Traveling gets even more expensive if you have pets. Pets who require multiple daily visits, medication, or overnight company can make going on vacation unaffordable.
The solution for many people is inviting a traveler into their home. As a traveler, you save the cost of a hotel or apartment rental. They save the cost of a paid house sitter. The pets get a lot more attention. Everyone wins.
House sitting is a key part of how I can travel for years without going broke. Since I’m house sitting and working remotely, I’m saving a lot more money than I could if I were living in my own apartment. This allows me to travel slowly, spending months in one place, giving me plenty of time to explore while keeping up with work.
Why would you want to house sit?
I certainly would travel a lot less if I had to pay for hotels — or even renting furnished apartments. With home swapping you simply pay your normal living expenses, but get to stay in someone else’s home. With CouchSurfing and house sitting you pay nothing at all.
Sure, I buy my hosts gifts, pay to get to and from each destination, and spend a little more money on the road, but it’s still much less that I normally spend on housing. This is especially true when, like me, you’re coming from a city with high housing costs.
If you’re on CouchSurfing just to save money, it’s going to be a huge disappointment. It can be a lot of work to coordinate traveling through CS. If you don’t fall in love with the experience of meeting people and becoming part of the community, you’ll get fed up with the hassles and lose interest pretty quickly.
It can be the same thing with home swapping and pet sitting. When you factor in the time it takes to organize it all, it’d be a lot simpler to just rent an apartment in one of the many cheap destinations that are so popular with digital nomads and retirees. You have to love the wonder and weirdness of it all.
Does house sitting always involve pets?
Not all house sits include pet care. Some hosts only ask that you take in the mail and water the garden. Other hosts need someone there for insurance purposes and peace of mind.
There are also quite a few opportunities to care for people’s vacation homes in the off-season. These are often rural locations where things are partially or fully off-the-grid or in places popular with snowbirds.
Most house sits do include pets, though. If you aren’t excited to explore new neighborhoods on foot with a dog or spend your nights curled up reading with a cat, this might not be the best fit for you.
If I was working a traditional nine to five and had two weeks of vacation a year, I’m not sure I’d want to spend my time off taking care of a dog or tending a garden. Think about what you want your travel to be like before you jump into house sitting.
House sitting during the pandemic
I house sat full-time from 2017 until the start of the pandemic. When the sit I was on ended early, I opted to stay where I was. I decided to rent for a while, for my own peace of mind, before going back to house sitting in August of 2020. House sitting is different now than it was before COVID-19, but it’s still a viable option.
Even during the initial lockdown, many people continued to house sit. People who were unable to return home as scheduled needed house sitters to care for their pets. People who were unable to go to their vacation homes needed house sitters to maintain the property. Plenty of people are traveling for work and other reasons considered essential. When plans change, other house sitters are a great resource for coming up with an alternate solution.
Given the frequent changes of travel restrictions, many hosts are choosing sitters who are already in their region. You’ll want to take border restrictions, quarantine requirements, and other potential issues into consideration before committing to a house sit. It’s important to talk to your host to make plans for issues that might come up.
The pandemic has caused lots of paperwork delays. If your passport or other IDs are expiring, be sure to take this into account when making plans. Renewing my permanent resident card is taking seven months, and counting.
Do you need special skills?
Most house sits don’t require any special skills. You’re simply doing what your host does every day: living in their home and taking care of their pets and whatever comes up.
It helps to have experience with pets, of course. Quite a few hosts won’t consider applications from people who haven’t had pets of their own or don’t have experience pet sitting. I’ve gotten a lot of sits because I had experience with a diabetic cat and a dog-aggressive pitbull. I’ve also gotten sits for horses, chickens, and pigs, despite having no experience at all with those animals.
Some hosts seem reassured by the fact that I’ve owned my own home and tackled renovation projects. Hosts with houses relying on wood stoves, well water, a septic tank, propane heat, etc. might prefer people who are familiar with these systems.
If a host has an extensive garden or beloved house plants, they might prefer a sitter with a green thumb. If you’re there when the seasons change, you might be asked to prepare the pool and yard for winter or other similar tasks. They might be happy to guide you through it, or they might want someone who’s done it before.
Is it weird to stay in someone else’s home?
I get questions all the time that suggest a lot of people are not comfortable with the idea of staying in someone else’s home.
Is it weird when you stay with friends? Does the idea of AirBnB skeeve you out? That’s totally fair. It’s also why hotels exist.
If your house is your castle and there’s one right way to do things, house sitting is probably not for you.
If you want to stay in a hotel and are only considering house sitting as a way to save money, you’re better off signing up for a bunch of credit cards and learning travel hacking and how to find the best hotel deals.
Can you do this if you have a pet?
There are several full-time house sitters I know who travel with pets of their own. It can be more difficult to find sits that will allow you to bring your own pet, but it’s certainly possible.
I also know house sitters who act as the host and the sitter simultaneously. They might travel to San Francisco for a house sit while hosting a sitter to take care of their pets at home in Brussels.
What to expect
These are homes, not luxury rentals
Social media would have you think every house sitter is living in luxury. Just like how #vanlife is far less glamorous than it seems on Instagram, most house sits aren’t particularly luxurious.
Think about it: most people who go on vacation aren’t among the 1%. Actual rich people have household staff and fly private. They don’t need house sitters.
You don’t need to be rich to go away for several weeks. My hosts are: going on a once-in-a-lifetime anniversary trip, scouting out a city they’re considering moving to, teaching a semester abroad, conducting research while on sabbatical, stationed abroad for work, visiting their kids to help with a new baby, spending a few months helping a sick family member, expats on a visit home, and doing lots of other not-rich-people things.
I’ve lived in New York and Toronto, two cities with high housing costs, and work for nonprofits, which are notorious for low pay. Consequently, the vast majority of homes I stay in for house sits are an upgrade for me. If you live in a more affordable city and have a high salary, many of the homes listed on house sitting sites will seem quite modest in comparison to what you’re used to.
People bragging about looking after luxury villas aren’t lying. Many people with vacation homes abroad need them to be inhabited year round for insurance purposes. You might be responsible for home and yard maintenance or you might be overseeing local workers.
Choose two: location, timing, or situation
If you want a luxury apartment in Paris from June 15 to August 15th, you probably need to rent one.
If you want to spend the summer in a big city, you can find a house sit that works for you.
Sometimes I book sits because I’m looking to spend time in the country. I don’t narrow my search down to a specific location, since then I probably won’t find anything. I’m open to any sit with a bucolic environment with dates that more-or-less fit in my schedule.
Other times I want to visit a certain city to see friends or to do research. I set an alert for that city and fit my travel schedule around the available sits.
Sometimes I’m hoping for a low-maintenance pet or no pets at all. I’ll know when I’ll be ready for a break. While I have an idea in mind of where I’d like to be, I need to be flexible about the location in order to find the situation and dates I’m looking for.
House sitting doesn’t allow for complete control of your travel plans. That’s part of the adventure for me. I like getting to know places I would have otherwise overlooked and being open to new experiences.
Even if you’re traveling full-time, you don’t need to house sit full-time. It can be one of several ways you arrange for housing.
House sitting full-time turns planning into a game of Tetris. When I’m considering sits, I’m thinking about how they’d fit into my schedule and my goals.
