Housesit on Your Next Vacation

by Maggie Wells on 13 January 2010 11 comments
Photo: Feverpitched

I just got back from spending two weeks in one of America’s most expensive cities, staying in one of that city’s toniest neighborhoods, for free. You can do it too, you know.

It’s true. I spent two weeks in San Francisco and stayed on the north side of town (Russian Hill) and I didn’t spend a dime on accommodations. What did I do? I house sat a big national historic landmark house belonging to friends of mine while they were away. Hotel stays in that area can run easily in the almost 300 dollars a night range. I am eternally grateful. Almost the only way I can afford a vacation is if I’m able to build that vacation around free accommodations — usually the big expense outside food of any trip. While it’s true I am friends with this couple, we weren’t friends at the beginning of my housesitting gigs — it developed over time. I’ve housesat for many people over the years — especially when I was leaving my first husband and actually needed somewhere to stay. A little common sense and courtesy and you could become the primo housesitter!

First, I know some people charge for housesitting. In fact, my own housesitters often require I kick them back a check for feeding the cats. But by and large if I’m going to accept a housesitting gig, it’s going to be some place I want to go to in a house I want to stay in. I think those owners on vacation appreciate this as they realize how much money they are blowing on their trip and want to scale back. My grandmother is always telling me, ’but you should get paid!’ I say hogwash. No one is forcing me to hang out in North Beach every morning drinking the best cappuccinos known to man and eating the best tiramisu on the west coast. I am grateful and happy to have the honor. Now, of course my own housesitters don’t get luxury accommodations. They get a dinky cabin house in the woods no different than their own dinky house in the woods, so naturally the feeding of the cats and a check that the meth heads in the neighborhood haven’t sold my television is worth the $50 bucks. It’s more of a chore for them. If someone wants me to live in their house, sleep in their bed, and let my kids play in there too, what more could I ask?!

Housesitter Etiquette

I think over the years I’ve pretty much cultivated a few simple rules regarding housesitting.

Don’t snoop

Seriously. How would you like it if someone went through your bank statements and sex toys? The only drawers I open are in the kitchen. And I know I’m a writer and should want to find out more, but you have to build trust with the family you are going to housesit for. Don’t go snooping; it’s just not nice.

Technology

Be mindful of it. If you can figure out how to turn a TV on and not mess up the TiVO recordings on a system that has ten remotes then go for it. I however, am just not that savvy. I watched TV in my friend's house just on however she had it turned on. She was recording random things and I got a nice sampling of stuff without doing a bit of surfing. Likewise, bring your own laptop unless you want to leave a history of where you go on their computer.

Pets

Pets should always still be living upon the owner’s return. Take the dog for walks. Be a good pet person even if you aren’t a pet person. Make sure they leave groomer/vet info. This last time I made sure to get the dog groomed. He smelled a bit when we got there and I thought coming home to both a clean house and a clean dog would be the perfect way to return.

Cleaning

Keep it clean. I tend to spread out in one main room with my stuff so that final clean up is easier and I don’t leave anything behind. I had my kids with me this last time and we kept our stuff in the den by the downstairs bathroom. It helped keep the toys from going MIA and reminded me well of when it was time to do laundry. This particular family had the maids come the morning I was leaving. Yay! They took care of the cleaning. But in general, leave it better than when you found it.

Kitchen

I cook with anything that would have gone bad and would have had to be thrown out in their absence. And even though I want to drink the 55 dollar bottle of wine and they said mi casa es su casa, I stuck with the under 20 dollar bottles instead.

Breakages and Mishaps!

Be honest about what you broke and replace where possible. I broke a tea cup once that I took to be antique and freaked out, but I told the person and found out they’d gotten it at Marshall’s for 10 bucks. Whew. I replaced it with a better cup. Make sure you have the numbers of all people who do any sort of maintenance on the place: the gardener, the plumber, etc. Odds are if they know the place and something goes wrong, they’ll work on it and wait until the return of the owner’s for payment.

How to become a Housesitter

Tell the universe

Word of mouth is best. Tell your friends with houses and pets in areas you want to go. I’ve gotten gigs on Craigslist before, too. Put up signs in places where people with nice houses tend to shop — a co-op in a nice area for example. Ask for referrals from people who you’ve sat for before. I know a few people who’ve been able to survive in expensive cities this way for much longer than they would have without the gigs.

House swap

A few friends of mine have done this with Europeans that want to visit Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York. They get to go to houses in Italy and France while families from there stay at their houses here. I’m still working on this one myself but don’t find many people from somewhere I want to go to swap houses with. It works best if you are at a ‘destination’ city.

Housesitting is definitely worth considering. It occurred to me that this house I sat for the last couple of weeks I’d been housesitting for nearly 11 years off and on. If I added up my time at that particular house I could almost say I lived there a whole year! Sure, it means my vacations are sometimes the same old, same old — but sometimes having a fantastic view of the bay and smelling fresh French bread wafting up from the bakery down the street is all I need.

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Guest's picture
Deborah

This is a wonderful idea! I've always wanted to travel and write but could not afford the cost of lodging away from home, especially in the European cities I wish to visit. This is a perfect solution to that problem! Thank you so much. *bookmarked* :)

Guest's picture
Sarah

... and as homeowners, I can tell you we really appreciate having conscientious, trustworthy, reliable people in our home when we have to be away.

It truly is a win-win: a great comfort to the homeowners and a free stay for the house sitter.

Guest's picture

Rarely do people put vacation and housesitting together, but it's a great idea. Besides, you would save money a lot of money! Excellent post.

Guest's picture
Carol Williamson

Great topic! I used to post on Craigslist too for my housesitting gigs - but had to stop using Craigslist because of all the weirdos who were contacting my postings. Then I found The Caretaker Gazette online - and have found all my housesitting gigs from their site, and stopping making any rent payments since I started using their site.
Carol

Guest's picture
Rod and Marilyn

Hello,

Enjoyed your article. We have successfully used housesitting as a way to travel and see the world. We've found that our best source for the housesitting positions has been Caretaker Gazette.

Cheers,

Rod and Marilyn

Guest's picture

It is a great way to see the world. Advertise in professional magazines so you don't end up with house squatters is the best advice I can give.
We also have a regular annual house swap with a family in Tampa (we are in London) and we have got to know each other really well and its a great way to meet new friends.

Guest's picture
Tracy Duong

You drink their wine? Really?

"And even though I want to drink the 55 dollar bottle of wine and they said mi casa es su casa, I stuck with the under 20 dollar bottles instead."

Maggie Wells's picture

That would have become cooking wine in their absence. I finished those. Also, I was encouraged to do so.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
MONICA ACKERMAN

Hello,

My husband and I are thinking for starting to become house sitters for next year's vacation times. We are both looking forward to be able to travel using the "house sitter" angle to lower our vacation cost. We are just now starting to get information on house sitting. What are the best ways to get the right information and make sure that we are legal and not going to make ourselves liable for any problems that can occur with house sitting.

We have not joined any actual house sitting organization yet. Want to get some basic facts first.

Guest's picture

Brilliant idea, house sitting gives you a free change of scenery. But I agree, don't infringe on people's privacy and break their trust - if someone trusts you then the most important thing is to uphold that trust!

Guest's picture

House sitting is a fantastic way to see and travel the world, we should know :)

Although it is for free, I think it's worth pointing out that are you are housesitting in exchange for something either walking/feeding pets, gardening or sometimes painting. Now, obviously this is usually more cost-effective than paying for accommodation but it's important not to see it just as an opportunity for free accommodation - you're looking after someone else's home and pets and that's a big responsibility.

Great article though! Really enjoyed reading it