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True and simple rules for housesitting

Dirty sheets and towels on my bedroom floor? Really?

By Donna_Freedman Nov 1, 2010 9:15AM

Since the end of May I've made two long trips, to Alaska and New Jersey, spending about 14 weeks away from home in all.

During that time I had two housesitters, each of whom sent me an e-mail I really didn't want to get:

"I'm leaving a month early," the first one wrote.

"Do you have a plunger?" queried the second.

One caretaker was a friend of a friend. The other was someone I know slightly. Both were looking for a place to stay; all I asked in return for the free flop was that they bring in my mail.

What I didn't ask for:

  • A nearly dead potted tree in the living room.
  • Many of that tree's leaves on the carpet.
  • An oven floor covered with grease.
  • The relocation of a stepladder, floor lamp, straight chair, shopping cart and the contents of two dresser drawers.
  • My kitchen nightlight removed and plugged in under the dining table (still trying to figure that one out).

Books were moved around. The bath towels rearranged in order of size, even though the housesitter didn't actually use them. (More later on why that bugged me.)

The dining table and desk were entirely cleared off. (I never did find the little container I use for scratch paper.) My radio was broken. Dishes and pans were rearranged in the cupboards. And I came home to a big pile of dirty towels and sheets on my bedroom floor.

When asked about that last one, via e-mail, here was the house-sitter's response: "I didn't have the time or money to wash them."

But … you used them. And you make more money than I do!

At least there were clean sheets on the bed.

Why'd he mess with that?

I will be the first to admit that my place is kind of cluttered. But I like having my vitamin bottles arrayed on the breakfast bar. I like having a piggy bank there, too, and an egg-shaped teapot, and the salt and pepper shakers that resemble pans on a stove -- all three were gifts from friends, and they are cheerful.

Yes, I need to organize my books. Yes, I need to do something about the clutch of paperwork on the dining table. Yes, I need to find homes for a few tchotchkes.

But here's what I don't need: people to move things around the way they like and then to leave them that way -- which, in turn, left me trying to figure out where my paperwork went.

Why move the shopping cart? It wasn't in the way. Folded up and tucked between the couch and the cedar chest, it was barely even visible.

The second housesitter apparently tried to turn on my bedside clock-radio, but succeeded only in pulling the knob right off. Rather than mention this to me, she simply put the knob at the base of the nightstand. (I later managed to get the unit working again.)

My bath towels are stored in a small plant rack in the bathroom. I put them in small-large, small-large order so that I can pull out one for my hair and one for my body. When I got home I had to take them all out because the sitter had put the small ones at the bottom. But he'd brought his own towels -- why'd he mess with mine?

The worst part was finding the two dresser drawers emptied, presumably so the housesitter could use them. Some of the items in the drawers were deeply personal, including letters from old friends and from my mother.

After a few minutes of frantic searching, I realized that the extra suitcase the housesitter had put on my bed probably held the items. It did.

Whose comfort?

This rant may sound a bit querulous. But it's my place. I have things the way I want them.

No, the caretakers weren't paid -- but neither did they have to worry about rent and utilities for a month or more. (Seattle is not a cheap place to live.) I live within walking distance of shopping, two multiplexes and a transit center. There was Internet access. I even left the first one a free movie ticket and let him use my library card.

Yes, I told them to make themselves comfortable. The result, though, was that I was uncomfortable when I got home from my trips.

During that Alaska visit, incidentally, I house-sat for two different people -- and I neither moved furniture nor left dirty linens lying around. (I did, however, pick up tree branches that came down in a windstorm, deadhead flowers, brush matted hair from around the cat's backside and wrangle a couple of escaped stick-bugs back into the terrarium.)

Ditto for the place I'll be watching for a few days in January: When the owners return, things will be as they left them.

It's not my house, that's why. I don't get to decide that a stack of charitable requests shouldn't be at the back of the kitchen table. Even if the stack were in my way, you know what? I'd either live with it, or I'd move it temporarily and then put it back when it was time for me to leave.

A few simple rules

I'm planning a three-week trip in early spring. Since I'll be gone fewer than 30 days I can just have the post office hold my mail. However, I proposed the following deal to an upstairs neighbor: I'll care for her cat while she's away for long weekends if she'll pick up my mail should I decide to take a trip lasting more than a month.

She's happy because in the past she's paid me to watch Kitty. Now I'm willing to do it for free (already have, for a four-day stint) and she may never have to reciprocate. Or she might move to a new building by the time I take another four-weeks-plus journey.

I'm willing to take that chance. No more housesitters for me. My place is a mess, but it's my mess. I don’t want people to mess with my mess. (And for extra credit: Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!)

