When I tell people–anyone, but especially writers–that I get to live abroad for free while I write, and that, when I live in the US, I get to have free accommodations whenever I travel FOR LIFE, they immediately turn into John Mulaney: SAY MORE RIGHT NOW.
Okay, I’ll bite.
I’m an international housesitter. I live in other people’s houses, all over the world, and while they’re away I take care of their house and pets. Usually cats or dogs. I * did * see an opportunity to care for reindeer on a farm in Norway and was sorely tempted, but passed on that one. The houses are everywhere, and yours for the taking if you’re not shady af and do a little legwork. No money exchanges hands, ever. In most house sits, you don’t even pay utilities.
I love this whole set-up. It means that world (and domestic) travel is truly accessible to anyone who can cover the cost of their flight and their time away from their job. If you have severe health issues, lack of childcare, and other financial concerns, then, of course, right now might not be the season for you to try this. But housesitting gives me hope that more people can have access to this dream lifestyle of traveling and living abroad, and especially creatives, who thrive so much on experiences like this, but who often can’t afford to have them. It’s also great for pet owners, and that’s why this system makes so much sense. When I had a big-ass dog, it cost me $80 PER DAY to board him. I often paid more for his lodgings than my own. Travel became next to impossible. Now that I know housesitting is an option, I can have an animal and still be footloose and fancy free. I’ll just hop on the housesitting sites and find a sitter of my own! So maybe you prefer that option for yourself to sitting – either way, you, Writer, are saving a lot of money and expanding your horizons and deepening your creative well through travel.
So many of the writers I work with are desperate for a chance to get away to refill their creative wells, but it seems impossible: the cost of travel is so high, prohibitive for most. BUT I HAVE FIGURED OUT A WAY TO BEAT THE SYSTEM. And I’m sharing it with everyone I know, because it’s amazing and no one really believes it’s possible until they hear I’m actually doing it.
And you can, too.
- You can do this if you have kids
- You can do this if you only have a couple of weeks–or days
- You can do this if you’re financially strapped, but have access to enough money to buy a plane ticket
- You can do this internationally OR domestically
- Sometimes, you can even invite a friend to visit you
- Or, housesit with that friend! Or your spouse! Or your sister! Or luxuriate in being alone.
- You don’t need to be certified.
- You don’t need to buy in for the opportunity, except for the money it costs to set up your online profile on your chosen housesitter site (around $100, some less).
Me, during out housesit in Lyon, feeling French AF
From August 2018 until May 2019 I got (“get” since I’m still on the journey, as I write this) to live in Lyon, France; Bournemouth, England; Bäch, Switzerland; and Dunfermline, Scotland. In between my housesits, I got to do important research for one of my books in Germany and decided to live in Morocco for ten weeks because I was literally in the area and my friend in Marrakech could arrange an apartment rental for 500 euros a month. Right down the street from a UNESCO World Heritage souk. Before that, I got to live in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a doorman and all the fanciness I could never have afforded to enjoy in my humble Brooklyn former-tenement walk-up.
To see the housesitting life in action, check out our Insta, Sits Ahoy!, to get a sense of what daily life is like on this strange, wonderful road. My husband / partner-in-crime, Zach, posts pics to this regularly.
The Benefits of Housesitting For Short Stints
:: A few days, a week, or more of a retreat all your own ::
Fancy a week in Spain? A castle in Brittany? A vacay home on a Caribbean island? Or maybe you want the wilds of Vancouver, a bungalow on the Cape (or in Cape Town).
I can’t tell you how many clients, students, or writer friends have been pulling out their hair, dying to get a break to go on a creative deep dive. They want some peace and quiet, they want a break from their normal life, they want to WRITE. But that costs money: retreats are expensive, and so are hotels and cabins and Air BnB’s. But what if you could scrounge up the money for the plane ticket, or the gas money, to go somewhere to write FOR FREE? All you have to do is walk someone’s dog, or clean out their cat’s litter box. (Plus, there’s the therapeutic benefit of furry friends).
What if you could go ANYWHERE in the world? No rent, no utilities. A fair exchange of you keeping their house unburnt and their pet alive in exchange for you having free reign in the house. Imagine getting to write in your own English garden, on the balcony of your apartment in Lyon, at a desk overlooking Lake Zürich. (Ahem. I did all these things).
It sounds too good to be true: but it’s totally not. This is legit and I am doing it.
:: A way to research that book of yours on the cheap::
Part of why housesitting came at the perfect time in my life was because I was working on two books that required deep research in France, Germany, and England. How was I going to do that, when my publishers weren’t willing to help cover the cost? Well, I was able to live in Lyon for two weeks while researching a biography, which gave me the chance to get to know the city REALLY well, and allowed me to afford other travels in France for the book, since I saved so much on accommodation.
