15 Secrets About House-Sitting from People Who Travel the Globe for Free

published Jun 26, 2024
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House-sitting for most people means staying at a neighbor’s house when they’re out of town, watching their pets, and bringing in the mail. It’s a few straightforward tasks in exchange for cash at the end.

But, for some savvy travelers, house-sitting is a way to travel around the world while not only saving money but earning money, too. There’s a group of nomadic workers who’ve realized that house-sitting allows them to leave the normal trappings of a mortgage and rent behind and, instead, leverage others’ homes to always have a place to stay — and, often, a furry friend to hang out with.

What Is House-Sitting?

House-sitting is when someone essentially babysits a house while the owner is out of town. That person will get the mail, bring in packages, water plants, and make sure the house stays safe and sound. In many cases, there are pets involved, and the house sitter will also serve as the pet sitter. They’ll feed the pets, walk them, take them out — anything that keeps the household and pet happy is fair game. In exchange, the house sitter receives payment that includes a place to stay.

House-Sitting Tips from Experienced House Sitters

Of course, house sitting becomes even more appealing when the opportunity to stay at an incredibly cool property or travel to a far-flung destination comes up. And that’s exactly what these six experienced house sitters have done to travel the country and the world. Here’s what they had to say about how they started house-sitting, where they find their jobs, how they stay safe, and all the secrets that have made their house sitting adventures successful. 

1. You can live on less. 

Kelly Kandra Hughes, PhD, has spent the last eight years traveling and house-sitting full-time, including stays in Taos and Colorado, as well as a long-term arrangement in Connecticut. After she became burned out from academic life, it dawned on her that house-sitting was the answer to traveling more and focusing on income less. 

“I love animals, and if I didn’t have to pay for living expenses like rent/mortgage and utilities, the amount of money I would have to earn in any given year would be significantly less,” Hughes says. She and her husband left their lives in Nashville behind and hit the road. They plan on settling down this fall in Colorado, but the house-sitting arrangements worked for nearly a decade.

2. Try to find repeat house-sitting experiences. 

For full-time house sitters, finding long-term and repeat clients can help make house-sitting viable. Hughes has gone back to clients in Colorado, Chicago, and Connecticut repeatedly, and she even counts the distinction of dog mother among her titles now. “A lot of [the people we house-sit for] become like family and we stay in contact with many of them, exchanging texts, postcards, and holiday cards throughout the years,” Hughes says.

3. Be ready to pick up and go. 

A few local house-sitting gigs turned into a way to travel the world when Jen Frisbie, a residential interior designer, and Jay Radner, a freelance communication strategist and certified wellness coach and running coach, got an intriguing request through a friend’s colleague. They needed a house sitter to watch their home and two kittens for six weeks in Hawaii. They were on a plane in no time, and, two years later, they’re still traveling the world watching homes and pets.

4. Know that you might not be racking up savings. 

While you’re not spending money on housing, that doesn’t necessarily mean house sitters are padding their savings accounts every month — especially if they’re using it to see the world and experience their destinations fully. 

“We really haven’t seen any cost savings by house-sitting full-time. Instead, the money we would have spent on rent and utilities goes to airfare, trying out restaurants and bars in new locations, and sightseeing,” Frisbie says. But she points out that it’s worth it since they’re getting to see so many more places and not spending any more money than they would have staying in one place. 

Credit: Lana Kenney

5. Prepare for the quirks of living in someone else’s space. 

When you’re house-sitting, you’re living in someone else’s home. It’s not an Airbnb. It’s not a hotel. Frisbie explains, “Some people keep their homes really clean and organized; others not so much. Not everybody has the kitchen appliances you need or want. And beds can be incredibly firm, taco-shaped, or otherwise not conducive to sleeping. It’s not up to us to change anything.” She recommends asking lots of questions up front to determine if it’s the right fit.

6. Make your house sits mesh with your personal schedule. 

Just because you’re house-sitting doesn’t mean your personal life and needs go out the window. Barbara Palmer, a workplace leadership consultant and founder, has spent the last 13 months traveling full-time, but she’s planned that around her own schedule. “I planned to be in certain parts of the country during certain months based on seasons, but I had some flexibility on dates and within the region,” Palmer says. “I also needed to consider proximity to airports for any business travel, which somewhat dictated my journey as well.”

7. Tell everyone about your travel hopes — and let the opportunities arrive.

Palmer cast a wide net in the hopes that house-sitting opportunities would head her way — and they did. “In Whidbey Island, I house-sat for my college roommates. An opportunity to house-sit in Sonoma while the owners were in Europe came through a former colleague. I spent time at a home in Sedona that was owned by a coworker of my sister-in-law. I house-sat for two months in Charleston while friends were on an around-the-world cruise. Tell everyone you know, and tell them to tell their friends!”

