Ben Flanagan of the Guardian newspaper group provides a snapshot of the professional house sitting scene in the UK. With more on the effect of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 on the industry.
Sunday April 28 2002
You’ve taken Missy for a walk, fed Tigger, and just put your feet up in time for Countdown – it’s all in a day’s work for the professional house-sitter. Spring is booking time for the busy summer season, when house-sitters could be sent anywhere from a remote country mansion to a city-centre flat. They water plants, help deter intruders, and provide peace of mind for absent owners.
House-sitting agencies either employ sitters outright or act as introducers for self-employed individuals. Most look for responsible retired people aged 45-70, though Animal Aunts – which specialises in looking after pets – deals with self-employed sitters from 21 to over 80. You have to be fit and undergo strict background checks.
Sitters and clients are matched according to their requirements – it’s a bit like a dating agency. So if a client has a pet python, the agency will try to choose someone with experience in looking after snakes. If the sitter lives in a city and wants a peaceful break, they can choose to take work somewhere quiet.
The profession was shaken up by an employment tribunal last year that ruled that house-sitters are entitled to the national minimum wage. However, this does not apply to times during the day when the sitter is free to leave the premises, or if they are self-employed.
The largest agency, Homesitters (01296 630 730), pays £55 a week. They comply with the legislation because their sitters are free to leave the house for up to 3 hours during the day and 1 hour at night; they are paid for 2 hours’ ‘work’ a day. There is a small additional payment for each pet looked after, plus travel expenses and a tax-free food allowance of £6 a day. If a client requires someone on the premises 24 hours a day, the sitters are paid extra.
The more specialist ‘Animal Aunts’ (01730 821529) earn a basic of £26.25 a day. One sitter is getting £68 a day looking after nine horses, three dogs, three geese and a cat.
‘It’s one of the few occupations where you can take your partner along,’ says Adèle Barclay at Homesitters. You get to see parts of the country you may not visit otherwise, sometimes in homes with amenities such as indoor swimming pools and gyms. Some agencies have placements abroad.
House-sitters are not usually under obligation to accept a job, so it’s very flexible. Some sitters make a full-time career of it.
Things can be solitary if all you’ve got for company is an irritable rabbit and an aloof cat. Pay may be no more than pocket money, though for retirees cash is not usually the main motivation. Employment cannot be guaranteed and the work varies seasonally.
An appeal has been lodged against last year’s minimum wage ruling; the case is to be heard in July. The outcome will be largely academic, as many agencies now specify that the sitters are free to leave the property for certain periods.
Potential growth markets are house-sits in unoccupied properties up for sale, and those awaiting probate.
My view: John Morrison
Former civil servant John Morrison has worked for Homesitters for nearly 18 months. The 55-year-old lives in Surrey but is ‘constantly ready to move’ to jobs that can last from two days to five weeks.
‘I get the company of a pet without the responsibility of keeping one. I’ve looked after animals ranging from a chinchilla to a big German shepherd, plus budgies, cockateels, cats, rabbits and goldfish.’ He always meets homeowners and pets before a job: ‘You have to be compatible with the client and their animals.’
The job gives him plenty of time for reading, watching TV and the joys of filling in his tax return. He enjoys the flexibility: ‘I can choose when and where I work. It’s not like work at all; it’s like a wee holiday. You’re always in a good mood.’
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004