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So you want to be a house sitter? Here’s how, and you won’t be paid a cent for your efforts!

by Susan Holtham, 2nd February 2008

This is part one of our attempt to impart some wisdom about the exciting new industry that is house sitting worldwide. You may have read this article before as it is widely published. We hoped this article would bring more visitors to our site. As you are reading this in our Community Area, our strategy seems to have worked (or not)!

Posted in: MediaMedia archive

I can’t say that I have any expert knowledge of house sitting in Europe or the States (or New Zealand for that matter, despite the fact that I am the owner of a New Zealand-based house sitting website) but I am an expert on a burgeoning phenomenon often known as house sitting worldwide. The kinds of house sitting opportunities I’m going to tell you about are available to anyone, anywhere with an email address who can get online to check for offers of house sitting jobs (and then transport themselves to the owner’s property, of course, but that comes later).

If you’re thinking that you would like to housesit to make some extra money, turn away now. Because if you advertise your house sitting services with an online matching service such as mine, you won’t be paid a cent for your efforts. In fact, you’ll be paying for your share of the bills during your house sitting assignment (and you may be asked for a security deposit by the home owner).

Why would anyone work as a house sitter for free?
There are many people in this big world of ours who are very keen to trade their house and pet sitting services for accommodation in their desired locations. For the right person, minding any given property is not a chore but a fabulous opportunity. And the Internet is the tool with which home owners can find that motivated and enthusiastic ‘right person’ to mind their house. Take me for example, I would fly to San Francisco to house sit for any home owner in that glorious city who cared to offer me an assignment lasting a couple of weeks or more. But I don’t think that a San Franciscan would be so enthusiastic about trading their house sitting services for free accommodation.

Who does it?
People look for house sitting assignments for all sorts of reasons. Many couples house sit in their local area while trying to save a deposit for their own home. Others, such as writers and IT workers, may not need to live in any one place to earn their living, instead enjoying the freedom of moving around between house sitting assignments. Some house sitters are looking for a chance to practice their foreign language skills or see a bit of the world on a tight budget. Academics are often expected to study and work overseas for short periods and find that house sitting is a cost effective way to study abroad. Retirees are especially keen house sitters. With fewer work and family obligations, house sitting allows older people the chance to enjoy a change of scene without the hassle of carting luggage around between hotels. House sitting can also give interested people a chance to ‘try before they buy’ in a particular area.

But some house sitters get paid right?
If you would like to be paid for what will most likely be short term live-in pet sitting jobs over the summer and other peak holiday times (Christmas, Easter and mid-term breaks) you’re welcome to register with one or more of the many traditional house sitting agencies that exist out there. These agencies operate on a familiar business model. They physically match house sitters to house sitting assignments, charging home owners a daily fee which is considerably more than they pay out in wages to their staff. You’ll be required to provide references and open yourself up to your employer’s scrutiny before being accepted onto their books. So-called professional house sitters (they’re not necessarily experienced and committed to what they do, being ‘professional’ just means they do it for money) can make a nice bit of pocket money if they’re flexible and willing to care for any number of animals while on house sitting assignment. UK-based workers have recently won a victory under the UK’s National Minimum Wage Act 1998 which ruled that they were in fact working while on assignment and were entitled to the minimum wage (the agencies have found a way around this ruling, however, by limiting the number of hours their employees are required to be in a property).

What is a free house sitter required to do?
While the home owner is away everything continues in the property as usual (that’s where you come in!). Bills need to be paid to keep services connected, plants need watering, gardens, lawns and trees need to be maintained, mail and phone messages may need to be forwarded, and pets remain as demanding of love, care and companionship as ever. While the relationship between home owner and house sitter is mutually beneficial and based on trust, the house sitter is, in effect, working for the home owner. The house sitter agrees to occupy the home owner’s property for a given period of time. Generally the house sitter is required to be in the property most evenings and nights (although, like everything, this may be negotiable), giving the property its usual occupied appearance to deter burglars, squatters and vandals. Often, there will be one or more animals to care for (these can be fish, rabbits, cats and dogs, hamsters, goats and horses!) The home owner is entitled to ask their house sitter to perform any number of light duties to maintain the property. (Of course the house sitter is able to politely decline any unappealing offers.)

What costs does the house sitter have?
The house sitter funds all their own day-to-day requirements while on assignment and generally agrees to replace everything of the home owner’s that they consume. Before the house sitting assignment begins, both parties need to sit down and spell out who is responsible for which bills. Generally, any vet bills and costs of maintaining the property should remain with the owner, while the sitter takes care of their share of utility bills. A security deposit may also be required by the home owner to insure against any damages. This is negotiable but shouldn’t be more than the cost of a month’s rent for a similar property in the area.

