I’ve house-sat here and there since 2012, but 2016 is my first year of pretty much full-time house-sitting. The longest stint in a property has been 4 months and the shortest 2 weeks. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Note: This is a post about the practicals involved in living in someone’s home whilst they’re away, how to take care of a house and logistically deal with frequent moving. It doesn’t cover the host-sitter relationship or how to find a house-sit.
BTW – I’m travelling HEAVY for a house-sitter, since I have a van, but many of these tips will apply to one-bag travellers too. It also might help university goers, since what I’m doing also resembles the frequent house-moves students must undergo. Travelling heavy is a no brainer if you have a vehicle as you can move with your consumables instead of throwing out and re-buying them every time.
My personal stuff, minus bike and bike kit, which is usually stays in the van as “breakdown cover”
Moving Tips: The Load-In
After months of moving from property to property and unpacking at each place, I finally realised it was much simpler never to unpack. Instead, I organise my stuff in bags in such a way that everything inside each bag is accessible. I don’t hang my clothes in a wardrobe but keep them in packing cubes. I even keep my cupboard-food in crates so when it comes to moving out I can just grab the crate as it is.
Not unpacking has several advantages:
- Whatever house I’m in, I always know where everything I own IS, because it’s in the same bag as always, not in an alien drawer.
- Hosts live in their houses, so they may not have empty cupboards for your things too (exception pictured below).
- It makes the load-in and load-out incredibly easy.
Everything stays in bags
House care: What Not To Touch!
The trickiness of what to touch and what not to touch has always foxed me when it comes to house-sitting. In a longer house-sit, it’s practical to move a few things, or easy to wash up dishes and put them back on the wrong shelves by mistake. In theory this is ok, and most hosts will be fine with you moving anything you like “as long as you put it back”. The problem is, 3 weeks / months later it’s quite hard to remember what you’ve moved and where it came from. Getting it wrong could irritate your host for weeks to come, not because they mind the relocation of objects on principle, but because they can’t find their cheese grater / dish cloths / particular book.
I’ve tried several strategies to combat this problem. I used to take over 50 photos of a property before load-in, but both the photographing and the “returning to factory settings” at the end of the house-sit just proved too time consuming; turned out I’d moved so many objects without knowing it.
Tip: If a host says “read any books”, always half pull out the book below/left of the one you’ve taken so you can see at a glance where it came from.
I called a friend who’s house-sat for years and asked him how he dealt with this conundrum. Giving equal weight to each word he said slowly “I NEVER TOUCH ANYTHING!” The oracle had spoken. This became my next strategy. However this felt too restrictive. For example, in one cold house I wanted hot tea in bed before rising in the mornings, so a friend suggested moving the kettle into the bedroom. My immediate reaction was: “out of the question!” since “I never touch anything”, but reason persuaded me that the middle path was to give in. After all, I was unlikely to forget that the kettle came from the kitchen. Now I move a few things if needed, but write it down; you think you’ll remember, but you won’t!
Other tips on this matter:
If a host says “don’t use this”, seriously don’t. Integrity aside, it’s not as simple as “they’ll never know”; sod law dictates that if you do use it, it will break and then you’ll have to explain yourself. It could ruin your house-sitter-rep, which, as we all know, is worth more than gold.
On the subject of breakages, own up to every single one for the same reason. You can plan not to break anything, since you’re a careful person, but it’s not that simple. For example, in one house, two glasses were smashed by the chimney-sweep who, rotating his 10ft flue-brush into position, knocked them off the dish dryer! I’d never have seen that one coming. However, good precautions include avoiding the use of unique or hand-made crockery, and glass lamps. I also practice using fewer things within a house (e.g. one mug, one towel), since that’s fewer things to clean and remember where to put back. Having a van, I can also bring some kitchen stuff, and bedding. This really takes the stress out of it for me.
Keep all your stuff in one place/room. Don’t be tempted to hang your coat on the coat rack, or put your keys on the shelf by the door. It may seem ludicrous, but trust me, it’s better in the long run. Dotting your stuff around the house is the quickest way to get it mixed up with your host’s stuff and risk forgetting it on load-out. It also ruins your travel habits. If you really need a dumping ground, pick a totally clear surface and use that.
House Care: How To Clean Up
Cleaning is one of the hardest things for me. I both dislike it, and have no natural aptitude for it. In fact, I rejoiced at the idea of Digital Nomad-ing as I expected that travelling would result in having to do less cleaning. How wrong I was; the properties I take care of are much larger than anywhere I’ve ever rented, and it’s necessary to keep them much cleaner. I spend a lot of time on cleanmyspace.com and boy has Melissa saved me time over all!
Here are a few things I’ve learned the hard way:
Keep it clean. At first I’d imagined I’d clear up all in one go at the end of the house-sit, and do as little as possible during.
This doesn’t work.
Although less overall time is spent cleaning, it’s hard to predict how long that final clean-up will take, causing stress or rushing. Also, what happens if a neighbour pops in the day before you move out of a 2 week house-sit, and sees 2 weeks’ washing-up piled high? Well, they are likely to tell your host that on their return.
Contrary to my instincts, it’s actually better to keep the place looking as much like a show home as possible (which means daily attention) throughout the house-sit. This results in immunity to “drop-in’s”, or host’s early return. It also shortens the final clean-up; at my last 2-weeker it took under an hour.
Finally, try and leave the place cleaner than you found it, by choosing something extra to attend to… in some cases this is impossible. In most cases I find I can at least tidy kitchen cupboards, and sort through the fridge. By the way, with careful planning and strategic eating it is possible to eat down the contents of the fridge and cupboards and move with almost no food. Do this if you can; it’s much easier.
Moving Tips: The Pack-Down and Load Out:
If you’re me there’s hardly any pack-down, since everything’s already packed. If you’re a one-bag traveller, even less. But what about the things you’re using right up until you leave? Do you pack then clean, or the other way around?
One idea, which works in a safe area, is to pack an overnight bag, and load-out everything else to the vehicle a day in advance.
However, I find that the minimum disruption is to clean the room nearest the front door first, move my bags to that room, then keep cleaning (as pictured at the top of this post – my move-out-formation of luggage). That means everything is accessible right-up until the clean-up is finished, but isn’t in the way. Need a snack? Finish early and fancy playing guitar? All is possible with this method. Finally, before the 10min load out, I like to prepare the van’s front seat with accessible snacks and a thermos of tea.
One of my favourite tricks, since I bring my own bedding, is to transplant the whole thing like this.
Hope this unapolagetically long post has helped you in your house-sitting/travelling/nomadic lifestyle. Do please send me more tips, especially any on housework!
Also check out the Symphony For Happines Vlog
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