Note: If you’re a pet owner looking to avoid bad house sitters – we got you covered here.
If you’re house sitter looking to avoid a “bad house sit” – this article is for you.
When some people hear about the idea of house sitting, horror stories pop into many an imagination. Oh my god, strangers in my home? Near my things and precious pets? This sounds like a house sitting nightmare! Often these sentiments are overblown, much like sensationalized headlines. But it’s what grabs attention.
After house sitting through TrustedHousesitters since early 2016, we’ve experienced a variety of homeowners and house sit situations. (BTW – if you sign up through our link, you’ll get a 10% discount that we’ve negotiated just for our readers!)
House sitting has literally exploded since we first started. The pandemic pet boom of 2020 has catapulted sitters and owners across the world as these freshly homed fur babies await cuddles and care while their human parents go globetrotting.
In case you’ve happened upon this article, and you’re wondering what exactly the house sitting we do is or how to get started, head to our House Sitting 101 post first, then come back here. How to avoid bad house sits is an advanced topic, and without some beginner house sitting experience, you may get lost. Trust us on this. After 25+ five star reviews, we’re in the top tier of experienced pet sitters. We’ve accumulated a house load of experience and have honed our house sitting intuition.
House Sitting Horror Stories and House Sitting Nightmares?
Often when people hear of house sitting, it’s followed with sensationalized stories that tap into people’s worst fears, much like news headlines designed to grab your attention.
House sitting have been an overwhelmingly positive, and great experience. We have met and house sat for many great people and pets. Overall it has been a great experience. So far, we have house sat all over the U.S., the U.K. (England and Scotland), the Caribbean, and across Europe (Spain, Italy, Germany, Bosnia). We’ve house sat over twenty-five times, most for weeks and months on average.
Having a great house sitting experience is not simply luck.
The key to a successful house sit is clear communication and expectations.
Intuiting the difference between a beneficial house sit and a potentially bad house sit is a necessary skill, especially if you want to house sit regularly.
At first, beginners will jump at nearly every opportunity, desperate to land that first house sit.
Heed our words: caution and discretion are your best friends. If we feel something is amiss, we politely pass.
For example, a French chateau might scream “ZOMG YES”, but discreetly whisper “high maintenance owners”. We’d rather take care of a small cozy cottage for friendly and welcoming people than a glamorous mini mansion furnished with priceless antiques that each cost more than our yearly income. A house sit should feel like a home, not a museum. After all, since we seek out longer house sits, we will likely be living there for a few weeks/months!
Exchanged based house sitting is about helping each other and connecting with like-minded people. We’re budget travelers. House sitting is a way for us to reduce our living expenses and save on rent. A nice pension or assets (like property) that produce income are a bit out of reach for us.
It’s imperative that we continually land great house sits. We simply can’t afford a bad one where we end up paying for accommodation.
So we’ve developed tried-and-true strategies that act as a sieve, letting the less desirable wash away while we catch all the best house sits. This has helped us repeatedly to house sit for wonderful people who appreciate our service.
Of course we had to make mistakes to learn these lessons. We have had one nasty home owner, as well as a couple of “less than ideal” situations. Others we heard about secondhand. We compiled all these lesson in this post, so expect to hear different details from the same sits. Fortunately we’ve avoided the worst we’ve heard of. The red flags below will help you feel out whether to apply or accept a house sit.
Pssst: wanna listen to us talk (instead of read) about bad house sits? Check out this episode of The House Sitting Travel Podcast, the first ever podcast on house sitting to travel!
Subscribe and listen to The House Sitting Travel Podcast below or on your favorite podcast app. Just search House Sitting Travel in your app of choice or click these links: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Or simply listen to the episode below – no need to download anything, just hit the green play button! =)
Want a deep dive on avoiding bad house sits? Check our our recently published book, The House Sitting Handbook. We cover everything, because there’s just too much for one article. You’ll even get a free workbook with worksheets, templates, exercises, and checklists, and access to an “email hotline.” Click here to learn more.
Last but not least, if you’re not a member of TrustedHousesitters and want to join, click here to sign up with a 10% discount just for our readers.
And now, onto the Trustedhousesitters review!
Ok ok, now on to our tips: how to recognize and avoid bad house sits.
1. Not a Fair Exchange
This probably the most important tip, hands down, paws up, high five.
Exchange-based house sitting is a collaboration. House sitters provide a service that others need (pet and home care) in return for something we need (accommodation). If the pet owner expects an excessive amount of work from the house sitter (in this case, valued at more than the accommodation cost) it becomes an unfair exchange.
Take a moment and think about this.
