October 31, 2014 by Christina Hamlett
You’ve put a vacation hold on the mail and newspapers. You’ve purchased automatic timers so that lights go on and off in different rooms. You leave a radio on. Maybe you invite a neighbor to park their car in your driveway so it looks like someone is home. You might even give that same neighbor a key for periodic checks that nothing is amiss. Still…
Another scenario is if you have a beloved pet that either doesn’t like to be boarded or requires a special diet, medications and lots of exercise. Who are you going to call so you can take off on your trip and not be in a state of stress the whole time?
For the past two years, Debbie McClure (aka The Rambling Writer) and her husband Wayne have found a way to not only embrace their enthusiasm for travel but also provide a diverse clientele with the peace of mind that their hearth, home and Fido are in good hands.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What originally ignited your interest in doing professional house sitting?
A: As with most house/pet sitters, my husband and I raised several family dogs and cats to old age, but once the last pet passed away, and with our five children all grown and gone, we began to house/pet sit for family members just to help them out. The second thing that ignited the fires in my brain was the fact that I’ve always wanted to travel and see new places from a live-in, as opposed to resort, perspective. However, with little extra funds to indulge the dream, I began to think that kind of travel was out of our reach. Then I heard about this house/pet-sitting thing, I don’t even remember where, and checked it out on-line. The more I read about it, the more intrigued I became.
Q: Do you advertise your house sitting services or do you belong to an organization that filters requests and makes assignments?
A: We don’t personally advertise our services, but we do belong to several house/pet sitting organizations (see below) that do the initial filtering and listing of assignments. It’s really a great way to get into this venture, since the organization’s websites come chock full of useful tips, contract templates, and of course, sitter profiles and assignments from around the world. It simplifies everything so much and is very comprehensive!
Q: So what are some of the common responsibilities of house and/or pet sitters?
A: The obvious one for assignments that include pets is the primary care for any residing animals. The homeowner provides detailed instructions as to the care of the animals, routines, information regarding vets and local emergency contact names/numbers, etc. Then there’s the normal daily routines involved with looking after a home; watering plants, cleaning the pool, maintaining hot tub (as needed), keeping the home clean and tidy, collecting mail and newspapers (sometimes even forwarding mail to homeowners for extended house sits), snow-removal when and where necessary, and acting as in-house security. This last one is a major component, since just having the daily presence of people and cars deters would-be intruders or vandals. In fact, most people don’t realize that if their home is vandalized, broken into, or damage occurs for any reason, over an absence of more than two weeks without regular checking, some insurance companies will NOT cover the loss, and you can’t always depend on family and/or neighbours to do the job adequately for you.
Q: There are obviously pros and cons associated with the responsibility of watching someone else’s possessions while they’re away. What are they?
A: Needless to say, house/pet sitting is a major responsibility that’s to be taken very seriously. As a house-sitter, you have to be prepared to deal with emergencies, weather conditions and, of course, security. It’s vitally important that you respect the home-owner’s property and instructions to the letter. Inviting unapproved guests is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed up front, so if you are planning to have company during an extended house-sit, you’d better clear it with the homeowner first. In some cases, the home owner will ask that you not enter certain rooms, or private areas, and again, this is extremely important. If something gets broken or damaged due to your own neglect or accident, you may be held liable. That’s what the contract is for; to spell out the liability and responsibilities of both parties. When house and/or pet sitting, you are also limited to how much time you can be away from the pets and home, since they are your primary responsibility. You can’t just go off on a jaunt for six to eight hours if the pets aren’t used to this much alone time. We’ve also had to deal with pets that became ill, or required emergency veterinary treatment, and then were responsible for administering medications to the pet for the duration of the stay until the homeowner’s return. In other words, treat the home and pets as if they were your own, within the direction of the homeowner. Those are what most house-sitters would consider minor cons.
The pros far outweigh the cons, as far as I’m concerned. The ability to travel to new destinations and stay in a residence for free is huge, since one of the major cost factors involved in travel is accommodation. We’ve stayed at some truly wonderful homes, with locations and views that blew us away. We’re able to indulge our love of animals on a personal level, and live as a local during our stay, which is wonderful. Our only expense is what we choose to spend on travel or sight-seeing, etc. We do not pay for utilities or rent during even extended house sits, although some do. The reason we don’t is because we feel the value of the service we offer the home/pet owner far exceeds the cost of utilities and/or partial rent. Try sending your poor pets to a local kennel and see what the cost would be, and/or hire someone to come check on the house even every couple of days for you, provide security, shovel the drive, water plants, feed the animals, and so on, and tally up those costs. We know our value and integrity as house/pet sitters, and that’s what we bring to the table.