Some home owners may require their house sitter to pay a reduced rental fee of some kind while on assignment. While this goes against the spirit of house sitting worldwide, it can, however, make sense to participate in this kind of deal in high-rent cities such as London or New York.

How do I advertise my house sitting services?
You could advertise your house sitting services by word of mouth, by company email, by taking out a small classified advert in a local paper or by sticking your own advert on public notice boards. All of these methods may attract the attention of a local home owner and result in an offer of a house sitting assignment.

However, if you are currently in the States and want to house sit in France (for example) you’ll need to ‘go global’ and advertise your house sitting services with an online house sitting directory. These websites generally follow two basic models of business practice. In the first model, house sitters pay an annual fee (usually around US$40) to create their own sitter available advert which is online and searchable 24 hours per day. Home owners then search the website’s database and contact house sitters directly. This fully online type of service should give you confidence that your advert is online and can be found by any interested home owner who takes the time to search the database of ‘sitter available’ adverts. You can update or hide your advert if you need to and you can also personally respond to any sitter wanted adverts on the site.

In the second model, the website only serves as an advert for the business which is conducted by the administrators ‘behind the scenes’. For an annual fee (this can be US$40 or many times more for the whole package) the business owner agrees to include the house sitter’s advert in either an email or printed mailing list which is then posted out to an unspecified number of home owners. There may also be the option of paying to receive a list of ‘sitter wanted’ adverts by email or post. There will be one fee to receive ‘sitter wanted’ adverts and another fee to advertise your house sitting services through these online businesses. This second type of service may seem less transparent than the first – you don’t actually know if your advert has been sent out or how many home owners may have seen it. However, the proof is in the pudding – if the site seems well established and has many testimonials from satisfied customers then it should be worth the initial investment.

What should I look for in a good house sitting website?
To have any kind of success as a house sitter you need to spend the relatively small fee (membership fees on the reputable sites range from free to around US$40 per year) to list with a website that is well-designed and informative, with good usability and a logical navigation structure. The website should be easy to find through a search engine.

To check how established a website is and how high they are ranked with the search engines, type a generic term such as “house sitters” (use double quotes to perform the more useful phrase search) into the search field of your preferred search engine. Your house sitting directory site of choice should be listed in the top 100 site returns. (Having said that, even a very high quality house sitting website will not have a viable page ranking on Google for up to one year from its launch date.) Those in the top 30 page returns will be getting the most home owner visitors so you may want to consider taking out an annual membership with one of these websites.

If you regularly use the Internet, you will have your own criteria for what makes a good website. Peruse the different sites, try out the search function for both sitter available adverts and sitter wanted adverts. Read through the FAQs section and see how well-informed you feel at the end of it. If membership on the site is free, join as a member and create your own sitter available advert. What have you got to lose?

What should I avoid in a house sitting website?
If a website is very badly made and difficult to navigate it’s very likely that home owners will be staying away from the service in droves. Be wary of those online businesses that ask for a hefty up-front membership fee (anything over US$40) but offer no guarantee of satisfaction. If a website seems cagey about just how many of their house sitter members are being offered house sitting assignments and hides how they operate their business give them a wide berth. Often these websites are just selling the dream of rent-free accommodation, which never materialises for their disappointed members.

To have any success in your quest for a house sitting assignment, your advert needs to be findable. Check with the website that your advert will always be shown in their site’s search return (you may need to email them personally with this query if this subject is not covered in their FAQs). If you are looking for assignments in popular areas such as London, there may be so many other keen house sitters doing the same thing that the site limits the search display to the first 200 and your advert may never be seen. The same problem can occur with the websites that promise to post or email your advert to a list of home owners. One notorious house sitting website (making millions in annual fees from hopeful house sitters) only promises to include 72 adverts in each such post out, so members have no idea whether their advert makes it into the ‘chosen 72′ and is ever seen by home owners at all.

Should I create my own webpage?
Creating your own webpage (to link to from your sitter available advert on a reputable online house sitting website) can be a good idea which may help to convince home owners that you’re trustworthy and keen. It’s not necessary to have one, but if you do want your own webpage spend some money on it – purchase your own domain name and have the page professionally built and designed. Would you engage the services of someone who put the equivalent of a torn, badly written and ugly pamphlet through your letterbox? Unfortunately, you can’t rely on your own webpage being found on the Internet by the right home owner if it is out there on its own. You will need to become a member of an established website in order to be able to create a link from your advert to your personal webpage. Established house sitting sites will have done all the hard work of search engine optimisation for you (believe me, it takes blood, sweat and tears to get your website a viable page ranking with the three main search engines) which will enable your advert to be found and seen by your intended audience.

