If you search for homes in Newcastle – on website aussiehousesitters.com.au – you’ll find houses across the region that are in need of housesitters.
A house in Merewether requires a sitter for five days in May. A four-bedroom house in Thornton has seven dogs, birds and fish that will need looking after for four weeks in September. The owners of a four-bedroom house in Belmont need someone to watch their 14-year-old Labrador in early February.
Full-time housesitters avoid messy flatmates and shared bathrooms and instead choose to drift around, temporarily living in beautiful and interesting homes. Some travel around the country or even the world housesitting. Housesitters look after domestic animals, swim in pools, lounge in hot tubs and throw occasional dinner parties (but never house parties). They don’t typically charge for their house-minding services, and their services are in demand. Website aussiehousesitters.com.au states that close to 2400 housesitting opportunities were added to their site in the past three months, and plenty of other housesitting websites boast national and international options. Other sites include trustedhousesitters.com and mindahouse.com.au.
Three Newcastle housesitters say they have been able to regularly rotate around the region, rarely needing a rest in between.
“It’s really interesting: usually you finish one and then coincidentally the next one starts on the day that you finish,” housesitter Grace McLean says of her routine.
McLean recently turned 40. She owns and runs her own business, called NFP Connect. She works from homes and rotates around houses in Merewether. She’s been housesitting full-time since 2016.
“The tip would be do it with friends and family first,” McLean says of anyone who wants to get into the non-paid occupation. “Do it with people that you know, just to try it and see if you like it.”
Trust and word of mouth have been crucial to her landing ongoing gigs. Now that she’s built up a rapport, the opportunities come more regularly. She has trusted housesitter friends who she swaps gigs and tips with.
One of those friends is Dan Cox, a 34-year-old journalist at the ABC and a full-time housesitter since September 2011.
“I was living with a friend who was getting married, and he was moving out of our share house. I’d already been doing a little bit of housesitting here and there but still renting. When he said ‘I’m moving out’, I said ‘So am I; I’m going overseas for three months’. I already had one or two houses lined up when I got back. It didn’t stop,” Cox says.
Because of housesitting, Cox was able to purchase his first house when he was 28 and another one at 32. Now he rents them both out. He takes several months off at a time to travel abroad. His last big holiday was in 2017 when he explored Africa.
Cox met Ziah Elliott when she was volunteering for human rights organisation Amnesty International. Cox was covering Amnesty International for a story, and the two became friends. He told her about his lifestyle, and the 27-year-old was inspired.
“I like to think of Dan as the housesitting guru because he’s so full of wisdom,” she says. “He was telling me what he did, and I thought about it for years. I always thought ‘I gotta do that when my schedule became easier and freer’.”
Elliott has been housesitting on and off for the past 10 years, but she started her full-time housesitting journey by joining a housesitting website. She still gets about 30 per cent of her gigs from here. Like the other two, she owns her own home. She bought in New Lambton in early 2017 and currently rents it out.
Now she works for the university, but previously she worked as a lawyer, with a very rigid schedule. In mid-2016 she took on her current, more flexible job and was able to transition to a full-time housesitter.
Work flexibility is important if you want to be a housesitter. Different households have different expectations and timing requirements, for example, certain times to let the dog out.
If you love to travel, you might consider housesitting as a tool to help you make the most of your holidays.
Cox’s job gives him six weeks off per year because he’s required to work public holidays. He saves up his annual leave for years and takes off extended periods while never worrying about bills or rent back in Newcastle.
Elliott was in Hawaii after Christmas and McLean travelled to the UK last year.
Cox said his friends don’t see much evidence of his journeys.
“I’ll see a beautiful piece of art or a fabulous knick-knack, but then where am I going to put it?” he says.
McLean has a similar experience.
“It was hard to leave and pack up and live out of three suitcases, but now it’s sort of normal. I don’t like stuff now. I go into shops and realise it’s all stuff you don’t need,” she says.
It was hard to leave and pack up and live out of three suitcases, but now it’s sort of normal. I don’t like stuff now. I go into shops and realise it’s all stuff you don’t need.Grace McLean
Elliott recently upsized her car to help her manage her things.
Cox always keeps the boot of his car prepared for his next stint.
“The boot is effectively a well-organised wardrobe. I know where everything is,” Cox says.
“(It has) the stuff you don’t use every day. A pair of shoes you want every other weekend, the beach towel you’re not using in September. The iPod dock, a Bluetooth sound system. I take my own wine glasses so I don’t break theirs. A tennis racket. It’s not a big car but it’s full to the brim. It’s everything that I need that I don’t want in storage.”