Do I sound impossibly cranky? (I mean it, you brats -- stop cutting across my yard!) That's because I am, sort of. But you will benefit from my persnicketiness, because it has resulted in my creating the True and Simple Rules for HouseSitting. If you decide to market yourself as a caretaker, follow these few rules and you'll have all the business you want:

  • If you move it, put it back.
  • If you make a mess, clean it up.
  • If there's no compelling reason to touch someone else's belongings, don't.
  • If you break it, say so -- and offer to replace it.
  • If you bring a tree -- and why would you? -- take it with you when you leave.

Make yourself comfortable, but not at the expense of the homeowner. Leave your OCD tendencies back at your own place. Bring quarters for the laundry. And for heaven's sake, don't touch the nightlights.

Donna Freedman is the MSN Money Living With Less columnist and blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


More from MSN Money:

Housesit on your next vacation

Former homeowner now housesits full time

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Tips from 8 champion moonlighters

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Nov 1, 2010 6:00PM
Funny stuff, if you're reading it and not living it.  I admire people who are comfortable enough to have people stay in their homes while  they away as I don't especially like people staying in my home while I'm there!  Your rules seem to me like common sense, but we all know that sense is very uncommon these days.  I couldn't imagine staying in someone's home rent free (or even visiting, for that matter) and not leaving it as I found it if not better.  In fact, I have been know to vacuum and scrub toilets while visiting friends.  Hey, it's the least I can do for the grub and rack they are providing while I'm there.
Jul 29, 2011 10:25PM
I once house sat for a man and wife when they went on sailing trip. They paid me a very small amount of money ($50 a month) and my only rules were don't destroy the place.  Then the husband went into a long lengthy list.  A week after I was there I got a letter they asked me to paint the bed room then it was the living room.  Then they asked if I could put a lamp out at the end of the drive way take your time and here is $500 for material and if have any left buy a pizza. I didn't know what they wanted in a light or what color they wanted the rooms painted.  I chose yellow and green and the lamps at the end of the drive way cost me $250 and it took me about a 100 hours to dig the trench for the wire and put in the poles.  All in all they got a bargain or maybe not. I kept the house clean and safe and when his sister came over to check on me she always came with a jo##T and a couple beers.  After they came back and I was working I went back to ask the sister out on a real date and found out she was married.
Nov 2, 2010 2:16AM
House-sitters aren't the only ones who behave like this. When I go through the local car wash, the teens who work there are in my car for a total of about 13 seconds, max. In that time they manage to change the radio station, reset the tilt of the steering wheel and remove the cover, knock my sunglasses off the visor and leave them on the floor, and pull the driver's seat up so close that I have trouble getting back into the car. I'd hate to turn them loose in my home.
Nov 1, 2010 9:37PM
That is terrible I am so sorry to read of your distress rightly so.  My mother gets paid to house sit I have spent the night with her( with permission form owners) I have never moved their belongings.  I wouldn't dream of it.  My mother brings her own food and pots and pans, towels ect.  She is there to have the house look lived in not to rearrange stuff.  I too have had someone break something a coffee carafe for the pot. She did not replace it something I had to do at midnight or go with out the next morning.  Hopefully someone reads the rules of house sitting.   PS Don't Delete my DVRed programs from 1 year ago either.  
Jul 30, 2011 2:52PM

i came home after several months away to find my bedroom had been rearranged and the things taken off the wall were lying in the floor of another bedroom- an important  refund document  for seniors was missing off the coffee table and that knocked me out of a 403.00 reimbursement  because i could not get it in by the deadline-


 boxes of things stored in a spare bedroom in rows belonging to 3 different people had been piled on top of each other along one wall, mixing them up so it was no longer apparent to whom each box belonged -


 2 living room windows were wide open in february and the furnace was on high- the gas bill was quadrupled  for that month - the litter boxes had not been cleaned in 10 days , a hammer was needed to loosen the hard litter-with no clean place for them to go , they had used my bedspread on my bed for a bathroom for over a week-


 not a drop of water was there for my cats- the faucet that i let drip over a bowl for them had been turned off- the chair i provided for my older cats to climb on to get to the water had been removed- they had been without water for god only knows how long-


 over 2 years later, i still cannot find things that i look for because they have been moved-all of my tax receipts for one whole year was in a hatbox, they had all been dumped in with other papers - it took endless hours of sifting through each scrap of paper to get them all separated again-  it was a nightmare-


 i had spent years covering areas outside with mulch and getting ivy started to starve out weeds- the ivy had been dug up along with most of the mulch and i now have nothing but weeds again-


 i thought i could travel a little after i retired- after this, i now limit my time away from home to no longer than maybe a week at a time for i am afraid of what i will discover if i return after a longer absence- as to why people take it upon themselves to move everything around is beyond me- i would not dream of  taking things off someone elses walls and moving their furniture  and belongings around-


i have constantly had to go repurchase items because i cannot find the ones i already had-

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