- How appealing is the sit? Does the house look nice? Am I excited about the pets, garden, or whatever else? How will this fit in with my workload and anything else I have going on in my life?
- Am I excited about the location? Are there interesting things to do? How will I get around?
- Can I get from one sit to another without spending a ton of money on travel and while minimizing transit time?
- How well do the dates line up and where can I stay between sits? Is there wiggle room for transit delays?
- How does this sit fit in with the sits I already have confirmed and my potential sits immediately before and after? How does it compare to other potential sits?
When I share my internal debates over which sits to take, my friends immediately get confused and overwhelmed.
I generally plan six months ahead. I find that trips planned farther out are more likely to change. I’ll book long sits (six weeks or more) and priority sits (being in a specific location for a wedding or conference) first. Then I’ll fill in the gaps in my schedule as the opportunity arises.
Planning ahead is something I do for my own comfort level. There are always sits posted at the last minute, even for long-term sits.
If you’re comfortable seeing what comes up for next week, you can snag some incredible opportunities. This is how many people with the budget to rent a place or a setup for camping do it. They don’t need to plan ahead, since they always have a place to stay, and choose only the sits they find most appealing.
The work involved
If you’ve had a pet or garden, you know how much work they can be. The amount of care needed can vary significantly from one sit to another. I’ve stayed with cats who seemed like nearly self sufficient roommates. I’ve also had sits where the animals dictated my schedule and required time consuming care.
I enjoy going on long walks. Working remotely, I find that pets help me stick to a schedule. It also means I’m home a lot of the time, so it’s no problem to give medication during the day. When I’m working on a big project, I find that animals keep me company without interrupting my flow. Having a dog makes it easy to meet people in a new place. I’m thrilled to learn about a new animal, like my pig sit, even when it takes a lot of time. Also, I just really like animals. Pet sitting is a great fit for me.
Hosts have their own careers, responsibilities, social lives, and hobbies. They’re not spending all of their waking hours taking care of their home and pets. When I’m house sitting, I’m also exploring the area, socializing, and generally doing my own thing. I’ve even had hosts suggest I spend a night away to visit nearby attractions. It all depends on the animals and what your hosts are comfortable with.
Pet sitting is not for everyone. If walking a dog in the rain or cleaning up cat puke is something you absolutely don’t want to do, you want to know that about yourself before you commit to a three month sit.
Get ready for judgment
I get a lot of weird comments from strangers when they find out I’m traveling full-time. It gets even weirder when people find out I’m house sitting.
People act like I’m irresponsible and unemployed. They accuse me of abandoning my family and warn me about how I’m going to die alone and without any retirement savings. The kinder version of this has people offering me internships and tips on basic life skills. I learned pretty quickly that there’s no point in trying to correct them, because it’s not about facts.
The weirdness has given me fascinating peeks into what people value and their ideas about societal expectations — and why my life choices cause them distress. Are people happy with where they live? Why do people spend 40 hours a week doing a job they hate? Do they feel like their family is holding them back? Why would someone live in a giant expensive house if they’re worried about money? Do people want to travel as much as they say they do? Did they realize these were choices that they made? Why are they so afraid of strangers? Why do strangers get so upset that I don’t have children?
As someone who prides herself on being very responsible despite being incapable of simply following a traditional path, it’s frustrating to have strangers assume I’m broke and clueless.
People are also very uncomfortable with the idea that I’m not getting paid and I’m not paying for housing. They assume someone must be getting exploited, but they aren’t sure which one of us it is.
It makes me sad to see how little value some people see in things that we don’t pay money for. The things that make CouchSurfing and house sitting magical — the things that make life magical — can’t be bought.
The act of paying for something changes things. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, especially since the complicated emotions involved with monetizing the invaluable connects so deeply with my work with The Caregiver Space. The best book I’ve found on the topic so far is Debt.
It’s interesting to ask myself why it bothers me so much when people assume I’m a professional dog walker. Is it about being seen as someone with a lower social status? Is it because my work feels so integral to my identity? It might also be the feeling of failure that comes with having a masters degree in communications and yet not being able to convince a stranger that I’m not a dog walker.
Staying in touch requires dedication
While I don’t worry about dying alone and childless, I do think about how my travels impact my relationships and my community. My destinations are heavily influenced by people who are important to me. I’ve embraced spending time in both New York and Toronto even though I’m “nomadic.”
I feel a little disingenuous claiming to be a digital nomad when I’m not in Bali. I spend a lot of time in Toronto for someone who’s theoretically traveling full-time! But in the classical sense of the term, nomads were people who lacked a fixed home who rotated through the same areas.
Semantics aside, I like spending time in Toronto and New York. I love meeting new people, but there’s nothing quite like visiting old friends. Slow travel means that instead of visiting friends for a few days, I can spend weeks or months as their neighbor.
How to find house sits
You’ve probably house sat for a friend or neighbor before. House sitting for a stranger is a little different, especially when they’re in another country. Most sits are arranged online. Typically, you don’t meet your host or see their home in person before the sit starts.
The main house sitting websites
There are a number of different house sitting sites, each with a slightly different niche. If you’re planning on house sitting full time, you might want to join more than one.
Most of them have membership fees, all of which are less than what you’d pay for a night in a hotel. They also let you view the listings without paying, so you can see if they’re a good fit.
Most sites have email alerts, so you can get a daily email with available sits and alerts for saved searches. Trusted House Sitters and Mind My House both allow you to see how many sitters have already applied, so you can gauge the amount of competition. I’ve had positive customer service experiences with Trusted House Sitters, House Sitters Canada, and House Carers.
Trusted House Sitters
Trusted House Sitters has the most listings and the most user friendly interface. It’s global, with a strong emphasis on the US, Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia. THS has a mix of sit lengths, with quite a few sits that are only for a long weekend or a week.
House Sitters America, Canada, UK & Aussie/Kiwi House Sitters
If you’re planning a trip in a specific geographic area, the House Sitters sites are the way to go. I’ve found a lot of long-term sits using House Sitters Canada. Most of these sits are for two or more weeks, with quite a few lasting more than six months. The interface isn’t particularly intuitive, but it works.
One interesting thing about the House Sitters sites is that many owners will invite sitters directly, rather than posting an ad.
Mind My House
Mind My House is among the cheapest options, since it’s free to hosts and only $20 a year for sitters.
House Carers is global, with most of their sits in North America and Europe. The interface is quirky and overly complex.
Creating a profile for house sitting
You’ll be sending personal messages to each host, but you’ll still want to include the most important pieces of information in your profile.
Explain why you’re interested in house sitting. Are you looking for a cheap vacation? Are you thinking about relocating and want to check out the area? Are you visiting friends? Are you exploring the continent? You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but it gives people an idea of who you are.
The photos you upload are another opportunity to demonstrate who you are. They don’t all have to be pictures of you and the adorable animals that love you. I have pictures of me with my friends, family, and me out being a nerd. Maybe you want to share a photo of a favorite trip, the renovation you just finished, or of your garden.
Some people make videos to introduce themselves. This can really help people get a feel for your personality.
The first questions homeowners have are generally about your experience with pets.
- Have you pet sit before?
- Have you had pets of your own?
- What animals have you taken care of?
- Have you given medications? What types?
- Are you comfortable with aggressive, anxious, or large dogs?
