House sitting: a chance to trade the city . . . for the suburbs

The Beech family, which lives in a quiet suburb of Boston, will spend a month in Montana this summer visiting relatives. They don't like the thought of leaving their house empty, and they don't want to put Jake, their German shepherd, in a kennel.

Mike Jones gets tired of his Boston apartment during the hot summer months and wishes he had enough money to own a bungalow in the country.

Together, the Beeches and Mr. Jones can solve each other's problems. In return for the chance to live in the Beeches' cool home, with a large lawn and pond in the backyard, Mr. Jones will feed their dog, water their plants, and keep their home secure. He will have a respite from the city, and the Beeches will enjoy their vacation knowing that someone is watching their home. (Both the Beeches and Mr. Jones, like others interviewed, asked that their names be withheld.)

House-sitting has been used informally for years as a means of securing a home while the owners are on vacation. Real estate firms sometimes offer to act as a liaison for house sitters, but they usually charge a fee. Some industrious students have advertised house-sitting services. But most home owners prefer to find sitters that they or trusted friends know.

Homeowners and house sitters agree that if each has done his research, the arrangement can be very satisfactory.

"In the beginning we did it because of our St. Bernard, but we still prefer having someone at the home even though we no longer have a pet," says Millie, a Boston-area homeowner. She finds her suburban home is a drawing card for city dwellers who like the idea of being someplace different for a few weeks.

"When you live in the city, it is a great opportunity to escape to the country for a short time," says David, a veteran house sitter who commutes to his Boston job when he is in the suburbs. "It's an absolute vacation. And I enjoy cutting the grass."

"When you use people you know, they care better for your home," says one woman, who usually finds sitters by word of mouth at her company.

"I would never dream of advertising for someone through the paper," says Louise, another homeowner. "I want to know exactly who will be staying in my house." She finds sitters through friends or relatives.

Colleges are a good place to seek house-sitting jobs, since professors often leave for the summer or take sabbaticals. Some successful matches have been made through advertisements on company bulletin boards or small-circulation publications (such as college newspapers). Two women managed to live a whole summer in southern California through house-sitting jobs they found via a newspaper ad offering their services. When the owners of one home came back, they always had another to go to.

Smart homeowners draw up a complete list of duties for sitters, including reminders of tasks such as watering plants, locking doors, and turning out yard lights. They detail emergency numbers, hidden keys, names of neighbors, and local shopping areas. Sitters will want to know the feeding schedule of pets and where to find emergency supplies, such as fire extinguishers and tools.

Sitters need to know the itinerary of the family. Practical information, such as the name and location of the regular plumber, will help. And homeowners can spell out advice on how to handle telephone calls and mail.

Household advice, such as how to reset a furnace that shuts off or where to locate electrical fuses, is important to the house sitters. And every home seems to have funny quirks that the family lives with but that a house sitter may not find amusing. Louise, who has relied on house sitters to watch her large home in a sparsely populated area, tells of a sitter that heard the doorbell ring in the middle of the night.

"She sat shaking in her bed, afraid to go answer it," Louise says. "It turned out to be a short in the doorbell, which made it ring by itself occasionally."

House sitters have obligations to carry out when they live in another family's home.

"You have to be willing to be comfortable with their life style," says one sitter. "You have to be home in the evenings to feed pets and watch things."

Experienced house sitters say it is all right to invite a few close friends over for an evening, but they warn sitters not to have parties.

"It just makes you responsible for that many more people," one college-age sitter says. He also points out the importance of keeping a home clean while the owners are away.

Sitters must be realistic about the job. Diane sat for a home in Denver. Even though she knew she didn't like animals, she had promised to look after a dog. The affectionate pet, who was used to sleeping in the house and having a good deal of attention, soon realized that Diane wasn't really a great friend, even though she took care of the essentials. They eyed each other warily all summer, and both seemed glad when the situation was over.

Some house sitters offer services. Peter, who has carpentry experience, offers to redo part of a home in exchange for staying in it for free. But other house sitters have their own list of criteria for living at a home.

"Make sure the family leaves a car," says David, who does not own an auto. "Otherwise you are stuck out there."

There are some skeptics among homeowners who have used sitters. One woman in Oregon has almost come to the conclusion that it is not worth it. She says she returns home to troubles almost every time.

"I still feel it would be nice to leave your home neat and tidy, lock the door, and then come home and find it the same way," she says. "It doesn't always work. Lots of little things can go wrong, and people don't always know what to do. We mainly have a house sitter for security."

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