Skip to Content Skip to Navigation Skip to Sitemap

Who needs to be a millionaire?

by Tom Hill, 6th December 2007

Tom Hill and Linda Worthington say they feel like they are living the lifestyle of millionaires. Yet they earned only UK 10,000 pounds between them in the 2006-2007 tax year. Huh? It would seem that the secret to all of this contentment and their feeling of having ‘riches’ is their ability to borrow other people’s homes all year long. On the European continent that is. Nice.

Tom Hill is a regular contributor to our Community Area. If you want a bit of this kind of action too, read this summary of Tom and Lin’s ‘how to do as we do’ guide. Better still, wait for the publication!

Saturday November 3 2007

It doesn’t take a fortune to have a fully stocked wine cellar in Bergerac or winter in the Pyrenees – all you need are the keys to other people’s homes. Better still, you get paid to use them if, like Tom Hill and his partner Lin, you’re a house-sitter

I am writing this article from a villa near Antibes in the south of France. Last winter we spent November to March snowed into a closed-for-winter hotel in the High Pyrenees. The Christmas before that, we were the guardians of a Bergerac winery with free access to a cellar stocked with aged clarets.

How do we manage this on an income of less than £10,000? We borrow other people’s homes.

My partner Lin and I have been professional international house-sitters since quitting our conventional nine-to-five jobs after meeting each other during our post-divorce mid-life crises. During the last tax year we earned just £9,908 between us, but we have lived like millionaires.

In our current home on the Cote d’Azur, I skim the leaves from the swimming pool while Lin keeps the place spotlessly clean and looks after the welfare of three delightful dogs. Every night and day we act as human burglar deterrents.

I think I’ve found a way out of the daily grind, and it’s worked for the past five years. Like anything else, it’s a job with its ups and downs. There are the occasional mundane assignments, our least interesting being a two-bed semi in Chiswick, west London, where the broadband and the Sky TV broke down while we were looking after an elderly cat. The most tedious seven days I can remember.

However, the interesting and challenging assignments usually outweigh those that are banal. We have dealt with redback spiders and poisonous snakes in Australia, and been forced to undertake makeshift plumbing repairs to a mountain well in a freezing blizzard 1,200m up in the Pyrenees.

We once redecorated an apartment near Marseille for a retired UN diplomat, who, on his return, cooked us the finest leg of lamb and served us Margaux wine bottled while I was still a teenager. That evening he regaled us with stories of his rescuing a boatload of European tourists from the clutches of an African warlord in the 70s, and how he had avoided being shot by using his silver tongue and making a gift of his Rolex watch.

House-sitting effectively means that you get to travel the world while living in other people’s houses at their expense. No, I’m not about to perform a Gerald Ratner-style assassination of our customers; we are very grateful that they are happy for us to stay in their homes while they are away. And there is plenty in it for them. We typically charge a fee of around £175 a week, which, in addition to looking after their house and caring for their pets, includes light gardening, a lift to the airport and back (therefore no airport parking charges), phones answered, messages taken and important mail forwarded.

House-sitting is a win-win situation and should not be seen as a business – rather, as a liberating lifestyle. Naturally, this isn’t something that just anyone can do, so don’t start writing your resignation letters just yet. There are a few factors which will preclude certain people from being able to live a life less ordinary, assuming they might wish to do so.

These include having dependent children, carrying significant debts, being attached to any pets of your own, needing to know where the next month’s salary payment is coming from, being intolerant of other people’s lifestyles, or simply being unable to live permanently out of a suitcase.

However, this should not deter those with a small-to-medium sized mortgage from becoming an itinerant house-sitter.

Here I will attempt to provide a brief financial how-to guide. In order to survive on the outskirts of convention, as we do, it is absolutely essential to control spending and maximise earnings. We have become obsessive about the former and work inexorably at the latter. But we don’t have to get up very early. As Morrissey sang, “Every day is like Sunday.”

We neutralised our small but not insignificant £30,000 mortgage by taking close family as lodgers into our home under the government’s rent a room scheme, where you can receive rent of up to £4,250 a year tax-free if you let one or more furnished rooms in your house to a lodger (we often return to the house in between assignments).

Cars are a very significant expense, so we purchased an affordable, reliable diesel Peugeot estate. It has the capacity of a small van, is paid for outright and should last for another three years. We save £80 per month to cover the expense of a new one when the time comes.

We control our spending by the careful use of a computer spreadsheet to record and anticipate expenditure for absolutely everything – from mobile phones to haircuts. Unnecessary indulgences are easily identified and curtailed.

Our grocery bills, website advertising (we have our own site: housem8.com) and travel expenses are covered by our house-sitting fees.

While you are not at your own home, you are not paying utility bills, but you mustn’t use the clients’ telephones or pay-per-view satellite TV unless you are prepared to reimburse them.

When it comes to maximising earnings, I am a bit of a jack of all trades: freelance writer, website designer and sometime photographer. Lin performs most of the pet care when we are on assignments.

We usually scrape by with working from the laptop wherever we find a broadband signal, though now and again I’m still forced to get temporary work driving an HGV when the computer work dries up.

Above all, it is essential to keep everything above board legally, keep accurate double-entry accounts and present an honest tax return. We have a limited company, of which we are PAYE employees, although we never earn enough to pay any income tax. The final part of the jigsaw is successfully marketing your house- sitting services. Obviously, an effective website with adequate search engine results is essential for success.

After a while, repeat business and word of mouth recommendation should keep you busy. Also, try registering with one or more of the internet-based national house-sitting agencies such as Safe Hands Sitters (safehandssitters.co.uk), which “provides fully referenced and insured house-sitters, cat-sitters, dog-sitters, or indeed pet-sitters of any kind”. The ‘pay’ is usually about the same as when you find the work yourself, but of course you are no longer completely your own boss.

Some people will house-sit for free. The house-sitting market is not a conventional supply and demand business model, so there are those who don’t mind operating without a formal legal agreement, without insurance and without meaningful reference checking.

I take the view that you get what you pay for. We have undergone police clearance checks, carry Europe-wide liability insurance of £2m and have a long list of references from previous clients.

We also maximise our income by offering a range of extra services while our clients are absent, at a fraction of their normal cost. These range from garden clearance and property rental website design to painting and decorating, and even de-cluttering, where we will photograph and sell the client’s unwanted items on eBay at an agreed reserve price for a nominal percentage fee. All these extras top up our income enough to live an adequately comfortable life.

copyright The Guardian

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…