- Are you comfortable walking and hiking?
- How much time will you spend with the pets?
Life as a house guest
Some people are very particular about their homes, while others are much more relaxed. Knowing where you fall on the spectrum and what you’re comfortable with is key to a good experience.
If you’re not the type of person who keeps things spotless and puts things back exactly where you found it, you’ll want to steer clear of places that are a little too perfect in the photos. If you’re a neat freak, don’t apply for sits where they’re even messy in the photos.
- How tidy are you?
- Are you vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, Halal, gluten free?
- Are you willing to follow kitchen restrictions?
- Are you okay with going scent free?
- Do you smoke?
Your house skills
There’s more than just pets, there’s also the house! Most sits just ask that you collect the mail and water plants, but there are plenty of sits that involve more care.
- Can you keep houseplants alive? How about specialty plants?
- Are you handy around the house?
- Are you a proficient gardener?
- Do you know how to use different types of heating systems?
- Are you familiar with sump pumps, wells, and septic systems?
- Do you know how to take care of a pool?
Some sits include access to a car while many others require sitters to have a car of their own.
- Do you have a driver’s license?
- Do you have a car of your own? Do you get around by bike?
- Will you be arriving in an RV, camper, or van that you need space to park?
How you make your money
Yes, house sitting allows you to stay in other people’s homes without paying money for it. This isn’t a charity or a shelter, so they want to know you have a place to go before and after.
- Are you taking a big trip you’ve saved up for?
- Are you on vacation?
- Are you between jobs?
- Will you be working remotely full-time or part-time?
- Will you be going into an office?
Prove that you’re trustworthy
What information would you need to know about someone before handing over your keys? Start with that!
Maybe you haven’t house sat through a platform, but you’ve probably house sat for friends. You can ask them to leave you references.
Have you used CouchSurfing, HomeExchange, AirBnB, or another site with a reference system? Providing a link to your other hospitality and home swapping websites is a great way to provide social proof.
There’s a ton of information about me online. It’s easy for potential hosts to verify things about me and get a feel for what I’m like if they want to know more about me.
- Do you have a website of your own?
- Does your company website include information about you?
- How about schools you’ve attended?
- Do you volunteer with organizations that have information about you online?
Lots of full-time house sitters have dedicated Instagram accounts. This certainly isn’t necessary, but if your social media profiles are public it doesn’t hurt to post a few adorable pictures of you and some furry friends.
Some house sitting platforms have built-in verification systems. They might verify your ID and have the option to get a background check. You can also get a background check done from your local police station for what’s usually a small fee. Because of my work and my habit of volunteering, I often have a recent background check. I’ve never had anyone ask to see it.
Applying to a house sit
You can search for house sits by date or location on most sites, but sits in popular tourist destinations get scooped up quickly. Sign up for emails that provide a list of new sits. People in places like New York, London, and Paris can easily get ten applications in an hour and they’re certain to find someone lovely among those first few.
Read all of the information in a listing before you apply. Check the photos and references. There’s no point in applying for a sit you wouldn’t actually want!
I sometimes find myself doing some quick searches to get a better idea of what to expect.
- How much will it cost to get there and to my next spot? How long does it take? How frequent are flights/trains/buses? Do they need to be booked in advance?
- Once I get there, will I be able to get around? Can I walk everywhere I want to go? Is there public transportation? What taxi services are available? Will they be leaving me a car or a bike? Could I rent a car easily?
- Does their house have a comfortable space for me to work?
- Can I get to the grocery store? Could I get groceries delivered?
- Will I be staying in the main bedroom? In a guest room? In a separate suite?
- Can I take good care of the pets and house and still have time to do the other things I’d like to do?
What I look for in a sit depends a lot on what I’m hoping to get out of the experience. Sometimes I want to be right downtown and it hardly matters what the home is like, because the dog and I will be out exploring. Other times I’ll pick places where I can throw myself into a project and work without distraction, other than critters to keep me company and listen to me reading aloud while I edit. Know what you’re looking for before you respond to a listing so you don’t find yourself in a sit that’s not the right fit for you.
Your message should be personable and address any concerns in the listing, without being longer than it needs to be.
- Address them by name and mention the pets by name
- Why do you want to visit the city?
- Will you be working? Site seeing? How much time will you be spending with the critters?
- Do you have experience that makes you particularly well suited to this sit?
- Where are you coming from and going to?
- Will you be able to meet with them ahead of time? When would you arrive in the city?
- Do you have any concerns about the sit being the right fit, like transit accessibility or making sure they have reliable wifi?
I don’t necessarily address all of these in every application. If someone’s listing doesn’t include a lot of information, I keep my message short and might just ask for more details. If a listing is very detailed, I make sure to address anything in the listing that stands out to me.
After you apply
Some hosts reply to every application they get. Others will simply choose someone and not reply to the people they don’t select.
It’s not uncommon for people to ask to have a video call over Skype or WhatsApp with two or three applicants before making a final decision. You can also suggest a call.
Remember, the vetting goes both ways! I’ve withdrawn my application for sits after chatting with the hosts.
This is a good opportunity to ask any questions you have. Will the internet be reliable and fast enough for the work you do? Is there a car for you to use? Is it okay for you to have guests over? How long can you leave the pets alone? This is a big one, as some hosts don’t want their dog left alone for more than four hours or similarly short windows that make going out difficult.
If someone seems nervous about having a stranger in their home, I’ll often offer to provide them with a scan of my ID or ask them if there’s anything I can provide to make them feel more comfortable.
A few times I’ve been able to meet with hosts after applying, when I happen to be in the same city as them.
Other times, homeowners have chosen me just by looking at my application and messaged me to arrange my arrival details.
How people choose a house sitter
Sometimes hosts choose someone because they’re objectively a better fit. Maybe they have experience that makes them well suited or have lots of good references. Perhaps they just applied first or were able to meet in person.
Other times, the decision comes down to things that are less quantifiable. Maybe they just liked the vibe of someone else’s profile or they both happen to play the violin or are both from Minnesota. Some hosts prefer retired people, while others think a young person will do a better job of keeping up with an energetic pet. Maybe they would rather have a couple or absolutely don’t want a couple. Maybe it’s because they’re homophobic or racist or just don’t like the way you look. You’ll probably never know why someone decides not to pick you in these cases.
Luckily, there are lots of house sits out there waiting for you.
Confirming a sit
I apply to a lot of house sits. Even when I have a specific date range and geographic area in mind, there are usually still one or two listings a day that pique my interest. Once I apply for a sit, I more or less forget about it unless I get a message back.
Once I’m in communication with a host, I add it to the possibilities I’m currently debating. I’ve turned down some great opportunities because I had others where the dates worked out better or were easier to get to. Know your priorities.
I’ll check with the host before I book flights or make any travel arrangements. I’ve found that plenty of people are happy to have me arrive a day early and stay a day late to make my travels easier and give us time to go over things in person. Some people prefer this, especially with dogs who need time to adjust to new people.
Remember, a sit isn’t necessarily confirmed until the host has chosen you through the site interface and you’ve also confirmed it.
House sitting agreements
Some house sitting platforms encourage written house sitting agreements. Sites will offer sample agreements that you can customize.
Most hosts don’t ask for a written agreement, but you might prefer to have one. It’s a great way to make sure you’ve gone over all the details and both understand what the situation will be.
