What is housesitting? Who housesits?
Housesitters come in all shapes and sizes: Singles, couples, families, young adults, retirees, fulltimers like me, others who sit periodically during their holidays.
A part of the gig economy, housesitting is an exchange where petowners engage a housesitter to care for their home and pets while they are away. Typically, homeowners cover all the household and pet care expenses while the housesitter enjoys the home and surroundings for free. Although some housesitters are paid, usually it’s a quid pro quo and no money exchanges hands.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I sleep around. I can’t afford to live in my own home in Los Angeles, so I rent it out while I travel fulltime and launch a second career as a writer and journalist.
My “first” career was as a political consultant specializing in communication and coalition building. I was often the spokesperson for campaigns promoting and defending civil justice, environmental protection and women’s and consumers’ rights.
Then I ran for public office, got my derrière kicked and decided to take a sabbatical from politics. In my mid-40s, broke and broken, I traveled to the Middle East to work with refugees and write about their experiences.
Unable to live in my home while it was rented out, I initially stayed in writing colonies where I’d been awarded residencies or I crashed with friends and family. Later, I discovered housesitting as a more flexible way to live and write.
I’ve been travelling fulltime since 2009. That year, I drove across America 4½ times, packed and unpacked 64 times and slept in 58 beds, thereby earning my “sleeping around” creds.
How did you start housesitting?
I didn’t wake up one morning and declare, “I’m going to become a housesitter today!” My lifestyle evolved. My first housesit was for my cousin, a 3-month gig in North Carolina caring for her deaf cat DeeDee and Pouncer, a proud tomcat I taught to use a litter box. (Uh, that’s a whole other story!)
But, as these stories inevitably go, there was a man involved. While flying back from a reporting trip in the West Bank, I sat next to a handsome Brit. As our courtship unfolded, I decided to spend some time in London, but didn’t want to put too much pressure on our fledgling relationship. I joined Trusted Housesitters.com, then a new start-up, and landed a 2-month housesit in London during the summer Olympics! The guy disappeared, but I fell in love with London – and with the concept of housesitting.
Since then, I’ve housesat in some of the world’s most glorious cities: Berlin, Amsterdam, Hanoi, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Maputo, Mozambique. I spend half of each year at a recurring housesit in Ajijic, Mexico, living in a 4-story house with panoramic views of Lake Chapala. It’s where I spoil ChaCha, the rambunctious pit/lab rescue I’ve helped raise for the last 8 years.
What was your most unusual housesit?
I cared for a bunny in Ya’an, a Chinese village a couple of hours outside of Chengdu where I was the only non-Asian face I saw for 10 days. I was like a celebrity! Mothers thrust their babies into my arms for a photo, students waylaid me to practice their English, cellphones set to translating apps. Once, while walking through a monastery, I caught a Chinese guy pretending to photograph the scenery around me, but he was clearly stealing a photo of me. Since I’d used that ploy myself to surreptitiously photograph people, I turned and waved. He smiled guiltily and waved back.
What was your worst housesit?
For me, it’s always an adjustment to live in someone else’s home, adapt to their routines, decipher their pets’ needs. Most homeowners are sensitive to this special arrangement and show their appreciation by making that adjustment as easy as possible…and I do usually adjust pretty quickly. Only once have I felt taken for granted by the homeowner, and that made for an uncomfortable experience.
But, for me, the hardest thing about housesitting is saying good-bye to the pets. Fortunately, I often get asked back!
What’s been your most interesting housesitting experience?
All of them! Every housesit I’ve taken has been “interesting” in its own way. Great pets, great locations. One stand-out was a 6-week assignment in Kent, UK, where I spent those weeks on perpetual blind dates: I had already been communicating with potential suitors through a dating web site. Argggghhhh! But, love bloomed…
I blogged about it: Puppy Love: Courting through Housesitting.
But, the truly interesting experiences are the housesits that never happened. Years ago, I applied for a housesit in Lebanon, but when the dates changed it didn’t work. Nevertheless, the homeowner “joined” my web site. When she learned I’d be coming to Beirut in 2013 to prepare for a return trip to Iraq, she invited me to spend a delightful weekend in her home high in the hills overlooking Beirut. We became fast friends and she and her husband were remarkably helpful during a time when violence was spiking both in Baghdad and in Beirut.
Another remarkable encounter was when I had wanted to return to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to see how the poorest community in the U.S. was faring nearly 10 years after hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks. I saw a housesit posting in NO with no dates and emailed the couple. They replied that the posting was an error, but they said they were so moved by my writing about NO that they wanted to host me for a week! It was a delightful, insightful experience.
Tell us about your book.
Readers might wonder why I’m sharing my personal tips for securing great housesits. I believe traveling is transformative – not only for the traveler, but for all the people she or he meets along the way. Now more than ever, we need to open our hearts and homes to each other. Housesitting is one way to expand traveling opportunities, so I want to shout it out to the world!
Housesitting isn’t brain surgery. But I get asked all the time, “How can I housesit? How do I start?” After 8 years, I’ve learned a trick or two. In How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva, I offer practical tips for everything from assessing your needs as a housesitter to adjusting to living in someone else’s home.
Recently, a friend pointed out that more than 2/3rds of my book addresses issues before the housesitter actually arrives. It was a great observation – and an accurate one: I spend a great deal of advance time deciding whether a particular sitting assignment is right for me, and those are the tips I share from my experience. After all, it’s a lot of money, travel time, and wear-and-tear on my body to get to someone’s home. If I make a mistake, it’s an expensive mistake!
I include a 30-question quiz, “Is Housesitting Right for Me?” to help prospective housesitters hone in on the specific things that will be challenging for them.
One chapter lists tips on how to land your first housesit, including 11 creative (and free!) ways to find sits without joining one of the platforms. Another chapter lists 50 platforms, including one specifically for vegetarians and another for Christians.
I offer tips for living on top of other people’s stuff and checklists of things to go over with the homeowner when you arrive (location of the fuse box, for example). I even include a link to download my personal housesitting agreement!
And I include several personal essays of the humorous and outrageous experiences I’ve had housesitting – from hilarious miscommunication to courting my new boyfriend.
What advice do you have for housesitters?
Know your limits. That rural French farmhouse might sound really sexy, but if you’re a city-gal the isolation might be too much. On the other hand, if rural is your thing, that downtown flat might be too stifling. Know how many and what types of pets you can handle. Know what type of household makes you most comfortable – and uncomfortable. I list 25 considerations in my book that I’ve learned through my experience – everything from nearby noise to mold and smoke in the house.
Not that every single box has to be checked to make a housesit perfect. I’ve stretched and tested myself and some of those sits have been great!
Most importantly, don’t housesit if you aren’t able to put the pets’ and household’s needs before your sightseeing. Housesitting is often glamorized as a free way to see the world – and it can be. But it comes with huge responsibilities that the housesitter must be prepared for.
What advice do you have for homeowners?
Look at your home as stranger would. There are more housesitters than housesitting gigs, so you can be choosy. In order to choose the right housesitter for your needs, you need to be as honest as possible about your home’s and pets’ quirks. Are you a smoker? You want to disclose that so you don’t choose someone allergic to smoke who will be uncomfortable in your home. Do your dogs sleep on the bed with you? Let your potential housesitters know so you find someone who enjoys canine bed partners.
And keep in mind that no matter how desirable your home is, someone is still paying his or her way to get to you and giving you his or her time to care for your pets. Appreciation goes a long way to welcome your new housesitter!