Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
Many of us want to ditch our 9-to-5 life and travel the world. But finding a viable way to do that, and long term, well, it can be a bit of a challenge. One way that is increasing in popularity is by house-sitting.
Vanessa Anderson is the publisher of House Sitting Magazine – the ultimate lifestyle magazine. And she and her partner Ian are living that ultimate lifestyle as nomadic expats looking after other people’s homes and pets.
So how does house-sitting work exactly, and how do you get started? Vanessa’s going to share some tips.
Vanessa, it’s really great to have you on the show.
Vanessa: Thanks for having me, Carlie.
Carlie: Now, I’ve been reading your articles on expatfocus.com, which go into all the amazing details, but for the benefit of everyone who hasn’t read them, tell me, how did you become a house-sitter?
Vanessa: Well, for me, it all began when I met my partner almost five years ago. We’d just both come out of long-term relationships, and we met one night in London, via a friend. And Ian was living then on a small island, [built a little off-grid] property there. And anyway, to cut a long story short, we had a bit of a cyber-romance, and then eventually I went out to see him and never went home again. But on his island, whenever he wanted to go away, he used house-sitters. So he would typically use someone from the boating community there, people that were holding out from the hurricane season and wanted a bit of land time. And he would use them to look after the island while he went off traveling or did something else.
So we spent a year on the island, and after that we thought we’d like to go and have our own adventures. And we thought, well, house-sitting seems like a good fit, so maybe that was something we could have a look at. And that’s what we ended up doing. So that’s how we got into house-sitting.
Carlie: You say ‘island’ – so he was alone on this island and needed someone to …
Carlie: Oh, my gosh! [laughs]
Vanessa: It was a very … it’s an island community in Bocas del Toro, in Panama. So there’s quite a lot of expats that live there, but there are lots of small mangrove islands, and he’d bought one of these, and it was completely overgrown when he got it – so it had no property on it, no house on it. So he cleared the island with local people and built a small home.
Carlie: You wouldn’t want someone to come in and decide to take over your island while you’re away. [chuckles]
Vanessa: Well, that was the problem there, that they have this thing that … Ian always calls it active recycling. There’s a local, indigenous Indian community, and they’ve just got no concept, really, of people going on holidays, on vacation. So if you leave your property and you’re not there for two or three weeks, they assume that you’ve actually left for good. Slowly, the house will start to disappear. [laughs]
Carlie: Right. People will just move in and take what they like. [laughs]
Vanessa: Yeah, they just start to dismantle it, use the wood and any other materials.
Carlie: I can see how house-sitting becomes pretty important. [laughs]
Vanessa: Yeah, it really is important there. And also because a lot of the expats have to go on their visa runs or they want to go back home to see family and friends. So quite often, you’ll hear of house-sits there for a month while they’re away.
Carlie: And how does the house-sitting community differ from, say, the Airbnb community, which is so popular now?
Vanessa: I would say, I think Airbnb is very different, because it’s based on a sort of paying model, whereas house-sitting, generally, when it’s at an international level, people don’t charge for it. There’s lots of issues around work visas and whether it’s work or not work. So it’s generally done as a free exchange. I’d say it’s more like couch-surfing, in the sense that it’s an exchange that you have, so you need to build trust with the people that you’re exchanging with.
Carlie: And why do you house-sit, Vanessa?
Vanessa: Well, for us, it provided a way of not having to go back to that sort of 9-to-5 routine. For me, I’d had a retail distribution business in the UK for many years, and it was a real slog. It was really hard always chasing success. When Ian and I got together, we got to that point, both of us, where we wanted to live a life that was a bit more free, do things that we were passionate about, and also travel, because we both really loved traveling. So for us, house-sitting provides that. It gives us a way of traveling around the world, looking after people’s homes. But also with the pets – we don’t have our own pets any more. And normally, when you’re traveling, you can’t have pets. But we get to look after cats and dogs and all sorts of different animals while we’re traveling.
Carlie: Is there a typical profile in the house-sitting community? Are house-sitters singles, couples, are they freelancers?
Vanessa: They can be just about anything. Often, you’ll have a house that’s just a small apartment somewhere, that maybe has only got one person living in it anyway, so they will look for somebody that’s single. Then, bigger houses, where there’s more work to do, maybe a bit of gardening or maintenance, that type of thing, so they would prefer couples. But you can even housesit as families. There are people that travel and [05:33] their kids now. And they get accepted on housesits too, and some of the platforms where you can apply for housesits actually have an option – is it family-friendly?
