Sometimes, one random encounter changes the course of our lives. Last winter, as I walked down to Tivat from a hike on Mount Vrmac, I bumped into a lady with a scary dog. The dog wasn’t hers, she explained, she was from Hawaii and just staying in Montenegro for three weeks, house sitting and taking care of the dog in the absence of the owners. And that’s how I heard of house sitting for the first time.
What is house sitting?
When the owners of houses or apartments want to travel, they are sometimes worried about their house, about plants and, above all, about their pets if they cannot take them on holiday. Sure, you could put the animals in a shelter, but these places are not as cozy as one’s own home.
Therefore, homeowners look for someone to live in their house during the time of their absence and feed the dog, water the plants, shovel the snow, empty the mailbox and make sure that nobody breaks in. The owners feel more relaxed, knowing that someone takes care of everything and contacts them from time to time, sending photos of their pet.
“Hmm,” I thought, “this would be perfect for my traveling lifestyle.” Jessica, the lady from Hawaii, was very encouraging and gave me plenty of tips and help. Combined with the experience I have gained in the past year, I am passing this information on to you.
So, you get to go on vacation for free?
No. You really must not see it as a vacation or a holiday. I rather treat it as a job, with responsibilities towards the house, the owners and the animals.
There is usually no payment involved at all, but if someone allows me to stay in their house or apartment for free, it’s like they are paying my rent and my utility bills. So I should take my responsibilities seriously.
Particularly if there are pets, this means that I will invest serious time to take care of the pets. Merely keeping them alive is not enough, I also want them to be happy. If they need cuddling for a few hours every day, then they get the cuddles. (I can still listen to podcasts or watch a movie while doing that.)
I am also mowing the lawn, watering the plants, taking out the trash, checking on the solar panels and picking up the mail. Most important are regular updates for the owners, so they know that the house hasn’t burned down and that the cat or dog is still alive. I also inform the homeowners of the mail received, offering to scan and forward it to them.
So, as you see, it’s not a holiday and you don’t have complete freedom of your time. Particularly if there are pets, you shouldn’t really spend the night elsewhere, so you cannot go on longer trips in the area. But for me, requiring a lot of time for studying, reading and writing anyway, it’s perfect. For the opportunity of living in another city or country, it’s a small price to pay, I think. And sometimes, you get to stay in real palaces.
How can you do house sitting if you are afraid of dogs?
I only work with cats.
This severely limits the number of jobs I can apply to because around 80% of house sitting offers include dogs. So, if you want to apply for house sitting jobs, please only apply to the ones with dogs, horses, sheep and snakes, so we won’t be competing.
Leave the cats to the cat lover.
The only exception is our neighbor’s dog in Germany, but she is so cute and harmless, she is basically a cat.
How long do these house sits last?
Some people only look for a house sitter for a weekend, others are going away for half a year, to spend the winter in their summer house in the Caribbean. Most offers are for a few weeks, coinciding with the average time of a vacation.
I prefer to stay for several months, particularly if I have to fly somewhere. When I am already in the area, I am also open to shorter assignments.
How do you find these jobs?
There are special websites. They all charge an annual fee, so I only signed up to three of them so far.
- Mind My House was my first try because the fee is quite reasonable at 20 $/year. I scored a few jobs quickly after signing up. Most of the offers are in North America and in Western Europe, with occasional offers from other regions.
- House Sitters UK only has offers from the UK, as the name suggests. They have the best-organized website, I think, and I personally love staying in the UK. So, the 20 £/year are worth it. I have already secured a few placements through them. If you want to sign up with House Sitters UK, ask me for a referral code (it changes every few weeks), and you will get 25% off your membership fee!
- Trusted Housesitters is rather expensive by comparison. They charge 89 €/year and I have just signed up recently because there was one particular offer that I really wanted to get. I was not successful. But I still have one year to find out if the steep fee is worth it. Anyway, you will get 25% off if you sign up using this link or the promo code RAF253501.
Other websites are:
- Nomador has a focus on France, but also offers from around the world. The membership costs 65 €/year, but they offer a free trial membership, with which you get 3 applications. Having just discovered this in the course of this research, I will sign up with them next. And I have always wanted to reactivate my French anyway.
- Housecarers charge 50 Can$/year. I haven’t checked them out yet, mainly because I already find enough placements through the other websites.
- The standard membership with House Sit Match costs 49 £/year, but I haven’t been able to properly use the search function on that website yet.
- Luxury House Sitting costs 25 $/year. I find the website a bit confusing, because they don’t remove filled positions.
I am curious to hear about your experience with these websites, if you have any, or additional links, of course. None of the websites is really perfect when it comes to search parameters. For example, when I specify that I want to care for cats, I always get plenty of offers with cats and dogs. Also, none of them allows for tailored e-mail alerts. For example, when I block out certain dates, I still get offers for those dates. That could be much improved.
