George Halliday looked across the bay from their spacious Spanish villa, waiting for his wife Sandra to get dressed for a night on the town. The sun was setting and the sky was a flaming, brilliant red.
“Wow, wow, wow,” exclaimed George as he walked in from the balcony. “This place is unbelievable! Since retiring, we’ve done more traveling and seen more places than we ever imagined. This house sitting concept is certainly an exciting way to see the world.”
“We couldn’t have managed on our budget,” replied Sandra, throwing a light shawl over her shoulders. “Spending $200 a night on accommodations, not to mention the cost of eating out three times a day, would have quickly drained our retirement fund!”
The Hallidays are part of a growing travel trend known as house sitting. After retiring—George was a pharmaceutical sales rep and Sandra worked as a lab technician—they were eager to change up their lifestyle. Their three kids were now raising families of their own close to where they were raised.
A few years ago, George and Sandra’s lives were centered on their family, home, cars, monthly bills and retirement goals. Fortunately they were both in good health when they retired two years ago and decided to move to Florida to enjoy the warmer weather and a simpler lifestyle. But they soon became restless with all the free time they had available. They were eager to travel but the unstable economy and their small pensions put a damper on where they could go.
How things changed! Now they were spending four months in Valencia, a small city in Spain overlooking the Mediterranean, and having the time of their lives. The best part was doing it without draining their retirement account.
Welcome to the world of house sitting!
House sitting: Traveling on a budget
House sitting has become a booming trend and it’s not just Millenniums who are capitalizing on this craze. House sitting—and pet sitting—has quickly become a fashionable way for baby boomers to explore the places on their bucket list.
A recent study by the Global Coalition on Aging revealed that 59% of retirees look forward to a holiday but end up not going because of the high cost of travel, especially accommodation and meals. Unless you’re a hardcore backpacker, or willing to stay in cheap hostels or hotels, travel is an expensive adventure. Spending hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms and dining out two or three times a day can quickly add up. But by exploring the benefits of house sitting, more and more retirees are finding comfortable accommodations with all the convenience of home. This age group now makes up a large slice of the house sitting community.
House sitting is simply an arrangement between two parties: the homeowner, who is looking for someone to care for their home (and quite often their pets) while they are traveling, and the house sitter, who agrees to take care of the home and pets in exchange for using the house. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Most often, no money is involved.
This exchange of service is not new. For centuries people have used family and friends to mind their homes and pets while they went away. What is accelerating the trend is technology. No longer restricted to finding someone local, websites are matching home owners with house sitters worldwide.
“I started house sitting six years ago,” said William (Bill) Darnell, a 60’ish freelance writer from Canada. “But it was mostly in the Toronto-area because I wasn’t aware of opportunities elsewhere. Now I travel the U.S., Canada and Europe house sitting.”
This peer-to-peer model is part of the “sharing economy” used by such businesses as Uber, AirBNB and the multitude of dating sites. Technology has opened up a world of possibilities.
Darnell is just one of thousands of fellow travelers from around the world who meet up with potential home owners and house sitters online. These websites provide a forum where home owners and house sitters can meet, post their needs, share profiles, home listings, references, and in some cases, rate each other. Whether you’re young or old, an extrovert, introvert, luxury travel enthusiast or a seasoned backpacker, it’s easy to find your match.
House sitting websites charge registration or membership fees that can range from $25 to $125 per year. Most have secure messaging systems to protect privacy, post blogs and articles, and provide advice and experiences. Some sites send email alerts whenever a new house sitting opportunity is posted.
Establishing trust is a big issue in house sitting and websites do their best to scrutinize their members, but it’s up to the users to vet their matches which is done through emails, texting, Skype, phone calls and meeting in person.
“In most cases, by the time I arrive for the house sit I know the home owners quite well,” claims Darnell. “And in a few cases when I just didn’t connect with the person, I declined the opportunity. It’s not unlike dating!”
Boomers just catching the trend
While house sitting is a global trend, most of the websites are based in the U.K. and Australia where the trend is well established. As a result, most house sitting opportunities are based in Europe and Australia with the U.S. and Canada far behind. A new website, The House Sitters Network, with a focus on house sitting opportunities in North and South America was recently launched by house sitting veterans, Luke Vorstermans and Linda Ryan.
“A lot of house sitters we spoke with were frustrated with the lack of available housesits in the U.S. and Canada,” said Ryan. “There is a large market here, and also in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. After all, this is our backyard, where Americans and Canadians are most likely to travel. We also have the convenience of using our vehicles to get around which is issue when you travel overseas.”
