You could live here for free! Photo by the author.
Do you want to live in a castle? Like, an actual Norman castle in France, for free? Yes, of course you do, even if the castle is "small" and it comes with two dogs and three cats that you have to look after—those are tiny quibbles compared to the fact of living in your own fucking castle.It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but that sort of deal is relatively common on international housesitting websites, where strangers persuade other strangers to take care of their villas and their cats in exchange for staying there rent-free. The deal I just mentioned is a real one, currently offered on my favorite housesitting site, Mind My House. And if you buy a $20 subscription and create a convincing profile, you could be feeding a Labrador in an empty French castle in a couple of weeks.
I learned this a year ago while I was a student at the University of Chicago, which is a freezing, despair-filled wasteland. I'd taken time off to finish my thesis, so there was nothing tying me to Chicago except for my limited savings. Once I figured out I could take a flight to Europe for just $180 on Norwegian Air, spending time abroad became a matter of finding a place to crash.So I delved into the travel-for-free internet, and $20 later, I found my answer. It was a map of the world covered with upside-down teardrops, each one an opportunity to live in an entirely new country rent-free.Related: A Travel Hacker Explains How to Fly Around the World for FreeThe site I chose was Mind My House, but it's not the only one. Nomador, Trusted Housesitters, and House Carers are better-known and specialize in housesitting gigs in the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe.The typical ad reads something like this: "Beautiful French Villa in the South of France: My husband and I will be traveling during the holidays and need a responsible person/couple to take care of our dog Snookypuss. He is a cuddly golden retriever who needs a lot of love." You send a message trying to persuade them you're the one for Snookypuss, and hope for the best.Mind My House has the smallest selection of ads, but it's the most relaxed and the cheapest (subscriptions cost $20 a year, compared to $50 for House Carers, $89 for Nomador, and $100 for Trusted Housesitters). Unlike Nomador, a French-based site, it doesn't require proof of identity, "domicile," and bank details. There's also less competition than sites like Trusted Housesitter, where homeowners can get hundreds of answers to their listing in a matter of hours, and each sitter has ratings. With that kinds of selection, homeowners are likely to be more cautious, and seasoned housesitters have the advantage over young cheapskate travelers like myself. Mind My House feels more like Couchsurfing.com, with a smaller community built on traveler trust.
But the question remains: What kind of person lends their castle to a stranger?"By the time they've arrived, I wouldn't call them strangers," said Paul Nash, a homeowner using Trusted Housesitters. "After the initial exchange of emails, we always Skype or FaceTime potential sitters before we make a decision on them. The concept of being able to go on holiday in the knowledge that, first and foremost, our pets are being cared for and don't have the trauma of being left alone or going to a cattery, which they would find extremely stressful, appealed greatly. It also gives you added security knowing the house is not left empty for weeks on end. And when you come home, the house is clean, the cats are happy and relaxed and often there's a meal waiting for us."The sitters also have references and police checks, if required," he added.In other words, from the homeowner's perspective it's cheap, you're less likely to get burglarized, and your cat doesn't have to go to cat prison. And while there are paid housesitting services too, one of the great laws of economics applies here: Why pay for something when people will do it for free?"Most, if not all, of the people we've housesat for are really travelers at heart," said Dalene Heck, an experienced housesitter. Last year she and her husband won the National Geographic "Traveler of the Year" award for their house-hopping lifestyle, and these days she gets most of her assignments by word-of-mouth. Her home base is with her family in Canada, but for the last six years she's been living from one assignment to the next, traveling the world and living.
