Friday, June 1, 2018

Being a Better House Sitter

There are a LOT of house sitters out there. But there are also a LOT of opportunities as well. So even though us house sitters are "competitors" in a sense, we all belong to the same community. With that in mind I believe the more we can learn from each other the better we all become at what we do.

Now, I understand there are also a lot of blogs and books dedicated to house sitting with galactic tons of information on every aspect of it, but I wanted to drop another one onto the interwebs with our personal spin on some of the things we do that (we think) can help make us all better house sitters. Then, I would like to encourage everyone, from house sitters to home owners or interested bystanders to leave comments on what they do (or don't do), or would like to see in a house sitter.

Sharing. I learned it in kindergarten.

Pre Arrival Planning

Restart communicating about two weeks before. Many times the initial interviews and information exchanges took place months earlier. You will want to touch base to make sure both sides are in sync and everything is good to go. Don't just assume everyone has remembered everything. And if you haven't already, send the owners your house sitting checklist.

Be flexible. If the homeowners suddenly change their departure time or date and ask you to arrive at a different time, do it! It may take extra time or cost a few dollars to get a room, but it's a small price to pay for what we receive in return.

Offer to drive the owners to/from the airport. Most of the time the owners will have made other plans, but sometimes they are just not comfortable asking the house sitters. In these cases they are always super thankful that we asked, as it saves them a lot of hassle and expense that is not needed at the start of their big trip.

Plan the arrival details.  Arrival day can be a little awkward if plans haven't been made in advance. This means deciding what day/time we will arrive and what everyone will do after we arrive. For example, will there be a meal involved? Will it be at the house or at a restaurant? What can we bring? We always offer to take the owners out to dinner as thanks for letting us stay in their home while they are gone. However, sometimes they will insist on paying for the meal. Either way, a dinner on the first night is always a good way to relax and have a productive conversation where we learn about each other, the trip, the pets and the house sit.

First Impressions

Think about what a home owner is putting on the line. They are entrusting their dearly loved pet, who is considered a family member, and the entire trust of their home and property to strangers. This is a huge leap of faith and can be the make or break point of someone having either an excellent worry-free vacation, or one filled with stress and regret. And this is why their first impression of us is so important.

Everyone has heard some version of the comment, "it only takes 'x' number of seconds to form an opinion of someone." True or not, making a good first impression is critical. Especially since there is not a lot of time to make a  better impression if the first one isn't favorable. Here's a few things we consider before rolling up to our new home:

Arrive tidy.  This means don't come pulling into the driveway looking like you just spent 2 weeks in a yurt in the desert, or have fast food bags all over your dashboard. Straighten up your luggage and interior. If you have the time, rent a hotel or AirBnb the night before and leave in the morning clean and polished. At a minimum, stop at a rest stop or travel center and spruce up. In other words, don't arrive in sweatpants and a tee shirt with ketchup stains on the front. Show a little class. Put on your nicer clothes and comb your hair. You know, personal hygiene stuff.

Wash your car. Once you start house sitting in the more upscale neighborhoods or gated communities you're going to want to make sure you don't look like the Beverly Hillbillies coming into the neighborhood. Take some time to make sure your vehicle is clean and in good repair. If you have a dented fender or broken taillight, get it fixed. People may not say anything but it's a certainty they don't want a worn out looking beater in their driveway while they're gone.

Arrival protocol

Arrive on time. This is common courtesy and one instance where you don't want to be "fashionably late," especially if the owners have requested a specific time. Most of the time the owners will have some sort of plan in mind and will be basing it on your arrival time. Likewise, don't arrive early. People preparing for a big trip are often rushing to get everything ready at the last minute and don't need you in their space any sooner than necessary. 

Greet the pets. Before you arrive at the house review the information about the pets and learn their names. This helps to start an immediate bond that both the pets and the home owners will appreciate.

Take your shoes off. This sounds obvious but it's a subtle and important sign of respect. And if you're in Hawaii, leave your shoes outside. This is very important culturally. Also, make sure your big toe is not sticking out of a hole in your sock. Just sayin.

Don't unload the bulk of your belongings until the owners are gone. If you're like us, you have a LOT of things in your vehicle, and piling them all over their garage or living room while they are trying to pack and leave can be overwhelming. In our case, we carry 2 small overnight bags that contain a change of clothes and the toiletries needed for the first night. Then after the owners are off on their adventure we empty the car on our own time.

The Stay

Once the home owners are on their way there are several things we can do as house sitters to ensure the sit goes well and the owners are happy upon their return:

Take pictures of the house and property. We like to take pictures of all the rooms when we arrive. This allows us to make sure we put the house back the way we found it before the owners return. Sometimes after staying somewhere for 6-8 weeks we may have rearranged furniture a bit or moved some kitchen appliances around and this is an excellent way to look at how it was when we arrived. It also allows us to remake the bed with the 10 decorative pillows and two teddy bears the same way it was before we put them all in the closet for the next two months.

Use your own bedding. Speaking of beds, another thing we like to do is use our own bedding. The first thing we do before using a bed is carefully remove the blankets, sheets and pillow cases and put on our own. This makes the bed feel more personal, prevents the owner's linens from becoming worn or damaged in the washer/dryer, and allows us to put their linens back on without having to rewash them. Sometimes people have old, personal quilts or feather comforters and it's just better all the way around to not put them at risk.

