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Need a house and pet sitter but think you can’t afford it? Think again – you can find a house sitter who works for free!

by Susan Holtham

This is our humble attempt to create a second article that would give an objective overview of our exciting new Internet-based industry. As you can tell, it is written for home owners only. This article was first published in 2005 but is aging well I think! You may have encountered it before as it is widely published.

Modern life has meant that people are on the move now more than ever before. But while you’re out in the big world your most precious possessions need to be cared for: your property and your animals. All sorts of service providers have sprung up to cater for this growing market, however, the services of agency-registered pet and house sitters can cost a great deal of money. Friends and family can step into the fold and agree to house sit for you but when someone is doing you a favour they can be notoriously unreliable.

But don’t despair – there is a ‘third way’ to engage the services of a house sitter. It is possible to find a responsible and well-intentioned person (or people) who are keen to mind your house and animals. They don’t expect to be paid for their services, in fact they’ll pay you for their share of utilities. The secret of this modern miracle lies in the power of the Internet to bring the right house sitter and the right house sitting assignment together at the right moment in time.

Why would anyone house sit 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 location. 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.

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 also gives interested people a chance to ‘try before they buy’ in a particular area.

Why do I need a house sitter?
Leaving your property empty for any length of time is tantamount to asking for trouble. Not only is your vacant house far more likely to be vandalized and burgled, but your home and contents insurance becomes null and void after your home is empty for 30 (or sometimes 60) consecutive days. In the words of every home security, police authority and insurance advisor: ‘Don’t do it!’

It may seem easier to lock your house up and simply walk (or drive) away rather than go through the process of finding a house sitter, but your home is probably your most valuable asset and as such, deserves the protection that a house sitter can offer. Your house sitter is effectively working for you and will be happy to perform any number of routine tasks to maintain your home and pets in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

How often does something minor come up in your home that requires attention? The person who is minding your house is on hand to organise repairs to storm damage, prevent your pipes from freezing, keep leaves out of your drains, pay the bills to keep your services connected. The list goes on … And if you have a house sitter keeping your home running smoothly you don’t need to go through the rigmarole of shutting your home down (sealing drains and installing random light switches, etc) and then starting it up again upon your return.

Your animals will thank you for engaging a house sitter to provide them with care and companionship in their usual safe environment while you’re away. Without a live-in pet sitter the cost of outside care for your pets could rival the cost of your own accommodation while you’re away! And taking them with you can be simply too stressful for them (and you).

What can I expect of my house sitter?
House sitters are by their very nature flexible and willing to consider your needs in exchange for the privilege of free accommodation in your home. House sitting candidates will generally expect to be asked to occupy your property for a given period of time and to be present in your home every night. You can also ask your house sitter to look after any number of animals, to maintain your pool, lawns, indoor plants and gardens, to forward any mail and phone messages, to pay utility bills as required (working out their personal share of bills at the end of the assignment), and to carry out any basic maintenance that your home requires (such as unblocking sinks, clearing snow from the driveway or organizing the repair of storm damage).

You may have more specialized and demanding requirements from your house sitter such as the sharing of your property with other people (such as tenants or family members), the showing of the property to potential buyers, the supervision of elderly parents or disabled children, the tending to paying guests in other parts of the property, the provision of onsite security (such as in a car dealership), or carrying out more intensive property maintenance (such as building work, the growing of vegetables or the harvesting of crops). All of these requirements would be beyond the remit of the standard house sitting agreement but a house sitter can generally be found for the most demanding position if you cast around wide enough.

How do I find a free house sitter?
There are many thousands of house sitters who are currently advertising their free services in online house sitting directories.

If you type a few generic search terms such as “house sitters” or “house sitting” (use double quotes to perform the more accurate phrase search) into a search engine you should be able to find a reputable and relevant website in the top 30 search 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.)

You may need to scrutinise several promising-looking (and high-ranking) websites before you find those that offer the kind of free matching service that you’re looking for. Avoid those websites which are simply adverts for individual house sitter’s commercial services or traditional commercial house sitting agencies.

Free house sitting matching websites generally follow two basic models of business practice. In the first fully online model, house sitters pay an annual fee to create their own ‘sitter available’ advert which is online and searchable 24 hours per day. Home owners register with the site then login to search its database of ‘sitter available’ adverts for suitable candidates. With this type of house sitting matching service there actually is no middle person matching owners with sitters. Once a home owner has created their shortlist of likely candidates they contact house sitters directly. Home owners can also advertise their house sitting assignment on these sites and have house sitters email them through a blank contact form. A very good site should strive to protect your anonymity until you’re prepared to reveal your contact details yourself.