"They understand the concept of a share economy really well and they understand the concept of trusting someone on the road, which I think that people that don't travel a lot have more reservations about," she told me.According to Heck, many of the homeowners are middle-class expats looking to visit family on holidays. "A lot of [assignments] are in the country, where you really don't want to leave your home for a long amount of time because there's not necessarily someone living right around it."Heck says she keeps tabs on the housesitter community, sometimes through secret Facebook groups. When I asked her how old the average housesitter was in her experience, she estimated in the 50s. "I think it's attractive to retirees.""Generally, it's most popular amongst [the] boomer age group," echoed Andy Peck, the founder and CEO of Trusted Housesitters—although "some younger people house and pet sit too."At 21, I was far younger than the average housesitter, and I knew I needed to build a competitive profile. I scoured the site for inspiration and described myself with words and phrases I'd found littered through ads ("self-reliant," "independent," "well-traveled," etc.) and wrote 17 individualized messages. I called the pets by name and offered to get references where needed. I didn't just apply to villas—I applied to anything that seemed like an adventure.Simone Gribble, an Australian travel blogger, had advised me to "find the ones that aren't brilliant." By that, she means newbies should get started with housesitting gigs that aren't super lavish to build up credibility. It's a good strategy, especially since sites like Trusted Housesitters have a rating system. You're unlikely to get that Tuscan mansion first round, Gribble explained. The key is wading through those villas to find the real gems, like this:
"Royal Country Superhouse: Far from city enjoy green world with little Soviet village local life. Big house with two floors and many rooms. Toilet is outside in separate little house without water. Nobody speaks English and house is without bathroom. In winter house is cold and you need to heat ovens and dig in the snow."It was the only listing in Latvia and I applied to it immediately. What better way to build up my housesitting reputation than there?Out of 17 messages, I received four responses, an each had a catch: The one in Copenhagen was only available for only two weeks (too short a stay); the one in Tuscany wouldn't be uninhabited; and the one in Gibraltar looked difficult to reach.But then of course, there was the Royal Country Superhouse: "Michaela, house is open for you. Just pay attention to my info about winter and house condition. Peace, Love & Happiness, Janis."Two months later, I showed up near the village of Sidrabiņi, Latvia (population 115) with a friend and the instructions to look for "the man in the cookie monster sweater." Janis didn't ask for any information other than the dates of my arrival, and I didn't ask anything except how the hell to get there. After a brief stay with friends in England, I took a Ryanair flight to Riga and made my way to the bus station where I had to convince an incredulous ticket seller that yes, I really did want to go to Ergli.
Janis was a 27-year-old hipster architect, and the house turned out to be dust-filled former Soviet store. By "winter conditions," Janis had been referring to the lack of electrical heat. We had to use a wood stove to keep our room warmer than freezing, which meant hauling wood from the shed and feeding the fire every hour or so. It took a few days to figure out how to work; sometimes we'd fuck up and either be engulfed in smoke or wake up in below-freezing temperatures. There were strange blood-like stains on the couch, and when a friend came to visit, he was chased up a tree by wolves.It was fucking fantastic. The house was brimming with books on art and architecture, and at night we'd blast music from the Soviet sound system as loud as we could. We spent New Years with Janis' family, drinking so much moonshine that Latvian started to sound like English. We had snowball fights in the perfect, powdery snow. The heart-shaped cutout in the outhouse provided an outlook of the glittering snow-covered forest, far more majestic than my usual view from the toilet. We nicknamed it "The Bone House" for its white color, and after three weeks we were sorry to leave.
We spent about $30 in the course of our three-week stay, which was spent on food from the town's only grocery store (the cashier actually used an abacus). Plane tickets included, it was still far less than I'd ever spent living in America, so I could only imagine how cheap it would be to live that way year-round.
"I know people who do it for $15K a year," said Heck. "That's Canadian dollars. So like, five American dollars."Actually, that's $11,215.37. Little enough to qualify for food stamps—except, instead of living in government housing, you're taking care of a dog in a townhouse in Edinburgh belonging to Lady Plimpleshire (real story, fake name).Heck and her husband generate money from their travel blog, and a housesitting e-book. "Freelance writing, freelance video—we do a lot of different things," she explained. "That's how digital nomads work. We all have multiple sources of income in order to keep it going."Digital nomads are people who work off their laptop and travel the world full-time. Housesitting is a perfect tool for such a lifestyle, since housesits can last months or even years. And while housesitting sites have traditionally been geared toward vacations for retirees, they also promise a radical new lifestyle for millennials.Of course, with great bargains come great responsibilities: Heck and her husband had to put a sick dog down during one housesitting stay (at a vet, not like in Old Yeller). Another time, she stayed in a tenth-century manor ("it was massive—it looked like a castle"), which she had to clean for two days to make habitable. Gribble told me a story about a time she stayed in a house with too many pets, and woke up one day to find that some of the animals had eaten some of the others. And obviously, housesitting in a place with pets means you can't travel around the country any time you want.But the average time required is pretty low—Gribble estimates three to four hours a day for dogs and one to two hours for cats—which is still far less work than WWOOFing, and far more stable than couchsurfing, with (usually) way better digs.Plus, you'll have plenty of stories to tell at parties about the times you lived like a king without spending a dime.Follow Michaela Cross on Twitter.