A house sitting agreement might also come in handy to show a border agent as proof of housing. I’ve used one to get a temporary library card, too.
Preparing for a pet sit
Your first house sit can be a little intimidating, especially if you’re new to traveling. Remember that house sitting is nothing more than staying in a different home and keeping up with your host’s routines.
Each home is a little different and has its idiosyncrasies. While your first day might involve hunting for items in the kitchen and finding the most convenient spot for your laptop, you’ll settle into a new routine quickly enough.
Many hosts already have a house guide to give you. If they don’t, here’s how to create a house guide for a pet sitter.
Arrival and departure
Make sure you know when your hosts are leaving and returning home. Are these dates and times firm? Are there any potential delays they anticipate? Having flight numbers is helpful, especially if delays are likely and pets can’t be left alone for long.
Some hosts prefer I arrive early so we can go over things together. Others are happy to leave a key under the mat. Check in before you book your travel. Know where you’re going and how you’re getting keys.
Some hosts would be happy for hourly updates, while others want to unplug on their vacation. Plenty are happy to check my Instagram account for pet updates and keep text messages for important things.
It’s helpful to know if they’ll be unreachable for part of their trip. If this is the case, find out when they’ll be available for questions and do your best to anticipate things that might come up.
Plenty of people will switch to a local SIM card or use an app to avoid charges. Figure out the best way to stay in touch without missing messages or getting a huge phone bill.
Feeding the pets seems like it’d be simple, but there can be a lot of information to gather.
- When are they fed? How flexible is feeding time?
- Are there any medications to be given at meals?
- Do they free feed or do portions need to be carefully measured?
- Does the food need to be prepared?
- What treats do they normally get and how often?
- Is it okay for them to accept treats from strangers, like at a shop or from the doorman?
For cats, make sure you know where all the litter boxes are and how often they’re usually cleaned. Some cats will go outside the box if it’s not cleaned immediately, while others are fine as long as it’s cleaned once every other day. How often do they typically change the litter? Where is the spare litter?
For dogs, ask lots of questions about their exercise habits and behavior.
- What’s their walk schedule? How flexible is it?
- Do they use a special harness?
- Do they wear booties or a coat in bad weather? How do you clean them off? How do you protect their feet from salt in winter?
- Do they take a specific route on walks? Can I deviate from this?
- What’s the minimum and maximum amount of exercise they can get in a day?
- Do they have any issues on walks? How does the host typically manage this?
- Is it okay for strangers to pet them?
- Can they come into a shop with me or wait outside for a few minutes?
- Where are there spare poo bags? Can dog waste go in the bio bin?
- What tricks do they know? What are the corresponding words or gestures?
It’s important to find out about any behavioral issues. Most hosts are very open about any problems that might come up. Remember, pets will often behave differently with different people, so you still never really know what to expect.
- Will they tear up the house or bark if left alone?
- Will they eat any food left unattended or eat cosmetics?
- Do they scratch the furniture or do other destructive things?
- Is there a specific corner they sometimes pee in?
- Will they run out the door if I’m not careful?
Confirm any medication or other medical care pets might require.
- When is it given, how much, and how often?
- Does the pet resist taking medication? What can I do to make it easier?
- Pets might have medication they take occasionally, like allergy medicine, so find out what signs to monitor and how to administer it.
- If heart worm pills, flea treatments, etc need to be administered, when does that need to be done and where are the supplies?
If the pets need grooming, find out what plans have been made for this.
Some hosts leave me petty cash for incidentals. Some leave a stockpile of supplies. Others arrange for deliveries before I run out. Others have me pick up supplies as needed and reimburse me. Talk to your host and come up with a system that works for both of you.
Don’t forget to get emergency contacts for pets. This usually includes the vet’s office, a trusted friend, and animal control.
It’s helpful to know if any spaces are off-limits. Don’t forget to ask what spots are off-limits for the pets! Are there plants that need to be watered in rooms you might not otherwise use?
Some hosts will continue having their cleaning person, landscaper, and dog walker come during my stay. Find out if this is the case and what the schedule is.
- Do they have a key?
- How is payment handled?
- Should you be there when they come?
- Are there any repairs scheduled during your stay?
Find out where the thermostat is, if they’re okay with you adjusting it, and if it’s on a timer. It’s always good to know where the emergency water and electrical shut-offs are, just in case. Find out if a neighbor has a spare key.
Every house has its quirks. Ask what’s unusual about their home that might come up during your stay. It might be helpful to give them time to think of things, since we’re so used to the broken gate and fussy washing machine start button that we don’t even notice them.
One of the items I often struggle to find in a home is the vacuum. It’s either in an obvious spot, like the closet with all their cleaning supplies, or it’s tucked somewhere random that you might not find without some serious hunting. I don’t want to open every closet, scope out what’s under the beds, and peer into their utility room, so I just ask.
Plenty of older homes have electric systems that are easily overwhelmed. Find out if they have to be careful about how many things they plug in at once and how they manage it. Don’t forget to ask where the electrical box is and if there are any special instructions for resetting the circuit breaker.
Find out if they’re comfortable with you having people over. Even with permission, I generally only have guests who I know well. Some hosts have let me have overnight guests. I’ve had my parents and friends visit me during sits.
Don’t forget to get the wifi password.
Some hosts are happy for me to make myself at home and even buy groceries with me (especially short stays in rural areas), but most of the time I’ll provide my own groceries. I’ll eat or toss any perishables they leave behind.
Unless given other instructions, I’ll follow rules of being a roommate. If I’m only going to use a small amount of something, like spices, I’ll go ahead and use theirs. If I forgot something at the store, I’ll use theirs and replace it before I leave. If it’s something that’s semi-perishable, like condiments, I’ll use up theirs first and then replace it.
Most of the time kitchen appliances are pretty standard, but every once in a while there’s something that’s not intuitive. This comes up most often in international sits or off-the-grid locations.
Important things to find out include:
- Do they want you to keep their kitchen kosher, vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free?
- Are there specific rules for cleaning the kitchen countertop, stovetop, or anything else?
- Is there anything quirky about the kitchen or kitchen appliances?
- Is there anything they’d rather you not use?
- What are the rules for recycling? What’s the schedule for trash pickup?
The longer the sit, the more likely it is you’ll be responsible for yard maintenance. Find out what work needs to be done, where the equipment is, and what to do with yard waste.
Find out if the hosts will be leaving you a car or bicycle to use. You might want to check that you’ll be covered by insurance and get a note making it clear you have permission to use the vehicle.
If they’re leaving you a bike, don’t forget to find out where the lock is. It’s also helpful to know local tips for biking, including how safe it is to leave a bike locked outside.
If you’re house sitting in a country where you’re not a resident, make sure your visitor visa will last the length of the sit. Verify that your health insurance will be valid where you’re traveling. If you’re working remotely, make sure that’s legal. Check the expiration dates on your passport, health card, and drivers license.
Border agents aren’t always sure what to make of house sitting. Some will misunderstand it and assume you’re working without a visa. This could lead you to being turned away at the border.
The easiest way to provide border agents with an honest answer without raising red flags is to just provide the address when they ask where you’ll be staying. If they ask for more details, say you’ll be staying with family friends or looking after the dog of a friend of a friend. Border control is not the place to evangelize about the joys of house sitting or the magic of the gift economy.
