For many people, moving to New York City might feel financially out of reach, with rent prices that seem to climb as high as its skyscrapers. But Jen Tserng has been able to live in the Big Apple for the last three years rent-free. She also puts away about $40,000 a year, she says.
How does she do it? Tserng, 41, books back-to-back housesitting gigs instead of renting an apartment, and makes money as a freelance dog-walker to pay her other expenses and add to her savings.
Tserng says she grossed over $100,000 one year. Now working a little less, she brought in over $60,000 in 2017 and is aiming to make $80,000 for 2018.
It is, quite frankly, an idyllic, nomadic life, she says.
"I really enjoy the flexibility and the freedom of being able to live in New York without having to work the crazy hours that I would have to work to be able to afford actually living in New York," Tserng tells CNBC Make It.
Tserng books her housesitting stays and about half her dog-walking and pet-sitting gigs on Rover, a marketplace for freelancers to offer pet services via app. The company, which recently announced a $155 million round of funding, operates in over 10,000 cities — from New York City to Bismarck, North Dakota — and boasts 140,000 sitters. Its website states that it accepts less than 20 percent of potential sitters, with new sitters required to pass a basic background check and be approved by Rover's "sitter specialists."
Now that she's established, Tserng also books appointments through friends and referrals.
In a city like New York, her services are in high-demand.
While her schedule fluctuates, Tserng typically has her regular clients during the work week, watching or walking five to eight dogs between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Over holidays, that number can climb up to 15 to 20 dogs and cats. Though dog-walking on Rover starts as low as $20 for a 30-minute walk, Tserng charges $50 for an hour.
Then, there's the lucrative housesitting. The average length of a housesit, Tserng says, is around five days, however it ranges from three to 12 days. Her rates for housesits run from $45 to $73 a night and it keeps her from having to rent an apartment in the very expensive city (the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is $3,756).
"The holidays are the busy season for housesitting," she says, but in a busy city like New York or a large city like Seattle (where she used to live and dog-walk) people are always going to be traveling. "So I'm pretty much booked for a housesit every weekend, it just is a matter of how many weekdays that also includes," Tserng says.
Tserng has not had a steady home base or monthly rent in years; she just bounces around, getting paid to stay in sweet New York City digs. Tserng typically stays in the fancy and expensive Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and has stayed at posh places with beautiful views, rooftop pools and private patios.
If Tserng can't snag a housesitting gig for a night, she opts for a hotel or crashes with family in Flushing, Queens. Tserng says this happens maybe five to 10 times a month, so she keeps a budget for lodging of $1,000 a month, which she says covers it. She uses Travelocity and Priceline to find the best deals, and says the numerous Hampton Inns sprinkled throughout Manhattan are one of her favorites, due to their low rates and free breakfast.
"The flip side of housesitting is that when people aren't traveling, hotels are actually really cheap in the city" because it's off season, Tserng says. "So I can get a hotel for about $100 including fees."
Since many other expenses — ranging from toilet paper to utility bills — are taken care of thanks to her housesits too, Tserng usually just has to pay for her cell phone and food, she says. And recently she got a small storage unit in Chelsea to keep a few suitcases to swap out seasonal clothes. But Tserng travels light: She typically brings a carry-on size suitcase to each stay.
She acknowledges that her lifestyle might be stressful for some, but it works for her.
"If someone really needs a home base or you really need a place to store your things, that would probably be stressful for a lot of people," she says. "I'm single, I don't have kids, so it works with my lifestyle," she adds.
With Tserng's rates, if she billed 40 hours a week, that would come to $104,000 annually (sans paid vacation, health insurance and taxes).
"But I don't want to work that much," Tserng explains. "I'm anticipating making around $80,000 this year, and then most of that goes into my savings."
Tserng says she typically makes about $180 a day and works seven days a week; maybe $120 on a slow day. She says she makes most of her money over the various holidays — from New Year's to Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day to Thanksgiving and Christmas time — when she makes more than $350 a day. She's strategic about timing when taking days off, she says.
All that income and not a lot of spending allows Tserng to sock away some serious cash. Her goal, she says, is to save $40,000 to $50,000 per year; last year she reached that goal while still being able to take about 10 weeks of vacation, she says. The ultimate goal, though, is to reach $500,000 in savings.
"I never really had the opportunity to save before, so it's kind of a fun little game," she says. "I'm just saving so whenever I get sick of this and whenever I get sick of New York, then I'll have cash and I'll have options."
Tserng has a bachelor's degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as well as a medical degree — yes, an M.D. — from the University of Toledo. She started with Rover in 2012 (it launched in 2011) while working in Seattle as an assistant medical examiner.
"I was living downtown by myself, so I started Rover just as some extra income to help pay the bills to live more comfortably," Tserng says. "So I was in Seattle doing Rover, and after my [work] contract ended, I decided to try pet sitting full-time, just so I could hang out on the west coast a bit more."
She did that full-time for three years, before making the move to New York City in 2015. There, Tserng taught exercise classes and again supported herself through her dog-walking and housesitting side hustle.
"My plan for when I moved to New York, I had a few hundred reviews by then [on Rover], was to try to just housesit my way through the city, and I'm a little surprised that it's actually working out," Tserng says. (Tserng still teaches a couple of exercise classes a week, but it's a negligible source of income.)
As for safety with housesitting, Tserng says that's typically not a worry for her, pointing out that most of the apartments she uses are in doorman buildings. (For Rover jobs, the company offers a 24/7 emergency support service, and recommends clients and sitters have a "meet and greet" meet-up before booking any services.)
"It's pretty scary, letting go of your place and getting rid of all your things and then just deciding to housesit," Tserng says, but adds that for her the unpredictability is part of the allure.
"The biggest drawback would be trying to figure out where I'm going to stay when I don't have a housesit booked," she says. "But I also really like that adventure and problem-solving."
Along with that sense of adventure, Tserng says that her nomadic lifestyle has boosted her social life.
"When I don't have a housesit booked, I'm out exploring the city, meeting up with friends and meeting new people," she says. "Or if there is a period of time when I don't have a housesit booked, I'll take that opportunity to travel."
For now, Tserng doesn't have any plans to abandon her work on Rover; she enjoys it. Her short-term retirement plan is to continue for 10 to 15 more years, depending on how much money she saves.
"But then there's also international housesitting sites," Tserng says. "So, I think I just want to be a career housesitter, and travel the world."
"The app didn't exist 10 years ago, so things like this weren't even an option when I was in college and medical school," she adds. "And I'm so much happier now than I ever was when I was working for the man."
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