Family housesitting: a how-to guide

Many families have been asking how we got started with housesitting, and while there are a lot of resources for individuals and couples, there isn’t a lot of info out there on family housesitting. When we were starting out, I would have loved to have a very detailed guide, rather than piecing together what little info I could find. So, here’s the how-to guide I couldn’t find for families thinking about getting into housesitting!

Are you sure you want to housesit?

Before you put all the work into getting started with housesitting, you might want to think about whether or not housesitting is a good fit for your family. It’s not for everyone. Here are some of the pros and cons of using housesitting to provide travel accommodations.

Pros:

  1. Free accommodations
  2. You have a whole house/apartment, including kitchen
  3. Animals!
  4. It often takes you to places you wouldn’t have thought to visit
  5. Meet new people

Cons:

  1. Getting started can take a lot of work
  2. It can be difficult to get a sit when/where you really want–flexibility is a must!
  3. Time investment–have to be willing to search frequently, as new sits pop up every day
  4. Lots of rejections
  5. Animals–not everyone wants the responsibility of caring for animals while on vacation
  6. Nothing is ever a certainty–unlike paid accommodations, homeowners can cancel on you at any time (we’ve never had this happen to us, but I’ve read plenty of horror stories)
  7. You are in someone else’s home, which can sometimes make you feel on tenterhooks, especially with kids

Pros deconstructed: Looking at the pro/con lists, at first glance it appears that the cons win. For us, though, it’s about quality, not quantity.

1) As full-time travelers, having no-cost accommodations is very important. It means that every once in a while, we can decide to splurge on something we otherwise couldn’t (like tickets to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London!).

2) We like being in an actual home, versus a vacation rental. It’s typically more comfortable, and feels more like home to us.

3) We love animals and enjoy caring for them.

4) Housesitting has taken us to places we never would have known about or thought to visit, often places that aren’t touristy, so we get to know the local culture much more than if we were in a hotel or vacation rental.

5) The people! We’ve met some of the most wonderful people through housesitting–homeowners, neighbors, friends. It’s allowed us to make connections we otherwise couldn’t have made.

Sámara, Costa Rica housesit
Barbara and Enrico (and Nemo the dog, of course!) are some of the friends we’ve made through housesitting. We housesat for them in Sámara, Costa Rica for almost 3 months.

Cons deconstructed:

1) Getting started with housesitting requires both money and time. Not a ton of money, but quite a bit of time.

2) The flexibility piece doesn’t work for a lot of families. If you have only certain days when you can travel, or if you prefer to choose exactly where you travel to, housesitting is probably not for you. Families, especially, can’t be very choosy with dates and locations. The popular times and locations (think the coast of Spain in summer) usually have dozens of applicants, and realistically, it’s unlikely a family with kids would be selected. Also, if you need to know where you’ll be next month, housesitting may not work for you, as many sits are arranged in the month prior to the sit. Our most last-minute was when we were asked if we could start a sit the following week.

3) It can take up a lot of your time. When we are looking for a housesit, I often check housesit listings every day. Especially if we are looking for specific dates or regions. For example, when we were needing some Mexico housesits, which are often very competitive, especially between November-February, I checked the listings on multiple sources every single day. I applied for any and all sits that we were interested in and thought we might be suitable for. Which brings me to…

4) Rejections! We book about one in every 10 sits we apply for. Many times, the homeowner doesn’t even acknowledge our application, and just rejects it outright. You have to be ok with that and not take it personally, knowing that there are a lot of sits that families just aren’t suitable for.

5) The animal care involved in a housesit varies widely, depending on the number and type of animals. There are a very small number of sits without animals, but they are extremely competitive. Many people don’t want the responsibility of animal care, and that’s ok, but that means housesitting probably isn’t the right fit.

6) There’s always the possibility the homeowner could cancel, even after you’ve made travel arrangements. This is rare, but if it would ruin your trip, you should think about whether housesitting is right for you.

7) Kids can be messy. Sometimes, they break things. When you are caring for someone else’s home, this can be stressful. You have to be willing to replace or repair broken/ruined items, including dishes, sheets, toys, etc.

So you want to housesit: how do you get started?

This is the most frequent question I get asked. I’ll share what worked for us, including some of the best advice we got, which made all the difference in our housesitting success.

Choose your platform

There are many ways to secure housesits, and there’s no one best platform. You have to do your research and decide which is best for you, taking into account where you want to sit. Most of them fall into two categories: paid online platforms and Facebook housesitting groups.