How much of your earnings should go to living expenses? Should you work full-time just to cover your rent or mortgage? For the sake of this mental exercise, we will say that no more than half of your income goes to your room and board, so to speak. So you shouldn’t have to work eight hour shifts every day of your house sit.
Unfortunately, things just aren’t this cut and dry, and we learned the hard way.
Once we ignored this red flag. An exception was made because the house sit was for someone we already knew. They were running a donation-based guest house for travelers weary from a long distance, multi-day hike. One of us had stayed there a couple of years ago. When the owner posted a house sit, we were excited to give it a try, wanting to return the kindness and space we received so generously before. Sadly, over-eagerness can lead to overlooking red flags.
This house sit became a full-time job (and we already work online as it is). Despite our efforts, the owner disapproved of our management in their absence, finding any little noticeable change to be unsatisfactory. This place was a revolving door of people, so naturally many stones are not left unturned. It was our mistake to take this on outside of house sitter platform, where owners at least are exposed to the ideas of concepts of house sitting. In this case, we are to blame for leading a person to believe that we were potential hospitality employees.
Nowadays, we insist on house sits that need at most a couple hours of work per day. A house sit with daily lawn and garden maintenance and a menagerie of animals just isn’t worth it to us, no matter how swanky the spot is.
For example, some homeowners would like the house sitter to take care of Airbnb guests. This is an absolute immediate pass for us. Don’t agree to this no matter the extravagance of the house sit. If the pet owner earns a profit from a business, they should treat you as a paid employee. Or they pause their AirBnB and not accept guests while they are away. At this point, we have moved beyond the exchange-based house sitting model. Enter this territory at your own peril.
Of course, rules are fluid, and there are exceptions.
Fortunately, TrustedHousesitters now forbids these kinds of listings, which is another reason why we exclusively use it for all our house sits.
For full transparency, we once accepted a sit with an Airbnb. However, this was a repeat sit. We absolutely adore this pet owner, they’re super accommodating and appreciative of us. They made it very clear that they had a business partner handling and managing the rentals. We were just made aware of the going-ons.
People who want to use house sitters as unpaid labor do not understand nor respect the exchange-based model. If pet owners have a “you’re so lucky to be pet and house sitting for us” attitude, steer clear.
2. Passing Necessary Home and Pet Care Expenses to the House Sitter
No, no, and no. This is an immediate red flag for us. The exception (sort of) is footing the bill and being paid back later for extenuating circumstances, but we’d avoid this too.
A house sitter should not pay to take care of someone’s pet. If anything, it should be the reverse. Incurring expenses in order to complete the house sit is not the sitter’s responsibility.
A really clear example of this is paying for utilities. This is more likely to occur with longer house sits, from weeks to months.
Pet owners should provide and front all the necessary expenses required to complete the sit. Period. Imagine asking your local paid pet sitter to pay to care for their pet. Now we understand that things come up, and in some urgent situations, a pet owner may need the sitter front a cost, especially if the sitter can’t get a hold of the owner.
An example may be transporting the pet the vet in an emergency. We’d argue that a system needs to be in place already, and often, pet owners are on file at the vet’s office, so they can verify and charge accordingly.
While some house sitters don’t mind paying utilities, we argue this. Would you leave the pet alone at home and turn off the heat? Let them steam in hot summers?
This tens to crop up in places where utilities are already quite expensive. We understand that pet owners are concerned that reptilian blooded house sitters will crank the heat to eleven, while the extra moist and swampy sitters adjust air conditioners to arctic temperatures. We advise making pet owners feel heard while also advocating for yourself. Have a conversation with the pet owner, and discuss expectations around utility use.
Another issue to address is transportation.
If the location lacks public transportation, then owners should either provide a car, or a budget for ride sharing services or taxis (if those still exist while you’re reading this). Especially if automobile access is necessary to perform the pet care.
Some may insist that the sitter rents their own car. This seems feasible and reasonable for short sits. However, things change once it becomes a longer sit, like we usually take on. Even if you can rent a car for $30- $40 a day, if you’re house sitting for a month, that’s going to cost you $900- $1200!
For the less urban house sits, the owners temporarily added us to their auto insurance. Keep in mind this isn’t just a need for us. What if the pet needs a trip to the vet? Or a drive for daily walks? Again, owners should equip sitters with the means to provide the pet that the owners desire and expect.
This is definitely a controversial position we take. Many pet owners do not agree with us on this. Also there are times where lending a car isn’t feasible because the owner is taking their car with them. That does not necessarily mean a bad house sit. Even if they own a car, sometimes it’s perfectly doable to not have one, especially with short sits, and it’s a great way to soak up a house sit in the countryside.
