Although the history of house sitting has yet to be written, it's reasonable to assume that the practice has been going on so long that it was probably originally called "cavesitting". Still, the idea of earning shelter by caring for a house while its owners are away on leave or extended vacation may be as new to you as it was to my wife and me when we first stumbled on this constructive answer to our own housing problem.
Our incentive to enter the home minding business came a few years ago, when Diane and I were looking for a way to save enough money so that we could eventually buy our own place in the country. However, with me tied to a low paying university C.O. job and Diane — who couldn't get a teaching position — clerking at a small store, we were already living close to the cuff. So close that — stranded as we were in a college town with its built-in minimum wages and maximum prices — saving any money at all after our day-to-day bills were paid seemed out of the question.
The solution: Cut out one major expense — rent — entirely by moving out of our apartment and into a house that would cost us nothing, so long as we maintained the building and its grounds. (This was really great for us because the arrangement had the added advantage of giving Diane and me an education in gardening and home upkeep before we bought our homestead.)
Please don't think, though, that the benefit was all on our side. Housesitting is no rip-off, but a service that's of equally mutual use to the owner — whose residence is looked after in the manner to which it's accustomed — and the caretaker, who receives low-cost (or no-cost) shelter.
The gains to both parties are more than material, too, because substituting a service for cash rent transforms the notoriously difficult landlord tenant relationship — with its deception, fraud and begrudged upkeep — into one of trust and cooperation.
From the landlord's point of view, you know, the trouble with leasing his property is that he relinquishes his rights to it for the duration of the contract with little guarantee that the house or apartment will still be in one piece when he gets it back. (Frequently, the rental income doesn't even compensate the owner for the wear and tear on the building — a fact which discourages him from making repairs or improvements.)
The tenant, meanwhile, pays a high price for the privilege of calling four walls "home," and, especially if he's treated badly, all too often thinks of his rent payments as a license to mess up the property.
Housesitting, by contrast, not only begins with mutual goodwill but offers a built-in system of checks and balances that ensure decent behavior on both sides, even if the initial friendliness breaks down. Obviously, the owner — whose object is to obtain tender, loving care for his dwelling — can't afford to cheat or overcharge the caretaker, or the agreement will backslide to the landlord/tenant level and the premises will suffer. And, just as obviously, the sitter who rips off the householder or fails to properly maintain the property risks getting booted out and not having references for his next move. Our own home-minding ventures have remained, I'm glad to say, on a more idealistic plane; but it's good to know that controls are there for both parties to fall back on.
As you can see, housesitting can be a fine symbiotic experience as well as a good way out of the renting hassle if your income is low. However, if you expect to live this way for some time rather than on a one-shot basis, you must be sure your location offers enough job opportunities to give you an unbroken succession of homes (especially during the "off season" for travel, which varies according to area).
One promising territory for this lifestyle is a big city, where the many people who reside there with their great diversity of jobs and temperaments provide an in-depth pool of year round travelers whose homes you can tend.
College or university towns are also good for housesitters because professors often take lengthy sabbaticals and because a fair proportion of the populace of such communities usually care more about your character than about how you look.
Resort and vacation areas, too, offer many opportunities for reliable housesitters. I've heard, in fact, of couples who've hooked up with a single wealthy family that owns two or more plush seasonal homes and then been paid to travel back and forth from one to another (always living, of course, in the off-season house) as the owner's family followed the sun to the more desirable (at the time) residence. If you don't mind being up North during the winter and down South or in the Caribbean during the summer, it can be a very nice, all expenses-paid life.
No matter where or how you decide to give house-minding a try (if you do), remember these two cardinal rules of the trade:
One. Travel light. First, because you'll have to pack, unpack, repack and cart around all your belongings each time you move. And, second, because almost every home you move into will be completely outfitted with everything — stove, refrigerator, toaster, lawn mower, TV, radios, washer, etc. — you'll require to live comfortably. (And anyway, if you're like us, you probably don't really need more than a fourth of the "necessities" you lug around.)
Two. Always plan your assignments ahead so that you can move directly from one to another. (You don't want to be out in the street in the middle of January.)
Apart from these hazards, the biggest problem for the housesitter is finding the first job. The best way to do that, of course, is simply to approach someone who you know is leaving town for a while and to make him or her an offer.
An honest conversation with such a homeowner is sometimes enough to get you started. However, if you don't already have a contact, a college housing office may be able to help you. Also check out local newspaper advertisements that offer "house to let" for limited periods and try placing your own ads, putting up posters in conspicuous places, and asking realtors. You can help yourself, too, by mentioning your service to everyone you meet and letting "the grapevine" do the rest. (Then too, remember always to have a list of references ready in your pocket when you look for houses. After all, even the most trusting homeowner likes some reassurance.)
If you're fair and honest on your first job, house hunting will get successively easier. Word travels fast, so the second residence will be a bit less difficult to locate and the tenth will be a snap provided you've taken the time initially to establish a good reputation.
You earn that good name by giving a little of yourself to keep up a home's appearance and by leaving the residence a bit better than you found it. Such maintenance, by the way, begins even before you move in. That is: During your first discussion with the owner, when you're developing a working relationship with him and gathering a feeling for his residence, you should privately be deciding whether or not you can maintain an appearance of the dwelling that goes with the householder's lifestyle. If he's overly fussy, the job may be physically and mentally impossible for you to handle.
If you do decide to take on the responsibility, stay in touch with the owner and reassure him — during your stay in his place — with letters and pictures that let him know both the pleasures and the problems you encounter. Justify his trust: Renovate and repair what you can in the house and ,garden. Do some planting. Enjoy the experience of every home.
A final word of advice: Remember that your neighbors are in a good position to provide help and constructive criticism or to tip off the owner if you're not doing your job. They can also be an important source of future housesitting opportunities, so take pains to get on well with them.
And that's about all the guidance we can give you. What you make of housesitting is up to you: It can be a temporary money saver, your chosen source of shelter, or just one part of a working barter system which brings in the necessities of life without cash transactions. We offer suggestions, not rules; and we wish you the best of luck.