So you want to travel the world but lack the funds? You’re keen to take the kids on the road but need space for them to roam?
If you can be flexible on location and duration, house-sitting can be a passport to long-term budget travel, offering free accommodation and the chance to live like a local in a foreign country. All you'll have to do in return is mow the lawn, water the plants or look after the family pet.
Who can house-sit?
A brief survey of house-sitting websites shows that age and experience trump youth and beauty when it comes to securing a gig. Likewise, some homeowners' reluctance to let little people touch their belongings or terrorise their furry friends may make it a little more difficult for families with young children, but anyone can get a look in with great references and a bit of experience.
If you want to spend a month living on a farm in Tanzania or make like a maharaja in an Indian haveli then you might have a long wait. While opportunities do come up all over the world, the majority are in North America, Australasia and Europe, with a smattering of (mostly expat-owned) homes in Southeast Asia and Central America and the Caribbean.
House-sits tend to be on the long side and can last for several months, so choose wisely. Six months in a city with plenty to do might fly by, but the same deal in an isolated location could prove difficult for some, especially as you can't leave the house to explore other parts of the country.
Being flexible is also important, as is being realistic about what you can get – a house in a suburb with a couple of dogs is a likely proposition. A mansion on a picture-perfect beach with nothing to tend to but a cute kitten? Not so much.
What will it involve?
Dr Doolittle types will be in their element as many house-sits involve looking after animals, from the family dog to virtual menageries of horses, chickens and goats. Some owners, especially those in rural areas, want people with maintenance skills, while others might simply need their house occupied, their plants watered and their mail sorted.
Whatever the minutiae, you'll be expected to live in the house full-time, keep it clean and tidy, and regularly contact the owners to let them know how their pal Buster/prized rose bush is doing, so jetting off for long weekends is difficult. It goes without saying that wild parties are a no-no.
Where do I sign up?
You could go it alone by advertising on free sites such as Craigslist or Gumtree or by searching expat websites and Facebook groups, but the easiest way is to sign up to an official agency (or several) for a small annual fee.
Market leader trustedhousesitters.com is relatively expensive with a minimum outlay of US$7.49 a month, but comes highly recommended and has a wide variety of jobs on offer. Housecarers.com has an annual fee of US$50 and at the time of writing had a few more unusual propositions (a property near the Okavango Delta, for example). Another popular site is mindmyhouse.com, which charges US$20 a year. Dedicated country sites include aussiehousesitters.com.au, homesit.co.nz and mindahome.co.uk.
Beating the competition
Writing a stellar profile is key. There are many more applicants than available properties so you'll need to make yourself seem desirable. If you have experience as a homeowner, say so. Similarly, if you have special skills such as dog grooming, shepherding, or landscape gardening, now's the time to brag about them. Clear photos - or even short videos - are important, particularly if they show you with animals, or practising the aforementioned handy skills. For an even more personal touch you could point homeowners in the direction of your blog, Facebook page or website, though this should perhaps be avoided if they include pictures of you downing vodka shots in the small hours. References are crucial. If you have no house-sitting experience these can be from a landlord, estate agent, friend or employer. A police check is also appreciated.
House-sits often go to the first qualified sitter to reply to an ad so speediness is essential. Check house-sitting pages regularly or sign up for updates. And make sure you tailor your response; just as you wouldn't send a generic letter for a job application (which this is, of sorts), don't do so for a house-sit. Bear in mind that most positions are advertised months in advance.
Before you commit
Get as much information as possible. While that cabin in the mountains may sound idyllic at first, you might change your mind when you have to get up at five in the morning and trudge through the snow to feed the animals. Talk to the owners via phone or even better, via Skype, to go through everything that's expected of you, the facilities provided, (high speed internet if you need to work, for example), what you’ll need to pay for (bills, household maintenance, pet food, etc), whether there's transport available, and if you can have guests to stay.
Do some calculations to make sure you can afford the airfare and day-to-day living expenses as well as checking out visa requirements for the country concerned.
If you’ve less time to spare and own your own home then a one or two-week house swap is a great way to experience local life rent-free, provided you don’t mind having strangers getting comfortable in your own house – lovehomeswap.com or homeexchange.com are good places to start.
Not a homeowner and don’t want the responsibility of looking after someone else’s? Then bed down in a spare room (or on a sofa) via the ever-expanding couchsurfing network (couchsurfing.org). Not afraid of hard work? The WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms – wwoof.net) network offers free food and accommodation, not to mention the chance to experience rural life in your country of choice.