When we posted our year-long travel budget, we were delighted to beat our target of travelling on £15/$25 each per day. However, despite seeking out the best deal on a cheap hostel wherever we went, it was clear where more money could have been saved - our accommodation costs comprised 36% of our overall spend.
We decided to speak with seasoned long-term travellers who find accommodation in a different way to us in order to save money or have a unique travel experience. This week, we caught up with Charlie - the talented lady behind Charlie on Travel - to find out more about house sitting.
Which countries have you house sat in?
We've house sat in the UK, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
What’s the fanciest place you’ve looked after?
All of the places we've looked after have been cool, but the fanciest place we've ever looked after was a yellow-painted mansion in a town near to Antigua in Guatemala. It was owned by an American man who had married his Guatemalan Spanish teacher. They had built the house themselves – an architect in the family had designed it, they'd bought a piece of land up on a hillside, and they set to work with the help of local tradesman. The garden was huge with all these kinds of different fruits that we'd never even seen before, let alone tasted, and the house itself was high-ceilinged with spacious rooms and balconies overlooking the surrounding volcanoes. Not to mention that the house had a full-time maid and a live-in guard come gardener.
How long after searching for a house sit did it take for you to get your first assignment?
It only took us a few months to find our first house sitting assignment, which we think is a pretty good length of time for a first sit. We didn't sign up to any house sitting websites but decided to go it alone. We set up our own house sitting website with some information about us and some photos of us looking after friends and families' pets in the past. We shared the link to our website on Craigslist and on some Facebook groups of expats abroad. We were really open with where we would travel to and planned to go anywhere that there was a good opportunity from some friendly home owners. We had some discussions with a lot of different people and it's important to always be open to talking about opportunities and negotiating dates to make them work for both parties.
In the end, we found our first house sit through Craigslist: it was for an American family living in Costa Rica. From then on we used similar methods and found assignments off the back of our references as well.
What are your tips for making your website or house sitting profile stand out to owners when you first get started and don’t have any references or experience?
Even with our own method of setting up our own website, you still need to be able to stand out from other house sitters, especially when you're new.
My advice is to include lots of pictures of you looking friendly and approachable and showing off how much you love animals. Pictures make a really big impression and it's likely that home owners browsing at your profile will take in the pictures first before they even get around to reading anything. When it comes to the text, include all the relevant information about where you're from, what languages you speak, your travel experience, whether you smoke etc. I'd also recommend using your family and friends for references – if you've ever looked after someone in your family's home while they were away, or lived with any of your friends, ask them to write up a quick paragraph about your character and how it went.
Do you plan your trips around pre-arranged house sitting assignments? If not, do you find it easy to find opportunities while you’re on the road?
Yes, mostly we plan around pre-arranged house sits. Usually we know a couple of months in advance of a house sit and that means that we can enjoy travelling around in between our house sitting assignments and make sure that we end up in the right place at the right time. We don't usually need to plan more than six months in advance though and because we work remotely we're really flexible with dates and locations as well, which means that we can often take up opportunities while we're on the road as well.
Living rent-free is obviously the big draw for house sitters. What else attracts you to it?
Absolutely, keeping accommodation costs down is a really big draw. For us, the other really big draw is that after weeks of backpacking and sleeping in hostels, you really start to miss home comforts. You want to sleep in a comfortable bed, cook your own meals in a kitchen stocked up with spices, talk to some neighbours and read a book with a cat sleeping on your lap. House sitting means that you don't need to give up travelling and being in a foreign country in order to get your dose of home comforts – and you can help someone else out in the process.
It's great to have time to recharge your batteries ready for your next trip, and also to have a decent wifi connection to catch up with family and on work commitments. Another aspect of house sitting that we love is that usually house sits are located in areas outside of the main cities and towns – areas which you might not otherwise even think to go and explore! Local areas often have great eateries and bakeries, local markets, and friendly people to get chatting to which is also ideal for practising another language.
Have you had any disasters with owners, properties or pets?
I wouldn't call anything a disaster but we've certainly had some challenges! House sitting in Central America is a totally different ball game to house sits in the UK or Europe. Central America is full of all sorts of other dangers – including deadly snakes, scorpions and porcupines.
