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Have mop, will travel: a new wave of caretakers

by Finn Olaf-Jones, 16th June 2010

Hey look it’s me again… A nice little piece about those seeking a ‘sea-change’ in their lives via caretaking. Not so much a ‘how-to’ but a ‘can-do’.

May 14, 2009

IF the image of a caretaker brings to mind a creepy, solitary character from the pages of Stephen King or Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, meet a new breed who travels the world fighting rodents, loose roof tiles, burst pipes and other harbingers of second-home apocalypses.

Bruce Matters, at a client’s Hamptons home, said demand for his caretaker business was growing.

The economic crisis may have upended many people’s lives, but some intrepid souls have found that leaving the rat race — voluntarily or involuntarily — can mean living in a dream house, with mortgages, taxes and utilities already covered.

Last June, Kevin Shea, a former management consultant with an M.B.A. who once counted the Ford Motor Company as a client, and his wife, Alicia, decided to leave the corporate world in search of adventure. They created a Web site detailing their skills in home repair, gardening, cooking and animal care, in the hopes of landing a caretaker’s job. So far, the Sheas, who are from Belmont, Mass., have found positions at a 20-acre estate on the Connecticut River and a seaside property in New Hampshire, where they fished from the dock.

“We are building references for more exotic destinations,” said Mr. Shea, 59, citing a desire to go to places where he can pursue fly-fishing and skiing. “We took our professional attitudes and incorporated them into getting good places to take care of.”

He added that, “If you’re just in it because you want a free place to stay, you’re not going to build trust, which is what you need to get the job.”

Gary Dunn, the publisher of The Caretaker Gazette, a newsletter and Web site that matches property owners with caretakers, said it was a “boom time” for the business. The Caretaker Gazette has over 11,000 paid subscribers, up more than 10 percent from two years earlier, he said.

“Homes that used to be flipped quickly are now empty for extended periods of times,” Mr. Dunn said. “Years ago, we didn’t hear from real estate investors. Now they’re advertising. Meanwhile, we have more people who have lost their jobs who want to travel the world and live rent free or even get paid.”

Susan Holtham, who runs Mindmyhouse.com, an online service listing housesitting and caretaker positions, mostly in Europe, echoes this optimism.

“Business suddenly took off in January,” she said. “People are leaving their jobs and want to explore new places and get a roof over their heads.”

Bruce Matters, who has been running a caretaker and property management business in the Hamptons since 1976, said business was picking up.

“It used to be retired policemen and the like who would come here to take care of someone’s house,” Mr. Matters said. “For the past year and a half, I’ve seen ex-entrepreneurs, bankers and real estate agents moving in. Everyone and their brother wants to jump on the care-taking bandwagon.”

And the economic downturn has brought Mr. Matters a new set of clients: banks and federal agencies. “It’s mostly done under the radar out here,” he said, “but when a house is seized, they need someone to take care of it.”

If the Hamptons aren’t enticing enough, the job listings on Mr. Dunn’s Web site and mindmyhouse.com read like offerings from the Abercrombie & Kent travel catalog: a horse farm in northern Virginia; a private island off the east coast of Australia; a mountain chalet in Aspen, Colo.; an ancient farmhouse in northern France.

Mr. Dunn said pay could range from “a free place to park your R.V.” to over $100,000 a year.

Sometimes, the rewards are more celestial. The Ratna Ling Retreat Center in the coastal hills of Northern California is offering a position featuring “free classes in a variety of Buddhist subjects.”

“My greatest reward is the time to create,” said Dave Malone, who is taking care of a Greek Revival mansion lording over the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. Last year, Mr. Malone left a “dissipated technical writing gig” to find a peaceful place to write things closer to his heart.

A confessed “neat freak,” Mr. Malone was introduced to the mansion’s owner at an art opening in Indiana; she offered to let him take care of it while she wintered in Florida.

“I was outside all last week cutting limbs that got too heavy with ice and were threatening the house,” he said after a recent storm. “But otherwise I have very few distractions, and all sorts of beautiful things come to me here for inspiration.”

So far, he has finished two books of poetry and is at work on a novel.

Earl Delno has a lot more duties on an estate high in the Sierra Nevada on Lake Tahoe.

“My predecessor was a partier, and it showed,” Mr. Delno said. “The place was rundown, so when I started, it was nonstop work. Now, I’m reaping the rewards from it.”

Mr. Delno entered the caretaker business for a chance to settle down on terra firma, away from the turmoil of the yachting industry. “I spent most of my career on the sea, first in the merchant marine and then running yachts,” said Mr. Delno, 53, originally from Jacksonville, Fla.

The property he cares for is a 72-acre spread of pine-studded forest facing the snowcapped mountains above Lake Tahoe’s western shore, with a 21,000-square-foot lodge and a separate four-bedroom house for Mr. Delno. The estate is owned by an overseas business executive who visits it two months a year. For the rest of the time, Mr. Delno has the run of the place.

Apart from a salary in the mid-five figures, the job has other, less-tangible perks.

“One day, I looked out from my balcony and there was a cinnamon-colored bear sitting 15 feet away from me on a tree,” said the former seafarer. “I share this place with coyotes in the winter and my boss in the summers. But I run it as if it were my own ship.”

While credit, criminal and reference checks have become standard in filling positions, many property owners want to be assured that even if their potential caretaker has a graduate degree or corporate experience, he can still change a light bulb.

“I’d rather not have a yuppie, but someone with a known skill,” said Bill Baker, who owns a 150-acre island with a lighthouse in Nova Scotia where he and his family summer. “I once made the mistake of hiring a fellow who wanted to ‘get away from it all’ who turned out to be a real dud.”

Annette Perry said it was important for caretakers to build up a set of references.

“I started taking care of a horse ranch near Estes Park, Colo., and got a great reference to my next local job,” said Ms. Perry, 44. “Eventually, I was able to do this internationally.”

Ms. Perry was spending the winter taking care of an isolated beach house on Roatán Island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, where daily activities include walking the owner’s dogs along the shore or diving the Technicolor coral reefs surrounding the island.

“I made a little over $10,000 last year,” Ms. Perry said. “But I’m hardly spending any money, so I’m net positive financially. I still find it hard to believe I’m being paid to travel around the world doing this.”

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED

The Caretaker Gazette (www.caretaker.org) is a comprehensive newsletter and Web site featuring articles and job listings — currently more than 100 — from around the world. An annual online subscription (every other month), which includes automatic job-listing updates by e-mail several times a week, costs $29.95; the printed version is $34.95.

Mindmyhouse (mindmyhouse2.localhost:8888) is a smaller Web site with an emphasis on short-term housesitting along with some longer-term care-taking positions, mostly in Europe. An annual subscription is $20.

copyright NY Times

About the author: Finn Olaf-Jones

Finn Olaf-Jones is a journalist who writes for the NY Times.