Fuegoleño restaurant in Puebla, Mexico
Sam and Gary, our homeowners from Puebla, Mexico took us out to Gary’s amazing new restaurant in Cholula, Fuegoleño! We found this sit on a Facebook housesitting group.

Paid platforms typically have more sits, more variety, and more recourse should a sit go sideways for whatever reason, due to member agreements and terms of service. They also tend to be more reliable, since everyone on there has paid to be there. We chose to become members of TrustedHousesitters, which has sits worldwide (you can get 25% off a one year membership by using this link; full disclosure, we get two free months’ membership when people sign up with our link). It’s one of the largest online housesitting platforms, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Some of the other online platforms are: (worldwide platforms) Housecarers, HouseSit Match, MindMyHouse, Nomador; (Australia only) Mindahome Australia, Happy House Sitters; (UK only) Mindahome UK; (USA only) Mindahome USA; (Mexico only) HouseSitMexico. There is also HouseSitSearch, a “clearinghouse” type site where you can search many different housesitting platforms at once. This can be helpful when you’re trying to decide which platform to join, because you can see what’s available in the areas you are interested in.

We are also members on HouseSitMexico (HSM), but have never managed to secure a sit there, despite having Mexico resident green cards, having the same profile info as on TrustedHousesitters (THS), and applying for LOTS of sits. My conclusion is that it boils down to the types of homeowners who are on the different sites. HSM homeowners are largely retired expats from USA and Canada, many with large, beautiful homes, into which they aren’t comfortable bringing children. THS certainly has homeowners who fall into this category, but it’s so much bigger and has much more variety that there are suitable sits for everyone. Do your research, and try not to waste money on platforms that aren’t well suited to families, like I did.

Facebook housesitting groups are usually region-specific, though a few are worldwide. Members of the groups do agree to certain terms, but there’s really no recourse if anything goes wrong. People tend to be more flighty, often posting sits just to gauge interest, even when they don’t have confirmed travel plans. There are a very small number of available sits posted in these groups. That said, we have secured successful sits via Facebook, so I wouldn’t discount it altogether. A quick search on Facebook for “housesitting” will bring up these groups, and there are so many that I’m not going to list them here.

Build your profile

Now, you have to build your profile. Most of the paid platforms have lots of advice and tips about how best to market yourself to homeowners. Take their advice! No matter which platform you decide on, there are some basics you should include.

Photos: Include as many photos as the platform allows. Make sure you include photos of the kids with animals, as well as a few photos that show off your personalities. You want to be professional about it, but you also want to make them fun!

Write-up portion: Include lots of info about your experience with animals, both individually and as a family. Be specific. Be honest. Don’t be generic. This is the most “job application-y” part of your profile, but at the same time, you want to make it personal. Talk about why you want to housesit. Discuss your work, your hobbies, and what you like to do for fun. Don’t include anything controversial, and try to give people a glimpse into who you are.

Background verification: Many platforms have different levels of background verification. You probably don’t need to spring for the highest level of verification, unless you really want to, but don’t skimp on this, either. It gives homeowners peace of mind to know that you are who you say you are.

References: If you’re just starting out, this is critical. If you’ve ever cared for a neighbor’s, friend’s, or relative’s pets, or even just their home, while they were away, ask them if they would be willing to write you a positive reference. If you haven’t done this, get a reference from a boss, or someone you’ve volunteered for, or anyone else who can vouch for your reliability. If your kids are teens, get references from their teachers, coaches, scout leaders, etc. If your kids have volunteered in animal shelters or other animal-centric organizations, get a reference. You could do this for younger kids if you want, but I think it’s more useful for older kids.

Time to start applying for sits

Here’s where the best piece of advice I received comes into play: START WITH SITS IN YOUR HOMETOWN! I can’t stress enough how helpful this was for us. If you have your own home and are only looking to housesit occasionally, this could be inconvenient for you. Especially if you have your own pets at home. Do it anyway.

Families have a much harder time securing housesits, especially families with no on-site reviews from other members. Sitting in your hometown allows homeowners to meet you before they commit, helping them feel more comfortable hiring new sitters.

When you apply for sits in your hometown, be honest in your application about your intentions. Acknowledge that you are new to the platform, while pointing out your excellent off-platform references, which you’ve included in your profile. Let the homeowner know that you are trying to build up your profile, and that you’re willing to meet with them in person.