Our worst moment was seeing a very poisonous snakes slithering past the porch of one of our house sits. We were looking after 11 dogs who were allowed to roam free in the jungle and sure enough a couple of days later one of the dogs came back with blood pouring out of his muzzle and two fang marks on his nose. We rushed him to the vets and he was injected with an anti-venom. It was a sleepless night, hoping he world survive – thankfully he pulled through!
On another occasion we woke up at 6am to the sound of four of the eleven dogs yelping outside our bedroom door. When we opened the door, they had porcupine spikes sticking out of their muzzles at all angles! It took us over an hour to pull out all the spikes, and we also had to call the vet over to help us with the biggest dog. They were all fine in the end as well.
People are obviously placing a lot of faith and trust in you. How much communication do you have with the owners before and during the house sit?
For example, if we were giving our house over to strangers, we’d probably want an interview on Skype at the very least.
A huge amount of faith and trust! It's really important to respect the wishes of the home owners when it comes to both the way they keep their house and how they look after their pets. Before the house sit, we'll email the home owners a couple of times and exchange photos of the pets and the home, and sort out dates. Once all the initial information has been given we'll have an informal interview on Skype as well. All home owners are different but most will want to have a phone call or a Skype call and we're very keen to do the same. The house sitter also has to trust that the home owner won't pull out or change their mind at the last minute, so there needs to be mutual trust here. In some cases, if we're in the local area, we'll also meet up with the home owner beforehand, but of course as travelling house sitters that's not always possible.
During the house sit, we speak with the home owners nearly everyday to send them quick updates. The type of communication we have depends on the home owners but usually we'll chat by email, Facebook or on Whatsapp. We like to send photos of the pets as often as possible and we sometimes send little videos too. The home owners really, really miss their animals while they're away and worry about them a lot, so this is a great way to reassure them. We also send updates on their health too, and if there are any concerns we always say straight away too.
Is there anything you ask the home owners before agreeing to the opportunity?
Every house sitting assignment is different and it's better to ask everything you can think of before agreeing to an opportunity. We always ask if there are any costs that they expect us to cover. Some home owners may expect electricity, water or gas bills to be paid by the house sitter; other home owners will pre-pay these bills or leave the money in an envelope for the house sitters to pay.
We usually also ask home owners to write out a short note with emergency numbers to contact them, another family member, a friend or neighbour in the local community, and the vet. It's also great if they can write out a note with any specific requirement for the care of the animals, such as their meals, walking times and any medications. We like to know in advance if there are any special requirements for the pets.
Do you ever feel like the responsibility of looking after the house curtails your ability to experience a town/place as a tourist?
Personally, we never feel this way. We really enjoy 'local travel' and absolutely love having a couple of weeks or even months to immerse ourselves in the local area, get talking to people who we see regularly and support local businesses. It's true that you always have to be in the house overnight which means that you can't venture too far, but we have travel gaps in between house sits where we explore areas further afield, and there are plenty of opportunities for day trips everywhere. Thanks to house sitting we've had incredible travel experiences, including a cooking class with a Guatemalan family, watching the World Cup with neighbours, visiting a macademia nut farm, seeing a coffee plantation, having Spanish lessons for a couple of weeks... I could go on. There's certainly no mistaking our broken Spanish and pale skin for being tourists either!
It seems like a fantastic option for budget travellers. Could you afford to travel as much if house sitting wasn’t an option?
House sitting is a fantastic opportunity depending on what kind of traveller you are. While some people love being in local places and a slower pace of travel, there are other travellers who get a buzz from whirlwind travel and don't mind sleeping in rougher hostels.
It's really important that travellers don't just see house sitting as a way to slash their accommodation and eating out costs because looking after someone's home and pets is a huge responsibility. You develop a mutual trust with home owners and breaking that trust is the worst thing you could do. Once you've committed to looking after someone else's home and pets there's no changing your mind if you're not so keen on the area. You can't just grab your backpack and go like you would be able to on the road normally.
As you say though, for us house sitting is a massive enabler. We'd certainly still be travelling even if we weren't house sitters but definitely having house sitting assignments has meant that our budget has lasted for much longer and that we've been able to travel for longer as a result. We don't get paid to house sit (we do it for free!) so we still have to work to sustain our travels as well, and we work hard at our freelance writing work when we house sit so that we have a secure budget for when we aren't house sitting as well.
Here at Along Dusty Roads, we find our house sits through TrustedHousesitters and are happy to recommend the site to anyone wanting to start their house sitting journey.