House sitting on the beach in Panama

House sitting on the beach in Panama

The word is getting out: house sitting is a great way to see the world and keep your budget down. I’ve done a few interviews talking about house sitting and I always warn that you should have a backup plan. You don’t seem to see anything but positive comments on the subject so I wanted to address the downside of house sitting.

I’ll begin by offering up some advice that you should consider before accepting the assignment. First, if you read the ad and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably best to listen to your gut. However, there can be some pretty creative writers out there and you won’t know until after you arrive that something is wrong. Here are some suggestions on how to figure out if the house sit is right for you:

1. Google map the location to see where it is. Although you won’t have the exact address unless you contact the owner, they often give the name of the town. Some ads will say they’re near a city but you find out that it may be 15 miles from it on the map. You might not have a car so I always ask or map how close a grocery store is. If it’s not within walking distance, I see how far the bus stop is from the house. Often, this decides for me before ever looking into anything else. A lot of people will tell you if you need a car or not. Bonus if they have a bike you can use but not so great if it’s a mountainous area!

2. Do they show photos of your room, the bathroom and the kitchen? You’d be surprised how many people don’t have photos at all. You should always see where you are going to be spending your time and what condition it’s in. If you do contact the owner, don’t be afraid to ask for them.

I did a sit in the U.S. once and found the apartment to be very dirty and the complex crawling with drunks and drug users. The photos were pretty vague on the listing and I should have asked for more. Although it’s hard to tell exactly how clean things are in a photo, sometimes it’s blatantly obvious. The sit just got worse after finding out that the two dogs (one was a big dog) used a large sand pit out back to do their business. It took up almost a quarter of the patio and it wasn’t a big courtyard. It was in the dead of summer in Arizona and the stench was horrible. No matter if you cleaned it a couple of times a day, the urine soaked sand just reeked all the time.

3. Once you’ve made contact and both parties seem interested, find out exactly what is needed and how many animals (because there will usually be animals to look after) you’ll be taking care of. Ask if there are certain time schedules you need to abide by and how long you can be away from the house at any one time. I had another sit where they didn’t tell me the dog expected to be fed around 4:30 in the morning until after I arrived. A friend of mine ended up being stuck with 4 other animals that she wasn’t told about until after she arrived. It’s a good time to ask about the grocery store too. I’ve found that sits I’ve done in Australia and New Zealand, some owners are more than happy for you to use their car while they’re gone. Don’t count on it though.

4. Speak to each other through Skype or telephone. I believe that a video conference is actually the best way to get a feel for someone. I had a strange feeling about one sit I took while Skyping but I went through with it anyway with a bad outcome. If anything feels wrong to you, it probably is. This could even be a good opportunity for them to walk around with their laptop or tablet and show you their home.

5. Don’t take on a sit if there’s someone else in the house. Let’s face it, personalities clash sometimes and you don’t want it to happen if you’ll be stuck there for a long time. I had a sit once where the son (who was older than me) lived at home and he was going to be there even though the mother was going away. He worked all day and couldn’t take care of the animals. This was supposed to last for a month but he became combative when I told him I wasn’t there to do his dishes and clean up after him. He then he made my life a living hell. I talked to the owner and luckily they were able to find someone else even though I was willing to put up with it if they hadn’t. I’ll never put myself in that situation again. I hated to back out of a job but after finding out he was going through my personal belongings and possibly using devices to spy on me, that was all I could take.

6. See if they have any reviews on the site or references by people who have done a sit for them before and find out if it’s ok for you to get in touch with them.

7. Once I’ve made contact with the owner, I google their email address and name to see what comes up. Googling the house address, not only to find exactly where it is, but any other information that comes up is helpful. Some public records will say who owns the house which is always good to match up with. Some people need a sitter because they don’t want anything stolen from the house. Try to find out if it’s in a high crime neighborhood.

The reason for having a backup plan comes from a nightmare sit I arrived for and ended up not doing it because of a mentally disturbed owner who was convinced I didn’t like dogs. She was one of these people who believed the dog was her child and probably didn’t trust anyone to take care of it. I was left stranded in a country I had never been to and in an uncomfortable situation within the home for a couple of days. I was expecting this sit to last about 6 weeks and I didn’t have a backup plan. Luckily, I was able to find a help exchange situation which lasted almost three months.

On the flip side, I’ve talked to owners who have had bad experiences with the sitters. One woman came home to find the place trashed and the people still there acting like nothing was wrong. Someone else found a bunch of people in the house staying there without their permission. This is where being a little older will work to your advantage as a sitter. I wouldn’t want to hire a 20 something to look after my house, nor do I want to do a sit for a 20 something either.

Another thing that isn’t discussed on the house sitting sites is the fact that some countries don’t want you to house sit on a tourist visa. Even though you’re not getting paid for it, they still see it as ‘working’. There are special visas for things like that (which can also include volunteering or help exchange work) so check with the country you’re going to and decide whether you need a special visa or not. The only way immigration is going to know if you’re doing a house sit is if you tell them.

Finally, be sure that both parties have emergency contact numbers. Tell at least one person, if not two, where you are house sitting with the address, name and phone number of the owner. Also, be sure the owner of the house has your friends or families contact information should anything happen to you. You can also find or make up a document which is an agreement for doing the sit. This would include instructions, warnings, vet phone numbers, emergency contact numbers, etc.

I’d like to promise you that every house sit you do will work out just fine, but the more you take on, chances are something will go wrong. It’s not the end of the world and you will get through it, just keep your safety and standards in mind before jumping into anything. With every house sit, you learn a little more and it’s a great way to travel and get free accommodation. Good luck out there!

Do you have any personal experiences you’d like to share about house sitting? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

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  • Andrea Reply

    Excellent post! You should try to get this published elsewhere it is so good. I cringe to think of all those horror stories you went through, and survived!

    • Steph Reply

      Thanks! I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while now so I’ll give it a go and see if anyone is interested in it.

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