(If you’re looking to house sit – this article is for you. If you’re a homeowner looking to avoid bad house sitters – we got you covered here.)
In case you haven’t heard, we love house sitting. After house sitting through TrustedHousesitters since early 2016, we’ve experienced a variety of homeowners and house sit situations.
If you’re wondering what house sitting is or how to get started, head to our House Sitting 101 post first, then come back here to read about how to avoid bad house sits.
We’ve been very fortunate to have met and house sat for many great people and pets. So far, we have house sat all over the U.S., the U.K. (England and Scotland), in the Caribbean, and across Europe (Spain, Italy, Germany).
But it’s not all luck. The key to a successful house sit is clear communication and expectations.
Discerning between a beneficial house sit and a potentially bad house sit is a necessary skill, especially if you plan to house sit on a regular basis. At first, you’ll want to jump at every opportunity, but caution and discretion are your best friends. If we feel something is amiss, we politely pass.
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 where we don’t feel comfortable. After all, we will be living there for a few weeks/months!
For us, house sitting is an exchange and we want to make connections with people that share a similar perspective on house sitting. We’re budget travelers. We don’t have a nice pension or assets (like property) that produce income. We cycle through each of these strategies when perusing potential house sits, which have helped lead us to house sit for wonderful people.
We’ve learned which house sits to jump on and how to avoid house sitting horror stories. Sadly, this has happened the hard way – we have had one nasty home owner, as well as a couple of “less than ideal” situations. In this post, we’ll be referring to that situation with examples of red flags we ignored, so you can spot them yourself when you’re feeling out whether to apply or accept a house sit.
Want even more tips on avoiding bad house sits? Check our our recently published book, The House Sitting Handbook. In it, we cover everything so that you can avoid mishaps and enjoy only positive house sitting experiences. You’ll even get a free workbook with worksheets, templates, exercises, and checklists, and access to an “email hotline.” Click here to learn more.
Pssst: wanna listen to us talk about bad house sits? Check out this episode of The Alternative Travelers Podcast:
Now, on to our tips on how to recognize bad house sits and how to avoid them!
1. Not a Fair Exchange
This is crucial. We love house sitting as a way to provide a service that others need (animal and home care) in return for something we need (a place to stay). If the home/pet owner expects an excessive amount of work from the house sitter, more than the accommodation would cost, it becomes an unfair exchange.
For example, some homeowners would like the house sitter to take care of Airbnb guests. This is an absolute immediate pass. If the homeowner is profiting from a business situation, they should be paying someone to do the maintenance or not accept guests when they are away. Luckily, TrustedHousesitters no longer allows these kinds of listings, which is another reason why we exclusively use it for all our house sits.
We only take on house sits that require at most a few hours of work per day. A situation with constant lawn maintenance, a menagerie of animals, and other people to take care of is not a fair exchange.
Think about it – you wouldn’t pay a whole day’s salary just on a place to stay for the night, so you shouldn’t have to work the whole day in exchange-based house sitting either.
We ignored the above red flags recently because the homeowner was someone we knew. She was running a donation-based guest house for travelers in need of a spiritual retreat. Sam stayed there as a guest years ago, and when the homeowner posted needing a house sitter, we were eager to give it a try since Sam knew her already. Sadly, eagerness often makes one ignore red flags, so be sure to bear that in mind! (We didn’t).
The situation ended up being a full-time job, and the homeowner still managed to find things to be upset about upon her return.
People who want to use house sitters as unpaid labor do not understand the fundamentals of house sitting. Our advice is to stay away from any situations like these!
2. Passing Necessary Home and Pet Care Expenses to the House Sitter
The house sitter should not incur huge expenses in order to complete the house sit. If the location is inaccessible by public transportation, then the homeowners should provide use of their car. Even assuming you might be able to rent a car for is around $20-$30/day, if you’re house sitting for a month, that’s $600-$900!
All of the homeowners we have sat for that did not live in cities (and even some that did) added us temporarily to their insurance so we could have use of their car. Keep in mind that this isn’t only a need for us – what if their pet needs to be driven to the vet, or for daily walks?
This is part of caring for the animal and thus a cost the homeowner needs to assume.
At our bad house sit, upon arrival the homeowner told us that the car should only be used for emergencies, and that we could walk two kilometers down the shoulderless/no sidewalk busy road to the grocery store. Yet she didn’t have a problem with us driving it back from dropping her off (though she did not offer to pick us up from the station ten minutes away when we arrived).
For longer house sits, some homeowners will ask that house sitters pay utilities.
This is another immediate no for us.
While some house sitters don’t mind paying utilities, we argue that you couldn’t leave a pet home alone with the heat turned off during freezing winters or let them steam in hot summers. This practice seems to be most common in areas where utilities are super expensive and homeowners are worried house sitters will rack up a massive bill. Yet we’re sure they wouldn’t switch off the heat if they decided to use a paid pet carer who is only required to visit a couple of times a day to feed and/or walk the pet. This sort of service is very popular in cities, especially New York.
Again, the key here is communication. We always make sure to ask the settings we should keep the AC or heat on and what we should turn it down to when we go out.
3. Lack of Trust
On most house sitting websites, there is an area to show that you have undergone a background check (the actual check remains confidential after being verified by the platform).
But what does a background check really say?