Writing on my balcony in Lyon
And when I had a two-week stint between housesits, I was able to cheaply pop over to Germany to research the other book. (I could have found a housesit there, too, but I didn’t have time). I lived in England for 10 weeks, which made it possible for me to bop over to London as needed to do archival and other research. I paid for accommodations in London, but the whole trip was cheaper because I was literally living in England at the time and didn’t have to make three separate flights across the Atlantic for all this research. And, again, I could have chosen to housesit in London, but I didn’t have time to arrange it.
With a little planning, it’s possible you could do the same to help lower the cost of your research trips.
:: Go on an international vacation, even on a writer’s budget–even with your family::
We writers aren’t usually rolling in it. As a lifelong traveler, I was terrified that I had to give up my traveling in order to live my life as a full-time writer. Now I know that I will get to travel all over the world, my health willing, as long as I can afford the ticket. And with my eye on cheap flights and some flexibility, if the right house sit comes up and we’re a match – bon voyage! If you have a family, many homes allow for that. The French countryside empties out in August and is a great time to go there and housesit–imagine your kids running around Bordeaux or Dijon…
And that bucket list? Get ready to start crossing things off. In just a few months, here are a few things we got to do:
- Visited Stonehenge, which was an hour from my house in England (Imagine Stonehenge being a short bus ride from your freaking house?!)
- Went to Versailles on a short stint in Paris after my Lyon housesit
- My husband got to ski in Switzerland-at Klosters-which was an hour and a half from our home in Switzerland
- Went to Oxford on a day trip – a few hours from our home – to visit the Bodleian and drink in the pub where the Inklings talked about their books
- Next up? The Scottish Highlands. Helllloooooo Jamie Fraser!
The Benefits of Housesitting Long-Term
:: Saving Money & Reaching Longterm Financial Goals ::
This is obviously not an option available to all, but if you have a way to work remotely as a digital nomad, this is a viable option. I’m a full-time writer, writing teacher (online), and writing coach (which just means I need Internet for calls and communication). My husband’s a writer, but his primary income comes from teaching, so he left his public school job and began teaching English online. We basically lived off his income so I could work on paying off student debt with all that rent, utilities, and car insurance money we were saving.
In just over five months of housesitting, I was able to pay off over half my student debt because of all the money we were saving on rent and daily life stuff in the States–WHILE TRAVELING THE WORLD!
What?! No joke.
You also save money because you just buy A LOT less–no more Amazon binges, for one, and every time you buy something, you have to figure out if you can carry it around with you, since mailing things home is pricey. You’re not buying new crap you don’t need and, in turn, you begin to work on your spending issues and hone the ability to not need instant gratification, or fill a bad day with new clothes and shoes and stuff for the house you don’t need.
:: Writing Your Face Off ::
In addition to the financial benefits of living rent free (and how that will help you reach some long-term financial goals quicker), I have also been INSANELY PRODUCTIVE.
In my first seven months of housesitting I wrote four books and nearly half a million words.
Think about it: you’re not going out all the time, your social commitments and family commitments are nil (except for the phone), and you’re saving money on going out because you’re on a major budget. There are no distractions – and there could potentially be zero if you choose a really remote place with poor Internet, which you just might want if your income doesn’t depend on it.
Bottom line: living abroad makes you more expansive, and this can help to increase your flow – and give you loads of new story ideas!
:: Travel – A Lot Of It ::
Not only will you get to visit tons of cool places, but you will experience cultures in an authentic, non-touristy way. It’s an immersion, and a great chance to learn a language or culture more intimately. I never thought I would live on Privet Drive, but that was legit where I was in England. I got such a sense of the non-London daily life, and was a short bus ride from the Jurassic Coastline (white cliffs – stunning!).I had my fish and chips shop, my fave gals at the Tesco down the street, and a gorgeous moor to walk around when I needed some fresh air, which was part of a nature reserve behind our house. When I lived in Switzerland, I could see Lake Zurich from my office window and we had a daily walk by the lake (what?!). In Lyon, I went to one of France’s most famous outdoor markets whenever I needed food–it was a three-minute walk from my apartment.
And, once you’re abroad, it’s so much CHEAPER to take a vacation somewhere amazing. Our planned vacation to Greece after our Scottish housesit only cost us a few hundred bucks to fly as opposed to thousands because we’re already in Europe. Plus, there will be loads of day trips for you from your housesit. We got to go to Lucerne on a day trip, which was an hour from our SZ sit. And other opportunities for living abroad could crop up. Once you’re out on the road, a lot more possibilities present themselves–for both business and pleasure. My husband was able to do some really cool stuff in Berlin for his company, and they were willing to fly him out, since he was already in Europe.
:: Lifelong Friends Around The World ::
You will often get to meet the homeowners and, depending on your living situation and how long your sit is, there is the potential for real friendships to bloom amongst your neighbors. When we arrived in Lyon, Hubert and Yannick made us a lovely meal, cocktails, and took us for a walk to point out their favorite boulangerie, where to get the best macarons and vin, as well as their favorite place for views (we were in the Croix Rousse, a gorgeous hilly neighborhood overlooking the city, where the Resistance once wreaked a lot of awesome havoc). In Switzerland, our host, Simone, made us curry and drove us to her favorite grocery store to pick up supplies.
