House Sitting an Employment Option for Seniors

Consider this:

If you are a senior or a pair of seniors trying to make it on a fixed income and in need of more money, why not give some thought to house sitting? If you are not afraid to travel, to stay (perhaps alone) in a strange house, strange neighborhood, strange city, and need perhaps an extra $500-1,000 a month, you might be a candidate for house sitting.

Your work may consist of simply keeping an eye on the house (perhaps for a neighbor), staying overnight or for a weekend, or being away from home for a month or longer. A computer or a helpful friend or relative is a necessity, as you need to be able to pay your bills, etc. while you are away. House sitting certainly isn’t for everyone – you need to examine your needs and the level of comfort you need to maintain in your life before getting into this business. It’s a big responsibility, taking care of someone else’s house.

How I got into it

Back in the late eighties, and the early nineties, my older sister JoAnn spent most of her time away from her home (and husband), doing house sitting. Her first job was for an acquaintance, a lady she knew from church. She stayed for a week and loved it. This lady told her friends and neighbors, and in no time, Jo found herself booked nearly all year around, most of it within 60 miles of her home. She made a lot of new friends, a little money and enjoyed herself greatly. I was married at the time and not employed, so I’d drive to wherever she was, stay overnight with her – enjoying her exclusive company as I could not do at home.

Jo did this for about 10 years, until she became ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After she died, I took over her customers.

My first job

My first job was actually a referral from my sister, before she became ill. The customer lived not too far from my house, but as I did then and still do, I packed up a couple of suitcases and moved in. I believe this is the only way to do an effective job.

I once knew a pet-sitter who had a dozen customers going all the time; she didn’t watch the house but only showed up, fed and watered the pets, played with them a while, then moved on to the next house. She charged $25 for each visit and was able to care for a 12-15 dogs and cats a day, and she made good money: about $1,000 a month. But she worked extremely hard at it, starting early in the morning and sometimes not getting finished until 6:00-7:00 p.m. She was young and energetic; even so, I’d be surprised if she did it for long.

I wasn’t interested in working that hard. I wanted to go to a pleasant place and stay in a nice home where I could relax and feel that I was on vacation. My first job was for a regular customer of Jo’s; an accountant and his wife who liked to go to Reno every 3-4 weeks for several days. They had two dogs who were treated like royalty. Each had his own bed (though they usually slept together), his own bowls and his own toys. They had to be let in and out of course, and walked every day, but they hired a young man to do that. They became regular customers of mine after my sister died, and were upset when I moved out of town.

The lovebirds

Cats and dogs are one thing, but I had nothing but problems with one job I had. The house was beautiful with an atrium all the way to the roof, very nicely furnished. Trees were planted inside, watered naturally by the rains. Birds often came to visit, and there were birds in the house, too – the lady raised lovebirds. Most of them lived in a bedroom, where they were allowed to fly free, but one or two were in cages.

The day I arrived she told me that one of the caged lovebirds was pregnant, due to deliver any time. This bird had to be treated very gently, allowed to be out but not to stay out too long, lest the other birds get her too excited. Apparently lovebirds abort if they get too excited or frightened.
The first time I let her out, everything went fine. Mrs. Grander had shown me how to get the little bird to hop onto my finger, and how to put her gently back into the cage. Right on schedule, after 15 minutes, I held out my finger and she hopped right on and rode to the cage. But the second day we had some problems. She didn’t want to return to the cage; she wouldn’t hop on my finger, instead she reached out and sank her needle-sharp beak into it, rendering my fingerprint useless for all time. Need I say it hurt? It hurt like billy blue blazes! And she wouldn’t let go – the bulldog had nothing on her. I used to own ferrets, and when they would seize hold of my hand or arm or toes I would open their mouth by pinching their jaws between my thumb and first finger, but this bird wasn’t having any of that. I had to carry her to the cage and shake her off. Naturally, she aborted – or I guess reabsorbed the eggs back into her system.

I didn’t go back there.

The horse farm

I spent one week a month at a horse farm just south of the lovebirds. On this farm the owners raised championship Morgan horses – spectacular creatures, mostly bay in color. There were 10-15 horses on the farm when I sat there, cared for by a farm employee. The house – 13 rooms – was surrounded by paddocks full of brood mares and their offspring. It was also full of cats – 9 of them, each with their own food preferences, sleeping habits, and personalities that must be catered to. An hour a day was required to feed them all, and another hour to clean the boxes. I was grateful that most of them went outside at least once a day. On this farm I also fed the chickens, gathered the eggs, kenneled the dog and let her out from time to time. I very much enjoyed this job; the surroundings were lovely and the horses glorious to watch. The owners paid when they returned and would usually book me on the spot for another visit in a few weeks – they went regularly to horse shows. Very nice people.

Jo and the house key

Of course little problems can crop up. At one apartment my sister sat, the owners went off to Mexico taking the house key with them. Jo had the phone number of their hotel, so she called them, and they mailed back the key. Unfortunately, in their complex all the mailboxes were gathered together into one large box, with apartment numbers stamped on them. After a few days, Jo went out to see if the mail had arrived, only to realize she didn’t have the mailbox key, either! It was on the chain with the house key! For five days she met the mailman and he would unlock the mailbox for her. The key actually did not arrive until the job was finished, and the owners returned home!

A warning: I always ask my clients to lock up their valuables before they leave. My sister lost a good customer because the lady accused her of stealing a valuable ring. She later found it and called and apologized, but my sister never sat for her again.

Finding Work

There are plenty of online sites where you can sign up to do house sitting, but most of them do charge to join — in the range of $30-$40. They do promise lots of jobs, but how do you define “lots?” And you have to pay before you get access to them. Although I have never been burned online (requested refunds and got them), I am not fond of this practice.

A better way is to start small. Spread the word among your friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, church members or members of any group you belong to that you are interested in house sitting. You might have some business cards printed up with your phone number or email address on them.

What to ask – the forms

Before your owners depart on their vacation, you need to satisfy yourself that you are possessed of all the information you need to handle any problem that might come up. In this regard, I created a form my clients could fill out. There is a place on this form for all the information I found necessary in completing a successful house sitting job. For a look at this form, go to http://www.webspawner.com/users/rand49/index.html, and look near the top middle of the page.

You may think of any number of other things that should go on this form. I can think of a couple myself: BE SURE TO ASK IF ANYONE ELSE HAS A KEY TO THE HOUSE. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find someone in the living room who didn’t know you were there!

I really enjoyed my house sitting career, and hope you enjoy yours as well.

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