McLean’s situation is different to Cox’s and Elliott’s in that she already owned a three-bedroom house in Booragul when she decided to become a full-time housesitter.
“I was housesitting anyway, and my house was being left alone. I said if I can rent my house out for six months, I can see how it works. If it doesn’t work I can just go back,” McLean says.
She made her decision and rented her place out to her nephew, his partner and their two children.
As she started her new roaming lifestyle, she wasn’t without support.
“I’ve got friends in town and three sets of keys on my keyrings, so I can go to any of their houses,” she says.
She doesn’t have to stay with them often, but she likes having options and back-ups.
“It can get tough; it can get emotional because you are moving, so you’ve got to get used to that lifestyle and living out of a bag. The benefits are I live in beautiful houses in Merewether, I pay my mortgage and I go on holidays. But then I pack my stuff. Every three to six weeks I’m moving out. At the moment, I’m single, I don’t have kids, it’s easy for me and it works,” she says.
Looking after animals is a big part of the exchange. (Sadly Elliott’s just learnt that she’s allergic to cats.)
“A lot of people are spending thousands of dollars putting their pets into kennels. A lot of the gigs I’ve gotten have been because people have tried kennels and their animals had bad reactions,” she says.
Elliott clarifies that there are plenty of beautiful kennels out there, but she also works very hard to make sure the animals feel comfortable with her. She draws pictures of the animals she’s looking after for their owners. One of her favourites has been looking after a bunny. She’s also taken care of birds. She meets the animal while the family is still around and tries to take dogs for a walk before the family leaves to make the transition easier.
“Dogs always remember if someone has taken them for a walk,” she says. “I’m staying at a beautiful place at the moment and they’ve put a Christmas stocking out for me and for the dog. You build these relationships over time.”
Cox agrees that the more you do it, the more your reputation builds and word of mouth spreads.
He’s been housesitting long enough that he now has approximately 20 regular rotating local houses. Elliott and McLean have approximately five houses each which they rotate between.
“You do a good job and they all talk. The best marketing tool is to walk the dogs at the local dog park where you know [the owners] already go when they’re home. People ask ‘Are the owners away?’ Then they go back to the owners and get my number,” Cox says.
He’s looked after an indoor toilet-trained rabbit (he used kitty litter), hermit crabs and very expensive exotic fish. One of the downsides for Cox is that he loves dogs but he can’t have his own.
“I’m a surrogate uncle to a bunch of fabulous furry friends,” Cox says.
McLean has particularly special memories with Pedro the Portuguese water dog.
“If you look on my Facebook page, The Grace Stay, he’s the big black one. There’s a photo of him with a sore ear. He’s like an old-man-Eeyore; he just mopes around. He’s the biggest moocher and everyone loves him. He’s my man,” McLean says.
Each house comes with an interesting story, and sometimes housesitters come away with a story too.
“My favourite was this house where there was something with the doors. All four doors broke; I couldn’t get through. It was really stormy weather. They were older frames with newer doors. As the house contracts, the doors won’t contract as well. The doors were getting constricted. I was entering the home by the doggie door until a handyman came out and fixed it,” Elliott says.
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All three sitters know having a partner or family would certainly change the dynamics of their situation.
“Some people do prefer couples,” Elliott says. “It would be handy in some ways because [home owners] look at me and think ‘you couldn’t mow a lawn’.”
“I do know young families who have given housesitting a go for a short stint, but certainly it’s a nomadic lifestyle designed for the gypsy,” Cox says.
For now McLean likes what she’s doing, and it’s helping her to save to for another property. If she got into a relationship, she’d probably stop.
Cox, Elliott and McLean are not the only housesitters in Newcastle. On the same Aussie House Sitters’ website, you’ll find a range of couples and singles of varying ages and backgrounds with different availabilities. More and more news outlets have been covering housesitting as a way to afford a house in an expensive market, but the benefits are beyond financial.
Becoming a full-time housesitter changed Elliott’s perspective on things. Prior to housesitting she used to be tightly wound, but now she’s more adaptable.
“It’s completely changed my perspective on life. I was very used to patterns and routines and now I have to be open to what the new place is,” she says.
Cox has clearly benefitted from housesitting, but he also just genuinely enjoys the lifestyle.
“I didn’t think it would last this long. I pinch myself that it’s still going. Life goes very fast when you’re having fun. I’m not stopping any time soon,” he says.