So families, singles, couples. And then digital nomads – there are so many more digital nomads now, looking at house-sitting as a way to maybe staying in an area for three months at a time. We’re on a housesit for three months now. And it just reduces that accommodation cost, provides somewhere to live and work in a stable situation.
Carlie: Vanessa, I can see the benefit for the house-sitters. As you said, it really reduces your accommodation costs. But what’s the benefit of using house-sitters over listing your home on Airbnb, for example? Why do people decide to join the house-sitting community?
Vanessa: Primarily, it’s about pets. Most homeowners that you will housesit for have pets of some kind – so cats, dogs, even things like horses. We’ve housesat for sheep as well, in the UK. But there’s an element of pet care, where, if they were to send their pets to the kennels or to a cattery, first of all, it’s expensive, especially if they’re going away for a long time, but the cats and the dogs, they’re outside of their normal routine. So when you’re housesitting, your pets get to stay in their own routine. You’re there, providing love and care for them in the same way that the homeowner would. And that’s important for a lot of pet owners.
The other side of it is that if your home isn’t empty, it’s must less prone to theft or other problems that might occur – broken or leaking pipes … things that can typically go wrong with your home when you leave it empty are much less likely to happen if you’ve got house-sitters or someone in the house. And even in some countries now, the insurance is invalidated if you haven’t got somebody in the home. If you want to go away on a long trip – over a month, I think, in Canada – they actually want you to have somebody in the property or somebody managing the property.
So there’s a number of benefits – partly for the pets, partly for the property, and all of the maintenance systems around that house.
Carlie: It’s such an amazing thing to do. I think it’s a very generous thing for homeowners to offer their home to people without charges, but also, it’s a very, I suppose, selfless thing for house-sitters as well to come in and maintain someone’s home and make sure their animals are cared for. In this environment where there isn’t an exchange of money, there’s a lot of trust I would imagine. Are there some unspoken rules of housesitting?
Vanessa: Well, as you say, the trust element is really important, and that’s what we’re always looking to build. When we first apply for a housesit, you are looking to show that homeowner that you can be trusted to look after their home. So you’ve got to respect that home and you’ve got to really look after it as if it were your own, but often in a way that they might specify.
So you might get to a home where part of it may be off limits. So they might say, “Our bedroom is completely private, we don’t want you to go into our bathroom.” And you have to respect those situations. So whilst it’s encouraged that you live in a house as if it’s your own, there are those … and possibly not unspoken. What we try to encourage people to do is to actually outline their expectations, because that’s what makes for a good housesit. If people don’t outline their expectations at the start, then that’s often where it can go wrong.
To give you an example, one that always comes up is around food. The homeowner may leave a fridge full of food, and the cupboards are full of all sorts of different things, and the house-sitter thinks, “Well, should I eat it? Should I not eat it?”
Carlie: Yeah. [laughs]
Vanessa: And sometimes homeowners have come back and said, “My fridge was bare!”
Carlie: There’s no more pasta and coffee! What’s going on? [laughs]
Vanessa: [laughs] Yeah. So as professional house-sitters, people know that if you use something, you replace it. But it’s about setting those expectations at the beginning and having the conversations building that trust between you.
Carlie: So what are some things that you do recommend house-sitters and homeowners do? What sort of rules or what sort of topics should they cover to make sure they both have a good experience?
Vanessa: One of the things that most, all house-sitters and homeowners do is they have a handover. So once you’ve applied for a housesit on maybe a housesitting platform, you will possibly have a Skype conversation – and we would always recommend that you do have a Skype conversation with the homeowner. And at that point, you’re going to talk about what duties, what tasks you will have, maybe be introduced to the pets, talk about the pets’ routines. Making sure things like … if you go to a housesit where you’ve got a couple of dogs to walk, and then you find out that they’ve got to be walked three times a day at strange hours … you want to know that really, because you’re going to have your routine as well. So getting to know everything about the housesit …
And when you join the larger international platforms, you’ll find that they’ve got lots of resources – downloadable questions, even templates for agreements – and all those things, I believe, are really important when you’re working on the agreement for the housesit, and that stops all of the problems that could possibly happen if you get those expectations outlined at the beginning with those documents. There’s a lot of information online now about housesitting as well. The magazine that we produce, House Sitting magazine – we’ve got a Getting Started page, and lots of articles that you can read about people’s experiences, just to see if it’s for you, to see if it’s something that’s actually going to work for you.
