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What I’ve Learned From a Year of House-Sitting: A Practical Guide

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.

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My personal stuff, minus bike and bike kit, which is usually stays in the van as “breakdown cover”

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My music stuff (shed-loads I know, but with a van, I can)

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.
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Everything stays in bags

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Portable food cupboard

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.

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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.

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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!

-Kimwei

Also check out the Symphony For Happines Vlog

… and connect with me @:

facebook.com/kimweidotcom

Music @:

kimwei.com

youtube.com/kimweidotcom

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How To Pack Light For A Week’s Travel

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Nope, can’t imagine doing this…

I’ve always been interested in packing light, probably because as a musician I’m inevitably carrying a heavy instrument as well. My guitar weighs 6kg, so adding much more restricts my freedom and makes it hard to squeeze into trains, or run for busses.

After each trip I do by train/bus/plane, I evaluate what I took. Was my enjoyment hampered by not bringing something? Or, did I spend 4 days waiting for my shoulders to un-knot because I carried too much?

Here’s what I’ve concluded:

  1. Being without something you need just plain sucks – I don’t subscribe to the buy-it-when-you-get-there plan, since I’ve often found I can’t.
  2. You can pack pretty light and still have everything you need, with some clever planning.
  3. Travelling with a light pack seriously improves everything. Getting it right can literally be the difference between loving a trip and hating it.
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Guitar, 20 backpack and handbag

Last week I travelled to the UK (from France) for 8 days, and took less luggage than ever before. Rather than my usual 35L hiking backpack, I took a 20L rucksack plus small handbag.

In a nutshell, here’s what I had.

  • Essentials (Wallet, passport hidden in a notebook, keys, tickets)
  • 3 changes of clothes (including what I wore to travel) and a thin raincoat. It’s June (15-23 degrees C) so light clothes only.
  • Laptop (+ cables)
  • Phone (+ cables & power bar)
  • Toiletries (minimal – toothbrush & paste, floss, mooncup, almond oil)
  • Portable office (computer glasses, headphones, bluetooth keyboard and spare batteries, usb mouse, usb sticks [to back up])
  • Comforts (meditation stuff, sunglasses, sewing kit, penny whistle, flip flops, notebooks & pens.
  • Guitar

Every item has been considered, and I’ve tried travelling with or without it. You can get by with less clothing, unless something goes wrong and you having to wear wet trousers till they dry. Sunglasses and flip-flops make life a lot more comfortable. I think better writing longhand, so I bring notebooks. The office accessories give me a much better experience of working on the road.

The whole lot weighs 5-6kg, and leave plenty of room in the rucksack to bring my own food to save money, plus fit in a gift for my hosts (adding another 2kg, at least until after lunch)

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Learning a new piano piece en-route.

What I like about this set up:

  1. I can access the handbag whilst walking along, instead of having to stop and unzip a backpack.
  2. The laptop, flip-flops and 2 packing cubes can be neatly laid out when I arrive. This 10 second unpack leaves the rucksack empty for use as a daypack.
  3. As I recently “went paperless”, my minimal luggage now includes all my books, music and sheet music.
  4. A lighter and smaller rucksack is much more comfortable on the shoulders.

Finally, here are some things I don’t travel with:

  • Towel or travel towel – there’s always my scarf. Did you know that you can also use a square scarf as a bag?
  • Books – digitised
  • Kindle – reading on a smartphone is fine
  • High tech clothes – For now, I’d like to see if this can be done with normal clothes.
  • Laptop stand – I balance it on my pack to raise it to eye hight.
  • Travel pillow – I use my rolled up jacket.
  • Eyemask – I use a buff, since it doubles as a tube scarf. An eyemask doesn’t double as anything.
  • Exercise stuff – actually, I never used to bring exercise stuff, I just didn’t exercise. Since I’ve learned to work out with no equipment, and can do it on the road to unstiffen after long hours in transit.

So, how did it go? Well, it was fantastic to navigate trains, tubes and busses with so little luggage, especially if I had to run, or squeeze into a packed metro. I used every single item I packed, so only could have packed lighter if the items themselves were lighter.

I craved more clothing, as the 3 sets I’d brought were all for different temperatures and the wrong set always seemed dirty on the wrong day.

At the same time, I still felt I had too much to carry and avoided walking for more than 30mins at a time. The same load might have been easier with a better backpack, but it was mainly the weight of the guitar that got me. I’m glad I brought it though. I played it every day and even managed a sing-along on one train, and gave a guitar lesson on another.

My denim jacket was another matter. It’s got 8 secret pockets, which will be awesome for winter travel, but this time I carried it more than I wore it, and should have packed a light jumper instead.

I wonder what I’d add if I was travelling full time but was limited to this setup. Probably two more cubes of clothes, a multitool (?), and two external hard drives. All that would still fit in the little backpack. If I went back to the 35L bag I could add my portable recording studio too. I’d also like someone to invent a super-lightweight guitar flight-case.

-Kimwei

Also check out the Symphony For Happines Vlog on youtube

… and connect with me @:

facebook.com/kimweidotcom

Music @:

kimwei.com

youtube.com/kimweidotcom

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