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House sitters can dig a hole for themselves when keeping an eye on the builders

by Tom Hill, 27th March 2009

Our favourite European house sitters extraordinaire, Tom Hill and Lin Worthington, have 70-odd house sitting assignments under their metaphorical belts now. So they know what they are talking about, right! Tom has added this new chapter to his excellent e-book, ‘Successful House Sitting. An easy how-to guide by Tom Hill of Housem8.com’. It’s all about staying safe while on assignment. Read it while shaking the brick dust from your duvet in that posh French villa you always dreamed of staying in…

‘Oh, we meant to tell you, the painters will be in for a couple of weeks while we’re away, you won’t mind keeping an eye on them will you?’

If you’re hearing this statement on the eve of the home owner’s departure before you commence a month-long house sit, it probably means two things: You haven’t drawn up your pre-assignment agreement carefully enough, and you might just be in for ‘a couple of weeks’ of hell! Any house sitter, part time or professional, should be aware of the unique issues that ongoing building works can cause.

Some house sitters can be drawn into accepting virtually any assignment because the location is exotic or the property exciting. I’m reminded of the guy who would clean out the elephant enclosure for a travelling circus. He was paid about $5 per hour, and for six hours a day he would wade through the elephant dung that he had to shovel. One day he was moaning to his friend:

‘You won’t believe it, today one of the elephants pissed all over me while I was cleaning out her straw!’

‘So why do you put up with all that for just five bucks an hour?! Why don’t you get a job someplace else?’

‘What, and quit show business…?!’

As professional house sitters with around seventy odd assignments under our belts, we have had mixed experiences of house sits which have included kitchen fitters, plumbers, painters, gardeners and various tradesmen. (Literary pedants please note, unfortunately I haven’t encountered any ‘trades-people’ as yet who were female, so I use the word ‘tradesmen’ in an informed sense).

Sometimes a home owner will ask a sitter to supervise tradesmen as an inherent part of the house sit arrangement; sometimes they will ask if it’s OK to have some ‘work in progress’, and, very occasionally, they won’t even tell you that work is planned unless they are specifically asked.

Whether you have agreed to ‘let the plumbers in’ to fix a dripping shower head, or whether you have been asked to live in a building site for six months using a camping stove for cooking your weekly soufflé, you should be aware of the potential problems. Here are a few to think over.

Health and safety for yourself and any pets in your care

Builders are notorious for leaving their workplaces uninhabitable in between their working periods. If you have agreed to be present whilst a new kitchen extension is being built, ensure that the builders know that the kitchen must be usable during the weekends and overnight periods of their absence. If you are the home owner paying the builder’s invoice, you are likely to command a lot more respect than the ‘hired help’ whose only job is just to let the fellas in of a morning! This can be a significant issue. A friendly attitude and regular offerings of hot beverages often pave the way to a happy relationship. Remember to keep inquisitive pets away from floors covered in wet paint and sharp objects!!

Your privacy and enjoyment of the property

If you have been employed specifically to assist with renovation works as part of a house sit arrangement, or if you have agreed to carry out the assignment during major building work, think of the implications. Will you have:

o Adequate cooking facilities and a dining table
o Running water?
o Reasonably uninterrupted power supply?
o Decent working sanitation and bathing/shower facilities?
o Effective heating or air conditioning?
o Your own privacy?
o A ‘clean’ area of the property which is dust free and safe?

We once performed an assignment in a beautiful rambling French neo-Chateau for a three-month Autumn period a couple of years ago. The area was stunning, the property romantic, the nearby village full of friendly old ladies carrying baguettes, you know the score. We had agreed to live in two rooms of the house to supervise the builders (even help out a bit now and again) and report back to the owner in South Africa with e-mailed digital photos. Within days of the work starting, the gig became a nightmare, because we hadn’t considered those few points above. Was it worth the romantic location, air fare and free bottles of local wine? Certainement NON, M’sieur!! Remember the elephant cleaner?

Respect your clients’ confidentiality

We get to know some of our clients very well indeed. On a few occasions I’ve noticed tradesmen steering the conversation around to our mutual client’s personal affairs. Sometimes they moan about how ‘finicky’ they are as customers, or that they might be slow payers, or discuss where and with whom the client has gone on holiday.

This might well be innocent, but the home owner may not wish their builders knowing about holiday destinations or with whom they are away on a business trip. On one occasion a plumber even started waxing lyrical about the physical attributes of our client’s daughter! It is definitely best to steer clear of such conversations or feign complete ignorance.

Also, beware of local gossip. If you are being paid for your services, what might seem a fair remuneration for you as a retired consultant surgeon from the metropolis is a king’s ransom to some local folk. We looked after a property in rural Devon for a month. I let it slip to the cleaning lady that we were only getting paid about £40 per day for looking after the dogs and cutting the lawn. This information got back to the homeowner, who was paying the single-parent cleaning lady about the same amount for five times the work. Tread carefully!

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Perhaps the house owner has offered to ‘buy you a drink’ or whatever for helping with a few DIY tasks in their absence? If you are confident in your abilities and there are no legal, liability nor taxation issues to take into account, there’s no reason not to get stuck in; especially if the work is enjoyable, challenging or creative. But bear in mind that certain tasks require proven legal competence whether the person performing the work is accepting cash payment, ‘payment in kind’ or even just doing it for fun. Absolutely all work involving gas (other than routine changing of domestic LPG cylinders) is forbidden across Europe without proven competence. Lots of plumbing issues could literally land you in hot water, and the consequences of carrying out faulty electrical work could be shocking! Remember, your client will be as pleased as punch to receive affordable quality DIY work, but that attitude will soon turn litigious when property is subsequently damaged or even worse.

Don’t have nightmares – enjoy your house sitting!

Most of this advice is just common sense, and most people reading this will probably have thought of such things for themselves. But here’s a thing about common sense; sometimes it just ain’t that common!

copyright Tom Hill 2009

About the author: Tom Hill

Tom Hill is an ordinary forty-something bloke from the UK who seems to have found the antedote to his less-than-satisfactory life: hook up with the right woman, take a running leap and see what happens…