Living Rent Free: Housesitting

by Vicki Simons

Hi frugal friends! Massive job layoffs from the largest employer in our county have forced many folks to pack up and move away. The surrounding towns are experiencing what real estate pros call a "buyer's market." If you live in or are moving to an area like this, you might be interested in stretching your housing dollars by "housesitting." I wrote the following article from the standpoint of those who are contemplating housesitting, and I explain some factors people need to consider in such a situation.

Frugal File: Housesitting

Natural disasters aside, there is perhaps no worse dilemma for a homeowner than having to make mortgage payments on a vacant home that is decreasing in value due to vandalism and/or lack of upkeep. If the owner has moved, but has not yet sold his house, you might be able to provide a much needed housesitting service.

Depending on the terms to which you and the owners agree, you might be able to live in the home (maintaining it and the yard) in exchange for all or part of the rent.

Before attempting to enter into the housesitting market, ask the following questions:

- Is mine the type of family that can be ready to move quickly?

- Will the constant possibility of a sudden move put a strain on my family?

- Do we mind showing the house to prospective buyers upon demand?

- Is anyone in my family allergic to items commonly found in other homes (smoke, pets, plants, etc.)?

- Do we operate a home-based business that will be negatively affected by being operated from a "housesat" home?

Every time you move, you will most likely incur some expense. To minimize the "chore" of moving from house to house, prepare to keep to a minimum the number of possessions you take into your new location. You may consider putting your seldom-used items in storage, or having a yard sale.

If you plan to housesit for any length of time, you might want to consider getting a "stable" address (such as a post office box) or using a mail forwarding service. (Note: United Parcel Service does not deliver packages to P.O. boxes.) Your local telephone company can help you decide which services would best benefit you in a housesitting situation. You might be able to keep your old phone number and have calls forwarded to your new location.

To protect yourself, establish ground rules regarding expectations of the care you are to bestow upon the home, yard, furnishings, and the plants and/or animals for which you will be responsible in the owners' absence, especially if the owner has not removed all of his belongings from the home. You might consider having an attorney draw up a contract to protect both your family and the owner legally. You don't want to find out too late that you are being sued for negligence or for damages resulting from an in-home accident.

Know at all times how to get in touch with the owners in the event something breaks or breaks down. Find out who has keys to the house, who has unrestricted access privileges, and to whom among the owners' neighbors the owner would turn first in case of an emergency. Secure the owners' explicit written consent before you build onto the existing structure or obtain repair work of any kind (his insurance may pay for certain repairs in certain situations).

Prospective housesitting "jobs" can be found by calling the numbers in the "Houses For Sale" type section of your local newspaper. (Internet-savvy newspapers may have these sections online, so save yourself the cost of a newspaper.) If you know of a house that has sat vacant for awhile, you can contact the real estate agent whose number appears on the sign posted nearby. The owner of the house might be thrilled to know that someone would be willing to keep the place "lived in" and maintained. Be prepared to provide excellent references, and to handle skeptics with a thorough explanation of what you can offer and what the owner has to gain by your offer.

To locate either a home to housesit or a person to housesit your home, consider posting a message to an appropriate newsgroup. (Note: Email addresses are often harvested from newsgroups for the purpose of sending out bulk email. If the "invasion" of your email address by bulk email will distress you, consider obtaining a free email address to forward notes to your original address.)

To summarize, if you have the type of job that moves you from town to town or if you just want to be frugal, housesitting can provide you with a roof over your head for less than the cost of an apartment, motel room, or mortgage payment. Through the rare "art" of housesitting, you can meet new people, see new sites, save money and have fun.

If you save money by housesitting or you start a housesitting service as a result of reading this article, please let us know; we'd love to hear and print your story.

Vicki Simons and her husband Michael own Probe Consultants . They provide free tips and fee-based services that save consumers money. Vicki writes a weekly advice column entitled "Free Household Money Saving Tips".

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