Use your own consumables. Just because someone has allowed you to stay in their home doesn't mean they are giving you their things. The owners have paid for their consumables and you should as well. Here's the things we either buy upon arrival or replace before we leave.
  • food... Sometimes the owners will specifically ask you to eat anything fresh that will spoil while they're gone, which we do if it fits our diet. But this is not an invitation to raid their cupboards and eat all their groceries. We always buy everything we need for ourselves and leave the owner's food alone. We also carry a portable "pantry" that includes all the spices we cook with. Spices are actually kind of spendy.
  • toiletries... This includes soap, shampoo and especially toilet paper. The last thing an owner needs when they return is to have to go out and restock.
  • paper towels... Same as above. You use it, you replace it.
Communicate often. Nothing puts the owners more at ease than frequent reports that everything is going well, and seeing photos of their pets engaged in activities or snuggles. It doesn't have to be a novel. Just a few short emails or texts per week goes a long way toward providing them peace of mind and a care-free vacation.

Be available. Every now and then we will get a last minute request to take care of some business that sprang up while the home owners were gone. This may include a forgotten scheduled service call, a vet or car appointment or even a realtor showing. When these things present themselves the owners always appreciate it if you can oblige. The return of a positive experience for the owner is well worth the small investment of your time.

Fix it if you can. For this I'm referring to the little things. We carry a small tool kit with us that allows us to repair most of the day-to-day things that any homeowner might encounter, such as a jammed garbage disposal, broken light switch or clogged gutter. Of course this is dependent on the skill and comfort level of the house sitter. In one case I was able to remove a dishwasher pump and extract a small piece of glass that was preventing it from working. It's nice to be able to save the owner the cost of a service call if you can prevent it.

Replace what you ruin or break. This refers to anything you may have inadvertently damaged on your watch. For example, maybe you ruined a skillet, dropped a glass or spilled wine on a pillow. If you know what kind it is you can usually find it on Amazon. If not, let the owner know you tried and offer to pay for it.

Maintain the property. This includes mowing, raking or weeding as necessary as well as watering, harvesting fruits/vegetables and sweeping the sidewalks. In the winter it may include shoveling or raking the snow off the roof. It also includes NOT spilling oil on someone's brand new asphalt driveway and creating a huge discoloration while trying to clean it up. Not that I ever did that.

Respect the vendors. This refers to anyone the owners have contracted with to provide service at the house, including cleaning, lawn, pool, pest control and others. In these cases, always make sure the animals are contained and not in the way, or appearing threatening. There's something about the lawn service teams that seem to set dogs off every time. Also, ask the house cleaning team how they prefer to work. We always volunteer to leave the house so they can do their thing without us in the way. Sometimes they appreciate that and other times they say it's not necessary.

Be ready for company.  You never know when a neighbor or relative might stop by unannounced. For this reason you should always be presentable enough to greet them at the door and not be embarrassed. You don't need to be wearing makeup but at least make sure you're always wearing pants and your hair is combed. You know, the basics.We like to make sure the house is also at an above average level of tidy as well so Hazel next door isn't emailing the homeowner and telling them their house sitters are slobs.

Respect the neighborhood.  Again, basic common sense. The idea here is to respect quiet hours, keep the property tidy, bring in the newspapers and garbage can and clean up the doggie doo-doo daily. Nobody wants to walk by a yard full of land mines.

The Turnover

As a first impression sets the tone for the home owner's trip, the last impression sets the tone for their return... including their subsequent review. And since our review is really the only form of payment we receive, we feel it's important to return the house as shiny as possible. Here's how we approach a turnover.

Clean a little deeper. On the day before the owners return we hit the house from top to bottom. Here's the short list of things we do:
- wash all towels
- dust and vacuum all rooms
- clean the kitchen, including the refrigerator
- clean/sanitize the bathrooms
- mop all tile/hardwood floors 
- clean the washer/dryer
- sweep the patios, sidewalks and driveway
- dust all furniture, clean all hard/glass surfaces, clean all mirrors.
- wash any glass doors that pets have smudged up

Leave a little something to eat.  No one wants to come home from a long day of traveling and have absolutely nothing ready to eat. Therefore, we always like to make sure there are a few fresh basics waiting for them on their return. This includes a bowl of fruit, a loaf of bread and, if we have time, a simple meal such as pasta or homemade soup in the fridge. As strange as it sounds, not once has anyone ever been disappointed that they had something waiting for them.

Feedback

As I mentioned above, a good review is our main form of payment and critical to our success as house sitters, as it is with any business. Therefore, our philosophy is to provide the best house sitting experience possible in exchange for the opportunity to do what we love the most... traveling the world while living in nice houses for extended periods of time.

It's important to note that we don't provide this service only because we hope it will net us a good review, we do it because Charli and I have always been customer service oriented in every career we've had. It's something we both love and just part of who we are. The good reviews that come along with it are the byproduct that allows us to continue enhancing our opportunities. So hopefully other people can learn from our experiences, and if you leave yours in the comments we can learn from you as well. Thanks!