House sitting can be an excellent experience, allowing you to see parts of the world and get to know communities you might not otherwise have seen, as well as saving you accommodation costs, of course. Barry and I have been house sitting for a few years now and love staying in a home in different parts of the world and adopting cats and dogs (and fish and birds and ferrets, etc!). Recently I’ve been asked how I got into housesitting so thought it might be a good idea to write those experiences down.
Firstly, I’ll debunk a myth – we have never been paid for housesitting services. About 20 years ago it was the norm to pay for a house sitter (s/he’s saving kennel and cattery fees after all) but these days it’s more about an exchange of services. You’ll even sometimes be asked to contribute to household bills on longer assignments and you’ll notice that housesitting websites tend to charge sitters more for their services than they do homeowners. But my thoughts on these issues are another story.
More often than not though, you’ll find yourself the adopted owner of a cat or dog or two, or even a peacock. As we travel a lot, we don’t have pets of our own and it’s quite nice being able to adopt someone else’s for a time, take a dog for a walk, cuddle a cat or talk to a bird.
Housesitting membership sites
Most, if not all, house sitting sites allow you to browse assignments for free. You should do this to check that there are suitable assignments for you before signing up. You can only contact homeowners when you’re a full paying member. I’m currently a member of two sites, and actively monitor one other.
Mind My House: My first house sitting membership site, this quite a small site, which we have had some success on. Membership is free for homeowners and USD $20 per year for house sitters, making it the cheapest site I’ve come across. I quite like the user interface, there’s a nice map searching feature. Unfortunately, old assignments aren’t taken down so it can be hard to tell if a listing is active. We joined again this year as they had some interesting assignments in Turkey. Dates didn’t work out but at $20, it’s not a complete waste. There are fewer active assignments but also, presumably, less competition. Most assignments are European with Spain, France and the UK featuring highly.
Happy House Sitters: This is an Australia only site which we joined as we plan to spend at least six to nine months in Melbourne. The sale price was AU $99 per year and free for home owners. The site could do with some redesign but has a functional, fairly straight forward UI. Listings expire so you know that everything on the site is current. Customer support is prompt if you have any problems. I’d like to see a search by map feature though. An automatic email is sent after every application saying that the homeowner is considering applications and will get back to you. Happy House Sitters seem to have some very polite home owners as I have a greater response rate, even if it’s a negative, than I do with applications on other sites. There seems to be a lot of assignments so you should find ones with dates that suit you. A lot of the assignments are for a month in duration, which is good for us. I suspect there is not as much competition for the rural assignments so if you’re not looking to be in the big cities you should have some success.
Trusted House Sitters: The most popular house sitting site I’ve used. I’ve had some success with this one in the past and I’ve opted to receive emails but haven’t renewed my membership yet, just waiting to see an assignment I’m available for. Prices start from $7.99 per month for sitters and homeowners, more if you join for a short period. The UI is fairly straight forward, not the most attractively designed but functional. They have a handy feature that lets you know if a homeowner has opened your message. There are a huge number of assignments listed across the world with the USA and Central America featuring heavily. Listings do expire so you know they’re current. Because of the large number of assignments, the site also has the most competition so you need to get in fast when applying. If a listing has been up for more than 24 to 48 hours I don’t tend to bother. Homeowners are inundated with applications and are unlikely to read yours if your number 89 in a list of 102.
There are a number of different sites out there, this article mentions some others such as House Carers, where you can sign up to receive notifications of assignments before paying the joining fee. The comments at the bottom of the article are another great resource which is where I learnt about Nomador (the only site that has a free option for house sitters), which I’ve just signed up for.
Getting an assignment
Most house sitting assignments come with pets, usually cats and dogs so it helps if you genuinely like animals and can convey that and, ideally, have experience, even if it’s from when you were a kid and walking the dog before school.
Because of the levels of trust involved having a police check, either uploaded to your profile, or ready to send on request can be advantageous.
All the housesitting sites rely on reviews and your chances of success rely on you having some. So when Barry and I were starting out, we offered to house sit in our current town, Edinburgh, for friends and friends of friends, etc. In fact, my first house sitting assignment, for my friend and her Persian cat, Oskar, was before I had even heard about membership sites. She was happy to write me a review which I uploaded to the sites when I joined.
House sitting is not always about the pets. Other friends were included in the ranks for when they needed a cat sitter while on holiday in France, or someone to keep an eye on the builders while they were sailing the world (what an excellent adventure), or someone to mind their B&B (this one was paid) or show prospective buyers around a house on the market.
When we started applying for advertised assignments, we included Edinburgh, offering to meet the homeowners before they made their decision. Which is how we met a lovely lady from a beautiful part of Edinburgh near lots of park land and spent about two weeks with her well behaved and loveable dogs. It was a good experience for us to try living in a different neighbourhood in a city we felt we knew, try out new restaurants and parks (for the dogs, of course).