What to bring with you for a sit
I typically travel very light. This occasionally makes my life more exciting, like when the supply chain breaks down during a pandemic and the seasons change. Most of the time it means I don’t have to lug things around.
I do occasionally wish I had more things with me, even under normal conditions. Before the pandemic hit, I’d been planning on buying a car and spending 2020 and 2021 researching care webs in rural communities. While I’d be hard pressed to come up with a less pandemic-friendly research project, I had come up with some things I was eager to travel with once I had a car:
- Spices! The availability of spices in people’s homes is very hit-or-miss, which means I often pick up the basics and leave them behind
- One or two good knives and a can opener. So many homes don’t have can openers!
- A french press, because I have an aversion to Keurig and Nespresso machines
- An anti-fatigue mat for my standing desk
- A few art supplies
- Camping essentials
I’m content to construct a standing desk out of found materials at each sit, but maybe you want something more reasonable. Many people would be eager to travel with a spare monitor and a laptop stand.
When a sit goes wrong
Just like when you live in your own home, sometimes things go wrong. A toilet overflows. The normally docile dog jumps the fence chasing a rabbit. A storm hits and knocks a tree into the shed.
I didn’t have any particular expertise with animals when I started house sitting. Getting to know so many different animals in a short time is very different from simply having a dog at home. While I’m hardly a professional dog trainer, I’ve gotten to know a lot about managing pet behaviors so everyone is safe and happy.
No matter how well informed you are by your hosts, pets are different with different people and different when their parents aren’t around. Be ready for the unexpected.
Anxious and aggressive dogs
If my host has a specific way they manage their dog’s behavioral issues, that’s what I do.
At other times, my host isn’t sure what to do about an issue and is open to me finding a way to manage it.
I’m a stickler with having dogs walk beside me on a short, slack lead. I have them match my pace. I give them time to sniff and do their business, responding to their cues without letting them direct the whole walk. When dogs are distracted I keep a fast pace and an extra short leash.
Dogs generally understand I’m their temporary person by the second day, so they want to make me happy. I give them lots of immediate feedback so they can understand what to do. I give a quick “no” when they’re getting out of line, a quick tug when they need to heel, and a scratch behind the ears when they sit while we wait for the light to change.
It’s counter intuitive, but dogs behave better when I’m listening to podcasts while we’re out on a walk. When I’m on high alert, trying to anticipate their next move, they stay on high alert, too. They become much more reactive to other dogs, squirrels, and trash on the ground. When I’m listening to a podcast (without totally zoning out) they’re focused on me. If they’re not focused on me, I’ll take a sudden turn or do a loop to get their attention.
Comforting an anxious dog reinforces the anxiety. Instead, I show them that I’m calm, so they understand they’re safe with me. I’ll talk to them to get them excited to walk and offer them praise when they follow my lead.
If a dog is getting riled up, I stand in front of them and have them sit. If they don’t, I walk towards them until they do, which sometimes means backing them up into a wall. Once they’re calm, we continue on our walk.
Cat behavioral issues
Cats can be fussy about change. If they’re going to do their business outside the litterbox, it’s going to be when their parents are packing or just after you’ve arrived.
It’s very common for cats to go in other places if their litterbox is full.
If a cat is going outside the box, let your hosts know right away. They can help you determine the most likely cause and decide if the cat needs to be taken to the vet.
When the pet becomes ill
If a pet gets sick, you might have to decide if medical attention is necessary. If it’s not an obvious emergency, get in touch with your host or emergency contact before taking them to the vet. If you’re using Trusted House Sitters, you have access to their 24/7 vet hotline.
Your host will generally leave you with information for their veterinarian, along with the nearest 24/7 animal hospital. The animal hospital can call your host to go over treatment options and handle payment. Once that’s taken care of, the vet tech can explain whatever care and medication will be necessary, as well as scheduling follow-up care.
I took care of a cat who was on several medications, one of which was taken as an oral liquid. This cat took his pills fine, but seemed very upset about the liquid medication. I spoke with my host and the vet and they decided it was better for the cat to skip the medication for the rest of the sit than to go through the distress.
He’d been hiding and running away from me, but soon after I stopped giving him his liquid meds he was happy to sit with me. Given that experience, if an animal seems very upset about taking medication that he’ll take from his parents, I’d check to see if he could skip it for the first few days to allow us to bond.
Caring for sick or elderly pets
I’ve taken care of a number of elderly pets and pets with health issues. Usually these sits are uneventful. Typically my host lets the vet know that I’m taking care of the pet and that I’m authorized to make decisions if they can’t be reached.
I’ve had several sits where it was within reason for a pet to die or need to be euthanized while I was there. Before the sit we went over their wishes for the pet, including signs that it might be time. They also talked this over with the vet.
At a recent sit I did take a cat to the vet to be euthanized. He’d been frail for a long time, but retained his spirit and was very affectionate. However, a few weeks into my sit his health started to noticably decline. I was concerned that he was suffering and felt unable to keep him comfortable and safe. I spoke with my hosts and the vet about the behavior change. Given his overall health, we decided not to pursue further diagnosis and treatment. When things hadn’t improved after a few days, my hosts agreed it was time and I took him to the vet to be euthanized. It was a tough experience for all of us, but I think we were all confident that it was the right decision and my hosts knew I’d done everything I could to keep him comfortable.
You’re staying in someone’s home. Most homes are comfortable. Most hosts tidy up ahead of your arrival. That’s most, not all. There are occasionally sits listed for homes that are wildly out of line with your standards.
When the house is a disaster
Most hosts are upfront about any potential issues with their house. Every once in a while there’s someone who casually forgets to mention the massive cockroach infestation, that they’re a hoarder, or that the pipes clank all night.
This is why it’s so important to ask questions and carefully check the photos in the listing. If there aren’t many photos, set up a video call and ask for a tour.
If you arrive at a sit and things are unacceptable, Trusted House Sitters isn’t going to intervene if they feel you simply didn’t do your due diligence before agreeing to the sit. If you bail on the sit, the homeowners can give you a bad review and you could be kicked off the platform you used to book the sit.
You can make a choice about whether to leave. If you stay, you can work with the homeowners to decide how to manage the conditions.
When something goes wrong with the house
If something goes wrong with the house during your stay, like a pipe bursts or a neighbor accidentally backs his car through their living room, the first thing to do is whatever you would do in any emergency of that sort. Find the emergency water shut-off. Make sure the neighbor is okay and call the authorities.
Once the crisis is stable, get in touch with your host or their emergency contact. You might be the point-person to manage whatever happens next with repairs and need to be there to show the damage to the insurance agent, or they might have their emergency contact handle it.
If you’re unable to remain in the home, you’ll need to work with your host to come up with an alternative plan. If you booked the sit through a platform, they might offer support for this process.
When things get broken
We all drop glasses. Pets have accidents. While these things don’t happen often, if you house sit long enough, it’s bound to.
You can clean just about anything with baking soda or vinegar. The internet is full of cleaning tips. Check to make sure you’re using the right cleaning agent for the job ahead of time and, whenever possible, test it before you go all in.
