Housesitting Heaven

Feeling antsy for a change of scenery? Take advantage of the worldwide booming business of housesitting.
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Dreaming of spending the a few months in Hawaii, going on a far-flung adventure in the jungles of Belize, or sipping local wine in a rustic Italian villa -- for free?

No need to get your head out of the clouds. Enjoying a free stay in worldwide destinations is a reality for hundreds of thousands of people, thanks to one of the fastest growing trends in the world today: housesitting.

Through mutually beneficial agreements, housesitters gain rent-free accommodation all around the world in return for minor household duties, while owners get their properties, pets and gardens cared for while they're away.

"I haven't paid rent or a mortgage since my oldest son graduated

from high school in Laguna Beach, Calif., seven years ago," says Gene Sottosanto, 53. "I've been able to stay in fine and interesting places, as well to have some good adventures."

Companies that match homeowners and housesitters say their business has grown drastically over the last year. U.S.-based

The Caretaker Gazette

, a 25-year-old housesitting publication that also runs a

Web site, says that the number of international assignments it advertises has been expanding by about 30% each year.

Similarly, Australia-based

HouseCarers.com reports similar growth, with up to 3,000 hits a day.

"People are becoming more mobile and wanting to travel more, which is fueling our site traffic,

which doubles every month," says Susan Holtham, editor of New Zealand-based

MindMyHouse.com, a leading global housesitting company.

Experts say the matchmaking services are becoming increasingly common due to the rise in second-home ownership. Already, 6.8 million American homeowners (6%) own a second home and it is predicted that 10 million people will own a second home by 2010, according to a new survey by the National Association of Realtors.

In addition, second homes are now becoming increasingly common among a more varied demographic, including baby boomers, the single largest group of homeowners. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts second-home purchases for boomers alone will reach 6.4 million units by 2010, up from 5.5 million units purchased in the 1990s.

"More people than ever are able to afford more than one home and they often choose to have it in another country, which is certainly fueling this housesitting trend," says Gary Dunn, publisher of

The Caretaker Gazette

.

No matter what your own need is -- a place to spend vacation or a year of retirement, say -- you will be able to find a homeowner whose needs match your own, the companies say.

Dunn points out that housesitting assignments typically range from a simple two-week arrangement when the owner takes an annual vacation to seasonal assignments when snowbirds go south in the winter.

"We also have people who are transferred overseas for long- and short-term periods, taking

sabbaticals and inheriting properties in faraway places -- all requiring the services of a housesitter or property caretaker," Dunn continues.

While any type of person may enjoy housesitting, experts say typical sitters are retired couples, writers, researchers or students able to work from anywhere with an Internet connection. There are even housesitting professionals who happily move from property to property without being burdened by the shackles of homeownership.

Why is this transient situation so appealing?

First of all, sitters experience an area or a country they might never have been able to visit otherwise. Indeed, a new survey at MindMyHouse.com found that an overwhelming 40% of housesitters said they were simply looking for a change of scene.

"Housesitters get to live rent-free in some beautiful areas and homes, and for many retirees, or those contemplating retirement, they get to try out different geographic areas and plan where they would live during their retirement," Dunn points out.

Feeling more adventurous than caring for an apartment in Paris? There are numerous tales of once-in-a-lifetime housesitting experiences in isolated farm ranches to bed and breakfast lodges in the middle of rainforests.

"We wore someone else's shoes for 8 months," says Shelley Hamel, who stayed with her husband in a remote cabin for eight months in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. "We ate what they had in the pantry for us, which meant learning to make bread on a camp stove, eating kale daily, watching out for grizzlies. And we'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Similarly, Susan Morrison is currently housesitting with her boyfriend on Kodiak Island in south-central Alaska. They call a secluded lodge home, with the nearest neighbors nine miles away -- by boat. They receive mail once a week via seaplane.

"The lodge is located on a bay so there is abundant sea and land life, such as sea lions, otters, ducks, bald eagles and fox," says Morrison. "We will be here again next winter because we enjoy it so much -- the solitude, the wildlife and the slower pace."

Meanwhile, homeowners say they're equally positive about the experience because they can be confident that their house will be protected from trespassers, any maintenance problems will be addressed instantly and mail won't pile up. Small tasks can also be thrown in as part of the deal, such as the sitter dropping the owner off at the airport in exchange for the use of a car.

"For various weeks we have ... fed and chased goats, turkeys, a cow, miniature horses, chickens, peacocks and canaries. The experiences are always unique, but always fun and a great chance to explore new regions of the world," says Nancy Dillman-Cadigan, who lives on a 45-foot sailboat docked in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and who has boatsat for people along the Pacific Coast and Sea of Cortez.

While housesitting generally gets glowing reviews from people on both sides of the experience, industry Web sites point out the importance of checking references.

Most offer advice on how to check applicants, including tips on screening and on background checks.

But overall, housesitters and homeowners report an enthralling, affordable experience.

"It's a great service," says Jean Sampel, a retired gallery owner who cares for a 200-year-old Spanish colonial home in Mexico with her husband. "We provide security, property management and guardianship of someone's home at very little expense to the homeowner. And, best of all, we have formed wonderful new friendships and cultural understanding."

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Tracy McNamara is a freelance writer in New York. She previously was Special Features Editor at Woman's World Magazine. Her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal's Real Estate Journal, Time Out New York Eating & Drinking Guide, and The Real Deal. She graduated with honors from Wesleyan University and received her master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.