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Serial house sitters shed the shackles of a mortgage

David and Kathy Cutts traded their $2,800-a-month Lake Tahoe rental for serial house-sitting gigs when they retired a year ago, preferring instead to live rent-free around the world in exchange for caring for people's pets.

The British couple had also lost a lot of their spending power in the U.S. since the Brexit vote sent the pound tumbling, further fueling their decision to cut the pricey home-base cord.

Full-time house sitting is gaining steam with retired and self-employed wanderlusts, offering them an opportunity to cut or eliminate monthly housing expenses and possibly even being paid to look after plants, dogs and homes while owners are away.

Kathy and Dave Cutts
Courtesy: Kathy and Dave Cutts
Kathy and Dave Cutts

About 56 percent of HouseSitMatch.com's house sitters are over age 60 and its number of monthly matches has doubled over the last year to 35. House sitters registered on TrustedHousesitters.com tend to be over 35, and many are retired, said spokesperson Miki Haines-Sanger.

The draw can be irresistible for those willing to live a nomadic lifestyle and put in the work and communication to build relationships with homeowners.

"Homeowners tend to have some incredible properties, from chocolate box cottages in the British countryside to chic apartments in Paris with resident pugs who love to show you the city," Haines-Sanger said. "There are eco-lodges in New Zealand where you can take care of lamas and alpacas and villas with swimming pools on the west coast of Barbados."

"Home owners tend to own some incredible properties, from chocolate box cottages in the British countryside to chic apartments in Paris." -Miki Haines-Sanger, spokesperson, TrustedHousesitters.com

When Barbara and Bob Hensel retired from teaching positions two years ago in Vero Beach, Florida, the pair, both 63, sold their home and became full-time pet sitters, taking 20 assignments across the U.S., U.K., Europe and Africa using house matching websites like TrustedHousesitters.com, HouseCarers.com, HousesittersAmerica.com, nomader.com, Mind My House and Luxury House Sitting.

"We love this life. We get to experience different cultures living in neighborhoods instead of hotels, shopping at local stores and interacting with people as a short-term resident rather than a tourist," Barbara Hensel said.

Though the Hensels said their monthly expenses are similar to what they were in Florida about $6,000 they now allocate that money toward airfare, car rental, accommodations, food, sightseeing and travel clothing, rather than a mortgage, lawn service and golf membership dues.

"Home ownership doesn't seem so appealing anymore," Hensel said.

"Home ownership doesn't seem so appealing anymore." -Barbara Hensel, house sitter

Some retirees keep the homes they own, and earn income from renting them out while they house sit elsewhere.

For example, the Cutts estimate they net about $1,000 in income from a home they own in England, while retiree Silvana Clark and her husband rent their home in Seattle when they are gone, occasionally choosing to retreat there in between house sits.

When dateworking.com dating consultant Steve Dean, 28, moved to New York in 2011, he did not have full-time employment or much in savings. He began house sitting out of necessity and by 2013, was doing back-to-back house sitting gigs.

"I've gotten to see how hundreds of people live their lives, and I've emerged with oddly specific preferences about things, like which type of cat litters or dog leashes are optimal," he said.

While he has no monthly housing expenses, he said he must meet at least 500 new people a year to keep a steady flow of housing by word-of-mouth. Sometimes this means bouncing between two to three houses per week.

While a house sitter may request money for pet sitting services or flights, and the homeowner may ask the house sitter to pay for utilities, many serial house sitters say the arrangement works best when no fees are involved for either party.

"I don't ask for anything in return for my service," Dean said. "I prefer to remain ultra-competitive by charging nothing. This allows me to be the easiest referral option for the maximum number of people, which greatly facilitates me keeping my housing expenses at zero."

"We like to think of it as a win-win," David Cutts said.

"We like to think of it as a win-win." -David Cutts, house sitter

Open and thorough communication is the key to making any house or pet sitting situation work, he said, which includes sending homeowners and pet owners frequent photos and videos to ease their mind. It's also important to leave everything exactly as you found it, Dean said.

House sitters should consider obtaining their own liability coverage as well as making sure homeowners and pet owners have a financial provision/arrangement in advance if a pet is sick or repair is required, said Lamia Walker, founder of HouseSitMatch.com.

To ensure a better match, the site verifies users' identities with online tools and conducts criminal background checks and reference checks. So that both parties understand what is expected of them, HouseSitMatch.com also provides check lists and guidelines and house-sitting agreements to ensure all parties have documented key information and listed the responsibilities required.

This is particularly important when it comes to pets and emergency maintenance situations.

"Eighty percent of our house sits require pet care," Walker said. "They can vary enormously from feeding a single cat once a day, to one of our homeowners who has five horses, nine dogs, and eight cats. We even have one homeowner who has 80 cats."

The Cutts recently needed to oversee a dog's operation and post-operative care in Costa Rica. The owner left money to cover it.

Kathy and Dave Cutts enjoy a house and pet sitting assignment in Costa Rica.
Courtesy: Kathy and Dave Cutts
Kathy and Dave Cutts enjoy a house and pet sitting assignment in Costa Rica.

"Be sure to have emergency contact info on hand, and be honest with the homeowner about anything that comes up. To be extra proactive, you can even test certain scenarios with them ahead of time to make sure you're on the same page about how they'd want you to respond," Dean said.

House sitting can also be a good way for a retiree to do a trial run of a place they may potentially want to move to, said Alexandra Gordon, who owns HouseSitMexico.com.

Others don't have any plans to stay in one place.

"We originally thought that we would only be gone for a year, but now we have no plans to return to San Francisco to live," said 54-year-old Theresa Markle. She and her 60-year-old husband, Ken, have been house sitting in the Seychelles, Laos, Bali, Australia, Bermuda and Mexico.

"We broke even last year thanks to rental income and house sitting, but our net worth went up due to our investments. If we went back to San Francisco, I would have to go back to work as a nurse."

(This story has been updated to correct the affiliation for Miki Haines-Sanger.)