It says you aren’t a criminal, not that you are a good house sitter or can take care of pets. We immediately pass on homeowner listings that specifically request to see a background or police check. It’s not that we have anything to hide! If they don’t trust us until a governmental body has verified that we don’t have a criminal record, they’re probably not people we are going to click with. If home/pet owners don’t have to provide a background check, neither should house sitters – both parties are vulnerable.
A leap of faith in trust is key to the exchange.
Once we almost house sat for someone who insisted on keeping the WiFi router in a locked room. We both work online and depend on WiFi. If there was a connection problem, we’d have to contact a neighbor to unlock the door. The house was also far away from the nearest small town, so should this happen, it wasn’t like there was a coffee shop with WiFi down the road that we could pop into. Essentially it might mean jeopardizing employment in order to complete this house sit.
Also, it just doesn’t feel right and signifies a lack of trust.
We’re not asking homeowners to leave their safes unlocked. But if we don’t feel like we have the homeowner’s trust to not rifle through their drawers or not sit on certain chairs, we don’t feel confident that they trust us.
Consider this: if something goes wrong, will they support you? Will they trust that we did everything we could to responsibly rectify the situation?
4. Refusal to Have a Direct Conversation
Always always always make sure to have a direct conversation to discuss details, ideally via video chat (on Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime). You can get a better gauge of the person, their attitude, and whether it’s a good fit for both parties via video. While some house sitters or home owners don’t consider this a must, we do and highly suggest you do the same.
The two times that we did not have video chat conversations, one time we ended up in the aforementioned bad house sit, and the other time we ended up in a home coated in fur and mildew.
So for us, if the home owner refuses to have a direct conversation at all, that’s a serious red flag.
If the pet owner will not have a conversation with you, that means that they don’t care about your needs. Equally, if they say that they will video chat, but keep not answering at the appointed time, or postponing indefinitely, that also shows that they don’t respect your time.
Both pet owners and house sitters have a right to discuss the terms of the house sit. Usually, house sitter profiles are very detailed and with reviews. More often than not, the same is not the case with home owner listings. Many are trying house sitting for the first time, or have put up the bare minimum in the listing.
It’s crucial to learn the full details of the sit, connect with the owner, and make sure your needs are being met so it’s an equal exchange.
5. Homeowner is Not Up Front
Once some fellow house sitters told us about a house sit they were considering and ultimately turned down. Our friends both work online (as we and many house sitters do) and thus needed a stable and decent internet connection. The homeowners assured them that this was the case at their house, yet the entire time during their Skype call, the homeowners’ video kept cutting out.
Needless to say, misrepresentation of the situation in any way is a bad sign. This can happen in any number of ways, which is why it’s important to ask questions to get a good idea of what the house sit entails.
The key point to keep in mind is to make sure that both parties – the homeowner and the house sitter – are happy with the agreement. Every homeowner’s needs and every house sitter’s needs are different.
6. Home Owner Only Has Complaints About Past House Sitters
While of course sub par house sitters do exist, if a homeowner mostly has negative things to share about all their past house sitters – take note. There’s a chance that they have unreasonable expectations, or will get upset no matter how good of a job someone does.
It’s one thing if they mention an instance of an expectation not being lived up to by a past house sitter, but it’s another thing when you don’t hear them express a single positive or grateful remark about their entire house sitting experience, yet are still insisting on using house sitters.
If this happens to you – run away as fast as you can and don’t look back!
When we arrived at our bad house sit, she launched into a tirade against her previous house sitters. At that point, it was too late to do anything as we were already there, but it should have been a foreboding warning.
Make sure to ask about a home owner’s past experiences with house sitters in your initial Skype or video conversation. If they had several bad experiences, ask them what went wrong. It’s entirely possible that they’re trying to work on things, or had some bad luck, but if a pattern begins to show… don’t say we didn’t warn you.
7. Refusal to Show Photos of Home
Always make sure to see photos of the home in which you’ll be house sitting and, temporarily living in! Especially if the house sit is for many weeks or even months, you’ll want to make sure that you will be able to feel comfortable there. Through photos, you’ll also be aware of the home responsibilities that the home owner might forget to bring up (even the best ones may forget).
If someone isn’t comfortable posting photos on a house sitting website, ask to be sent photos privately, or even for a video tour of the place.
The two times we did not see photos of the home ended in negative situations, and we’ve heard the same from other house sitters.
Some house sitting friends of ours once ended up in a one-room shack because they didn’t see photos beforehand!
8. Other People on the Premises
You’re a house sitter, not a baby sitter or elderly caretaker. You’d think this goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at what people try to get away with.
We’ve heard of people finding out that the owner’s elderly mother or teenage son will be staying there. Talk about a liability! You don’t need someone to take care of, let alone someone who could be reporting back on your every movement to the owner.
The same goes for people, neighbors, or friends unexpectedly dropping by, or even planned visitors such as construction workers. While gardeners and house cleaners may be warranted, make sure to get specifics on arrival times, what they need to access, and that it’s not invasive of your space while you’re staying in their home and caring for their pets. While a house may need periodic cleaning and gardening, any major projects, especially not urgent construction or repairs, should be postponed until after the homeowners return.
Do not accept any house sit situations where you’ll be expected to take care of guests on any level – even if it seems small. You’ll be held accountable for what happens on your watch.
Other people involved in your house sit while you’re there that aren’t the homeowners is a potential headache waiting to happen.
9. Poorly Trained or Aggressive Animals
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 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!
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.