Food is a wash, since we pay for our own food whether at home or on a house/pet sit. We’ve also made some wonderful new friends with homeowners whose paths we would never have crossed before, and have discovered that homeowners who invite house sitters are often very educated, intelligent individuals who also share a love of animals and travel. This makes for ideal common ground.
Of course, house/pet sitting isn’t for everyone. There has to be a strong element of trust and mutual respect for what each party provides, but it can be a real win-win for all concerned.
Q: How about the pros and cons for the homeowners involved?
A: The obvious pros are that the homeowner is rest assured that their beloved pets and home are cared for by someone with experience in both home maintenance and pet care. Bringing in a house/pet sitter means that pets aren’t subject to the trauma of having to live in a kennel, other strange animals, or becoming severely stressed by change in routines while their people are away. It is also the most cost effective means of ensuring both the pets and home are cared for during absences. In fact, many homeowners and pet/house sitters become quite friendly, resulting in repeat visits. We’ve done this one two occasions already, and the homeowners love knowing who they’re inviting into their home in advance.
The cons are that you absolutely must have a strong level of trust for the house/pet sitters. You know they’re going to live in your home, use your kitchen and bathrooms, sleep in your beds (we bring our own linens, pillows, towels, and mattress covers). You have to trust that they will care for your beloved pets in a loving manner, and that in an emergency, will ensure the best level of care for your pet possible. You also have to trust that the house/pet sitters aren’t there to rob you, or damage property, abuse the facilities, or smoke and drink excessively in your home while you’re away. Like us, most sitters are non-smokers and very light drinkers, but it’s up to the homeowner to ensure rules, regulations, expectations, etc. are dealt with up front. If you’re a suspicious person to begin with, you likely won’t feel comfortable having live-in house and pet sitters.
You must also be very sure of your pets and their ability to adapt to strangers. They must be friendly and approachable and, of course, house trained, since no pet-sitter wants to encounter unfriendly or poorly trained pets. This would only spell disaster on all sides!
Q: This raises an interesting question about insurance and liability issues. What do you and your homeowner clients do to ensure that both parties are legally protected during the term of the stay?
A: Most homeowners require a signed contract with the house sitter, especially if it’s someone they’ve never used before. The contracts can be drawn up on your own, or the house/pet sitting on-line organizations all also provide free contracts that can be downloaded, printed, and signed. Not everyone feels the need for a contract, but many do. The other thing a homeowner can do is request a recent police check from the house sitters. We’ve never had to provide one, and they’re really only valid for six months or a year after the date of issue, and can be a costly expense to the sitter.
The other thing a homeowner really should do is ask for references, and then follow up with the references via phone or Skype. This provides some direct feedback from other homeowners who’ve used the sitters’ services in the past. We provide references both on the websites we’re associated with, and on request, along with contact names and numbers. We’ve never had a homeowner refuse to provide a reference for us, but if this is a sitter’s first assignment, the homeowner could ask for a reference from a boss, someone else they’ve sat for before, or other impartial person.
Q: Who pays for what? For instance, do you buy all of your own groceries?
A: Yes, we pay for all our own groceries and expenses while on assignment, and NEVER should a sitter consume any of the owner’s liquor, unless expressly invited to do so. Depending on the travel involved, and prior arrangements, some, all, or none of the travel expenses to get to the assignment may be reimbursed by the homeowner. As I said before, some homeowners ask sitters to pay for all or some of the utilities and “rent”, but we haven’t gone that route, as I explained above. Again, this is completely up to the homeowner and the sitter. When it comes to pet care, the homeowner pays all costs related to pet care, including food and vet bills. In the case of an emergency that would require an outside professional, (i.e. plumber, electrician, etc.) the homeowner pays for these costs as if they were present in the home. Often the owner will provide a contact number for either themselves or someone else they trust who could assist the sitter in making decisions regarding the hiring of outside professionals or veterinarians before incurring these costs. The truth is, there really are no hard and fast rules. Whatever works for the parties involved is what works.
Q: Years ago a colleague of mine offered to stay in a coworker’s condo while the latter was away on an extended business trip. On the first morning, she accidentally locked herself in the garage. To make matters worse, she was only wearing a towel. Although she had the automatic garage door opener in her unlocked car, this posed the question of what she could possibly do next given the fact she had never met the neighbors, had no identification, and the phone number to reach her coworker was inside the condo. Have you ever had anything equally alarming happen on any of your own house-sits and, if so, what did you learn from it?
