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Sitting in style

by Belinda Archer, 27th April 2007

Look mum I’m in the paper! While this piece written for the Financial Times (London) is just a general introductory piece on the weird and wonderful world of house sitting worldwide I thought I’d publish it here for your delectation. Note that three of the four people who are quoted in the story are MindMyHousies. And there’s the stuff from…erm… me as well!

Posted in: MediaMedia archive

15 December 2006

Imagine staying in a stunning Italian villa, a charmingly crumbling Irish rectory or perhaps a roomy Mexican hacienda without spending a cent. Apart from feeding the cats and watering a few plants, it is totally free.

Alternatively, picture yourself heading off on a long holiday. You’re nervous about leaving the house empty, reluctant to put the dog in a kennel and don’t want the lawn to go unmown. So you find a responsible stranger with references to look after it all for you at absolutely no cost.

Welcome to the fast-developing world of house-sitting networks, where homeowners and sitters engage in mutually beneficial, non-monetary agreements. The owners get their properties, pets and gardens cared for while they’re away, while the sitters gain rent-free accommodation in return for minor household duties. Thanks to the growth of websites that act as introductory or match-making services, such transactions are becoming increasingly common around the world.

‘It’s a win-win situation,’ says Ian White, marketing director of Australia-based Housecarers.com, which launched in 2000. ‘Home security is a concern with growing crime in many cities and pets are now an important part of many families. Many workers are also now more mobile and can work anywhere in the world. As house-sitters, they get to experience another area without the burden of high rent.’

There are many theories about when and how this type of house- sitting developed. Some say its genesis was the now-defunct Australian House Sitters Directory in 1993. Others suggest it started in the 1970s with a group of Canadian teachers who looked after each another’s homes during summer vacations. But whatever its provenance, it has spread rapidly and is now particularly popular in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Today’s networks are also truly international, allowing sitters and owners to find one another easily anywhere in the world.

UK-based MindMyHouse.com, which launched in February 2005 and is now one of the leading global house-sitting websites, reports that its site traffic is ‘doubling every month’. The Caretaker Gazette, another house-sitting website, based in the US, says that the number of international assignments it advertises has been increasing by about 30 per cent each year. Similarly, Housecarers reports growth from 900 site visits a day when it launched to 3,000 now.

But it is not just the development of the internet that has made house- sitting take off. Like White, Susan Holtham, editor of MindMyHouse, has many other theories. ‘House-sitting worldwide is being powered by the changing demographic trends in the UK and other societies,’ she says. ‘People are becoming more mobile and wanting to travel more. The birth rate is also down in the west, thus pet ownership is rising.’ (Pets are involved in the vast majority of house-sitting assignments.)

‘Then there is the rise of the baby boomer as the new adventure traveller, and 50-plus ‘empty nesters’ wanting to spend the kids’ inheritance rather than save it. There’s even the rise of the budget airlines allowing us to fly more cheaply and more often, and the lowering of immigration barriers throughout Europe.’

Gary C. Dunn, publisher of The Caretaker Gazette, thinks a rise in second-home ownership is also feeding its growth. ‘More people than ever are able to afford more than one home and they often choose to have a second or third home located in another country. In addition, we have people who are transferred overseas for long- and short-term periods, taking sabbaticals, inheriting properties in far-away places – all requiring the services of a house-sitter or property caretaker.’

The advantages to both parties are many. The homeowner can be confident that his or her house will be protected from trespassers, any maintenance problems will be addressed instantly, papers won’t pile up, mail will be forwarded, and, in some cases, insurance rates will be lower than if the home had been left unoccupied. (Most policies have a vacancy clause that kicks in after 30 days, meaning the property is not protected.) Small tasks can also be thrown in as part of the deal, such as the sitter collecting the owner from the airport in exchange for the use of a car.

The sitter, in turn, gets to live in an area or indeed a country they might never have been able to visit otherwise. They might be required for any length of stay and for any number of reasons, from two-week holiday cover to several months while the owner is away for work or study or even in hospital.

Chances are the house is rather nicer than their own. There are tales of chief executives who need their Aspen chalets to be looked after through the ski season, Tokyo townhouses next to golf courses that need watching and a northern Virginia homeowner with 7,500 sq ft of ‘sheer luxury’, including a heated pool and home cinema, searching for a sitter. And even when the properties are not luxurious, they invariably have something special or unusual to offer.