However… if it’s about a lack of trust… if a pet owner is entrusting their most precious little furry baby to a sitter, then maybe you should reconsider. The first pet owner we ever sat for emphatically made this point as he handed us keys to his car. His willingness to trust us inspired us to provide top notch pet care, and we ended up returning for another sit. This moment stuck with us and we used his reasoning to guide us for future sits, and create this point.
To further illustrate an unfair example, we’ll refer back to our “bad house sit” mentioned above.
Upon arrival, the owner insisted that the car should only be used for emergencies. However, we were in the remote countryside, and would be staying there for almost a month. What about fresh food? Humans cannot live on dry goods alone.
To that, they suggested we could walk two kilometers down the shoulder-less road (with no sidewalk of course) to the grocery store. Cars infrequently zoomed by at murderous speeds. Yet the owner had no qualms about us personally driving them to the airport and back. To their credit, the car was nearing its end (literally falling apart) and they were concerned about it dying on us. However, that should not be our problem.
3. Lack of Trust
Trust is the foundation of exchange-based house sitting. Without it, the whole structure falls apart. Note if owners seem to be generally distrustful, nickel and diming, or overly instructive. Determining whether there is sufficient trust or not is no easy take. Though we’re here to tell that it’s totally possible to improve and hone your intuition on this.
Let’s address some clearer examples of distrust.
One example is pet owners requiring a background check. On many house sitting websites, sitters will have a place on their profile to show they’ve performed and verified a background check. The actual check will remain confidential after verification via the online platform (usually).
Seems straight forward enough.
But wait a minute. What does a background check really say?
Background checks verify, more or less, that you are not a criminal (yet). It does not verify that you are a capable or potentially exceptional house sitter (yet). When we see owners insisting on a background or police check, we pass. Not that we have anything to hide (in my past life I was on America’s Most Wanted but that was a case of mistaken identity – just kidding – or am I?). If a governmental body must verify our innocence first, then we suspect that these are not our people.
And if the pet owners insist on a background check, what about their criminal record? If they don’t have to, then neither should sitters. Both parties are vulnerable here. Don’t let anyone strong-arm you into anything you feel is unfair or misguided.
A leap of faith in trust is key to the house sitting exchange.
Read more: Pet Owners, Can You Trust House Sitters?
To help further this point, we will share a real distrustful experience.
Once we almost house sat for a pet owner who insisted on keeping the WiFi router in a locked room and didn’t want to give us a key. Now, we both work online and WiFi is our lifeblood, besides our actual blood. If the wireless internet was disrupted, we would need to contact a neighbor whom was entrusted with this most secretive key. The house was also miles from the nearest small town, so our usual plan B of a coffee shop or café was not an easily accessible option (never mind the fact that we should have to do this in the first place). Agreeing to this sit meant jeopardizing our livelihood.
In the end, we declined (for other reasons as well).
We’re not asking owners to leave safes unlocked and buried treasures unearthed. I don’t usually rifle through drawers nor try to crack safes during a house sit. But if we don’t feel like owners trust us enough to respect their privacy or act mindful of security and safety, then why trust us to care for their pets?
Ultimately, take this into consideration. What if something goes wrong? Will the pet owner support you? Will they believe that you did everything you could, despite the mishap? Or will they blame it on you and send you to house sitter jail?
4. Refusal to Have a Direct Conversation
Always, always, and first and lastly, always insist on having a direct, live conversation to discuss house sit details. Ideally this will happen in person or over a video call (Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime, Whatsapp, Security camera, etc).
We especially insist on being face to face. We lose a lot of nuanced nonverbal communication when we can’t see the other. With visible faces, we can better gauge each other, our attitudes, and whether we are making for a good house sitting match. While some do not consider this a must, we definitely do, especially with online technology, with virtually (ha) no exceptions.
Not having a face to face call led us into bad house sits. The aforementioned bad house sit was one. The other landed us in a home coated in furry mildew. Yes, the home was so fur-laden, that it created a superficial, microscopic ecosystem atop the furniture and carpets. If we had conducted a mini tour like most pet owners offer, we would have been prompted to ask questions, like, what measures do you take to clean the sheddings of your furbabies?
If a pet owner neglects to have a direct conversation, or plays down the need to, that’s a serious red flag. One might counter that they’re busy. Too busy to ensure their pets and home will be in good hands? At best, this is poor time management, and at worst, fear of revealing what they already suspect are less-than-ideal conditions they’re trying to foist upon unsuspecting house sitters.
