Have House, Will Travel

No-fee housesitting is a boon for the adventurous animal lover.
By Susan Caba, July 2015

Dot, my new roommate, and I just returned from a walk in the woods around the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While I stumbled over roots, Dot reveled in the fresh smells of a muddy creek bed, hid behind me when approached by a large dog and snuffled with delight through a pile of pine needles.

Dot is a 10-pound Jack Russell named for the single brown splotch on her right hip. I moved into her home two weeks ago, settling in for a six-month stay. Her people—Shari and Mark—are exploring India and I’m occupying their house while they’re away as part of a year-long house-sitting adventure, moving around the country in search of a permanent location.

It’s a no-cash exchange that suits all of us. I get to stay in their lovely home with its wraparound porch and wood-burning stove while becoming more familiar with this part of the country. They can rest easy knowing that their property and companion animals are well cared for. Best of all, Dot and her three feline buddies are able to remain at home in familiar surroundings.

We’re part of the new sharing economy energized by the Internet. Sure, house-swapping has been around for decades, but the Internet allows homeowners and house sitters to connect much more easily. The desire for in-home pet care is the major factor driving the trend.

“The most important thing to most homeowners is that they have happy pets cared for at home,” says Andy Peck, founder of the London-based TrustedHouseSitters.com, one of the websites I’ve used to find assignments. “Eighty percent of the people looking for a house sitter have pets. More and more people don’t want to use kennels.

“It’s a win for both parties. The sitter goes the extra mile—it’s not liking asking a reluctant nephew to do the job. And a lot of people genuinely love looking after pets while having a ‘staycation’ in a great place, a vacation where they can live like a local.”

North Carolina was my third house-sitting assignment in 2014. I spent 10 weeks in the spring in Bethesda, Md., and two months during the summer in Santa Barbara, Cal. After talking with Shari via Skype, I drove from Bethesda to Chapel Hill to meet her and her husband. In-person meetings aren’t necessarily the norm; Peck says that between Skype interviews and reference checks, many homeowners know more about their house sitters than they know about their neighbors. But in my case, the visit sealed the deal, primarily because Dot took to me at once. Within days of my arrival, she was giving me a nightly signal that it was time for us to repair to the bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed next to mine.

References definitely play a part. On TrustedHouseSitters.com, for example, they’re sent directly from the homeowner to the website; the sitter doesn’t have the opportunity to modify them. Some sitters also provide police background checks. However they’re handled, responsibility for checking references belongs solely to the homeowners, and snafus are not unknown. A sitter or homeowner can cancel at the last minute, leaving both parties in the lurch.

Some match-ups are better than others. I read listings carefully, looking for clues to the homeowner’s personality and expectations. One listing, for example, sought a sitter with an “alpha personality” to deal with their dogs. Not me! And sometimes, it’s the homeowners who are unreliable, as a friend discovered when she accepted a month-long assignment and the electricity was turned off for non-payment the first week she was there.

Assignments range from a few days to a few weeks, or as long as a year, and the listings are often mini-biographies that, though brief, reflect the homeowners’ love of their dogs.

“We are in our very early 70s and would like to go to the UK to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with friends and family,” wrote a French couple recently, looking for house sitters for a week. “Both of our dogs are rescue dogs and we are reluctant to place them in kennels. … We live in a large renovated farmhouse with pool. No neighbors, but not isolated.”

Another couple wrote: “We live in Southwest Calgary, about a half hour from the downtown core. We are looking for someone to feed our dogs and give them lots of attention as well as take care of our home, water plants, etc.”

That listing (which, by the way, also mentioned wi-fi, cable television, a home gym and an infrared sauna as well as proximity to ski areas) included pictures of a doleful English bulldog, Ginger, and a very perky Coton de Tulear named Willow. Browsing the pet photos alone is enough to make me smile.

House sitters and homeowners alike tend to be baby boomers who want to indulge their lust for travel, says Peck. These no-fee house-sitting arrangements significantly cut the costs of travel for both, allowing them to fulfill their dreams of traveling during retirement. Not to mention that some assignments involve staying in luxurious properties—sometimes quite decadent luxury.

Ocean-view estates in Costa Rica; country mansions in Great Britain; and apartments in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco are frequently among the thousand-plus listings in 60 countries on TrustedHouseSitters.com and other sites. There are always lots of listings for Australia, New Zealand and Canada; house sitters just have to keep local weather in mind. Australians flee their country during its torrid summers, while Canada has the most listings during the winter months (great if you’re a skier).

Everyone whose home I’ve cared for has introduced me to friends and neighbors. Interacting with locals makes for a more personal experience, sometimes one that’s life-changing.

“We got a letter from a widow who said she decided she could travel on her own as a house sitter because she would have the companionship of the homeowner’s dog,” Peck recalls. “She was out walking the dog and got invited around for coffee with a neighbor—they are now romantic partners. She found love through housesitting.”

Susan Caba is a freelance journalist and daughter of a TWA captain who instilled in her a love of travel.