In the second model, the website only serves as an advert for the business which is conducted by the administrators ‘behind the scenes’. House sitters pay a fee (this can range from US$30 to many times that amount) for an annual membership with the website. In return the business owner agrees to include the house sitters’ adverts in either an email or printed mailing list which is sent out to home owners. As a home owner you may be able to include your own ‘sitter wanted’ advert in these mail-outs as well.

Home owners are fortunate in that these house sitting websites are actively courting your custom. As a home owner you should be able to register with the website for free as well as search the database of ‘sitter available’ adverts for free (or receive a list of potential house sitters in your letterbox or inbox – again for free). However, one very well established matching service does have the cheek to charge home owners for access to its list of house sitters. You need to decide whether you think it’s worth the small-ish investment (US$30 to read sitter available adverts and a further US$65 to post your own 100-word sitter wanted advert to a single edition of a newsletter) to use this well-established site. You may want to try your luck with the rest of the free services first as you’ve nothing to lose by casting around on the different sites. However, if a site is very badly made with illogical (or nonexistent) navigation structure and a search function that doesn’t seem to work, avoid it. House sitters will be staying away from such a service in droves as well.

What should I avoid when looking for a house sitter?
Horror house sitting stories do exist. The most spectacular one I’ve read (this could be fact or fiction) is the hapless home owner who unknowingly engaged the services of a crack-addicted workmate to mind his home while he was away. He arrived home to find his safe detonated – the thieves had made off with everything. Short of asking his workmate to take a drugs test, what could he have done to avoid falling into this hole?

Plenty. The conscientious and responsible house sitter will have all the documentation ready to prove to you that they’re trustworthy and reliable and want to mind your home and animals for all the right reasons. This documentation could include written references and the contact details of email and phone referees (these people could be satisfied home owners, landlords or estate agents). They will also have commissioned a recent police check on themselves to show that they’re not ‘wanted in three countries’. A conscientious house sitter should be happy to work through, and sign, a house sitting agreement with you as well as give you a security deposit (of not more than the equivalent of a month’s rent for a similar property in your area).

Is there a downside to finding a free house sitter?
This kind of mutually beneficial arrangement between home owners and house sitters works out well in the vast majority of cases because it’s based on mutual trust. This kind of mutual expectation tends to bring out the best in human nature and those bound by the relationship perform accordingly.

That said, however, I have heard of a few less than ideal experiences. Such situations usually arise out of naivety, poor communication and making the mistake of asking a friend or family member to mind your house for you rather than a stranger (really). With a friend or family member you’ll most likely feel that you need to simply ‘go on trust’ in arranging the terms of the house sitting agreement which often means not discussing the terms of the agreement at all. One home owner’s kind-spirited offer to his friend and house sitter to ‘help herself’ to his wine collection ended in dismay when he returned home to discover she’d helped herself to two dozen of his prized reds. With an unknown person, he could have guiltlessly locked his wine in the cellar, adding a caveat in the house sitting agreement that it was not to be touched.

Some house sitting assignments can be more difficult to fill than others. If your assignment is for a short period and involves a lot of responsibility (such as medicating and walking dogs) or if it’s winter in your part of the world and your property is in a rundown area of a city you may find it hard to get the attention of many potential house sitters. If you cast around wide enough on a few websites and write the best advert you can to sell the benefits of your property and location you may be able to find a willing free house sitter.

With the free matching house sitting websites it’s common for home owners to advertise (or approach sitters with an offer) a few months (or even up to a year) in advance of their planned absence. If you need a house sitter at short notice, do try your luck on the free house sitting websites but if you may have to turn to a commercial service to fill the position.

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 home owners who are looking for a house sitter who will work for free in exchange for accommodation. These types of requests are the Internet equivalent of ‘whistling in the wind’ as the right people never see them. Fortunately, the existence of new online house sitting directories has changed all of that.

In the olden days (before the Internet brought us all together) a home owner who needed someone to mind their home and care for ‘Fluffy’ while they were away skiing in France (or tasting whiskeys in Scottish highland distilleries) would most likely do the following: Phone a house sitting agency, accept the first willing employee (unseen) and grit their teeth and bear the cost of the service (with most of the substantial daily fees going to the agency). Or they could ask ‘Aunty Dot’ or a neighbour to mind the fort for them. This kind of piecemeal solution never quite worked out as the power outage defrosted the freezer (unnoticed by Aunty Dot) and their lonely dog howled all day and night (annoying the neighbour but not enough to do anything about it).

The Internet has flipped all of that on its head. Now the ball is firmly in home owners’ courts as they’ve come to realise that they have a substantial asset (free accommodation) that they can barter for house and pet sitting services. The key to success is knowing where to find the right person who is enthusiastic and motivated to mind your house for their own reasons. So the next time you need somebody don’t just give a little whistle – get online – your perfect house sitter is only a quick click (and a detailed email) away.

Posted in: MediaMedia archive
Susan Holtham

About the author: 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!