This is about your needs too. Often we have questions even with the best of house sits. Everyone wants to feel heard on their concerns. If they say they will do a video chat, but keep not answering, or postponing, they’re not respecting your time. To foster the exchange, it needs to feel that both parties are willing to meet halfway.
Not only that, it’s imperative you learn the full details of the sit, connect with the pet owner, and make sure you will be fully equipped to perform the sit. We dive into much deeper detail in our house Sitting handbook. The accompanying workbook provides templates and examples for filling out your profile, application messages, interview checklist, journaling prompts for determining your deal breakers, and much more. It’s all just too much to go into for this online article.
In the end, both pet owners and house sitters have a right to discuss the terms of the house sit and a video chat is your best time to do it. We feel pet owners take for granted the surplus of house sitter information, usually presented in their profiles and reviews. We want pet owners to return the favor as well. Although, we understand that very often pet owners are new to this, are pressed for time, and put up the bare minimum of information. If you’re excited about a house sit but want more information, take this as an opportunity to set the standard and inspire the pet owners to do the same while instilling more confidence in you being an ideal sitter.
Let be clear: we’re not insisting that pet owners are intentionally misleading. This is about assuring both parties are on the same page. If they can’t make necessary time and proper arrangements for a live, face to face discussion, this is your cue for a clean exit.
5. Homeowner is Not Up Front
This is related to the previous tip. Fortunately our example is secondhand, and our friends managed to evade a bad house sit. It’s also a good example of even well-intentioned owners playing down less-than-ideal circumstances.
Once upon a time, fellow house sitters shared with us about a house sit they were considering. Both of them worked online, as do many house sitters, and required a decent internet connection. Not the highest speed, mind you, but something reliable. They voiced their concern to the pet owners over a video call. The owners assured them there was internet plenty, despite the fact that during the call, the video kept lagging and cutting out more times than they could keep counting.
Misrepresentation of a situation is a bad sign, no matter how you slice it.
This can happen in many ways, which is why we stress the importance of asking good questions to get an idea of what you’re signing up for. Every house sitter and pet owner have different needs.
The key point to keep in mind is to make sure that both parties – the pet owner and the house sitter – feel seen, heard, and content with the agreement.
6. Pet Owner Only Has Complaints About Past House Sitters
This is less obvious. Whether it was our own experiences, fellow sitters, reviews, or forums, we’ve noticed a pattern about unsatisfied pet owners. They continue to use house sitters, yet have nothing positive to say about the experience. Apparently every sitter they choose, sucks.
Of course bad sitters exist. However, if a pet owner seems to only have negative things to share about their past house sitters – take note. What is the likelihood they have been so unlucky? There’s a good chance they have unreasonable expectations, or will always find something wrong no matter how good the sitter. This is difficult mindset to deal with, so careful with giving too much slack to a frequent complainer.
It’s one thing if they bring up a particular instance (and it’s relevant to the conversation). It’s another thing when you don’t hear a single positive or appreciative remark about their entire house sitting experience.
If you suspect you’re slowly being ensnared by a naggy naysayer – cut loose and run for the hills!
A personal example. When we arrived at our “bad house sit”, she launched into a tirade against her previous house sitters. How is this even helpful for your new sitters? Sigh. Unfortunately for us, it was too late, and we were too committed to extricate ourselves.
When you have your lively discussion, ask the pet owner about past experiences with house sitters. If they share bad experience, ask what went wrong. The pet owner may be earnestly trying to work on things, too new to the house sitting scene, or truly had some bad luck.
However, if a pattern begins to show… don’t say we didn’t warn you.
7. Refusal to Show Photos of Home
Always insist on seeing photos of the home you’ll be house sitting.
Remember, you will be temporarily living in it. Especially if the house sit is for many weeks or even months.
It’s important that you feel comfortable in the home. Photos may prompt you to address responsibilities that a busy home owner may forget to mention, like a vast award winning garden.
This actually happened to us! The home owner played down the size of their garden, and tried to save money on having their paid gardener visit the bare minimum during our stay. It literally took hours to water the entire place. Even though we felt this became too much, we didn’t want the home owner coming home to dead plants.
If they’re not comfortable posting photos publicly, you can ask to be sent photos privately. Or even receive a video tour.
The two times we did not see photos of the home, we regretted it. Fellow house sitters have shared the same.
Once some house sitting friends ended up staying in a one-room shack!
8. Other People on the Premises
This one is such a doozy.
We’re house sitters, not baby sitters or elderly caretakers. You’d think this goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at what people think is fair to ask of sitters.