If something is ruined, don’t just hope your hosts don’t notice. The best way to handle it depends on what was broken and if it can be replaced. Dropping an IKEA mug is very different from dropping the last remaining tea cup from great grandma’s tea set.
They may or may not expect you to replace the item. I handle this as I would as I would in any situation where I accidentally cause damage while a guest in someone’s home.
When telling your hosts what happened, it’s important to do so in a way that reassures them that their home is safe in your hands. Accidents happen, even when you’re being responsible and considerate.
It doesn’t hurt to ask homeowners to let you know if there’s anything of particular (emotional) value to them that they’d prefer you not use. They can also put these things away for safekeeping during your stay.
There are occasionally listings where people clearly have high expectations for a house sitter. This is usually clear from the listing itself. It also comes out during a phone or video call with the host. If you aren’t up for having this be a full-time job or dealing with someone who’s going to micromanage you, pass on the sit.
Nearly every host tells me in advance if they have any sort of surveillance cameras. Most offer to remove them or turn them off during my stay. They’ve always been at the front or back door for security or facing the pet’s favorite spot.
Laws regarding privacy while a guest in someone else’s home vary by location, but it’s generally illegal to record someone where there’s a reasonable assumption of privacy, like in a bedroom or bathroom. If you find a hidden camera, you can decide if you want to contact the site you found the listing on and/or the authorities. All the house sitting sites will ban a host for this behavior.
It’s rare for sits to be cancelled once they’re confirmed. When I had a sit cancelled ahead of time, my host offered to reimburse me for the flights I’d booked. I’ve never had a sit that was cancelled at the last minute. I have had people’s flights get cancelled, so we had a slightly stressful but still fun slumber party.
Sometimes people aren’t entirely sure if a trip is going to happen or not. In this case, they’ll generally tell you right away. They’ll either select a sitter who has a backup place to stay (like someone doing #vanlife or a local looking to explore a nearby city) or offer to host you regardless (in their guest room or sometimes a separate guest house or apartment).
The finances of house sitting
People still seem to assume I must have a trust fund — or parents footing the bills — in order to travel full-time, despite the proliferation of digital nomads. Traveling full-time is not more expensive than staying in one place. In fact, for me it’s significantly less expensive to travel, even without relocating to countries with a lower cost of living.
When most people think about saving money or budgeting, they imagine making sacrifices. I shy away from doing anything to save money that feels like suffering.
Plenty of mediocre financial advisors will tell you to cut out the ‘latte factor’ to reduce your spending. Any good financial advisor will tell you to stop worrying about your lattes and instead go after your biggest expense — housing.
House sitting is by far the most fun way I’ve discovered to save money. Instead of cutting back, I’m getting to live in different places, meet new people, and hang out with great pets.
Many people who embark on long-term travel will sell their home first. Even many people who rent out their home clear things out and put everything in storage.
Because I rent my place furnished, I’ve eliminated my housing costs without having to sell everything I own (and eventually replace them) or pay for storage. Furnished rentals are much more convenient for people looking for a temporary home, not a forever home. This is great because it’s my forever home, not an actual investment property.
Turning my home into a temporary investment property saves me the transaction costs of selling. Given the rapid increase in Toronto’s housing costs during the past few years, renting my place means I have the option to stop traveling without having to relocate to a less expensive city.
Paying for housing is more than just rent (or your mortgage, maintenance, and utilities). It’s also buying lots of little things (that are so often missing from vacation rentals!). Think of how much you spend on cleaning products and household items.
When you’re staying in someone’s home, all these things are there for you. I aim to be a good guest, so I replenish things, but household items are part of the deal with short-term house sitting. How much olive oil, detergent, or windex will I really use in three weeks? Not much.
This isn’t always the case for long-term sits, but it’s normal for short-term sits. If I’m staying in someone’s home for less than a month, they typically supply me with all the essentials. If I’m staying long-term, I’d supply more of these things for myself.
Coming from a family that doesn’t waste food, it can be shocking to see what’s in people’s refrigerators. Did they not realize they were going away?! I eat or toss whatever perishables they’ve left, because no one wants to come home to a fridge full of funky food.
I’ve also gotten to enjoy the fruits of people’s gardens, chicken coop, and even their farm shares.
I have yet to have a homeowner who hasn’t told me I’m free to use their spices and condiments. I’m happy to buy my own food, but there’s no space in my backpack for spices and things are pretty bland without them.
Even if I’m not eating other people’s food, simply having access to a kitchen means I can cook. I’m learning the art of cooking based on the length of my stay, which can be a fun cooking adventure. Choosing a culinary theme for each sit cuts down on food waste and how many ingredients I’m buying.
There’s a surprising variation in prices from place to place, even within North America. I adjust my cooking to whatever happens to be inexpensive in that area and season, which is a fun way to mix things up.
I wasn’t ever much of a shopaholic, but there’s really no need to spend money on clothes when I’m traveling. I went personal item only for six weeks and haven’t looked back.
I aim to be able to blend in at a conference, so everything in my bag passes for business casual. It’s easy to come up with a few outfits that are appropriate for just about any situation I might find myself in.
The only people I see multiple times in the same week already know I live out of a backpack.
I often switch things when I’m in Toronto and New York, where I can stash off-season items. Even if I were buying new items regularly, it still wouldn’t amount to much, since not much fits in my bag.
Things I wouldn’t normally pay for
I eliminate plenty of (significant!) items from my budget by house sitting. I also get access to things I wouldn’t ever normally pay for.
When I’m renting a place, I would never splurge for a huge house in an exclusive neighborhood. Or even a fancy condo in a building with tons of amenities. House sitting gives me the opportunity to stay in places far nicer than anything I’d choose if I were paying.
I generally shy away from renting a car, never mind a luxury car. However, I’ve driven some really nice cars because the people I’m house sitting for hand me the keys.
While I’ve watched TV once since I’ve started house sitting (that’s not bragging, that’s confessing how strange I am), I almost always have access to enormous TVs with hundreds of channels and Netflix.
I’ve also been gifted museum guest passes and tickets to events, which is a nice perk!
The costs of house sitting
Sometimes other house sitters complain about how expensive it is. It can be, if you’re treating it like a vacation. Sure, they’re not paying for a vacation rental, but they’re still paying for flights, renting a car for weeks, going out to eat, paying admission fees for local attractions, and all those vacation costs. They’re still paying all the bills for their place back at home. It’s less expensive than a typical vacation, but it’s far from free.
That’s not what I do.
Even though no money changes hands, house sitting isn’t entirely free. Here are the expenses that come up for me when I’m house sitting full-time.
When I signed up for Trusted House Sitters I was worried that I was throwing money away on a membership fee. I figured the price was less than a single night in a hotel, so it was worth the gamble. It’s really paid off for me.
Housing between sits
Even when I’m fully booked as a house sitter, the start and end dates rarely line up perfectly. Plus, I like to have time to meet the homeowners in person and not have to worry about travel delays.
Some full-time house sitters will stay in hotels between sits, which can get expensive quickly.
Many hosts invite me to stay with them before and after the sit. They’re happy to get to know the person they’re entrusting with their beloved pets (and home!). I’ve had plenty of hosts share meals with me and treat me like visiting family. It’s been a wonderful experience.
It might sound like it’d be awkward to stay with a stranger, but if you understand the magic of CouchSurfing, you’ll understand why I always jump at these opportunities.
