MMy partner Nick and I stayed at a farmhouse in a village in the Cotswolds last Easter. We read books, enjoyed lunch on the patio, and took long walks on footpaths among the canary yellow rapeseed fields. With an Aga, original artwork and an ensuite bathroom with clawfoot tub, this limestone villa would have cost thousands to rent – especially over the Easter holidays. But we stayed for free in exchange for looking after the owners friendly cocker spaniels, a long haired cat and the baby hamster while the family went skiing in the Alps.
We landed this amazing breakthrough through Trusted Housesitters, a website that matches owners with sitters worldwide (membership £99 for one year). House Sitters UK offers a similar service but only covers this country (£29 per year). Given the state of the economy, it’s not surprising that companies offering home care services are booming this year. Trusted Housesitters saw a 130% increase in new members compared to 2019, and owners posted more than double the number of UK sitter requests.
We discovered Trusted Housesitters in the summer of 2013 when Nick quit his job and we decided to leave our flat in London and travel for a while. Money was tight so we had to get creative and decided to try house sitting. We created a profile detailing our pet, garden and household experience, posted it along with upbeat photos of us among the poppies in Italy and crossed our fingers.
We didn’t have to wait long. We were soon contacted by Rachel and Frank, who were desperate for a break from their small farm in County Wicklow, Ireland (and may have been persuaded to work as a Jillaroo on a sheep farm in Australia). We were greeted by excited German shepherds and introduced to their hens, ducks (who produced fresh eggs every morning), pet sheep and a tabby cat named Bruiser. Sunny days were spent with the dogs – picking plump blackberries, walking in the Wicklow Mountains and swimming among seals at Clogga Cove. We were hooked and realized that housesitting could help us travel on a budget.
The sits included a three storey townhouse in London and a lakeside pad in Montreux, Switzerland and we ended our year caring for two Labrador crosses at a farmhouse on the Isle of Lewis. It was a magical journey: we explored the atmospheric standing stones of Calanais, picnicked on wild beaches where Vikings once landed (and where we witnessed a whale carcass being eaten by ravens) and watched porpoises leap out of a crystal clear sea .
Almost a decade later, we’re still sitting in the house. Nick is training to be a teacher and we live across the UK and sometimes abroad over the school holidays when accommodation is at its most expensive (and house sitting needs are greatest). While it’s reason enough to get free vacation rentals, housesitting has other benefits. It’s fun to spend time with different animals with all the comforts of a home away from home. You can also get to know the neighbors – even in London. While caring for a cat in Golders Green one August, we were invited to dinner by the lady next door (an intriguing literary agent) and ended up sitting on her wide-eyed kitten the following spring.
Exploring what’s on your doorstep can lead to amazing travel experiences. Like when we lived on a small farm in Sussex and discovered the Knepp Rewilding Project. During a visit we discovered baby storks in nests in the oaks and the rare crimson emperor butterfly and treated ourselves to a bottle of the estate’s sparkling wine.
We’ve done weekends and month-long outreaches, taking care of pets ranging from a budgie to an adorable pair of rescue donkeys, but mostly dogs and cats. With constantly attractive profiles coming online, housesitting can be addictive. I still get a buzz when we land a free stay at an incredible place. One of these was a 12-bedroom Edwardian mansion in Devon, with three golden scribbles to play with in the wooded grounds. It’s also a wedding venue and we slept in the romantic bridal suite for three weeks.
Housesitting is no ordinary vacation, however, as taking care of pets and country homes can be stressful. On rare occasions, house sitting is just that, but usually the focus is on pet sitting – and most owners like to be kept informed of their pets’ welfare. And, of course, dogs get scrapes (like the terrier pup that swallowed the bandage on his ailing leg), cats go missing (and are luckily found meowing on a rooftop), and some animals have problems – like the rescue dog that keeps changing turned on the spot when a car drove past. It’s also competitive – to get five-star ratings (a gateway to the best sits), you need to take care of your pets as if they were your own and go the extra mile. Our hosts return to an immaculate home with flowers, a thank you card and a home cooked meal in the fridge.
With a stronger desire to escape the big post-pandemic smoke, we’ve booked five housesits this year alone. To save even more pennies, we’ve chosen locations that are a few hours’ drive or train ride from our London home. What I loved most was 10 days with two black cats in a stone house straight out of The Holiday on private property near Marlborough in Wiltshire. Not only did we have cats for company, horses galloping, and red kites circling overhead, we also had a neighbor who took me to a crop circle and taught me how to make crabapple jelly.
People talk about enjoying a home away from home, but this way we can secure a place that’s usually bigger, fancier, prettier, or in a nicer location than our own home—all without paying a dime.