Stories circulate the web of sitters arriving to find an owner’s elderly parent or adolescent son on premises. Talk about a liability! Not only should you not be responsible for other people during your house sit (other than yourself), having someone around is invasive of your privacy. Who’s to say they aren’t reporting your every movement to the pet owners?
Same goes for visitors or neighbors. Don’t tolerate unexpected drop-ins, or even planned visitors, such as construction workers. While gardeners and house cleaners are understandable (we’ve had both, were informed prior, and everything went swimmingly), ensure you have specific details on arrival and departure times and accessibility. You have a right to privacy, even if you’re staying in another person’s home.
While a home may need cleaning and gardening, we suggest you avoid any under-construction house sits, or ask them to put a pause on projects until after the home owners return.
Do not accept any house sits where you’ll be expected to take care of guests on any level – even if it seems reasonable. Why? You’ll be held accountable for what happens on your watch (totally reasonable). What if something goes wrong? What if the guest doesn’t like you? It’s one more variable you don’t need.
9. Poorly Trained or Aggressive Pets
While not every pet you watch will be the pinnacle of best behavior, take steps to ensure you do not house sit for a cat that will shred anything and everything – including you – or a dog that inspires terror in others.
We once house sat for a young dog that was essentially a full grown puppy who would clear out dog parks just when she arrived. She had the bad habit of going after other dog’s necks, first biting, then shaking them!
It was clear that the dog was not being trained consistently, or at all, even though it was very smart and observant. We improved her behavior in only a few weeks (even other dog owners at the dog park noticed it), but it was a lot of unnecessary stress.
Make sure to ask questions about the animal’s behavior, especially if it may come in contact with other animals – either wild or neighborhood pets that may be allowed to roam, like outdoor/indoor cats. Ask things like: “How do they behave around other dogs?” “Are you following any training regimen with him/her?” “What’s your dog’s general disposition towards strangers?”
You can learn a lot through these questions, whether through direct answers or if the pet owner’s reaction and is trying to sugarcoat or lie by omission.
10. Something Just Doesn’t Feel “Right”
This is the ultimate litmus test – trust your gut feeling!
Maybe it’s just one thing you can’t put your finger on and it keeps bothering you. Or, a bunch of seemingly minor things that add up. You might feel like you’re being paranoid or that these things shouldn’t bother you.
For example, homeowners should trust that you’re a competent adult and can handle tying a full trash bag and replacing the liner after. This was actually demonstrated to us once! The process with this homeowner had also dragged on for weeks, and when we finally went to meet her in person it was clear that she was not truly comfortable with the idea of house sitters despite wanting to give it a try.
Recognizing these signs early on can help reduce stress and the amount of time wasted on both sides. Of course, this is something that comes with a bit of practice.
In all situations, many house sitters (ourselves included) go by the mantra GO WITH YOUR GUT. Even if you can’t put your finger on why you have a bad feeling, chances are that there is a reason. Heed your own warning!
Especially when we were first starting out, we questioned what was normal. By connecting with the larger community of worldwide house sitters on house sitting via Facebook groups, we quickly learned that most other house sitters go by this very important rule of thumb as well.
The key thing to remember here is that house sitting is an exchange.
You’re both doing each other a favor. We want to encourage a community of trust and cooperation, not treating one side as an unpaid laborer that’s so lucky to have a place to stay. Remember, that without you the house sitter, pet owners would either have to pay for daily pet care or not go away at all if that’s an expense they can’t afford.
When both parties are understanding, compassionate, and on the same page, house sitting can be amazing for both sides. Even despite the few less-than-ideal situations we have had, we are still huge advocates for house sitting. Every experienced house sitter we know has had an instance where they ignored red flags, mostly because they were excited about the location or home.
If you’ve experienced or heard of house sitting horror stories, the key is to remember that there will always be unreasonable people – the key is to avoid them by learning to recognize the signs.
We try to approach house sitting in a way that allows us to say “no” without fear of consequences. And we hope to show that you can too! Don’t forget that The House Sitting Handbook is truly your one-stop shop for everything house sitting. If you’re a newer house sitter and feeling totally lost, or you’ve been house sitting a few times now but feel like you’re missing something…we’ve got you covered! We’ve poured everything we’ve learned since we started house sitting in 2016 into this jam-packed book. Learn more about the House Sitting Handbook and what others have to say about it here.
Avoid Bad House Sits and House Sitting Horror Stories with Our Tips for House Sitters:
What do you think – are you a house sitter or a homeowner? Anything we missed for avoiding potentially bad house sits? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
*Editor’s note: This post was originally posted in March 2017 and has been substantially updated.