We chose our next assignments according to our travel plans and I think were lucky that they may have been unappealing to others. Four dogs, cats, rats and a ferret is quite a lot of work but we still enjoyed our time in rural Ireland.
The choice assignments in exciting cities or with a swimming pool in the south of Spain are a house sitters dream but will also be the most popular. So your first assignments are likely to be for friends; don’t rule out ones in your home town and go for ones in areas that others might rule out for the location.
How to Write an Application
You’ll be writing dozens of applications so it’s okay to use some standard text about yourself but you should tailor it for each assignment. Home owners want to know that you have read and understood all aspects about their assignment, and not just that they have access to the beach. If they mention animals, you should give details on your experience. If they want a security presence, remind them that you’re retired or work from home or aren’t a party animal. Tell them why you’re good for the assignment, not just why their house or location is perfect for you.
There’s a lot of trust required on both sides in house sitting so you need to reflect that in your application. If you’re struggling with your text, drop me a line, I’ll help if I can.
One last tip – I never bother to apply for assignments that say ‘dates variable’. I have never had a response to any of these advertisements. Perhaps the homeowner hasn’t made firm plans and is just scoping out the quality of applicants but I prefer to spend my time applying for assignment that currently exist, even with flexible dates. Flexible dates give a rough time frame so that you can agree mutually suitable dates. Variable dates don’t indicate even a month when the assignment may start.
The Next Step
I always offer to meet home owners (if we’re in the same location), or to arrange a Skype chat. This is important for both sides. You want to know who you’re sitting for, perhaps meet some of the animals, get more information on the daily care. This is your best chance to ask questions and clarify assumptions and make sure the assignment is for you. For us, it’s also important that the internet connection is suitable for Barry to have Skype calls for his online business in the UK and chatting with a homeowner this way gives us some confidence.
The trust works both ways too – the homeowner is handing over their home and animals but you’re also providing a service and possibly changing your own routine to suit that of any pets, and want to make sure that you won’t be taken advantage of and that the homeowner themselves will be trustworthy and reliable. A quick response to any communication and questions is a good sign.
Preparing for Assignments
We try not to pack too much stuff when we go anywhere but especially when house sitting. We’re going to someone’s home so they are likely to have a better equipped house than our packs! Bedding, towels, etc have always been provided on our assignments but you should always check to see if there’s anything you’d like to bring.
It’s very advantageous to spend some time with them before they leave on their trip (especially if you can’t meet the homeowners in advance). It’s good for animals to meet new people while their owners are there. You also get to see how the household should run, any quirks of the property and how to fix minor problems. Depending on the complexity of the assignment and the number of animals our orientations have ranged from a few hours to a few days.
It’s also a nice idea, if you can manage it, to take a little something from your hometown, to leave behind as a welcome home present.
You might be asked to sign a contract or agreement when you accept a house sitting gig. This is completely normal, although we’ve only been asked to do this once, and most of the membership sites have examples that can be used. It’s best to communicate about this before you start so you can clarify points and agree any changes. You shouldn’t sign anything that you’re not comfortable with.
Doing the job
Remember, when taking a house sitting assignment, especially with pets, that the assignment is your first priority, not your holiday. We structure our days around dog walks and how long and when the animals or house can be left alone at home. Follow through on anything and everything you may have promised in your interview. Think about how your responsibilities will impact your plans before you take an assignment. Consider your assignment to be your job.
Be aware that animals might behave differently with you but don’t stress too much. Some behaviour isn’t necessarily down to you but can be because of changes. A sensible homeowner will understand this, within reason.
Home owners will leave a full supply of pet food and anything else you’ll need for their pet’s welfare, along with any cleaning and gardening products, so you shouldn’t need to worry about this.
We communicate with home owners while they’re gone. We try to send pictures of their animals and let them know about any problems that might have come up (rarely), and how we’ve managed to solve them, or to ask advice.
Don’t forget about the plants and the garden.
Most of all though, enjoy yourself.
Getting Ready to Leave
Home owners will often tell you to make yourself at home and eat everything, often giving free reign to the wine rack and sometimes leaving money for our personal use. At first we were uncomfortable with this, but the more experience we’ve come to value the service we provide, as the home owners already do so we don’t stress about every little thing anymore (though we don’t ‘take the piss’ either and have never eaten a family out of house and home!).
Generally, we eat any fresh fruit and vegetables that have been left behind – nobody wants to come home from France to mouldy veggies in the fridge. We might eat the biscuits and chocolate too (okay, that’s mostly Barry) but we replace dry goods before we leave. Mostly we try to supply our own food. Before we leave, I replace items where appropriate and usually try to have some milk in the fridge for the home comers.
Keep the place clean and tidy. Often I leave a house in a better state than when I found it. Unless there is a cleaner or housekeeper. In that case I just make sure the house is tidy and things are in their place. I’d hate to come home and not be able to find the scissors.
We’ve never broken anything but if we did, we’d replace it.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful.
At some point (hopefully soon), I’ll be writing up some tips for home owners on what they can expect from their side.