Not only that – you get SO MUCH LOVE from so many animals. And if you’re a broke writer who is stuck in rentals that don’t allow pets, this can be a big boost.
Zach with Hubert and Yannick (and Gunther!)- our homeowners- in Lyon
:: Mindfulness ::
My experiences living the housesitting life have helped me so much with my mindfulness practice. It’s teaching me to accept what is more easily, to be less attached to material things, to be okay with change and impermanence–and goodbyes. (Oh the kitties and dogs and places I miss!). All of this, in turn, helps me better accept the uncertainties inherent in the artist’s life. You have to be flexible, learn to adjust to new cultures and homes and lifestyles, and work on the inner tools you have to deal with things like homesickness. You learn to get used to not indulging in instant gratification (dude, those tacos are never gonna happen in Switzerland). And, as I mentioned before, you buy A LOT less–no more Amazon binges, for one, and every time you buy something, you have to figure out if you can carry it around with you, since mailing things home is pricey. It’s a pretty amazing way to learn these lessons.
More About My Housesitting Journey
I got the idea a decade ago, when I was living abroad as an ESL teacher in South Korea. My husband and I were spending a holiday in Langkawi, a gorgeous Malaysian island, and the owner of our guesthouse, Dee, let slip that he was going to London for a year and that some nice Aussie girl he’d never met was going to take care of the guesthouse and his SEVEN dogs for him. He told me he found her online, that there was this whole WORLD of housesitting.
It didn’t seem possible to do it then, so I kept this idea in my back pocket, a little escape valve, should I need it. And then? In the winter of 2017, I needed it. Some sad things happened in my personal life and NYC was killing my creativity. I couldn’t stand writing in a tiny, cramped apartment one more damn day. I was struggling creatively and focusing became harder. I was miserable. And, BROKE, since NYC gobbled all my money.
Zach was still digging the NYC life, but I was done. No matter what, we were getting out. And since Zach and I really had no idea where we wanted to move to in the US from NYC and we were going to have to pack everything up anyway, we decided to go for it with housesitting.
Fast forward to the spring of 2018 when Zach and I sent an email to our family and friends to tell them we were going on an adventure that might be a shitshow or the greatest creative hack of the modern age.
It hasn’t been easy-breezy, but I’m so glad we took the leap.
The Challenges of Long-term Housesitting
If you want to housesit for a little getaway, like a month or less, than you won’t have any major challenges in terms of this lifestyle. But if you do it longterm…well, all magic comes with a price, no?
It’s not all rainbows and roses. There are some obvious challenges to this lifestyle for the longerm – homesickness, isolation, constant change, getting in homes you don’t love, animal drama, etc.
First, if you’re thinking longterm, then you will need a way to earn income online. Work visas will be impossible to come by, and not realistic. If you don’t have the ability to work remotely, then do housesitting as a short-term writing retreat. You won’t regret it!
Another note on that: if you plan to be earning income while housesitting, and that income requires good Internet and/or is dependent on time zones (like being available for conference calls in the States, then many housesitting opportunities won’t be available to you. For example, we really wanted this one housesit in the Canary Islands that was three months, and they had this amazing property where you lived in a windmill and it was SO COOL, but their Internet was too slow to host my husband’s online teaching platform. (You need to have the homeowner do an Internet test before you agree to sit with them, fyi). So if Internet is a big deal for you, you’ll be sticking to larger cities and suburbs. Save the island retreats for short-term housesitting, when you don’t need to work, just write.
My husband and I are excited about doing housesitting short-term once we get back to the States, because we plan to hit up all those cool sits that weren’t possible when he had to be actively working online.
And in order to do this, it’s important that you’re in good health and few or no allergies for animals (mostly cats and dogs), which we, luckily, are all okay with. You need to have access to the medications you’ll need, and a bit of support Stateside goes a long way. We couldn’t have done long-term housesitting–or at least not as smoothly–without the enormous help of my in-laws, who have really helped us out with becoming our permanent US address and running USA errands for us. (But this is because we’re doing it longterm – short term is fine…It’s the same prep as a vacation).
And, sometimes, emergencies happen. Zach had to go home for a week, and it was lucky there were two of us to cover the housesit.
You will absolutely be giving things up if you housesit in the longterm: opportunities, financial security (if you have a nomadic job that is less secure than the one you had Stateside), community. You could totally do this alone, but I think it would have been very lonely indeed for more than a few weeks or months if I hadn’t been with my husband. But being in close quarters with one other person so long has its own challenges.
There’s a lot to sort out if you want to do it long term, but if you want to use houseitting as a way to go get some creative zest in your life here and there, then it’s very easy. Got a couple weeks’ vacation? Go for it!
You can go down the rabbit hole of housesitting research by accessing links to housesitting sites and related topics to living abroad on my Inspiration Portal.
I’m so excited for those of you who are thinking of starting this journey. If you decide to housesit, please keep in touch! I’d love to hear about your experiences.
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