A couple of years ago, I decided to try something new. I would travel to a new destination – and stay a while.
While I travel several times a year, the trips are generally of short duration. I was tired, stressed, feeling that I was not being very productive in my work, and needing some time alone, away from the distractions of home.
Suddenly, I noticed a Facebook post by friends I had not seen in several years. They were going to travel in Africa for a month, and were looking for suggestions for a house and dog sitter.
Two months later, I found myself in a beautiful heritage home in Stratford, Ontario, with a canine roommate named Nell. While she was initially unsure of me, we became great friends. And while I was initially unsure of myself and how I would find a way into this fascinating, culturally-rich community, it couldn’t have turned out better.
I learned a number of things from this adventure. Here are my tips for safe and successful solo house-sitting.
- Get instructions in advance. In this case, the homeowners were extremely well prepared and had created a manual that covered everything I needed to know about the house and the dog. Make sure to familiarize yourself with all of the information in advance and seek clarification for anything that is not entirely evident.
- Arrive a day early (or set up a meeting sometime in advance) to meet the homeowners and have them show you around. Questions may occur to you as you tour the property that wouldn’t otherwise. It also provides an opportunity for them to show you little things that will make your life easier – how to fiddle with a finicky lock or where to find that oddly placed light switch.
- Get contact information for someone local to call in an emergency. What if something drastic happens and you suddenly have to return home? What if you lock yourself out?
- Keep all emergency information in one place for the duration of your stay, so that you don’t have to go searching for it when you really need it quickly.
- If caring for pets, clarify with the homeowners whether you are required to be with the pet every day, or if there is the possibility of occasionally accessing a back-up pet sitter. In my case, I needed to take a train to another city once a week to attend a class. The homeowners arranged for a neighbor to pick up and return the dog on those days.
- Determine in advance the rules around having guests. This is pretty straightforward. In my case, the homeowners didn’t mind if I invited friends to stay with me, but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, so I kept it to an absolute minimum.
- Research the area before you go, so that you will have some idea of the things that you want to explore, and so that you will have the ability to plan ahead for some events. I was very fortunate to arrive in town in time for a culinary festival. Stratford is also home to the world-famous Stratford Festival, which features stunning productions of Shakespearean plays, among others. Because I was (temporarily) a local and had lots of flexibility in my schedule, I was able to access very inexpensive, last-minute tickets. In one month, I was able to see The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, and Taking Shakespeare. What a treat!
- Visit the local tourism office to find out about attractions, restaurants, and events taking place while you’re in town. They can also provide you with a map of the area, which I found really useful in terms of understanding the layout of the city. I popped into the Stratford Tourism office several times for advice.
- Hang out at coffee shops. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops when I’m on my home turf, so it’s only natural that I do the same when I travel. It is easy to strike up a conversation with staff or other patrons, and people generally love to talk about their town. Find out what locals love about the area. I became a regular at an espresso Bar within walking distance to the house, which, in addition to having delicious Americanos, was always full of friendly customers and staff, and had a great view of the Avon River.
- Send the homeowners an occasional email if they have asked for it, or are able to receive it. I occasionally posted photos of their dog on Facebook so they could see that she was happy and well.
- Meet the neighbors. Have the homeowners introduce you, if possible. The most wonderfully helpful thing that the homeowners did for me was to arrange a dinner party before they left, so that some of their friends could meet me. This accomplished two things: it made me feel comfortable in the knowledge that there were people I could call upon if I needed anything, and for the homeowners, it meant that there was an added level of accountability for me, as now the people nearby knew who I was and why I was there.
- Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want the homeowner to find out about. This includes the obvious – don’t turn their home into party central – and the less obvious – don’t undo the work they have done in training their pets. I may have slipped a little on that last one. Although I followed her feeding and care routine to the letter, I may have allowed Nell to sleep at the foot of my bed a few times. Well, come on. Just look at her!
- Always lock up when you go out, even for a little while, even if you don’t do so at home, and even if the homeowners have told you it’s not necessary. You would not want anything to go missing on your watch. Likewise, make sure that you understand well the security system or locking-up details before you find yourself alone in the home.
- Be safe. All of the same principles of solo travel safety apply to house-sitting. By all means, get out and meet new people, but don't tell strangers exactly where you are staying, and don't invite new acquaintances to the home.
- Take the dog to the spa. If it’s feasible, have the pet groomed before the owners return. Because there had been a lot of rain, and the dog and I had taken a lot of walks, she was not the snow-white fluff ball at the end of the month that she had been when I arrived. A quick trip to the doggie salon fixed that.
- Re-stock the refrigerator with the types of items that were in it when you arrived. Pick up at least enough food for the owners first meal when they return.
I would absolutely do this again. House-sitting offers you the chance to truly live like a local as you travel. I made new friends, had interesting cultural experiences, enjoyed the companionship of a pet (something my normal lifestyle does not permit), explored a new destination in depth, and had plenty of time for contemplation.
Here is an article with additional tips for both the sitter and the homeowner: Free Accommodation: House Sitting Tips for Sitters and Home Owner.
I have not personally used any of these sites, but you may want to review some of them to get an overview of the resources that exist:
Have you tried house-sitting? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.