‘I’m a homeless guy looking after a palace!’ The housesitters escaping the cost of living crisis | Life and style
Massive houses, expansive gardens, occasionally a fridge full of food – and all of it free. Megan Gay and Sean Wood, both 27, have managed to dodge the cost of living crisis and the rent or mortgage hikes that are ravaging many people’s lives and savings in the UK. Their trick? Full-time housesitting. Seven months ago, the couple decided to quit London’s rental market and go on the road. Their belongings in bags, they have moved from house to house across the UK. They plan to continue living like this for at least another year.
Housesitting – taking care of properties and pets for nothing while owners are away – is not new. But since the pandemic, the trend has boomed. Confronted with an unstable housing market, inflation at a 40-year high and soaring food and energy costs, increasing numbers of people of all ages and walks of life are turning to housesitting to keep a roof over their heads.
“More and more people are struggling to find a place they can afford to live in, so housesitting is definitely a desirable alternative,” says Nick Fuad, of House Sitters UK, which connects sitters with owners. The number of housesitters on his site is double what it was before the pandemic. TrustedHousesitters, another housesitting platform, reports a 275% increase in UK growth since 2021.
With no rent or utility bills, Gay, a PR and marketing manager, is now able to put a significant portion of her salary into savings, while Wood has been able to set up his own business. Their overheads include petrol, some food and a £200 annual subscription to TrustedHousesitters, but this pales in comparison with what they were previously forking out: £2,000 a month rent for a flat in south London, £200 or more for bills each month and £2,500 a year for a parking space – and they didn’t even have a garden.
“I was working in a job that only just covered my rent and expenses, so I wasn’t able to save,” says Gay. “We reached breaking point and decided to leave the flat. Financially, housesitting is amazing. I’m hearing stories from friends whose rent is being hiked; they’re having to leave and go back home to live with their parents, move to cheaper places, or beg their bosses for pay rises.”
The average housesit lasts one to two weeks, but long-term sits that average three to five weeks are on the rise, especially among those wanting to do it full time.
Angela Laws, 75, and her husband were among the first to sign up to TrustedHousesitters 12 years ago. They were semi-retired and back-to-back pet-sitting offered an otherwise unattainable lifestyle.
“It allowed us to travel more and do more than we ever thought possible on a limited income,” says Laws. Their housesitting has seen them crisscross the globe: Scotland, France, Australia, America, Italy, Canada and the Caribbean. For the past four years, Laws has also been working as a community manager for TrustedHousesitters. She has heard people say they have saved more than £30,000 a year.
“You can literally save tens of thousands if you housesit for a few years,” says Fuad. “That can be enough to save for a deposit on your own home.”
Corinne Harrison and her partner Jack, both 30, began full-time housesitting earlier this year. Over the past six months, they have chalked up 11 housesits, staying in a tiny cottage in south Wales, a flat in Notting Hill in west London, a Tudor house in Bath and a residential compound in Spain.
“The only way to live together and save money at the same time is essentially to make yourself homeless and live in other people’s houses,” says Harrison. “Even before the cost of living crisis, the numbers were creeping up. This was our chance to get off that treadmill of renting, working, buying.”
That is not to say there aren’t downsides to this way of living. While some people have found lining up back-to-back sits relatively easy – in Wood’s words, it is a “sitter’s market” – others confess to a scramble to fill gaps between bookings: nights spent on friends’ sofas, a week at the parents’, or a few days in a bedsit.
This makes permanent housesitting untenable for those who do not have a safety net. For Harrison, it has spawned an obsession with finding long-term sits. The couple began with week-long gigs, but soon discovered it wasn’t sustainable because it was sometimes hard to line up sits that made sense geographically. Even so, the shift to remote work – and its continued acceptance by many employers – has seen the numbers of digital nomads balloon, and furthered the popularity of housesitting.
The pandemic has brought more owners to the market, too. On House Sitters UK, homeowner memberships are up 400%. This year, 5,000 new sits were posted on the TrustedHousesitters site each day. The surge has been fuelled partly by people itching to travel post-pandemic, and partly because of the mass puppy purchases that swept the UK during lockdown: pet owners looking for holiday cover now account for 85% of members on HouseSit Match.
For Julia Cudbard, 60, a care worker, housesitting offers a cost-saving and worry-free option when she has to leave her three Burmese cats. “They’re very dog-like cats and they need a lot of stimulation,” she says. “There’s no way I’d consider just leaving them in the house and getting neighbours to come round and feed them twice a day.” And hiring a private housesitter, she says, would “probably cost as much as the holiday itself”.
On the whole, housesitting works as a value-based exchange: no money changes hands between sitters and owners. The sitters look after the owners’ homes and pets; the owners pay them back with free accommodation, heating and, sometimes, food. This kind of bartering is an age-old practice, but the fact that some people are using it as a result of the housing crisis says something wider about British society today. Increasingly, people are turning not to the state, but to each other, to find a way to cope with current pressures.
How do people wanting to use a sitter ensure they can trust them? How do sitters ensure they are not being lured into an unsafe situation? Housesitting platforms provide a certain amount of vetting through user reviews but that is not to say things never go wrong.
Leila, 61, who has been a full-time housesitter since 2020, admits that living in other people’s properties can present challenges. “I’ve had a couple of pretty torrid experiences,” she says. “I’ve ended up staying in building sites, looking after animals that were end of life, and one that had had an operation recently so wasn’t able to go for walks. I’ve been in a couple that were less than clean.” Last-minute cancellations can leave owners in the lurch, too.
For most, though, the experience is a good one. David Twigg, 55, turned to housesitting after a divorce. With nowhere to live, it offered a lifeline while he sorted his finances. He says it has been transformational, partly because of the kindness of strangers, now friends, he has met along the way.
“I’m technically a homeless guy looking after a palace,” he says. “But that’s not what’s important. It’s trust and universal values.”
Five years ago, Lamia Walker, the director of HouseSit Match, received a call from Bragi Jonnson, from Iceland, who didn’t want to spend the winter there. Walker found him a lengthy stay in Spain. Then another. Jonnson spent the next few years leaving Iceland to housesit during the winter, and returning in summer. Now he has retired and housesits full time. Currently in Truro, Cornwall, he has done more than 50 sits. Living rent-free means he can save money, even while living off his pension. He has been able to travel, buy a drone, and pay for his hobby of geocaching – a game using hidden objects. He hopes to continue housesitting into his 70s and 80s: “I don’t see any reason for stopping.”
For those who have been catapulted into housesitting because of strained finances, it is the community and friendships that inspire them to continue. Alejandro Alvarez, 34, felt isolated living with relatives in a small village in Derbyshire. Unable to afford city rents, he began to search online for free accommodation, exchanges, or sofa-surfing opportunities. Then he discovered housesitting. For the past month, he has been pet-sitting in London. He will continue until he can find work and get on his feet. “This has been the most incredible thing for me,” he says. “As a gay man, being in this diverse city, it really is life-changing. Housesitting opened doors for me.”
“We’ve stayed in several large places where we’re like: ‘Yeah, this is never going to be us’,” says Harrison. “But it’s a novelty to see how the other side live. We just take it as an experience.”
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