A: Lol, that sounds like quite an interesting scenario! No, we’ve never run into that issue, thankfully. The best way to get around that problem is for the homeowner to provide the sitter with the names and contact numbers of the neighbours, but also notify those neighbours that a housesitter is going to be in residence during their absence, including the length of the absence. It’s also up to the homeowner to notify the neighbours of the name(s) of the sitter, in case of emergency, and encourage them to make the sitter’s acquaintance. At the very least, each will have the other’s name, or at least be aware of each other. Where possible, the homeowner should also leave an extra key with a neighbour or other trusted person the sitter can contact. One of our homeowners even notified the local police (it was a very small town) of the nature of our residence and gave them our names, in case of emergency. We thought that was brilliant, since in small towns, everyone knows everything!
Q: What do your family and friends think of you travelling to unknown areas to house/pet sit for strangers?
A: At first, they thought we were insane! Our children worried we’d encounter axe murdering, psychopathic homeowners, or at the very least, arrive at some decrepit, scary old house filled with unfriendly dogs and hordes of cats out in the middle of nowhere. My 87 year old father-in-law in particular still finds it difficult to understand why anyone would want to travel to an unknown destination to look after someone else’s pets and/or home! He continually asks us what we’re being paid to do this. He just doesn’t get it. Once we explain it to most people though, they’re intrigued, and support us, though they still usually think we’re a little strange.
Besides, we assure family and friend that before we commit to any assignment, we do at least one phone and/or Skype interview with the prospective homeowners, converse multiple times through email, share information and pictures of the house/pets, etc., and generally get a good sense of who we are, where we are, and agree on the dates, terms, and conditions of the housesit, so there’s much less chance of us arriving unprepared. In fact, we’ve made some wonderful friends and visited some fabulous locales we probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise!
Q: Describe your most interesting house sit to date.
A: Hmm, good question. I’d have to say our most interesting sit to date is the one we’re on currently. We were contacted out of the blue by people we’d sat for previously, asking if we could do a last minute sit. They have five animals we truly enjoyed the last time, so we agreed immediately. However, the homeowners had moved since we last saw them, and they had to leave a couple of days before our arrival. Their son, whom we’d met previously, would look after the animals until we got there, which was fine. This meant that we were going to show up at a house with no homeowner present, and hadn’t even asked any information about the house before our arrival. It turned out to be a fabulous house sitting atop a hill with incredible, private views. What a pleasant surprise! And the animals greeted us very well, except for the smallest, who took a few minutes to warm up after her avid barking on our entering the house.
Then about a week into our two week visit, one of the dogs developed a “hot spot” on his rear end. We knew from experience that these areas could become infected very quickly, so determined we should take him to the vet the next day. Thankfully, the son stopped by to say hello that night, and we showed him the problem area on the dog. He agreed the vet was needed. The next day we called the vet and attended at the appointment. I was nervous about what kind of vet bill the owner would be incurring, but knew there was no other option (the owners were on a cruise and unreachable). When the vet led the dog back into the room, she’d shaved a huge area of the dog’s behind, which looked terrible! I was shocked and dismayed at the sight, and worried about how the owners might respond to their dog’s appearance on their return. In addition, the vet handed us a bottle of pills to be given; 3 pills, twice a day, and a spray to be administered to the shaved area. Oh, and a cone for the poor dog’s head! Now, this is a big, big dog, and with the shaved butt and cone on his head, he looked a sorry sight indeed. Over the course of the next week we kept the dog with us constantly when we were in the house, kept the “cone of shame”, as the son referred to it, on his head most of the time to prevent excessive licking of the affected area, and administered the pills to the dog. I gotta tell you, no way, no how does he want those pills, no matter how we tried to hide them in meats, cheeses, etc. On the other hand, the other two dogs claimed it as “treat time”, and gathered round for their “treats” too. This meant giving all three dogs twice daily “treats”. Thankfully, after a few days, the affected dog got used to the cone, since at first he stood like a statue when we put it on him, refusing to move an inch! All in all though, we were glad to be here to help out and keep all the animals as close to normal routines as possible. In talking with the homeowners by phone, they thanked us profusely for stepping up to the plate on this one.
Q: Have you ever had a really bad experience house or pet sitting for people you don’t know?
A: We never have, no, but I’m sure there are many out there who have. I guess it all comes down to listening to your own instincts when interviewing prospective homeowners, asking as many questions as possible upfront, being flexible enough to go with the flow, and being open to new adventures. A lot of this housesitting gig is all about attitude and expectation, but more than that, preparation and communication!
Q: Have you ever been asked to return to a house sit by a homeowner?
A: Most definitely. We’re on one now in Kentucky that we sat for a year and a half ago, and are returning for a month and a half sit for people who are actors and travel frequently across Canada. The beauty of the return assignment is that everyone already knows the rules of the game, we all know each other and the expectations, and there’s far less guess-work involved. We genuinely like and respect these owners, and always look forward to connecting with them again.
