Her coat was buttoned up to her chin and she carried a sensibly sized portmanteau. Outwardly she seemed a Mary Poppins figure, prim and sensible, but as I chatted to this lady I met on a British railway platform I discovered a kindred free spirit. She was an older woman who also enjoyed spontaneous solo travel.
‘I’m on my way to housesit in the Lake District,’ she said. ‘Looking after people’s houses is a good way to travel without having to pay for accommodation. My children have left home so there’s not a lot pegging me to my village.’
I stuffed the housesitting option to the back of my mind like a disused envelope one keeps for no particular reason, not thinking I might need it later. But when I arrived back in Australia my husband informed me he wanted to sell our house and move on with his life.
I couldn’t argue as after 25 years of marriage, we had grown apart. So like many older women facing separation, I found myself in what my mother, God bless her, described as ‘impecunious circumstances’.
Women who divorce later in life often do it tough. They may have cut down on their work hours or potentially face retrenchment. The raised pension age means we don’t yet qualify for government assistance and if you have married someone older, then you might find you need to give them half of your super as you haven’t accessed yours yet while they have spent most of theirs.
I knew the sale of our property would provide much-needed funds, but once the proceeds were halved it wouldn’t afford a mouse-hole in Melbourne and living in the country with limited access to my grandchild wasn’t an option. So I got ready for winter buttoning up my coat to my throat and pulling out that envelope marked sensible housesitter.
I concocted a mad but somewhat appealing plan. It was to use any funds I had to travel with during my remaining travelling years and in-between trips I would housesit to keep my living costs down. Melbourne housesits were appealing and the hope was to get one in Queensland in winter and who knows, one day someone might require a house sitter in Paris? You have to give it to us baby boomers, we have always thought outside the square.
There isn’t an age group out there who can’t see the advantages of free accommodation and no household bills. It is the perfect solution for struggling students, digital nomads (also free wifi), couples saving for their first homes, and retired couples travelling around Australia in their RVs.
You also have to be a little picky about the housesit you choose. This is a legitimate request I have taken directly from a housesitting site:
My husband David and I live on five acres with three dogs, three birds, nine chooks, goldfish and English fallow deer.
I suspect at Christmas they also kept a partridge in a pear tree. And wasn’t a woman recently killed and her husband badly injured by their pet deer? But if you can find one where there is a single pooch or puss then older women are often hot contenders for the role.
Owners don’t have to worry about us having domestics and as a lot of us are no longer working full time we can be home during the day to keep a beloved pet company. And if truly single we don’t ‘entertain’ as such.. A euphemism meaning we don’t bring home ‘strange bedfellows’.
To start building up my Holy Grail of references I did my first housesit for a friend of my son’s. Hopefully, they are still friends.
This young scientist was slightly alternative, he grew all his own vegetables, was totally obsessive about how he arranged everything in his cupboard (I actually admired this), and believed that the futon bed, with their thin, rock-hard mattresses are good for your health. My back begs to disagree.
He lived in an inner suburb in a small terrace so the place was easy to keep clean. He just wanted me to water his much-loved garden and his elderly cat Einstein only needed feeding and the kitty litter changed. But like children, pets are characters with their own idiosyncrasies.
I discovered Einstein suffered from agoraphobia and refused to go outside. But he also wouldn’t use his litter tray more than once including for piddles. This resulted in a constant production line of throwing out ‘old’ litter, before scrubbing the box clean and adding fresh, new litter as well as sweeping up the litter he had kindly splayed all over the floor.
The first night I was lying fitfully trying to sleep on that torture rack. I was so close to the floor I smelt the wafts before I saw the evidence.
Levering myself up with great difficulty (have you ever tried to get yourself out of a futon when you’re heading for a knee replacement?) I followed the odour. I would discover at least that Einstein, the genius cat, had chosen the toilet floor for a wee.
And on it went. By the end of the fortnight, I was almost crippled from futon induced back pain and had been conditioned by Einstein to leave out two litter trays each night.
I also managed to kill a plant from over-watering. While I thought I was following the explicit watering instructions, one day I went out to pick my daily harvest of cherry tomatoes only to find the previously rampant zucchini plant now had yellow leaves with rolled up edges. Not being an avid gardener I looked it up on Google images. It seems I had overwatered and now needed to cut back the foliage to encourage new growth. By the time I had amputated, the once monstrous plant had been reduced to stubble.
I found a replacement plant at a local nursery and emailed the owner, ‘Just to reassure you that your cat is still alive. But I’ve managed, despite my best intentions, to kill your zucchini plant.’
I thought he was most politic in getting back to me without mentioning the garden, but just thanking me for looking after Einstein.
On the final day, I was running the few dishes I had used through the dishwasher only to discover shards of a broken wine glass in the machine. I didn’t feel I could email the owner and add another misdemeanour to my growing list and so I wrapped up the pieces and took them with me, knowing full well that one day the methodical owner would be counting his glasses and pause to reflect that he once allowed a housesitter into his home.
My first housesit through an agency was more positive. It was only to Yarraville in inner Melbourne but as the saying goes, a change is as good as a holiday, and it was a way of building up my housesitting credentials.
My new charge was Romeo, an adorable dachshund. The names of the pets I look after never cease to amaze me. But I did agree with the owner, it was also love at first sight.
My end of the bargain was to walk Romeo twice daily. Good exercise for both of us. But Romeo didn’t end up loving me as much or perhaps he loved me too much. I suspect his owners were TV watchers and he crawled up with them for an evening spent on laps. Whereas I sat at a desk using my computer as I work online. Romeo’s legs were too stumpy for him to jump on my lap and he was difficult to lift from an angle.
Miffed, he snuck under my bed, where he chewed up several pairs of my knickers and my most expensive pair of sandals.
He spent the first night on my bed, which was kind of sweet as I am not accustomed to ‘entertaining,’ but I noticed the next day he was scratching like a maniac. When I checked with the owners who were way up in Darwin, they told me Romeo had a grass seed allergy. So, wanting to be a good and trusted house sitter I decided to help with some weeding. The grass was already quite long when I had arrived but recent rains had resulted in tropical growth. Half an hour a day kept the weeds at bay, but Romeo kept dragging his tummy on the carpet, so I started to think he might have fleas.
Having been accustomed to living with other people at first I found the silence golden. But after 48 hours intense silence can become deafening. So I adopted a strategy which I find also works well for solo travel, and that is to continue doing all the social things you would normally do at home. That might mean taking up a free trial at a local gym or attending a local Meetup interest group. For me, it meant water exercise classes at the nearest aquatic centre, talks at the local library and visiting friends that had moved to that side of town.
Now that I have done a few housesits my life has more rhythm. House-sitting allows me to live in Melbourne and in-between I enjoy the highs of more extensive travel. In the next few months, I will take a road trip to New South Wales, do a stint in Norfolk Island and later spend a couple of months in the United States where my daughter and her family have moved for work.
Looking after someone’s home is work but it doesn’t take up your entire day. And some of the pets are pretty damn cute. Take Romeo, even with his fleas.
So if you find yourself in a transitional stage of life you might want to consider housesitting as a passport to a new lifestyle. It might come after a separation or divorce or simply because you need a holiday from a long-term partner. To be honest my husband is still trying to sell the family home but I’m off, and I find housesitting provides new and often amusing horizons.
Nadine is a travel, food and opinion writer and trainer at Open Colleges. She has been a contributor to The Age and Sunday Age, The Canberra Times, GAB – Australian Food and Travel blog, and Weekend Notes. Nadine also publishes travel and food articles on her own blog, Red Bag, Will Travel.