So it’s not like going on a holiday, and you’re just going to go off site-seeing everyday. You’ve got pets that you’ve got to look after, you’ve got responsibilities for the property. So those are important to know and be aware of.
Carlie: Would you say that’s the main way that a housesitting experience can go wrong, if you don’t have those clear rules and expectations from the start?
Vanessa: I would say so, yeah. A lot of people now are posting on Facebook groups, saying, “I need a house-sitter,” or “I’m free to housesit.” But because it doesn’t get set around those clear expectations, they are the ones that we often hear of now that do go wrong.
I think one of the main points about the platforms, the housesitting platforms, is that there’s a reference system, where, if you do a housesit, the homeowner can put a reference up about you, and in some cases now, you can actually put a reference up for the homeowner too. And it builds that reference system, like you have on couch-surfing and on Airbnb, so you can check the history of the person.
And I think that’s important. I think it’s important to be able to do your due diligence, check the people that are coming to stay at your house. They’ve had ID checks in a lot of [places] as well.
Carlie: You mention there are a lot of different platforms out there for finding housesitting opportunities and advertising your home to be housesat. How do you decide which platform to put yourself on, and as a beginner house-sitter or person offering your home for the first time, how do you gain that credibility in the community?
Vanessa: To start with, there’s a number of different platforms that you can apply to. There’s probably four or five big international housesitting websites now. But then, there’s a lot more country-based or regional-based sites too. So a lot of it is about deciding where you want to housesit. So if you were going to housesit, to start with, in Australia, for instance, you might pick one of the bigger international sites and one of the smaller regional sites to get more opportunities to apply for.
I think with the websites, people find their favorites based on the locations, the opportunities available, the ease of the site, the way it works, that type of thing. So starting out, you need to think about where you want to housesit and then have a look at some of the sites. None of them charge to actually browse housesits. So you can sit down and really have a good look through all the opportunities available. And they have filters for dates, for different locations, pet-friendly, family-friendly, what type of tasks you want to do – all sorts of different filters. So you can really get a feel for what’s available out there before you decide to take the plunge.
As a first-timer, you’ve really got to build those references. So what we always suggest to people is start with your friends, your family, and build as many references as you can. Actually just say to people, “Would you like someone to look after your pets or your home for a weekend?” And try and build as many references as you can before you get started in a bigger way.
Then you’re going to need to work on things like your profile. So you have to put together a profile of why you want to housesit, what you have to offer – because one of the most important things is that it’s what you’re bringing to the situation. It’s not all about you, it’s about what you’re bringing to the homeowner and to the pets. So you have to really think about that carefully as well.
And then, you need to actually go and decide on one of the websites, one of the websites that you’d like to join. Basically then, it’s about applying. But it is about those references. The thing we always say to people is when you’re getting started, get as many references as you can. If you use Airbnb and you’ve got people that have put up references for you for staying at a property, you can use those. If you’ve ever had a rental property yourself … anything, really, that can show your credibility as a house-sitter.
So you’ve just got to be a bit creative and think of everything that you can bring to that experience.
Carlie: I guess the property management aspect is very important to show too, because you may have things that you need to deal with for the homeowner while they’re away.
Vanessa: Yeah. One of the other things that really helps with a housesit is if the homeowner has prepared what we call a home manual. This is something that they’re guided to do by the platforms. That will have lots of information about what to do or who to contact in certain situations. But you have got to manage all of that still. So if you do get a broken pipe or a leaking pipe, you’ve got to go and liaise with the plumber, you’ve got to get the plumber in.
