full of healthy-looking pets and greenery.
The housesitting industry is growing by up to 25 per cent each year. Moira Hampton, managing director of one such agency, Housewatch, said: "We normally try and keep within a 100-mile radius so that we don't incur huge travelling expenses for our clients, but the demand has grown so much that we have had to recruit people from the north to housewatch in the Home Counties."
A typical recruit, according to Mrs Hampton, is someone who is retired or has recently been made redundant, and is looking for a pastime. "It gives them back their self-esteem," she said.
People are taking far more holidays now than they were in 1985, when Housewatch was founded, Mrs Hampton believes. "We started with five housewatchers, and we now have between 180 and 250. Some are doing as many as 30 housewatches a year."
Insurance companies have also encouraged the growth of the industry. Companies such as Norwich Union and Eagle Star give premium reductions to policyholders who employ housewatchers.
Housewatching is no holiday for the sitters themselves, however. Ken and Bridget Jefferson, from Sheffield, have been looking after other people's houses for six years. Sixty-year-old Mr Jefferson, a retired policeman, said he and his wife decided to join Housewatch because they wanted something with which to occupy themselves.
The Jeffersons housesit for up to eight weeks a year. "We don't do it as much as we could because we like to do our own things. Housewatching can be quite restrictive." Housewatch's policy stipulates that sitters never leave the home they are looking after for more than three hours. They must be there from 7pm until the morning and cannot have friends to visit, apart from at Christmas. "You don't really get a chance to see the area because it ties you to the house," said Mr Jefferson.
However, the couple have been able to travel widely through housewatching, and have visited a number of places they believe they would not have been to had they not taken up this second profession.
But their new profession does mean the couple can't keep any pets. "We couldn't have one really. We can't take a dog with us, so we would have to get people in to look after it - like us."