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House-sit on your next vacation

Some rules of house-sitting etiquette and tips for finding locations and clients.

By Karen Datko Feb 3, 2010 10:46AM

This post comes from Margaret Garcia-Couoh at partner blog Wise Bread.


I just got back from spending two weeks in one of America’s most expensive cities, staying in one of that city’s toniest neighborhoods, for free. You can do it too, you know.


It’s true. I spent two weeks in San Francisco and stayed on the north side of town (Russian Hill) and I didn’t spend a dime on accommodations. What did I do? I house-sat a big National Historic Landmark house belonging to friends of mine while they were away. Hotel stays in that area can run easily in the almost $300-a-night range. I am eternally grateful.

Almost the only way I can afford a vacation is if I’m able to build that vacation around free accommodations -- usually the big expense, outside food, of any trip. While it’s true I am friends with this couple, we weren’t friends at the beginning of my house-sitting gigs. It developed over time.


I’ve house-sat for many people over the years -- especially when I was leaving my first husband and actually needed somewhere to stay. A little common sense and courtesy and you could become a primo house sitter.


First, some people charge for house-sitting. In fact, my own house sitters often require that I kick them back a check for feeding the cats. But, by and large, if I’m going to accept a house-sitting gig, it’s going to be in a place I want to go to in a house I want to stay in. I think those owners on vacation appreciate this, as they realize how much money they are blowing on their trip and want to scale back. My grandmother is always telling me, “But you should get paid!” I say hogwash. No one is forcing me to hang out in North Beach every morning drinking the best cappuccinos known to man and eating the best tiramisu on the West Coast. I am grateful and happy to have the honor.


Now, of course my own house sitters don’t get luxury accommodations. They get a dinky cabin house in the woods no different from their own dinky house in the woods, so naturally feeding the cats and a check that the meth heads in the neighborhood haven’t sold my television is worth the 50 bucks. It’s more of a chore for them. But if someone wants me to live in their nice house and sleep in their bed, and lets my kids play there too, what more could I ask?


House sitter etiquette

Over the years I’ve pretty much cultivated a few simple rules regarding house-sitting.


No snooping. Seriously. How would you like it if someone went through your bank statements and sex toys? The only drawers I open are in the kitchen. I know I’m a writer and should want to find out more, but you have to build trust with the family you house-sit for. Don’t go snooping; it’s just not nice.


Technology. Be mindful of it. If you can figure out how to turn a TV on and not mess up the TiVo recordings on a system that has 10 remotes, then go for it. I, however, am just not that savvy. I watched TV at my friend's house --she was recording random things and I got a nice sampling of stuff without doing a bit of surfing. Likewise, bring your own laptop unless you want to leave a history of where you go on their computer.


Pets. Pets should always still be living upon the owner’s return. Take the dog for walks. Be a good pet person even if you aren’t a pet person. Make sure they leave groomer/vet information. This last time I made sure to get the dog groomed. He smelled a bit when we got there, and I thought coming home to both a clean house and a clean dog would be perfect. 


Cleaning. I tend to spread out in one main room with my stuff so that final cleanup is easier and I don’t leave anything behind. I had my kids with me this last time and we kept our stuff in the den by the downstairs bathroom. It helped keep the toys from going MIA and reminded me  when it was time to do laundry. This particular family had the maids come the morning I was leaving. Yay! They took care of the cleaning. But, in general, leave it better than when you found it.


Kitchen. I cooked with anything that would have gone bad in their absence. And even though I want to drink the $55 bottle of wine and they said mi casa es su casa, I stuck with the under-$20 bottles instead.


Breakages and mishaps. Be honest about what you broke and replace when possible. I broke a tea cup once that I thought was an antique and freaked out, but I told the person and found out it had been purchased at Marshalls for 10 bucks. Whew. I replaced it with a better cup. Make sure you have the numbers of all people who do any sort of maintenance on the place -- the gardener, the plumber, etc. Odds are if they know the place and something goes wrong, they’ll work on it and wait until the return of the owners for payment.


How to become a house sitter

Tell the universe. Word of mouth is best. Tell your friends with houses and pets in areas you want to visit. I’ve gotten gigs on Craigslist before, too. Put up signs in places where people with nice houses tend to shop -- a co-op in a nice area, for example. Ask for referrals from people you’ve sat for before. I know a few people who’ve been able to survive in expensive cities this way for much longer than they would have without the gigs.


House swap. A few friends of mine have done this with Europeans who want to visit Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York. They get to go to houses in Italy and France while families from there stay at their houses here. I’m still working on this. It works best if you live in a "destination" city.

House-sitting is definitely worth considering. It occurred to me that I've been house-sitting for nearly 11 years off and on at the San Francisco house. If I added up my time at that particular house I could almost say I lived there a whole year. Sure, it means my vacations are sometimes the same old, same old -- but sometimes having a fantastic view of the bay and enjoying the smell of fresh French bread wafting up from the bakery down the street is all I need.


Related reading at Wise Bread:

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