‘Run your business from anywhere, save money on accommodation, and hang out with cute animals.’
With benefits like these, you can see why house sitting is increasingly popular amongst long-term travellers and digital nomads. It’s certainly what appealed to me.
Being in my 40s, I’m older than many nomads and certainly past the stage of wanting to rough it in hostels. But in my first couple of years as a solo female traveller, accommodation costs were my biggest struggle. I prefer my own space so that I can work and workout without interruption. I like a comfortable place to relax and chill out. And finding somewhere that fits the bill within my price range was becoming increasingly difficult on Airbnb. Especially after the nosedive in the value of the GBP after the Brexit referendum.
So I turned to house sitting. And what started out as a way for me to cut costs as I travel has turned into one of my favourite ways of travelling…
What Is House Sitting?
I’m writing this from Annecy-le-Vieux in France. I’m staying in a comfortable, light-filled flat ten minutes walk from Lake Annecy, one of the most beautiful parts of France (and it has a lot of competition!). Twenty minutes’ walk along the lake’s edge takes me to the Old Town of Annecy, a regular contender for prettiest town in the country.
Prices reflect the town’s status, and accommodation here would blow my budget. But it’s not costing me a penny. All I have to do is look after one of the most magnificent cats I’ve ever met (and a total sweetheart, who’s laying across my arm as I try to type this) and water some plants.
House sitting is an arrangement that benefits the house sitter and homeowner. A homeowner can go away, content in the knowledge that their beloved pet(s) will be happy at home and their house and garden will be maintained in their absence. A house sitter gets free accommodation in return for ensuring the above. It’s a win-win.
The Benefits of House Sitting
You don’t need to be a long-term traveller to go house sitting. I’ve seen house sits advertised for anything from a night to 18 months, with the majority in the one or two week range. House sitting is brilliant for anybody who wants to explore the world while saving their pennies and meeting adorable animals.
But for those who, like myself, run an online business while travelling, it offers many advantages. Here’s an overview of the main benefits of house sitting.
1. Save Money on Accommodation
Saving money on accommodation is undoubtedly one of the main benefits of house sitting. Though it’s by no means a free ride.
House sitting is an exchange based on mutual trust and respect, though some homeowners request a contribution to bills for long-term sits. House sitters are expected to keep a property clean, safe and secure, as well as look after any animals. There are often other tasks involved, too. I’ve mowed and watered a huge lawn and garden, done my fair share of weeding, picked up mail, etc. If you’re lucky, there may even be a pool to maintain.
Some people housesit professionally and therefore charge, though many house-sitting websites forbid this. For me the exchange is enough. Most sits I’ve completed have ended with the homeowner and I thanking each other for the experience, and often staying in touch as friends. They’ve returned home to happy pets and a clean house, while I’ve stayed in beautiful locations, often in houses far nicer than I could afford to rent.
But house sitting is about so much more than free accommodation. In fact, if that’s all you’re doing it for, then you wouldn’t be a very good sitter.
One of the things I miss the most about my nomad life is the ability to have pets. While you occasionally see sits advertised for security reasons or to maintain large gardens, most involve animals. This can be anything from rats and rabbits, to cats and dogs, horses, chickens, sheep, and even llamas!
A love of animals is crucial for budding house sitters. And I have bucketloads of it!
Homeowners love the fact that I work from ‘home’, so I’m there a lot for company, especially during the first few days when animals can be sad. But they’re also great companions for me. Who can be lonely with an animal around? I never forget to take regular screen breaks when I’ve a playful pet making eyes at me! And I talk to them non-stop…
Dogs are fantastic because they need regular walkies, so I have to get off my butt, step away from my screen and get outside. Which means I get a dose of fresh air and creative inspiration, too. And you meet so many people when you have a dog with you! One of my house-sitting buddies – a petit Yorkshire Terrier called Daenerys Stormborn – practically refused to walk past people, resulting in some interesting chats (and fun reactions when I called her in the street!).
3. A Comfortable Place to Work
Before house sitting, I mainly relied on Airbnb for accommodation. While I became an expert at reading between the lines of ads and knowing the important questions to ask, I’ve still had my fair share of cobbling together an uncomfortable work station and dealing with dodgy or limited wi-fi.
But with house sitting, you’re living in somebody’s home. So they usually have a comfortable place to work and decent wi-fi (though it’s worth double-checking this first).
It’s little coincidence that the periods I’ve been house sitting are often my most productive times on the road. As well as having a quiet, comfortable, distraction-free environment, I can juggle my days to suit me without worrying about what times coworking spaces are open. I can explore during the day and work in the evening, or bounce out of bed with a spark of inspiration and journal on the sofa in my pjs before breakfast. It gives me the freedom to live, work and travel on my terms.