You’ve secured your first sit!

You’ve gone through all the prep work, and have been hired for you first sit! It is CRITICAL that you get a glowing review from your first sit. If you have no other reviews, you need that first one to be 5 stars, or the odds of securing a second sit aren’t good.

Listen to your homeowner. Read any and all info they provide you with. Ask questions about anything that’s unclear or not mentioned. Ask them how often they would like to hear from you. Some homeowners like frequent check-ins, others prefer to be left alone unless there’s an emergency.

Go above and beyond. This should go without saying, but really put forth your best efforts. If you’re supposed to walk the dogs daily, don’t miss a walk. If they’ve asked you to mow the lawn, don’t let it get overgrown. If you see a job that you can do around the house, do it, as long as you’re certain it would be helpful. For example, at one of our sits, a shelf fell off the wall while we were there. It wasn’t our fault, and we hadn’t done anything to make it fall–the support brackets just got weak and it fell. We could have left it there and let the homeowners deal with it when they got home, but we were perfectly capable of re-hanging the shelf, so we bought a new bracket and did it. It wasn’t a big deal for us, and the homeowners didn’t have to come home to an urgent home project after two months away!

Leave the home in AT LEAST the same condition as when you arrived. We strive to leave every home in better condition than when we arrived. If it’s already very clean, maybe you can straighten up the dishes in the kitchen cupboard or dust some shelves that they don’t get to very often. If you’ve ever been a homeowner, think about the things that you always planned to get to, and never seemed to find the time for. Now, look around at your housesit, find one or two of those things, and do them. And, of course, deep clean the entire house before your homeowners return. Nobody likes to come home  from a trip and have to clean house.

If you can get at least three local sits with excellent reviews before you need to start applying for others, do it. More is always better, but three is a good minimum threshold for showing off your family’s consistently great housesitting services.

If it’s not possible for you to get sits in your hometown, try for anywhere that interests you. Try to apply somewhere you can meet with the homeowner in person before they have to make a decision.

Family housesitting in Guanajuato, Mexico
We never would have come to Guanajuato if it weren’t for housesitting, and it’s been one of the most interesting and beautiful cities we’ve been to!

Where to now?

Apply for any sit you are willing and able to take, even if it’s not your ideal. As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to get a LOT of rejections, especially in the beginning, so you can’t be too picky. Hopefully, you’ll eventually be able to build your profile up to the point where you can take your pick of sits, but right now, take what you can get.

When applying for sits, always write a personal message. Tell the homeowner why you’re interested in sitting for them, emphasizing your experience with the kinds of animals they have. If you don’t have experience with a particular kind of animal, let them know that you are willing to learn. Tell the homeowner more about your family, and give them a glimpse into your family life. End your message by inviting them to Skype chat with your family.

If you aren’t excited about a sit, don’t apply for it. While you don’t want to be overly choosy about your sits, you also don’t want to apply for sits only to build your profile. If you don’t like cats, don’t apply for a cat sit. If you don’t like snow or cold, don’t apply for a December sit in Canada. If you don’t think you could do a great job for any reason, don’t apply. If you’re not excited about a sit, it will be much harder to do a good job, and that won’t work well for anyone.

Video calls are your ally. As soon as you hear back from a homeowner that they are interested in talking with you more, ask to arrange a Skype/FaceTime/other video chat. This gives the homeowner a chance to get to know your family better, and vice versa. It gives you a chance to ask questions of the homeowner, as well, such as about Internet speed (critical if you work online like we do), transportation needs (do you need a car or is public transport readily available?), how many beds/bedrooms they have, any special needs the animals may have, etc.

Go with gratitude. We head into every housesit with grateful hearts. We recognize that every homeowner is entrusting us, essentially strangers, with their home and their beloved furry family members. They are taking a leap of faith in hiring us, and we consider it our duty to pay back that leap of faith by taking care of their home and animals as we would take care of our own. Every homeowner who hires us is helping us show the world to our children, and we are grateful to them.

Family housesitting in Sámara, Costa Rica
Nemo at the beach!

The bottom line(s)

For families who are willing and able to be flexible about their travel plans, housesitting can be a great way to travel without having to pay for accommodations. It requires more work than booking a hotel or rental, but for the right people, that work pays for itself in new friends, free accommodations, exploring unexpected locations, and, of course, animal snuggles!

If you have questions about family housesitting, or if you have more suggestions for other families trying to get started in housesitting, drop a comment below!

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