~ The Guardian, Saturday 16 July 2011 ~
Find a housesitter – for free
You can go through a traditional agency – or join a new trend, do your own vetting, and access hundreds of housesitters for free
Getting a housesitter to look after your home, garden and pets while you are away is the perfect solution to the worry of leaving your property unoccupied – and it means you can avoid the hassle and expense of uprooting your animals.
The downside is the cost: a housesitter can be pricey, adding significantly to your holiday expenses.
But a new trend in global housesitting services, where homeowners get access to hundreds of sitters willing to do the job for little or nothing in exchange for a change of scene and free accommodation, is making it more affordable.
Traditionally, homeowners have paid a company to vet and supply them with a suitable sitter. The largest national provider is Homesitters, which launched in 1980 and claims to be the pioneer of professional housesitting services in the UK.
Unlike many sitting services, Homesitters is not an agency but a company that directly employs and vets its 1,000 or so sitters, guaranteeing every aspect of the service. When on assignment, for example, sitters must agree not to leave the property for longer than three consecutive hours in daylight or more than an hour after dark.
Its employees undergo detailed inquiries regarding court judgments, criminal convictions and bankruptcy, are fully insured by the company and cannot combine housesitting with any other employment.
“We believe our customers want the reassurance that the buck stops with us, so the contract is between us and the homeowner, and the sitters operate under the company’s direction and with our 24-hour back-up,” says spokeswoman Adele Barclay. “It means, for example, that if a sitter falls ill and cannot complete a booking we will find an immediate replacement. With experience of looking after over 64,000 bookings we are used to providing sitters at very short notice and our sitters can call us for help at any hour, 365 days a year.”
The service, which includes safeguarding the security of the property, keeping the house clean and tidy, grass cutting and light garden maintenance, dealing with phone messages, and callers and care for all pets and livestock according to the client’s instructions, is popular with those who can afford it. More than 70% of new clients re-book within two years.
But it does not come cheap. The basic charge is £37 per 24-hour period, plus £1 per cat or dog plus VAT. The homeowner also has to pay £7 a day for food direct to the sitter and reimburse their travelling expenses at 40p per mile plus VAT. So someone with two pets could pay £772.80 for a two-week caretaking stint. Of this, the sitter will get £10.16 a day for the estimated one and three-quarter hours they will actually be working plus their £7 food money – just over £240 for the fortnight.
However, homeowners worldwide can now find a housesitter for little or no cost using the matchmaking website TrustedHousesitters.com – provided they are prepared to put in the time and effort to choose and vet a suitable sitter themselves.
Launched late last year by a company based in Broadstairs, Kent, the website features detailed profiles of nearly 400 potential sitters and around 100-150 sitting assignments at any one time from homeowners around the world. Property owners and sitters pay a modest subscription to register, from around £10 for a month to £40 for a year’s membership, in US dollars. For this, homeowners can place secure listings and search for sitters, read reviews from other assignments, view references, photos, video profiles and police-check information.
Sitters, who include many retired professionals including police, vets, animal rescue workers and even an ex-FBI special agent, can upload their profiles and search assignments in up to 30 countries.
Current advertised assignments include petsitting in a 16th-century home with pool on the Isle of Wight, and in a mountain property in Galicia, Spain, and housesitting without animals to look after in an ocean-side villa in Mexico, in Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia, and in a remote beach house in Bahia, Brazil.
Registered sitters and homeowners can contact each other securely via the website if they are interested in a match. It is suggested they then use services such as Skype to communicate futher. Homeowners are advised to double-check their chosen sitter’s references and ask for a copy of their passport and police check. They should also check with their home insurer that their policy will remain valid while the sitter is staying there.
“What we offer is a win-win situation for both parties, which creates a different dynamic than a paid sitter,” says TrustedHousesitters.com founder Andy Peck. “It allows homeowners to personally choose who looks after their home and pets without expensive costs, and it offers sitters a great way to enjoy a low-cost, often luxurious retreat. Our research has found this usually creates lasting friendships and many repeat housesits, and that the trust and friendship factor matters a lot to our members.”
Case study: ‘I love seeing the varied landscape in the UK’
Erica Bower, who leads a nomadic lifestyle travelling around the UK in a motorhome, has been housesitting since the beginning of the year, when her father suggested she register with TrustedHousesitters.com, writes Jill Papworth.
“I love moving around seeing the varied landscape in the UK, and don’t like being pinned down in one place for long, so housesitting really suits me because it gives me a base for a few weeks at a time and the chance to explore,” says Erica, an ecologist and science writer from Gloucestershire.
“The highs are the freedom to go where I choose, the company of animals, being instantly dropped into a local community and living in far more beautiful houses than I could afford with almost zero living expenses.”
Since joining the website Bower, who has built up an impressive online profile with glowing references from satisfied homeowners, has been in constant demand and is now booked up until the end of 2011. “Every house I’ve been to has asked me back, and July is so busy I could have been booked up five times over,” she says.
She is currently sitting for a menagerie of animals including eight chickens in a six-bedroom house on the outskirts of Nottingham,. Bower has also done two sits in a cottage in the Cotswolds, and one in an old farmhouse in Dorset with three cats and a lovely garden. Future sits include a thatched cottage in Dorset and a converted 15th-century watermill in Essex.
When choosing an assignment, Bower goes for locations she wants to visit, often near existing friends, and only opts for homes with Wi-Fi, a garden to tend and room on the site to park her motorhome.
“Most of the time I live in the house, but some people like the fact that I bring my own bedroom,” she says. “
“Although I generally sit for free, I do ask homeowners to cover the cost of my fuel to get to them, and some will give me a bit of cash if there are a lot of animals to look after.”
Always keen to visit potential assignments and get to know the owner before taking them on, she says: “The nicest thing is that you make friends very quickly. In contrast to working for a housesit agency and having an employer/staff relationship, this allows the homeowner to choose the sitter and the sitter to choose the home, so there is synergy and it’s easy to become friends – you are both doing each other a favour.”
Though happy to stick with the UK so far, Bower is considering a few months in Australia this winter. “If I did want to travel the world, this would certainly give me the opportunity to do so,” she says.
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