Pet and Housesitting: See the world like a local

Antwerp’s beautiful Grote Markt

David and I did our first pet and housesitting gig two and half years ago, in September 2014. We loved it and have done quite a few more, often for the same people (and pets). We’re about to return to Antwerp, Belgium, for our fourth cat and housesit for a wonderful couple who have become friends over the past couple of years. We’ll be in Antwerp for six weeks in a great Dutch-style house with two terrific cats in a neighborhood we love in a city and country we love and love exploring. We know and like the neighbors, as well as our favorite local shops, restaurants and beer bars. Pet and housesitting is a great way to temporarily step into another life and lifestyle and really get to know a place, to be something more than a tourist. You take on responsibilities (that we take very seriously), but you also get a free place to stay and a truly special experience. We love interspersing our own travels with these stays whenever a tempting opportunity presents itself. We often use a housesit to kick off other travels in the region, too. After our upcoming Antwerp stay, we’ll spend a few weeks tooling around the Baltics before flying home. It’s a much easier and cheaper flight from Brussels to Lithuania than anything I could find from the U.S.!

For the pet owner, it’s a great way to let your pets stay in their own familiar surroundings and not subject them to the stress (and potential exposure to illness) of outside boarding. It’s cheaper, too! A home is safer as well when it’s not left vacant. Sometimes housesits are offered even when no pets are involved.

Coming “home” to pets is a bonus to us
These two are sweethearts!

House- and Pet-sitting sites we’ve tried and our conclusions:
There are several sites out there to connect house- and pet-sitters with people looking for them. We’ve subscribed to three: Caretaker Gazette, Housecarers and Trustedhousesitters. (You’ll find a 20% discount for our favorite here.) I received one positive response from Caretaker Gazette–our first foray into this world–, but found most of their listings to be for true caretakers: b&b, small inn, or farm managers or long-term live-in caretakers. [I had major doubts about the Caretaker Gazette after I received an email from a homeowner saying he hadn’t authorized the posting of his ad which he’d placed with another publication. We no longer subscribe and will not again.] Housecarers seems to be a reputable site, but is very heavily Australia-weighted, and I found its web site awkward to use and let the membership lapse.

We have been most happy with Trustedhousesitters.com, based out of England. It has worldwide listings, but the most numerous countries on the site are UK, USA, Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand. While there is still some room for improvement, overall their web site is well thought-out and easy to use. You can search openings without joining, but you’ll only see the newest postings if you join. This is important as competition is fierce for appealing locations. Owners are often swamped with applications. (The woman in Antwerp for whom we pet and housesit told me she got 30-something responses in the first day or so. Your vacation house in the south of France or on a Caribbean beach or your posh flat in London will be swamped with people wanting to pamper your house and pets.)

Creating your pet and housesitting profile:
Once you’ve paid your dues, create a profile introducing yourself and your relevant experience. Even if you’ve never been a house- and/or pet-sitter before, you’ve got experience if you’ve owned or cared for pets (or farm animals), been a homeowner, gardener, tended a swimming pool, etc. Be sure to post photos and any references. If you’re just starting out as a pet and housesitter, use other character references. We used the Executive Director of a charitable board I served on and a former law partner of David’s. We’d already had background checks done for our French resident visas, but you can get them done via Trustedhousesitters for added reassurance.

View of the Willamette River from the balcony of our first pet and housesit in Oregon

Getting your first gig:
Because it can be so competitive, you may want to start with something that might not be so high-demand. It doesn’t hurt to shoot for a week in Paris your first time out, but you might have more luck with something closer to home. Once you get a housesit under your belt and a (hopefully) positive review, you’ve got experience to bring to your next housesit and a budding resumé. Look, too, for listings where you might have an edge up. Our first pet and housesit was for a wonderful Oregon professor who was heading to an annual stay in Paris. My years as a Paris ex-pat caught her eye and our love of Paris is something we have in common. It didn’t hurt that she has two cats and David did years of cat rescue. People with horses will look for people with horse experience. Foreign language skills can come in handy; so can gardening and horticulture skills. I once saw a couple looking for someone with aquaculture experience. You get the idea. It also pays to scan the site frequently and jump on any new listings that appeal to you. If you’re the first to respond, you’re ahead of the game. The site has recently upgraded so you can see how many people have applied already. That’s a useful tool.