But people generally stay in touch with the homeowners too, throughout the sit. So you’re not just in at the deep end. You’re still in contact with your homeowners and you can all work together to solve problems. But yeah, property management really is a good skill to have. We do well because we have a lot of off-grid experience because of being on the island, so we’ve got –
Carlie: I was going to say, the island must count for a lot in your housesitting profile. [laughs]
Vanessa: Yeah. [laughs] But we tend to get a lot of housesits that are off-grid. So we’ve just done one in Botswana. And that was totally off-grid, so solar, water management, nothing on the mains at all. And those systems do need a bit more experience. So that’s something else we would always say, is don’t take on something and just bluff your way through. Don’t say, “Yes, I can look after a pool,” just because you want a house with a pool. You’ve got to know how to maintain a pool. You don’t want it going green overnight. But you can get experience with all these things.
Carlie: And what are some of your most memorable house-sitting experiences, Vanessa?
Vanessa: Oh, that’s a tough one! I think the most memorable – probably for bad reasons – was last year we looked after a small beachside resort in Fiji. And it was out of season, so we were just managing the staff and some out-of-season repairs. And we got hit by Cyclone Winston.
Carlie: Oh, no.
Vanessa: It was the biggest cyclone to hit the Pacific ever. So we had to evacuate the property … well, we had to prepare the property for evacuation, we had to evacuate with two bulldogs that nobody wanted to take in hotels, so we had the stress of that, and then we had the cleanup procedure afterwards. So it was memorable probably for the wrong reasons. [laughs] But it was certainly memorable.
Carlie: Another good one to add on to your profile? [laughs]
Vanessa: Exactly, yeah! And you look back … so now, for instance, we’re in Barbados, and next year we’re going to St Vincent. And we’re at the sort of lower end of the hurricane scale in the leeward islands, but the fact that we’ve had experience of a severe storm means that it reassures the homeowners –
Carlie: Can handle off-grid, can handle natural disasters. We’ve got this. [laughs]
Vanessa: Yeah. They’re all good things to have on your house-sitting CV.
Vanessa: It’s quite funny, because this month, the topic of the magazine was ‘When things go wrong,’ and then of course Irma hit the Caribbean. So it’s been a month of talking to other homeowners and seeing the devastation that’s happened …
There were 25 housesitters, from TrustedHousesitters alone, that were in the Caribbean that were –
Carlie: Oh gosh.
Vanessa: [20:29] the event. So there’s a lot of people now going to have hurricane experience on their CVs.
Carlie: I was going to say – like Airbnb, where the platform will support you if you have an issue while you’re staying in someone’s home, do these house-sitting platforms also provide support to their members?
Vanessa: They do. And it will vary depending on the site, but for instance, with TrustedHousesitters, they have a vet line as well. So when you’re house-sitting for them you have access to a vet emergency service, where you can actually just say, “I’ve got this problem. What would you advise me to do?”
Carlie: That’s a really great idea.
Vanessa: Yeah. And it is a community. So we find now that that’s one of the other things we love about it, is that the community around house-sitting is so strong, and people do support each other, and there are many Facebook groups that you can join. Like with Hurricane Irma – we were all supporting, as much as we could, the people that we knew were struggling.
Carlie: Is house-sitting a sustainable way to live and travel the world?
Vanessa: I hope so, because I don’t want to stop! [laughs]
I think it is. We’ve been doing it fulltime now for nearly five years, and we just see it growing and growing. It’s actually … more and more people are getting to hear about it, more and more homeowners are gaining confidence that it is okay to leave their home in the hands of professional house-sitters. So I can’t see why it’s not going to be sustainable for the future.
Carlie: And what do you love about house-sitting, Vanessa? What makes you hope you can keep doing it for years to come?
Vanessa: I think for me it’s the constant change. I just love … it stimulates me. It’s something new every two or three months. We’re living in a new location, we’re dealing with a new culture. We’ve got new pets and new challenges. For me, I think that’s what I enjoy about it. And that it allows me to live life in the way that I want to live it. So I’m now doing a job … I’m producing a magazine that … I’ve always wanted to do that. And that, for me, is probably the most important aspect of it. The thought of going back to a 9-to-5 situation just fills me with dread. [laughs]
Carlie: I can imagine why! [laughs] Well, Vanessa, thanks so much for coming on Expat Focus t today to talk all things house-sitting.
Vanessa: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for today. If you want to find out more about house-sitting, head over to expatfocus.com and check out the articles by Vanessa Anderson. You can also ask questions and share your own experiences in the Expat Focus forums and Facebook groups. You’ll find more of our podcast episodes at expatfocus.com/podcast. They’re also on iTunes. And I’ll catch you next time.