How do I get started as a house sitter?
Some house sitters go the whole hog (as we say in New Zealand) and sell their home in preparation for their new lifestyle as an international house sitter. This can be a good way to throw yourself into it but you invite the risk of becoming a budget traveller in between assignments (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Others test the water one toe at a time and take on a few select assignments that sound really inviting, leaving their usual accommodation in the care of the person or people that they live with. Your own unique reasons for wanting to house sit will shape the way you go about becoming a house sitter. You may be looking for a rent-free holiday in central London, a stint in the wine-making areas of rural France or something that even you don’t know you’re seeking yet.

If you’re not that confident with pets you may want to get cosy with a few of your friends’ cats and dogs to prepare you for the inevitable pet sitting duties that accompany house sitting assignments. Get your references in order (or ask the relevant people to become email and/or phone referees for you) and commission a police background check on yourself to show home owners that you’re not a member of the Beagle Boys (remember them?) Make sure your passport is current in case something great and last minute comes up. You’ll also need to open an email account that you can travel with (if you haven’t got one already) that has a generous storage limit (Yahoo and Gmail offer unlimited storage as standard). It is crucial that you remain contactable – if you are not from mainland USA forget about opening a Hotmail account as these are notorious for having a tiny inbox that is continually ‘unavailable’.

Finally, once you’ve chosen a website (or another method of advertising) don’t fall into the trap of waiting for home owners to advertise their house sitting assignments so that you can contact them. The vast majority of home owners prefer to search sitter available adverts and contact house sitters directly. If you don’t create your own advert, no one will be able to find you!

What are my chances of being offered a house sitting assignment?
There are many factors that influence your chances of being chosen for an assignment. Some of these you can’t control, such as your age, marital status and country of residence; others you can, such as providing references, offering home owners a security deposit, a police background check and the chance to interview you for the job before making a decision.

The importance of having a well-written advert describing yourself and your experience in adequate detail (in at least 100 words) cannot be overestimated. You only have one impression to make on home owners, so make it a good one! Think of your sitter available advert as a mini job application. The tone of your advert needs to be upbeat and positive and needs to tell the owner just how willing you are to accommodate their needs.

Flexibility is the key to success in this competitive game. If you’re prepared to house sit anywhere in your chosen countries at any time of the year and with any number of animals in your care, then you should attract the attention of a number of home owners.

Is there a downside to house sitting?
House sitting is not at all predictable. By seeking house sitting assignments you’re letting the Universe direct you in some respects, which is not a pleasant feeling for everyone. You may be unpleasantly surprised by where you find yourself on occasion. All the usual errors of miscommunication can come into play to thwart your plans.

When accepting the offer of a house sitting assignment it’s not always as simple as saying ‘I do’ and showing up at the right place on the right day (although it may be like that). In order to prove to home owners that you’re upfront and honest it’s a good idea to have documentary evidence available such as a recent police check and references. You may not enjoy having to be so transparent with perfect strangers. You’ll also need to be prepared to pay a refundable security deposit to the home owner and to work through a fairly lengthy plain-English legal document called a house sitting agreement. It is critical that both parties sit down and negotiate the terms of the agreement so that each is aware of their own rights and responsibilities during the assignment before it begins.

Conclusion
In my work as a website editor and administrator I come across a great many lonely online classifieds and forlorn requests on bulletin boards from people who are looking to trade their house and pet sitting services in exchange for free accommodation. These types of requests are the Internet equivalent of ‘whistling in the wind’ as the right people never see them. Fortunately, the creation of online house sitting matching services has provided the space and the facilities for home owners and house sitters to find one another at last.

House sitting worldwide is about bringing people together from around the globe for the free exchange of services (house and pet sitting) with goods (accommodation). Making yourself available as a house sitter could be your first step towards one of many life-enhancing adventures. You may be a Franco or Anglophile who is seeking the pleasures of learning a foreign language while fully immersed in the language and culture. Maybe you’re after a comfortable base for a short city break in the centre of it all. Or you could just end up with that much sought after long-term assignment within commuting distance from your job, allowing you to bank your rental payments instead of flushing the money down the proverbial toilet. Whatever you’re seeking from a house sitting assignment, there is undoubtedly someone out there who has the right house sitting opportunity at the right time for you. The challenge is finding each other! Best of luck with your house sitting assignments!

About the author: Susan Holtham

Susan Holtham

The editor at MindMyHouse is a fun gal, intrepid traveller (in a former life), holder of three passports and enthusiastic house sitter. A book editor by trade, she did a three-year stint with Lonely Planet Publications at the start of her career. During her time at LP she shepherded many titles through the production process. Baaaa-aaaa-aaaaaa! Now that two gorgeous little girls call her mummy she's a very busy woman tending to their needs and to the occasional cries for help from among our 5000+ membership. No really, she's always keen to help!