A lot of readers were interested in learning more about house-sitting, the method of watching people’s houses while they’re away in exchange for free accommodation. I’ve never done it, but Dalene and Pete from Hecktic Travels do it all the time, so I brought them in to talk more about the subject. Enjoy!
As I write this, I’m sitting in a comfortable leather recliner in front of three large bay windows. In my view are tall pines covered in healthy green moss and shimmering water from a nearby lake. An old and chubby grey cat, the king of this log cabin, warms my feet.
This is my home for three months, and my husband and I are living here for free. We pay no rent, no utilities, and we have a vehicle at our disposal.
We are house-sitting.
We travel around to take care of pets and homes while their owners are off on their own travels. Not only does it keep our costs extremely low, it gives an intimate experience in a new locale with complete immersion in a local neighborhood.
The majority of our last three years traveling have been spent house-sitting, saving us well over $30,000 in accommodation costs and allowing us an incredible set of travel experiences we might never had enjoyed otherwise.
But this way of travel isn’t just for long-term nomads like us; opportunities are available for all types of travelers. Jobs range from weekends to years in length; our shortest house-sit was nine days and our longest was six months.
How to Become a House Sitter
If you’ve never house-sat before, the best place to start is with your own connections. Query family, friends, and colleagues about the possibility. Chances are good that someone within your network will be away from home soon. House-sit for them to learn the ropes.
With at least one good house-sitting reference under your belt, you’ll have a better shot at convincing a stranger across the world that you’re worthy of their trust. There are several good house-sitting websites out there to match homeowners with house sitters (all have membership fees):
TrustedHousesitters.com ($60 annual fee) — The largest site on the web, and also the fastest growing with the best functionality. It’s heavy on UK and European house-sits but is also gaining ground in Australia and North America.
MindMyHouse.com ($20 annual fee) — Low fee to join, a good number of house-sits, and a well laid-out website. Jobs are primarily in North America and Europe.
Housecarers.com ($55 annual fee) — Plenty of good house-sits with a focus on Australia, New Zealand, and North America, but a poor website structure that is difficult to navigate.
Caretaker.org ($30 annual fee) — We have had no success on this site but know others who have. Note that this is the only website where you can’t browse through available house-sits online. You need to pay the annual fee, and the opportunities are sent via newsletter.
When reviewing available listings on the above websites, choose carefully according to your own desires based on location, timing, and other needs. The key to finding one is flexibility in your plans: rather than searching for a house-sit in north London for the first week of August, widening your search to all of London and for a week during any time of the month will increase your chances greatly. And once you’ve seen some house-sits that are right up your alley, be sure to have these basics in place:
A killer profile — This is your face to all the potential homeowners, and if it is well written and up-to-date, you may have homeowners contacting you directly rather than posting their job (this happened to us once). Things to include:
- Experience: house-sitting or as a previous homeowner
- Pets: Exude your love for all things furry, or scaly, and slimy, if applicable. The large majority of house-sits include pet care of some kind.
- Special skills: Do you speak foreign languages? Do you have a green thumb, or are you handy with tools? Be sure to outline those in your profile.
- Enthusiasm: Lots and lots of enthusiasm for this newfound “career” goes a long way.
Opening email — When applying for a specific job, you have the ability on each website to open with a message that will accompany your profile when sent to the prospective homeowner. The key to a good opening is brevity while highlighting important information, and of course, using lots of enthusiasm.
Pay close attention to the listing and draft your email according to specific details. For example, if they have a dog, make a comment on how cute he is and that Schnauzers are your favorite creatures on four legs.
Be Speedy — When the six-week house-sit opportunity in Manhattan was posted, I applied within the first few minutes of it going live. I had exchanged emails with the homeowner within the first hour and shared a virtual handshake over Skype within a day. Attractive house-sits go fast. Being one of the first to apply can greatly increase your chances of getting it. Sign up for email alerts in your desired areas or follow along on social media to be one of the first to know what’s available.
References — The most important thing that homeowners will look at it is your references. Have quality people lined up to vouch for you, and if you have no previous house-sitting experience, consider asking the following: former landlords, old neighbors, or bosses, or anyone who can attest to your character, reliability, and trustworthiness.
One good reference leads to another job and another good reference. And once these start to stack up, potential homeowners will be highly inclined to work with you, and subsequent jobs will be much easier to get. One of the house-sitting websites (Trusted Housesitters) allows reference letters to be housed directly online, but you should otherwise have them compiled and ready to be distributed with ease.
Be sure to ask a lot of questions. In the beginning, it’s easy to get overly excited about the prospect of living somewhere exotic for virtually free and forget about the finer details of the job. Ask the homeowner a lot of questions: Can you have guests? Can you leave the property overnight? Is there a vehicle? Will there be Internet? You don’t want to be blindsided with rules or surprises when you arrive.
How to Be a Good House Sitter
There’s no question about it: house-sitting is a job that needs to be taken seriously. In exchange for a free place to stay, you’re being asked to take care of someone’s worldly possessions and perhaps their beloved furbabies.
We’ve chased dogs through muddy fields. Disposed of a half-eaten rat courtesy of the same muddy-field-running dogs. Spent an evening trolling through dark alleys in Harlem, looking for an escaped fat cat. We dealt with a dead chicken by “sending it down the river” on the advice of a neighbor in Ireland. We’ve cleaned up after torrential rain hammered our Caribbean house.
Most times you’ll be able to kick back and soak in your good fortune, but there will be moments when you have to work for it.
The key to getting a repeated number of house-sits is to do an excellent job each time and stack up virtuous references.
- Treat the house with the utmost respect. Return it to the homeowners in as good — or better — shape as when you arrived.
- Stick to the homeowners’ guidelines on correspondence, how to deal with mail, instructions for pets, etc.
- Be prepared to deal with adverse situations like chasing dogs through muddy fields and disposing of a dead chicken. Bad things can (and probably will) go wrong at some point. Be sure to have emergency contact info on hand, and be honest with the homeowners about anything that comes up.
We may have had our share of difficult moments, but the incredible experiences we’ve gained by house-sitting have far outweighed them. In exchange for chasing dogs and disposing of rats, we discovered first-hand how the Turkish are the most generous and hospitable people in the world. While cleaning up after a nasty storm in Honduras, we became close friends with a local lady, and later were named the godparents of her child. In Ireland, we freely explored the halls of the tenth-century manor we were charged with and even took our own twirl in the manor’s ballroom.
We’re always a little surprised that more people don’t know about, or take advantage of, the opportunities presented by house-sitting. It’s not just about the money-saving aspect, but the ability to live like a local in a new corner of the world. Whether you’re going away for nine days or nine months, this can be a great way to do something different during your trip. It’s become our favorite way to travel, and we bet it could be yours too.
Dalene Heck and her husband Pete are behind the blog Hecktic Travels, which chronicles their journey since selling all their belongings in 2009. They’ve recently written an ebook on house-sitting that contains even more juicy goodness, including examples of successful profiles and application letters, a three-page checklist on everything to look for in a new house-sitting job, as well as a discount to their favorite house-sitting website.
If you’re looking for other ways to travel ultra-cheap, check out these articles: