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How this cat has helped me live rent-free for the past 10 weeks

A growing group of websites helps people travel cheaply by connecting them to people who need house sitters or pet sitters. The only trick is getting your first gig.

How this cat has helped me live rent-free for the past 10 weeks
[Photo: Federica Melegari/Unsplash]
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As housing prices soared this spring, my landlords called me to say they’d decided to sell their house, and I would have to move out. (It’s worth noting that in most apartments in Oakland, where I live, the sale of a house wouldn’t be a legal reason to kick out a tenant, but my backyard cottage fell into a loophole, so I had to scramble to find somewhere else to live.) My tiny house was so tiny that it was relatively cheap for the Bay Area, and with few options on the market, I decided to turn to a temporary alternative: pet sitting in exchange for a free place to live.

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For the last 73 days, I’ve been taking care of a cat instead of paying rent. And while it isn’t a solution for the housing shortage—and I’m only relying on it as I consider other possibilities, including moving to a much less expensive state—the model is becoming more common for people traveling on a budget.

On TrustedHousesitters, a platform founded in 2010 that now has tens of thousands of members, listings can include apartments in central Tokyo, and Berlin, and Brooklyn, a 16th century farm next to a castle in France, a horse farm in Maine, and a log house in the mountains in Colorado. Most homeowners using the service have pets (usually a cat or a dog, with the occasional alpaca or herd of sheep), and when traveling, they want to leave the animals at home and not in a kennel. Others just want someone to water plants and keep the house occupied. Both homeowners and house sitters pay a yearly membership fee to use the platform, but each house-sit is a straight exchange—homeowners don’t pay the house sitter, and the house sitter doesn’t pay the homeowner. I spent six weeks taking care of a fluffy cat named Woolfy and paid nothing; renting a smaller home on Airbnb for the same time period, in the same city, would have cost me more than $3,600.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

The house-sitting platform “is based on the sharing economy model, where no money exchanges hands between sitters and owners,” says Angela Laws, community manager at the U.K.-based TrustedHousesitters. “It’s based purely on an experience and a like-minded community of animal lovers.” The experience is similar to what Airbnb touts—you feel like you’re living in a neighborhood while traveling, rather than in a generic hotel. But it avoids one of the pitfalls of Airbnb: You don’t have to wonder if you’re staying in an apartment or home that otherwise could have helped ease the local housing shortage. Other house-sitting platforms, like Nomador, offer a similar service of matching homeowners and house sitters.

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Since the service uses reviews as the primary way for homeowners to vet prospective sitters, it can be challenging to get hired for the first gig. For me, it was mostly luck: When I applied for my first job and didn’t yet have reviews, a homeowner was willing to take a chance. Their review helped me land the next gig. Laws recommends asking for references from friends whose pets you’ve taken care of in the past, and then applying for short-term house-sitting jobs locally before trying to snag a stay thousands of miles away in, say, New Zealand or France.

But it’s possible to house sit full-time: Prior to the pandemic, Laws lived a kind of nomadic existence for five years, traveling the world taking care of pets. As the pandemic eases, demand is likely to grow, both because many more people are now able to work remotely and there was a surge in new animal adoptions during lockdown. “When you’ve adopted a pet from a kennel, the last thing you want to do is put them back into that environment,” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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