Owners will email and call to get to know you. Usually, they want to Skype, FaceTime, etc. It’s normal for them to interview several candidates before making a selection, although we’ve had them just say “yes” on the spot.

David cooking with cat in Oregon
…and cooking with cats in Belgium. He’s a popular guy!

Your responsibilities as a pet and housesitter:
Being a pet and housesitter isn’t just a free hotel somewhere. You’re staying in someone’s home and caring for a beloved pet. You’re there to take care of both. You should provide not only the basics for the pet(s)–food, water, exercise and “bathroom” needs–but also companionship and affection. If a medical issue arises, be prepared to take the animal to the vet. If unsure whether the condition merits veterinary attention, contact the owner if possible to find out their preference.

We pride ourselves on leaving the house as clean or cleaner than when we arrive. I like to keep any flower beds or flower boxes weeded and tidy, too, and will happily plant a few things, as well. Usually, the owner invites us to eat anything perishable in the fridge, but clarify that along with what spices, etc. are up for grabs. If we finish off something that would otherwise have been usable on the owners’ return, we replace it. Often, I set aside things that might get broken or spilled on (especially in the kitchen). I take photos of where items are when we arrive and try to put everything back just as it was when we leave. If there’s time prior to departure, we launder the sheets and towels. If there’s no time because of a quick hand-off (due to flights, etc.), we ask what the owners would like done. We offer to pick up groceries for the owners’ arrival and have cooked a welcome-home dinner on occasion. Just imagine what you’d expect and appreciate if it were your home and pet and do that. Get emergency contact numbers: for family, neighbors, vets, plumbers. Find out where the fuse box is and ask about any appliance quirks, etc.

Sharing my morning routine with one of our charges

Who usually pays for what:
For most pet and housesits, the lodging and utilities are free to the sitter. For some longer-term (multi-month) sits, the owner might ask the sitter to pay something towards utilities. Travel expenses are borne by the sitter. If private transportation is required, some owners offer the use of a car, but many do not so a rent car may be necessary in some locations. Factor in the costs before you commit to a housesit.

Staying long-term creates more opportunities to see local events

Things to think about:
We’ve only dealt with very nice, easy-to-work-with homeowners. Still, it’s only smart to do a little research. Read reviews. (They work both ways: owners review sitters and vice versa.) Use Google Earth to check out neighborhoods. Ask questions. You don’t necessarily need a contract (and I was an attorney by profession), but it never hurts to spell out your understanding in an email. At the very least talk about anything that might give rise to a misunderstanding before you accept the housesit. Trustedhousesitter does offer a housesitter agreement form, but it’s not intended to be a legal document.

When pets are involved, be sure you’re really up to the task. If you’re not comfortable with big dogs or horses, for example, don’t let a luxurious house or a dreamed-of locale tempt you beyond your capacity. Some pets require a lot more in-person time than others; think of a goldfish vs. a puppy. Be sure you can make the time commitment, and don’t expect to be as free as you would be on a self-paid vacation.

We fell in love with this big sweetie!

Once you commit to being a housesitter, nothing short of serious medical problems or death should keep you from showing up. Someone else is now counting on you to make their travel plans work, so don’t accept a housesit unless you’re 100% committed. The same applies if you’re an owner; your housesitter may be out pricey plane tickets and other expenses if you back out. The relationship depends on trust.

A 20% discount!
If you’re interested in giving Trustedhousesitters a try, you can use my referral link for a 20% discount. I’d really appreciate it since I’ll get an extension on my membership, too. Thank you in advance to anyone who uses the link!

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