New Income from Ordinary Skills

by Willma Willis Gore

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How House Sitting Can Cut Your Vacation Costs


On fixed income, but still able and highly mobile, retiree, Joan Johnson, is thriving in a "new" job that brings in extra money and pays about 60% of her living costs.

When she gave up her administrative secretarial position for a large California university, she "hung out her shingle" as a house-sitter for vacationers. In a number of instances, pets (from cats to parrots) were involved on the premises. After a year of fruitful experience, she moved to Arizona to be within call of family needs. Again, she let it be known that she was available for house and pet sitting. She also does meal preparation in their homes for people temporarily disabled. Advertising was mainly through church friends and relatives.

Her house and pet sitting has evolved into a year-round business in Sedona, the affluent community where she now lives, and the money she earns is being put aside for her eventual retirement. Most of her customers are retired and have loved and pampered pets. Joan is affable and outgoing, and the animals seem to sense her compatibility instantly, as do their owners. Word of mouth has booked her for job after job, with one satisfied pet owner recommending her to another.

"Customers vie for my time," she says. "One couple schedules vacations for when I'm available. Some want only house-sitting. All provide a lovely guest room and a well-stocked pantry, asking only that I gather the paper from the driveway in the morning, and be responsible to make the house look 'lived in.'"

With her jobs as a live-in taking so much of her time, Joan soon came to realize that she rarely stayed in her own apartment that was costing her $800 a month. Steadily supplied with "a home away from home," she gave up her apartment, which was a major savings. If she has a couple of days between jobs she stays with friends or relatives who always welcome her as a willing errand runner, part-time cook, or baby sitter.

"I am not a collector of 'things,'" Joan says. "My clothing and my computer fit into my car. My brother provides a locked storage cupboard in his garage for my family albums and books. Why do I need more space?"

Several homes where Joan house-sits or pet-sits are havens for precious artifacts that the owners have collected from travels around the world. "It's great," Joan says. "I get to see and admire these beautiful works of art without having to insure them."

"Pets vary and so do their owners. Some little dogs have personalities that are so loveable I don't want to leave them when the owners return. I've had owners who say, 'You always know what to do,' and leave only their Vet's phone number. On the other hand, there's one customer who leaves eight typewritten pages of instructions for me in caring for her tiny Dachshund. I walk and feed the dogs daily at the regular times designated by their owners."

She cat sits, as well as dog sits. At a recent job where she fed and petted the cats between walking the dogs where she lived at the time, she stepped out on the porch and encountered a large snake in the driveway. "After trying to shoo him away with words, I gave up and tossed my carton of ice tea on him. He seemed to like the cool bath and slithered away. This is desert country, but my visiting snake was not a rattler. I looked first at the end of his tail. Another time, walking Rufus, a terrier mix, a coyote came out of the juniper forest. It was twice as big as Rufus, but I ordered 'Stay' in the most commanding voice I could summon. Rufus froze. The coyote circled him, sniffing, and apparently decided he was not tasty enough or challenging enough for a fight, and disappeared into the trees."

Joan's key ring looks like a jailer's with so many keys to so many owners' homes. Only once did she lock herself out of a home she was sitting. "I also locked my cell phone inside. Slept on their patio lounge that night and walked a half-mile to get help the next morning. The kind strangers who let me use their phone later hired me to house-sit for them!"

Joan charges $30 a day for live-in house or dog-sitting. For feeding, watering and caressing cats twice a day (and because she can do this while she is house sitting elsewhere), she charges $15 a day.

"The wonderful thing about this work is that I'm really my own boss. I not only earn money doing something I love, but also I live in beautiful homes and constantly make new friends among pets and people."

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