4. A Proper Home
As much as I love my travel lifestyle, I sometimes miss home comforts. It’s no secret that my preferred lifestyle would be to have a home base with the ability to travel about half the year. Something I can’t afford at the moment.
While I choose my Airbnbs carefully, looking for places that are or have been somebody’s home, there’s an increasingly trend for buy-to-let (or buy-to-Airbnb!). Which often means cheap, uncomfortable furniture, ill-equipped kitchens, and shared or limited wi-fi connections.
But with house sitting, you’re living in somebody’s home. So they generally have comfortable places to relax, well-equipped kitchens, and decent wi-fi. Many have large TVs and excellent sound systems, and, if I’m lucky, a bath – damn, I miss baths!
So in addition to a comfortable place to work, house sitting usually offers a great space to enjoy some downtime after a busy day. Complete with pets to snuggle, of course!
5. Be Part of a Community
House sitting gives you the opportunity to experience a destination through the eyes of a local. Most homes are in residential areas, away from the tourist trail. So you can immerse yourself in local life and gain a deeper appreciation of what it’s like to live in different cultures and communities.
I mostly seek sits that are a month or more, as moving too frequently can get expensive and is disruptive to my work. This gives me plenty of time to explore the main attractions, but I can also get off the beaten track. I have more opportunities to make friends and discover why people love living there. How are their lives different? What struggles do they face? What do we have in common?
This includes the homeowners as well. Most sits start at least a day early so you have time to learn the pet’s routine, share a meal, and sometimes explore the area together.
House sitting allows me to form a deeper connection to a place and get a different view of the world. To actually live somewhere rather than move through it. Which I find so inspiring on both a personal and professional level.
House Sitting Challenges
Like anything, house sitting has its challenges. As a house sitter, you’re responsible for somebody’s precious belongings and beloved pets.
I’ve dealt with a dog with a seriously upset stomach, mopped up doggie diarrhoea off a Thai rug, and cleaned a cat’s head oozing pus after a fight. I’ve given medication to pets, bathed dogs in medicated shampoo, and chased garden furniture around a lawn in a storm. In Muttenz, Switzerland, my heart skipped a beat when a cat chased a dragonfly onto an expensive sculpture, which I just caught before it toppled onto the ground… An ability to think on your feet, roll up your sleeves and deal with whatever is thrown at you is essential.
There are other challenges, too. I recently had two sits cancelled, one after the other, for the same goddamn period. In a way, I was lucky; I hadn’t booked flights for either. It was just inconvenient. But what if I had?
Of course, life happens. Plans change, people get ill, visas don’t arrive in time. Cancellations happen on both sides – I’ve seen ads headed ‘Help! Sitter has cancelled’. But there’s always a risk of accepting a sit to an expensive location or involving an expensive journey, only for the homeowner to pull out after you’ve made arrangements and leave you stranded.
Until recently, all my sits had been in immaculate houses. But not everybody has the same standards of cleanliness. I recently had an awkward situation in a house that was pretty dirty. The homeowners were a delightful young couple travelling halfway across the world, so I couldn’t walk out. And being very British, I didn’t want to embarrass them by saying too much (though I had to ask when the cats had last been treated after my legs got covered in flea bites).
So I spent £20 on cleaning products, rolled up my sleeves, and spent the majority of my first week there scrubbing, giving bedding a boil wash, spraying, and treating the cats. Despite being in a wonderful location, it was an uncomfortable three weeks, especially as I didn’t want to bring fleas with me to my next sit!
Getting Started in House Sitting
For me though, the benefits of house sitting far outweigh the challenges. I’ve experienced life as a local in beautiful, interesting places and explored different parts of the world, while saving money and hanging out with some right cuties. I’ve made friends and enjoyed really productive periods of work.
If you want to get started with house sitting, the first step is to sign up to a house-sitting website. I started with Trusted Housesitters, and that’s still the website I use the most. They have an excellent affiliate scheme (20% off if you sign up via my link, which gifts me two free months), which means they have the most people registered on their platform and consequently the biggest choice of sits.
However there is a lot of competition, especially for sits in prime locations. So it’s wise to have some other options. I’m also a member of Nomador (which you can join free to browse and apply to a limited number of sits) and Mind My House. Both have fewer sits to choose from, but less competition for them.
For tips on setting up your profile and finding and securing wonderful sits, check out my guide to setting yourself up for house-sitting success.
A version of this post appeared on Natalie Sissons’s The Suitcase Entrepreneur. I’ve rewritten and updated it for my site.