Culture obviously plays a part in the trend. Europeans and Australians tend to be more trusting with letting strangers housesit than Americans. The responsibilities of home ownership and lack of planning are also at play. However the most influencing factor is that workers in the United States receive fewer paid annual leaves and paid public holidays than most of the other developed countries in the world. Conclusion? Americans just don’t have the same amount of vacation time as Europeans and Australians.
But with the baby boomers now retiring in droves, there’s plenty of time for traveling. “We’re just waking up to the benefits of the house sitting trend, so we’re a little behind,” says Vorstermans. “But with the fragile economy taking a bite out of their retirement savings, house sitting provides an attractive way to make it happen. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
The couple started house sitting eight years ago when they wanted to spend a month in Costa Rica but were strapped down with a large home, yard, dog and a cat. A friend suggested getting a housesitter to take care of the home front.
“It was a great experience for both parties,” said Ryan. “We were free to travel and our house sitter used the time to finish writing her book.”
Since retiring last year, they have been house sitting in Western Canada and down the Pacific Coast. Next year they’ve accepted a three-month housesit in Portugal, a country high on their bucket list.
Recently while hiking in the Joshua Tree National Park in California, they chatted with a retired lady from the Netherlands who asked them to housesit her home while she traveled to England for a month.
“There’s a synergy that happens,” says Ryan. “You plan. You put certain housesit dates in place and something like this comes along. It’s a fascinating lifestyle. Some of people we’ve met will be life-long friends.”
The lure of travel in other countries
Tom and Nora Jones, a retired American couple in their early 60s, had always wanted to travel to England. But they quickly realized that traveling to their dream destination would cost them a fortune. They found a simple yet effective solution to their woes when they decided to housesit.
“England is an expensive country for a holiday. We wanted to see London, Liverpool and Manchester among many other cities,” said Nora. “However, Tom and I have moderate incomes and we couldn’t afford to stay in hotels with all the other accommodation costs.”
They joined a house sitting website and quickly found an opportunity to housesit in London for three weeks.
“Not only did we manage to look after the house and dog, we were able to explore the other cities we wanted at a fraction of the cost,” said Nora. “It gave us a taste of what is possible on a small budget.”
Molly Evans and her sister, Denise, found their first house sitting assignment in Costa Rica. They housesat for a Canadian couple who owned a summer home in Tamarindo. The cottage was located a kilometer from a pristine beach and the main market. It was a great experience for the sisters as well as the homeowners.
“We were skeptical at first,” mused Evans who is in her early 60s. “But with this experience under our belt, we’re keen to housesit again. It’s so much more relaxing than staying in a hotel or resort. You feel like you’re part of the local community.”
Not all house sitters are drawn to the free accommodations. There are plenty of retired people who can definitely afford to stay in hotels but would rather the comfort and security of a house sit.
Tyler Brown, recently retired from a 40-year sales career, was looking forward to exploring the world. “When I was in my 20s, I backpacked around the globe. After retiring I was more than ready for another adventure. But when you’re in your 60s, you seek a comfortable, homey environment.”
Like many travelers, Brown was never a big fan of hotels and resorts. But at his age, backpacking wasn’t an option either.
“I like to live on my own,” said Brown, “Room service and complimentary breakfasts don’t interest me.”
After hearing about house sitting from his brother, Brown decided to look into it. At first, he had some trouble finding a home in Seattle, but he eventually landed a great house sitting job.
“You don’t always find what you’re looking for. Some homeowners want a couple or someone who will also look after their pets,” said Brown. “It takes time but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find the perfect match!”
House sitting isn’t always a piece of cake
House sitting is often called a ‘win-win’ situation. While it has perks, it certainly isn’t for everyone.
Some house sitting gigs involve looking after pets. A few months ago, Trudy and Ben Williams signed up for a house sitting job in Florida. They had dreamed about sun-kissed beaches and margaritas but instead, they ended up looking after a very active dog. Neither of them had much experience with animals and while their holiday wasn’t completely ruined, it was rather stressful. The lesson learned was to better know the full details of the housesitting job.
“Housesitting isn’t for everyone,” says Vorstermans. “A competent house sitter needs to adapt to new situations easily and quickly. Homeowners want someone who will look after home and pets in the same manner they do themselves.
“While it’s hyped as free travel and accommodations,” says Vorstermans, “You’re actually doing a job. And with any job there are expectations. House sitting is no different.”
It’s easy to see why house sitting is such a big hit with baby boomers. It is a beneficial arrangement for both parties. It gives homeowners peace of mind and enables retirees to travel and explore without emptying the retirement account.
“What I like best is traveling in a way that serves me,” says Ryan, “I like living and eating like the locals. It feels like you’re part of their community.”
For a generation that redefined society, boomers are also very comfortable pioneering this new lifestyle.