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A little while ago, when I decided I wanted to live on my own and calculated the exorbitant amount of rent I would be paying for a one-bedroom apartment, I toyed with the idea of professional house sitting. Free accommodation and zero bills, the opportunity to live in neighbourhoods all across the city, looking after cute dogs – everything about it sounded appealing.

Others agree. Google “house sitting Australia” and agencies upon agencies pop up, offering to set up potential sitters with homeowners in need of a temporary resident.

Ruth Myers and her husband Malcolm own and run Happy House Sitters, one such online agency, which they opened in 1999. On average, they’ve had a 20 per cent increase in the number of homeowners using their site every year since then.

“We’ve got about 40,000 people on our books all up, and that number is quite fluid. We actually, overall, have more owners on our books than sitters,” Ms Myers says.

A house sitting job can range from several days through to 12 months, with six to eight weeks being the average.

As for sitters, they fall into several categories. There are “grey nomads”, who sit while travelling the nation, and those in need of short-term accommodation because of a change in life situation. Ruth Myers estimates that about a third of her house sitters fall into another category: young people who are saving for their own place.

“We’ve got a significant number of young couples who are on our books who are saving for their first home, and we’ve got some really lovely stories of people who have written in, telling us that they’ve been able to achieve that by house sitting for a little while.”

Cameron Young, a 31-year-old lawyer based in Brisbane, falls into that group. He started house sitting while living in London. A friend put him in touch with Ian Usher, an English author and public speaker who auctioned his “life” on eBay in 2008 following his divorce. Mr Young’s job was to look after Usher’s property on a remote island in Panama, and the position introduced him to a network of house minders.

After house sitting all around the world for four years, Mr Young and his fiancee Tara settled in Brisbane last November, and have been looking after houses there ever since. They’re currently staying in a house in inner-city Ashgrove, caring for a chihuahua.

“Every month or so we change house-sits and we adopt new pets and a new postcode,” Mr Young says.

“Now that we’re back in Brisbane and working full-time, we only really consider properties that are within cycling distance to the CBD. We like to move around and explore different suburbs, but limit ourselves to the inner suburbs.”

While the couple loves how house sitting lets them try out a range of neighbourhoods, look after pets and meet new people, ultimately the decision to adopt this lifestyle was financially motivated.

“We don’t just save the rent money; we save on electricity, on water and sewerage, on internet, on having a fixed phone line,” Mr Young clarifies. “That money that we don’t spend, we’re banking it to buy our own place and, when we do buy our own place, we’ll know exactly where we’ll want to live as we will have lived just about everywhere in Brisbane.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Alana Collins, 32, a psychologist in Melbourne who house sits with her partner Steve through agency Aussie House Sitters. They started sitting to make back the money they spent while backpacking last year, and are also putting their savings towards a house deposit. So far, they’ve lived in Williamstown and Richmond, and are due to move to South Yarra and Black Rock very soon.

“One of the great things that has happened for us out of one of our house sits is that the owners have also had holiday houses, and have asked us to check on them and mow lawns and told us we could stay there,” Ms Collins says. “When I told people at work over Easter, ‘we’re going to Sorrento [on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula] and we’re staying at this place’, they thought it was amazing that we got to do that and it didn’t cost anything.”

While the advantages of house sitting are numerous, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of. House sitters can’t leave the house they’re sitting for extended lengths of time, ruling out weekends away or holidays for the duration of a sit. They also have to travel light, be flexible, and regularly say goodbye to places and animals they’ve become attached to. Individuals who enjoy routine and predictability may struggle with the lifestyle, as might those who prefer a lot of freedom.

For those keen to try it out, though, here are a few tips. First of all, those who don’t like animals need not apply.

“I’d say 90 to 95 per cent of the places we look at, pets are the main reason they’re getting a house sitter in,” Ms Collins says. “If you’re going to do it, you need to love pets, and be experienced with them.”

She also recommends having a “base,” somewhere – such as a family member’s place – where you can stay between jobs and store your belongings, and getting a police check, as most homeowners will request one.

After applying for a position, a homeowner might request a face-to-face interview, which is where personal compatibility comes into play. In Mr Young’s words, “people can tell straight away if they like you and if you connect with their pets”.

Registering with an agency will increase your house sitting opportunities, as will a well-written profile. Happy House Sitters charges $59 annually to register as a sitter in a particular region, and $99 to register Australia-wide. At Aussie House Sitters, the fee is $65 per year. Homeowners advertise their houses for free.

As for Mr Young and Tara, they have big plans for when they give up the sitting gig and buy a home of their own: “we’ll be inviting all those homeowners and fantastic pets over for a big barbecue to say thanks”.


Posted by Erin Munro – The Age on 27th April, 2015