‘Owners may live in a stone cottage with a wood burning stove in Wales – with a flock of sheep to tend – or they may live within 30 minutes’ commute of New York City,’ says Holtham. ‘We will soon have a position involving two months on a canal boat in Cheshire, UK, while another ad said simply: ‘Come to the Scottish Highlands for Hogmanay’.’

The types of people who sit also vary widely. They might include retired couples who dip in and out of it occasionally; penniless writers, researchers or students able to work from anywhere with an internet connection; dedicated househunters new to an area and keen to do some thorough research before buying, as well as save towards their new home; or even ‘of no fixed abode’ house-sitting professionals who happily move from property to property without being burdened by the shackles of home ownership.

Randy Meyer, a federal employee living in Highland Falls, New York, works full-time but is able to take several weeks off between postings. He fills them with house-sitting around the world and has so far stayed in Italy, Ireland, Wales and France as well as various locations throughout the US. ‘I’ve got the travel bug and house- sitting allows me to explore new areas and keep expenses down,’ he says. ‘I enjoy it for the opportunity to experience new places.’

Some people house-sit for more practical reasons. Take Clare O’Farrell, an Australian university lecturer in Brisbane, who does it to pay the rent on her primary residence. ‘I’ve been renting a three-bedroom flat for many years and am now sharing it to help save money. Sharing as an experience can wear thin pretty quickly, so the only way I could solve this problem was by house-sitting. I’m now having six weeks off after a year of continuous sitting.’

Many people who have used house sitters give glowing reviews of the experience. James Cope, a 46-year-old farmer living in a ‘striking modern home overlooking a loch’ in Perthshire, Scotland, with his wife and two young children, has had two different couples look after his home this year.

‘We’ve got three dogs and didn’t want to kennel them. We also wanted the lawns mown and the plants watered, and as part of the agreement we had some small tasks done like a wall painted. It worked perfectly – so much so that both couples are keen to sit for us again and we will happily use them next time we go away,’ he says.

Cope confesses to not having vetted either couple as thoroughly as he should have; he simply followed up on a few references and spoke with them over the phone. There are, however, more stringent guidelines to follow. Several of the house-sitting websites offer comprehensive advice on how to check applicants, including tips on interviewing, screening and background checks; many also incorporate draft contracts.

‘We recommend meetings between both parties if at all possible, although often arrangements are made via e-mail and telephone from the other side of the world,’ says Danny Raynel, site manager of Housesitworld.com, another Australia-based website with a global reach. ‘We also recommend a basic written agreement on what’s expected and, if possible, an introduction of the sitter to neighbours or nearby family.’

But can house-sitting really be a win-win situation all the time? Surely there have been cases when sitters were disappointed with their stays or when owners weren’t satisfied with the standard of care paid to their house?

O’Farrell in Brisbane sums up the downside in one word: ‘pets’. ‘Even when they are nice – and I have looked after some lovely ones – pets are a lot of work and really tie your down,’ she says. She’s had to deal with cats throwing up on duvets and climbing inside dishwashers, dogs urinating indoors and parrots squawking through the night.

Owners who don’t vet sitters carefully could also have problems with damage or, in the worst case, theft. ‘While we have had no serious problems to date, the reality is that the owner is inviting a complete stranger into their home,’ Raynel says.

Still, the overall message is an extremely positive one. Many report once-in-a-lifetime experiences resulting from house-sitting, repeat business developing and even life-long friendships being forged.

Andrea Gillies, who owns a roomy family house on the Orkney Islands in Scotland with a full menagerie of animals, sums up: ‘We’ve recently returned from two weeks in Turkey and used an Australian couple to mind our big house and our horses, dogs, chickens and cat. The house is cleaner than we left it, they stocked up the fridge and the dogs are missing the long walks very badly. In short, it was a huge success.’

mindmyhouse2.localhost:8888
www.housecarers.com
www.housesitworld.com
www.caretaker.org
www.housesitads.com.au

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

About the author: Belinda Archer

Belinda Archer is a freelance journalist who is based in the UK.