8. Be prepared to do some work. 

House-sitting is not renting a home — there are responsibilities. Palmer explains that there will be a to-do list, and that’s part of the job. “Your to-do list may mean being at the house while a handyman is doing work, watering the plants, looking after pets or parents, or otherwise.” She advises understanding and discussing the obligations up front and before you accept the stay. 

9. Know that house-sitting can allow you to experience a place differently. 

Lisa Munniksma is a writer and farmer based in Kentucky who has used house-sitting as an opportunity to travel everywhere from Alaska to Croatia. She dove into house-sitting after chatting with someone who had used it to make the digital nomad lifestyle work. She house-sits part-time as a more immersive alternative to traditional stays.

“I have found house-sitting as a means of travel to be so much more rewarding than staying in a hotel or Airbnb. Particularly when there’s a dog involved that enjoys walking and hiking, being rooted in a place rather than being in a nondescript hotel room or an Airbnb with no connection to the community around you doesn’t begin to compare,” Munniksma says. 

10. Always have a video call before you agree to house-sit. 

For Munniksma, who emphasizes that while house-sitting is an affordable way to travel, it also requires more effort. She always wants to chat face-to-face with owners before committing to a house sit. She explains, “Twice recently, I didn’t feel like I clicked with the homeowner during our call, and I was able to follow my instinct and pass on those. That has as much to do with safety as it does with personality.”

11. Be prepared to travel places you may never have thought to otherwise. 

Caitlin Boylan is a Portugal-based travel writer who also runs an ESL company and has house-sat across the U.S. and Europe. House-sitting has gotten her outside of the normal tourist spots, including a summer along the Costa del Sol in Spain, time in the French countryside, and a week in Oxford.

Boylan says, “My favorite thing about doing it is that you often end up in smaller places where you wouldn’t have thought to go or stay had you just been ‘traveling normally.’ And, of course, all of it for free! I’ve also been lucky in that a lot of hosts have given me a vehicle to use so I’ve been able to explore the areas further.”

12. Look for homes that will make you feel at home.

Boylan also points out that you should look for stays where you’ll truly get to feel at home. “You have a full kitchen, you have a comfy couch, you have Netflix. It always feels much more livable and welcoming than a hotel or even a vacation rental. And you have a pet to cuddle!

Credit: Photo: Sidney Bensimon; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

13.  See if pet sitting is your way in.

Jean Norton, an Austin, Texas-based freelance business consultant and cat sitter, had always wanted to travel to Thailand. And, as someone who’s traveled the country and world by house-sitting in her retirement, she finally found the opportunity via a cat-sitting gig. 

“This was a three-bedroom villa with a pool and a home of Australian expats,” Norton says. “They were very kind in sending a driver to pick me up to get to their home, and in addition they allowed me to visit with them for stopovers as I explored the other areas of Thailand.” Norton found that there’s no limit to the amazing destinations she could visit while cat sitting.

14. Look at the reviews homeowners give to other sitters. 

Just like vacation home renters, house sitters are under constant scrutiny for their reviews. Each five-star review is proof that a homeowner can feel safe leaving their best friend in the care of a stranger. Norton recommends getting a few local reviews under your belt first. “Even if you do some free or low-priced sits locally, do it. Those reviews are critical,” says Norton. 

But she adds that you should also look at the reviews each pet owner or homeowner gives to their sitters. “If they seem to be very picky or consistently unhappy with the sitter they had, I will most likely turn down the sit,” she says.

15. Prioritize consistent communication with the homeowners.

“Understand the pet owners’ fears and anxieties,” Norton says. “As a traveler, my anxiety level was always high leaving my animals home alone, not knowing how they are doing. Having this common connection with the pet owners makes it easy for them to be comfortable with me, and me with them.” She keeps the lines of communication open and sends pictures daily to help ease their fears.

The Best Sites for House Sitting Jobs

Does house-sitting sound like your golden ticket to travel the world? While there are Facebook groups and word-of-mouth to find gigs, most of the house sitters reported using two websites to find their jobs.

TrustedHousesitters is one of the most popular websites, and it’s one that has the highest volume of house-sitting jobs. However, Boylan points out that MindMyHouse is less saturated with potential sitters, so it’s easier to find jobs when you’re starting out with fewer reviews.

And, sometimes, you need to figure out your unique value proposition to send yourself to the top of the pile. “I have a load of horse experience, so I was able to get a foot in the door by booking sits that have horses first and starting to get reviews,” Boylan says. Think about what makes you different and put that front and center on your profile.