What is missing on all the websites I have seen so far, are offers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Maybe in those parts of the world, people simply ask their neighbors for help. Too bad, because I would be very excited to spend some time there.
Because competition on the house sitting websites is quite high, I also recommend telling your friends and relatives that you are available for this tough job. And if any of the readers of this blog has a cat and wants to go on holiday, or if you have a summer house that you don’t use for the winter, and want somebody to live there and to write stories, please let me know!
Where have you done house sitting so far? And where will you go next?
So far, I have done the following house sits:
- Summer 2018: two months in Vienna, Austria, taking care of the apartment of friends.
- Fall 2018: one month in Venta Micena, Spain, taking care of a cat. (I found this job through MindMyHouse.)
- Winter 2018/19: three months in Calgary, Canada, taking care of a cat. (MindMyHouse)
On this page, I always list my upcoming travels, including the next house sits.
Do you need a visa to house sit?
That depends on the country and on your citizenship, of course.
But because there is typically no money involved, you can usually do it on a tourist visa or the visa waiver for tourists. When I was questioned by Canadian immigration, for example, I explained the concept and said, correctly, that it was unpaid. It did not pose any problem at all.
EU citizens can of course stay in other EU countries for as long as they want. Great Britain poses some uncertainty at the moment and, ironically, that’s exactly where I have three more house sits lined up this year. We shall see if I will be able to go there legally or if I will have to sneak in through the backdoor.
Do you have any tips for me, based on your own experience?
Plenty of tips, and I will probably expand this list:
- Fill in your profile with meaningful information, be witty and likable, and have photos of you with animals. (Having said that, let’s not kid ourselves that everyone has the same chances. I don’t think I would have gotten all the offers if I was an 18-year old black dude with a crazy beard instead of a 43-year old white lawyer from Germany. This is unfair, of course, but that’s reality. Some homeowners have told me that they only look for women, and one of my applications for Canada was explicitly declined because I was not Canadian.)
- Respond to specific points in the ad.
- If you can make it, offer to visit the homeowners long before the house sit, so they can get to know you and see how you interact with their cat/dog/crocodile. If that is not feasible, offer at least a video call.
- When the ads come up on those house sitting websites, you need to be quick. Homeowners have told me that they typically receive tons of applications in the first few days. Many of them deactivate the ad after two or three days.
- As I wrote above, tell everyone that you are up for this kind of job.
- Stay away from offers that read something like: “We have 5 cats, 7 dogs, 2 horses, a flock of sheep and 18 acres of fields, from which we expect you to collect the potatoes. You should also take care of our B&B guests, change their sheets, clean their rooms and prepare them breakfast.” Seriously, some people are trying to abuse house sitting for cheap labor. If you will be working day and night, you won’t benefit from living in another country.
- When homeowners make the application too cumbersome, you may want to abort the process. I had one couple from New Jersey once who kept asking for ever more references and documents, then sent a 12-page contract for me to review, and ultimately told me that they decided to give the job to someone they knew. I should have sensed that earlier.
- I know you all want to go to Hawaii or to Paris, but if you don’t get any of those jobs, maybe apply to some in your own country. Everything will be easier once you have a few testimonials on your profile.
- Think before you apply! If you have never handled dogs or cats, or only played with them once for an hour, this is not for you. If you are not sure, if you will have time, this is not for you. Once you commit, you can’t walk out of it (or it would be really shabby).
- Plan the trip in a way that you have at least an extra day before the job begins. Often, the homeowners already allow you to stay at the house, so you can all become familiar, especially with the animals. But even if not, it’s worth booking a hotel/hostel/AirBnB for a night before to give you all plenty of time.
And once the house sit has started:
- As described above, take the house sit seriously. It’s your main job during the stay.
- Take care of issues yourself without bothering the owners. If light bulbs needs to be changed or small repairs need to be done, take care of them. If you break a cup, replace it. If the cat vomits on the carpet, clean it. None of this requires the owners to be disturbed on their holiday.
- Ask the owners how often they want updates. These usually refer to the pets. I have found it the easiest to befriend the owners on Facebook and then post photos of the cat from time to time, so they see that the cat is alive and happy.
- Before the return of the owners, you should obviously clean the house, replenish food supplies, change bed sheets, bake a cake and pack your bags, so that you are ready to leave. When people come home from a safari or a six-month stay on the International Space Station, they usually want to spend time with their pets or just be left in peace. Don’t hang around. The job is done. You are on the road again.
What are the risks?
Oh, come on, don’t be so negative!
Just be careful, lock the door, turn off the stove after cooking and don’t smoke inside the house.
Honestly, I only have one fear: that a cat will die while in my care.
Probably, I forgot some really important questions, so just fire away in the comment section below. If you already have experience either as a house sitter or a homeowner, I am also curious to hear from you.