The other obvious solution is to stay with friends and family between sits. Whether or not this is a realistic option depends on where you’re traveling and how well distributed your network is — along with how eager they are to host you!
I look forward to the opportunity to CouchSurf between house sits, since it’s a great way to meet new people. As a long-term CouchSurfer, I have more friends scattered around the world than is normal. Even when I have a friend to stay with in a city, I sometimes use CS as an opportunity to meet someone new. This is especially tempting at the start of a long sit when I’m looking to meet local friends and find opportunities to get involved in the community.
Find another sit!
I’ve used local Facebook groups and other websites to find sits for specific dates in a specific location. People might not be familiar with house sitting as an exchange, rather than a paid job, so it can take a little explaining. Often I’m already in the city, so I can meet my potential host ahead of time to make sure it’s a match. People have jumped at the opportunity to take a long weekend away once they knew they didn’t have to worry about their pets.
I’ve hosted a lot of guests through Home Exchange over the years. Exchanges don’t have to be simultaneous, so I can accumulate guest points when I’m in my own apartment (and I’m staying at my girlfriend’s place, visiting family, or on a work trip) and use guest points while I’m traveling.
Vanlife and camping
Vanlife doesn’t have much appeal for me, since I really appreciate running water, reliable wifi, and having a comfortable work space. However, the thought of staying in a van and camping between sits sounds fun.
Lots of full-time travelers live in their vans or camp between house sits. It gives them the best of both worlds.
You can spend a few weeks or months living on a boat for free, even without any experience.
If you’ve ever had roommates, you know there’s nothing better than roommates you love and nothing worse than roommates you hate. Especially when you’re on a boat. Most captains will have you join for a short trip to try things out before signing on to cross the ocean together.
If you love it, crewing can become a career.
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a global network of farms where you can work part-time in exchange for room and board. This is a fantastic option if you’re up for an adventure.
I appreciate that WWOOFing is so flexible. My stay can start any time. Most farms prefer you stay at least a week. Many are happy to have you stay longer if it’s going well. WWOOFs are used to hosting workers without cars, so hosts are used to picking people up from airports and bus stops.
Each WWOOF is different, just like with house sitting. Hosts have wildly different expectations and accommodations vary. Officially, you’re expected to put in 20 hours a week and be provided with all meals. However, many hosts make it clear that they expect more than 20 hours of work. Some hosts have specific expectations for behavior, like requiring you to join them for religious services or banning “surfing the net.” It’s up to you to decide if you’re up for that.
WWOOFing is a great way to learn about farming, animal husbandry, cooking, and craftsmanship. Many farms host several travelers at once, making it wonderful for meeting other travelers.
Travel between sits
Slow travel is less expensive than fast travel. The longer you stay in each place, the less you spend traveling between places.
Even if I don’t find a long-term sit, I’ll sometimes book several sits in the same area and get to experience different neighborhoods in the same city. If I can take a bus between two sits, I might CouchSurf somewhere along the bus or train route to turn a long ride into an adventure.
Before I agree to a sit (or even apply) I check transportation costs. Sometimes flying can be really cheap, but other times its not. I don’t want to have to choose between shelling out a ton of cash for a flight or cancelling a sit I’ve already agreed to.
Lots of house sitting opportunities are in car-dependent places. As someone who doesn’t have a car, this limits the number of sits I can apply to. Even people who do have a car may not want to drive to a far-away house sit.
Usually listings make it clear if you need a car to get around and whether or not there’s parking if you have a car of your own.
Quite a few sits are in downtown locations where a car is unnecessary and would be a hassle.
Plenty of suburban homes still have everything I need within biking distance — and most homeowners have a bike they’re happy to lend me. I’ve even had neighbors offer to drive me around or pick things up for me so I don’t have to carry groceries home. Of course, there’s always Lyft, Uber, and Zipcar.
Other times, homeowners lend me their car. Lots of families have two — or more — cars. Others simply have me drop them off and pick them up from the airport so I can use their car during my stay.
If you’re house sitting in another country, make sure your credit card will work (and not charge foreign transaction fees) and you won’t get hit with an unexpected phone bill. I’ve found Google Fi to be convenient, since it saves me from having multiple SIM cards by offering inexpensive global coverage. I appreciate that my OnePlus has a dual SIM slot, so if coverage is spotty I can pause Fi, use a local SIM, and still use my main number through Google Voice.
Travel lifestyle creep
It’s normal to splurge a bit when you’re on vacation. No one wants to miss out on something cool because of the price tag. When you’re on vacation, you do a lot in a day and the costs add up quickly.
It’s different when you’re living normal life, just in a different place. Sure, I enjoy the sites in every place I visit, but I’m spreading it out over the length of time I’m there. I’m working full-time, so there’s no option to jam everything into one day and no need.
I spent quite a bit of money on touristy things during my first few months as a house sitter. The usual budget vacation tips can keep this under control, like going to free nights at a museum and using reciprocal memberships. Staying with a local often means the use of memberships and great tips for what’s worthwhile. The local library will often have free passes to local attractions, information about events at local universities, as well as their own events.
Most of my cut-able expenses were just going out to eat all the time. Eating out or going out drinking became less exciting the longer I traveled. This problem solved itself without my having to budget, because I got bored. This is especially true in cities where I don’t know a lot of people. When I’m reuniting with old friends I go out often, sure, but it evens out.
The more places I visit, the more I want to experience what’s unique about them. After a while I can’t remember which hipster restaurant is in which city, so now I usually skip them. The spots that provide local color are just as likely to be a hole in the wall as they are to be an exclusive restaurant.
Once travel stops feeling like a vacation from real life and becomes your real life, it becomes easier to budget. At this point, the amount of money I spend going out is generally the same as when I was living in one place — or a little less.
It’s not required, but I leave a gift for my hosts. It doesn’t have to be lavish, it’s mostly an expression of appreciation. When someone treats me like a welcome guest and opens their home to me, I want to behave like a guest.
It can be time consuming to look at opportunities to house sit, apply, and coordinate it all. Even when homeowners reach out to me, I still have to check things out to make sure it’s a good fit. There are a lot of video calls and even in-person meetings.
If you’ve ever looked for a job or done online dating, it can be a lot like that. I love looking through job postings, dating profiles, and house sit listings. A lot of people don’t.
Even when you arrive, there’s finding things in an unfamiliar kitchen and getting used to a different neighborhood. Figuring out what you can and can’t recycle. And learning the quirks of every pet! Oh, and actually taking care of the house and pets.
It gets easier after you learn what questions to ask and do it for a while. Occasionally I’ll still encounter an appliance I have to Google or some other strange house thing, but after years of CouchSurfing and home exchanges I can usually jump into any home and know how things work.
Sometimes it does feel like extra work, but most of the time I enjoy it. House sit notifications feel like a reminder of the endless opportunities to do something new. I really like meeting new people and am good at coordinating it all. I love exploring new places.
Whenever it feels like a bit too much, I know it’s time to slow down my pace and find longer sits. There’s also nothing stopping me from simply going home, so long as I sort things out with my tenant first.
Opportunities that come with house sitting
The benefits of house sitting extend beyond saving money on housing and getting to hang out with other people’s pets. As a type of slow travel, house sitting provides opportunities that aren’t available to someone on a vacation.