Q: Is house/pet sitting something that’s only available in Canada and the U.S. or are other countries involved?
A: Not at all! House and pet sitting is available globally, with Australia, the UK, France, Spain, and Italy taking top honours beside Canada and the US for providing numerous housesitting assignments. That’s the beauty of this whole thing; the world is open to those adventurous enough to take on the responsibilities. It can be a big city, or small, remote village, on or off-grid, a mansion, or tiny cottage, animals or no animals. It’s an open game where people all over the world trade services and share the responsibilities of home and pet care, travel to new destinations, and meet like-minded people. We love the vast opportunities presented to us as house-sitters!
Q: As a professional writer, what are the advantages to house and/or pet sitting?
A: As a writer, I typically require only a strong WiFi connection to work with. I take my laptop and write from wherever I am, so I’m not limited to working from my own home, which frees me up to travel wherever I choose. One of the other advantages is that it forces me to think outside the box if I want to travel as much as I do on a limited budget. It provides me with the opportunity of opening up a world of places, experiences, and people to meet, all of which help me in my writing. After all, life’s experience is what fuels a writer’s imagination and each of these experiences teaches me how varied and interesting other people and places are. It gives me food for thought and fodder for my writer’s imagination when writing stories and developing characters.
In addition, when and where I want, I can also do book tours in areas we’re staying at, which is great exposure for a writer! Another area I’ve thought about, but haven’t fully investigated yet, is travel writing or blogging, since we’re being exposed to such interesting new areas that are often off the beaten path of regular tourist destinations. Then of course there’s the possibility of going on a housesit to an area I intend to write about in one of my novels. The in-depth, personal research possibilities would be ideal!
Q: Do you have a website where readers can learn more about your work?
A: My husband and I are registered with three separate housesitting websites, Trusted Housesitters, House Carers, and Mind My House. Each provides a detailed profile of us, along with references. For those interested in learning more about housesitting, check each of them out, and read the many interesting blogs, stories, profiles, and newsletters on each site.
Q: Do you think that house sitting will ever factor into one of your plots?
A: I’m sure it will, since we’ve been doing about 2-3 housesits a year! My husband works seasonally at a local golf and country club for now, but once he officially retires in a few years, I’m certain we’ll be doing more assignments and in different locales around the world, as time and money allow. After all, I’m being exposed to so many interesting scenarios, how could I not?
Q: As a house/pet sitter, do you ever get a chance to do regional sightseeing? If so, which city have you enjoyed the most?
A: One of the greatest advantages for housesitting is the ability to do regional sightseeing, which we love. Much as we love the beauty of Kentucky’s vibrant, rolling hills and incredible horse farms, and wonderful diversity of our own Southern Ontario, I’d honestly have to say Charleston, South Carolina has been our favourite to date. We both love history, and with its genteel southern charm, Charleston welcomes visitors to explore the past, walk cobbled streets lined with grand old manor homes, bask in the sun, or dabble toes in the sand of it’s many beautiful beaches.
Q: Which city/region is on your wish list for a future house sit?
A: I’d love to go back to Charleston, but California and Florida are on my wish list too. Then, I’d give my eye teeth to travel overseas to my father’s birth place of England, the setting of my first two novels, and my mother’s homeland of Denmark, the setting of my next novel. Australia has also long been a desired destination, and so many others I couldn’t name them all here. Of course the further the travel destination from Ontario, Canada, the longer time I’d want to really experience and explore the area, so extended assignments of three weeks or more might be necessary. I also have family I’m close to in both England and Denmark, so house/pet sitting in those countries would be a wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time with them, while at the same time perhaps research for my next book project.
Q: What celebrity would you most like to house/pet sit for and why?
A: Hmm, Rachel McAdams perhaps. As a fellow (local) Canadian, I’d love the opportunity meet Rachel and ask her some questions about her journey from small town girl (I have family who know her family) to top movie actress. I’ve also heard she’s still a very down-to-earth person, and that’s important to me. I don’t do phoney, and I don’t do conceit. I have no idea if Rachel has pets, but hey, if she’s looking for someone to help her out, I’m in!
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you or the house sitting business?
A: Clearly it isn’t for everyone, and you have to be willing to step outside the familiar and embrace change. It means being adaptable, and having an honest desire to not only do what you want, but sincerely and respectfully help others who are looking for your type of service. It challenges you to experience other ways of life, other cultures, and be open to learning about people and places. If you go into it with a “what’s in it for me” attitude, you’ll be disappointed, and not very successful. It isn’t for someone who doesn’t already have a source of income, since most house sits are unpaid, or without the ability to travel (car, passport, etc.). It’s for people who are adventurous, with a love of travel, and a love of the animals they’re brought in to care for.