Is there such a thing as a free holiday? House-sitting comes pretty close. Here's our guide on how to do it, with advice from experienced 'sitters'
How does it work?
If you're at all familiar with the Home Alone movies, you'll understand that the moment a house is left vacant a pair of bumbling criminals will try and break into it. And not everyone has a Macaulay Culkin equivalent they can leave behind as a security guard. That's where the house-sitter comes in. In exchange for free accommodation, homeowners hand over their keys to people willing to take care of their house while they're away.
It's a great way to have a cheap holiday, or to try living somewhere different, and can be a chance to stay in some wonderful residential properties you'd never normally be able to afford. Just remember to remove any burglar traps you might have set before you leave.
Who can do it?
Anyone. It can work particularly well for families looking for a large house to stay in while on holiday, but also suits independent travellers who are easy going about the exact location of their accommodation. The homeowner will usually have a preference and it will also depend on the size of the property.
Rachael Glazier house-sat in the south of France with her son and two friends in May this year. "It worked really well," she says. "My son was one at the time so going to a hotel would have been tricky because he was eating random, mushy food and throwing much of it around, so being in someone's home meant we could relax and enjoy ourselves without worrying about the mess we were causing. We had days out, sunbathed and generally did everything you'd expect on a holiday, but in a more relaxed way."
What will I need to do?
You will be expected to keep the house safe, tidy and in a good condition until the owner returns. It is quite common for house-sitters to have to look after pets too, so be prepared to find yourself in the company of a variety of animals. Some homeowners will request specific tasks for you to do, such as taking care of the garden, but this should all be discussed and agreed on in advance.
Nine, a writer currently living in Kuala Lumpur, has been house-sitting for more than three years, during which she's had to look after cats, fish, dogs and rabbits. "As well as that I may need to water plants or perhaps open the homeowner's mail and let them know about anything that needs to be dealt with," she says. "The pets I've looked after have generally been low-maintenance though I had to deal with a rather trying cat in Barcelona who attacked me (playfully, but still) every time I moved an inch."
Will I get paid?
In most cases house-sitting is a straight swap, with no money changing hands. However, sometimes the sitter will get a small fee, particularly if they have a large number of chores to take care of or are looking after a property in an isolated location. Likewise, if a house-sitter is staying in a property for a very long time, they may be asked to contribute some rent.
Advice from experienced house-sitters.
"I would recommend asking exactly what you need to do," says Rachael. "And things like if there are any rooms they'd prefer you didn't go into, how the washing machine works (although it may just be me that finds different ones baffling), where the keys are to be left when you leave and whether they have references from anyone else who has house-sat for them before. And always get a mobile number and/or email address for them in case anything goes wrong or you need their advice about something"
Nine also recommends having a fair amount of communication with the owner beforehand. "It's just good to either know the homeowner first, get a good sense of them from their online profile, or talk to them on Skype," she says. "Get a feel for their standards, and also put their mind at ease if they're new to having a house-sitter. It's also good to ask about practicalities like how far the place is from the nearest shops. Sometimes homeowners lend me their car. I feel pretty happy to adapt to whatever situation, so my only two questions are whether there's internet and whether I can have friends come to stay (I can live without this, but it's good to know)."
Where do I sign up?
HouseCarers has been running since 2000 and lists house-sits around the world. At the time of writing, there were 291 available, mostly in America, Europe and Australia. House-sitters can register for an unpaid membership in order to set up a profile and receive email notifications of house-sit opportunities, but you will need to sign up for a full membership to contact homeowners directly. Full membership costs £30 per year and will allow you upload photos, references and other details to your profile, which are important to help encourage a home owner to consider you as a sitter.
MindMyHouse has a similar spread of house-sit opportunities to House Carers but at the time of writing had a few more available in Asia and South America. Sitters need to register to create a personal profile page and be able to exchange details with homeowners. Registration costs £12 for 12 months.
TrustedHousesitters is another one of the larger house-sitting websites, with more than 2,000 houses listed at the time of writing. Sitters need to register to create a profile, receive emails about new opportunities and send and receive enquiries. Registration costs £29 for three months, £39 for six months or £49 for 12 months.
Couchsurfing also has a house-sitters club which allows both homeowners and sitters to advertise. It is free to register and start posting. Nine recommends Couchsurfing because both parties can instantly see each other's profile and references.
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image: © Bart Speelman