People make a lot of fuss about New Year’s resolutions, but as a traveler, I enter each temporary home with a new resolution.
The world is eager to remind me that I can’t escape myself by traveling, but they seem to have little understanding of just how much our environment shapes our daily behaviors.
I’m the same person, certainly, but my days are different if I’m collecting eggs and watering horses than if I’m on the 35th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper and walking to my office in the mornings.
Every few weeks I not only have the opportunity to change my routines, it’s automatic. Any routines I maintain are through much effort, not rote.
Some of my resolutions are dictated by the home itself. The dietary restrictions of my hosts become my dietary restrictions while I’m in their home. I keep a Kosher kitchen, I become vegan, I go gluten free. When other people do this, they’re on crash diets. I’m simply respectful of my status as a guest and enjoy these minor challenges.
Dogs are excellent for fitness challenges. My daily step goal is adjusted up or down based on the critters I’m watching and how enticing the trails are. There is a certain collie who was quite pleased with my arbitrary decision to walk 200 miles in a month and how we blasted past it.
Plenty of times my goals are silly. In New York I walked through every neighborhood, visited every wastewater treatment plant, and tried to eat my literal weight in tacos. I spent a month in Toronto visiting every one of the city historic museums. In Montreal I challenged myself to entertain myself for a month without going to any museums!
Other times my resolutions are more meaningful. Making a list of people to reconnect with, by phone or writing real letters sent through the postal system. I carve out time to watch the sunrise every morning. I walk the same beautiful path every day at lunchtime. My daily journaling goes from random musings to something more pointed. I reach out to a former client every week or submit proposals for new projects.
Sometimes I’ve chosen a house sit for the opportunity it poses for a resolution. I visit Boston to reconnect with old friends. I go to DC for a research project. I use my time in Raleigh to completely rewrite my immigration guide. I enjoy the quiet of Birmingham to write my tax guide and the solitude of the Berkshires to edit it. Setting my own schedule with work means I can arrange sits to match my workload — and not schedule anything big when I’m CouchSurfing between sits.
Plenty of us can fail at a resolution in 52 weeks. Almost all of us can achieve a resolution in three weeks or twelve.
Get involved with the community
When I’m spending several months in a place, I have the time to really get to know the community. Volunteering is a great way to do that.
It can be difficult to find the right volunteer opportunity, especially when you don’t have time to experiment. Your hosts might be able to point you in the right direction — you might even end up taking their shift at the foodbank while they travel!
Traveling slowly also gives me time to go to the sort of events that I wouldn’t prioritize if I only had a week in a place, like book readings, lectures, gallery openings, film screenings, and panel discussions. The death of the local weekly has made this a bit harder, but it’s still relatively easy to find event listings online.
Simple routines provide opportunities to meet locals. I end up saying hello to people while I’m out walking the dog, at the farmers market, and running other errands. Being new to a place means I always have advice and reccomendations to ask for. It’s easy enough to invite them to join me at whatever I’ll be up to that week and low pressure for them to accept or decline the invitation.
Not having a car in a car dependent place is a surprisingly effective way to get to know people. I interact with a lot more people simply by getting around on foot and using public transit. People commonly offer me rides home from events, which turns a few minutes of small talk into a potentially meaningful conversation. I get invited along to join family outings to local attractions and hikes by people who know it’d be difficult for me to get there on my own and want to show me what their area has to offer.
Discover who you are in a different place
Plenty of us have lived in different homes, but most often these moves are accompanied by major life changes. When friends give me recommendations for their college town or where they lived as young parents I can catch glimpses of these ghost selves.
House sitting gives me the opportunity to live in dozens of places while being as personally consistent as any human can be.
While I may be the same person, each home is welcoming to different aspects of that self. In some places I am on a first-name basis with a dozen neighbors by the close of the first week; in others three months has not gotten us past a cursory nod when we meet at the mailboxes. Sometimes I work my way through every bar and coffee shop I can access on foot and transit. Sometimes I am drawn to the same spot day after day. In others I become acquainted only with my backyard patio and the grocery store. It’s the city that creates these conditions; I am simply responding to them.
It is surprisingly hard for me to anticipate which places will feel best to inhabit. A home that is lovely in pictures may feel cold or cluttered in person. A charming main street may be full of expensive boutiques and tourists. The dive bar on the corner may be full of creepy drunks waiting for an excuse to ‘accidentally’ brush against me. A gorgeous forest preserve may be cluttered with irresponsible parents, of both the human and canine variety. The community organization I am so eager to join may be more of a private club.
Other times, stays inspired by a need to be in a certain location for work turn out to be lovely. I did not expect to enjoy staying in a gated golf course development, but I fell in love with the trails, the community at the clubhouse, and the invitations I got as a consequence of standing out (for being a quarter of a century younger than everyone else).
We morph to fit the boundaries of the world we live in. I am the same person in each place, but who I am is a small piece of how each of my days plays out. The tone of my life is colored by the space I inhabit, the way people respond to me, the things I have access to.
The idea that you cannot outrun your life is incredibly ahistorical. My ability to travel down a street safely is dictated by so many things, most of which have nothing to do with me and everything to do with patriarchy and colonialism. My ability to be welcomed into the homes of strangers is based on my age, gender, class, and abilities. I can strive all I want, but I cannot change the essential facts about myself that dictate the way the world responds to me. Each day I make choices from a range of opportunities, but I cannot decide what options I’m given.
Travel is certainly not the only way to discover a different version of yourself or understand how place shapes who you are. It is a very enjoyable way to do it.
Become more resilient
Some people are unflappable, while others need everything to go their way to keep their cool. In my work I encounter people whose perfectionism and fear of change turns the unavoidable challenges of the human condition into a crisis.
House sitting gives you the chance to step out of your comfort zone. You don’t need to go to a place with a strikingly different culture and language in order to experience a slightly different way of life. Finding your way around a new neighborhood, figuring out where to buy an item you need, and navigating a different transit system are all small ways to step out of your routine and practice embracing life’s small difficulties.
Following someone else’s routines is a great way to let go of perfectionism and recognize that there are many ways to do things. As a house sitter, I strive to replicate my host’s routine as much as possible. Few people consider why they do the things they do as they go about their chores. House sitting brings these automatic things to our conscious attention. I am fascinated by just how many different ways there are to wash dishes (although that’s one routine I don’t feel obligated to copy from my host).
Living in a new place and doing new things forces me to be a beginner. I have to struggle to figure things out, ask for help, and embrace looking foolish on a regular basis. The rewards far outweigh the embarrassment. It also keeps my ego in check.
After years of traveling, I’m much more confident in my ability to deal with whatever comes up. I’ve dealt with all sorts of home and pet issues. I’ve had strangers help me with all sorts of problems, large and small. I’ve encountered adventures in banking and paperwork as a consequence of living a slightly unconventional lifestyle. I’ve become more patient, even if I still have a ways to go.
The house sitting community
One of the best parts of house sitting has been getting to know other house sitters. Given our dispersed community, this mostly takes place on social media. It’s so fun seeing other house sitters I follow on Instagram posting from homes I’ve stayed in. We help each other find sits when plans change suddenly. When we end up in the same city, it’s an opportunity to get to know each other offline.
Besides Instagram, there are several active Facebook groups for house sitters: