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Home from Home - our guide to house-sitting

Home from Home - our guide to house-sitting

As the holiday season nears, have you wondered about inviting a house sitter to look after your home or considered becoming one yourself? Helen Millar sets out to investigate the pros and cons of just such a relationship…

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My cousin contacting me from the Dordogne to ask me to find him a house sitter was a happy coincidence. He required a capable couple to keep an eye on his sprawling domain. I in turn, with a walking friend Françoise, wanted to become a sitter. I’m all for seeing France on a budget. And while my cousin and I weren’t right for each other, it gave me the opportunity to explore the world of the sitters and the sat!

The good news is that there are lots of websites offering introductions. They put people in touch with each other, some require fees and some don’t. Always keen on the human angle, I went directly to the testimonials – and no surprise, everyone had had an amazing experience. It all seemed a bit too good so I browsed further and found blogs and feedback elsewhere from both hosts and sitters, some more troubling. I found a video of a dreamy pair of dancing hippies in someone’s château inviting everyone in the US to follow their example. I shuddered. I was sure in my bones I wouldn’t want them taking care of my shed let alone my château.So I gathered my own feedback.

I discovered Tom and Gillian lurking in the aisles of Géant, and Gill was more than happy to spill the beans. She laughed as she spoke, which was reassuring. Let down by a relative they turned to house sitters, they had tickets booked for Australia, departure imminent. Tom wasn’t keen on having strangers in the house Gill admitted, and at this point he wandered off in search of cheese and Gill whispered that actually they’d fallen out badly over it. It was her fault they couldn’t lock up and leave, she’d filled the place with two dogs, four cats, and a three legged rescue donkey. Kennels weren’t an option. She posted on two sites and immediately got thirty responses which they whittled down to one - a lovely older couple from Nottingham, retired teachers. So they booked them up.

However disaster struck again, the house sitters pulled out. Tom was beside himself and Gill admitted that, animals in mind, she naively went back to the list and chose a couple of young women who said they were vets. She carried out no checks. It was Tom, returning with an armful of goodies, who told me that it was the best thing they’d ever done! They could have been anyone, he chortled, but they turned out to be ideal and they loved the house so much that they’ve been back three times. What was a business arrangement has become a friendship. It was a leap of faith, laughed Tom, like one of those dating sites, you get what you get and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t! It’s a lovely attitude and it sums up the central dilemma of house sitting.

But I thought it perhaps a little chancy for my meticulous cousin. So I turned to one of the first home sitting agencies in France, now in their twenty sixth year. Jean-Claude and Annie are loyal house sitters. They pay nothing to the agency but must take out insurance and provide an introductory letter, an extensive file of information, a CV, a police check and must first go on a trial visit to a client before being added to the list of available sitters. It’s the eventual clients who pay the agency, about 150 euros a week to have their house looked after. Jean-Claude used to run a holiday village on Ile d’Oléron and is scrupulously tidy, a fact demonstrated in his own impeccable house in Saintes. Annie assures me that they follow the rules strictly, after all she says, we’ve had wonderful holidays across France and wouldn’t want to spoil that by getting bad feedback. For the house owners this isn’t a holiday let, it’s a house sit and people must respect their hosts.

I wondered whether the exchange of money led to more peace of mind and a chat with Ruth confirmed that it was this peace of mind that some sites played on. A family emergency meant she had to return to the UK leaving her little dog behind. She signed up to the most prestigious looking fee-paying site, heaving with photos of glorious houses, reams of professional looking advice and frothy testimonials. She assumed that it was a cut above the free sites. She didn’t have time to go into much detail and quickly chose a retired couple who’d previously lived in rural France. The man arrived on the appointed day and it was then that Ruth had her first qualms, he seemed frail and she hated handing over the key. He said his wife would arrive later. Ruth left and indeed his wife did arrive with a large dog in tow (against the rules and not in their agreement). Ruth returned to a dirty house, a badly scratched dining table and, more importantly, a terrorized dog. They’d been through all her things and they’d even got into her computer - it cost a fortune to sort out the WiFi the man had fiddled with. Ruth’s a jolly open woman but even she was left feeling violated. She said the whole set-up of the introduction site made her think it was secure but it was her fault, she said, she made assumptions that she shouldn’t have but obviously they were the assumptions the website encouraged.

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I was losing heart until I met the redoubtable no-nonsense Natasha. She runs a bike hire company with her partner and lives in a country home with children and pets, she uses UK sitters regularly. She’s a born business woman. In a machine gun delivery of utter good sense (she was in a hurry) she told me there was no point in going on to a paid site because none of them could deliver absolute security – pro-forma contracts are not legally binding, insurance worries have to be sorted out with your own insurer, the veracity of references have to be checked by the hosts – I checked the small print on countless sites, there are disclaimers everywhere.

Added to which, Natasha suggests that the accompanying photos on sites can be misleading, they add a level of unreal expectation from house sitters. If anything, she undersells her half renovated (though lovely) house because disappointed expectations can make house sitters destructive. She admits to being a control freak so makes sure that the sitters have their own area/ bedroom/bathroom, removes or secures all documents and valuables, never asks them to do work other than look after pets and check the building’s security. She believes that generous hosts make for contented sitters, which in turn means everything is hunky dory when they get home.

Natasha has found there are far more sitters than properties so she can be choosy. For her, candidates must provide checkable references, professional links, Facebook information, a police check, photocopies of passports, a current utility bill and she checks the electoral register. There’s no room for worrying about hurt feelings she assures me, if anyone refuses this level of security she just moves on to the next candidate. For her part, she provides a twenty page dossier on the house/pets/neighbours and their foibles along with tempting tourist information. They do mutually agree on a contract but really, she says, it’s not legally binding it’s just about managing expectations and she obviously does that rather well.
So with all the good advice buzzing in my brain I found a five month sit for my cousin who even agreed to pay his early retiree sitters for extra maintenance work. Meanwhile, Françoise and I are off to La Rochelle to a single lady’s house and her treasured pedigree dog. Bon courage!

SOME USEFUL SITES

www.housecarers.com

www.mindmyhouse.com

www.trustedhousesitters.com

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www.housesitworld.com

www.hectictravels.com

www.pinterest.com

 

TOP TIPS FOR HOUSE OWNERS

- Websites can only offer an introduction – like on-line dating.

- Don’t assume a professional looking site means extra security, it doesn’t.

- Sign up to more than one site. Take time to demand and check references, don’t assume the site does it, they don’t.

- Check especially that sitters have a fixed domicile.

- Be choosy. Don’t feel you’ll hurt feelings by demanding extensive details, there’s a queue of sitters out there.

- Be generous and demand the minimum of chores from sitters. If you want them to work, pay them!

- If it’s a long sit don’t quibble over paying the utility bills, you’ve already saved a fortune on agency or kennel fees.

- Make sure a friend or neighbour drops by regularly.

- Leave as much information as you can about the house/pets and region.

- Check that your insurance company knows the position and that both house and sitters are correctly insured.

- If your sitters are good, remember to post good feedback

 

TOP TIPS FOR SITTERS

- Provide as much proof of identity as you can and a personal statement.

- You’re in a competitive market so don’t get shirty if the owners demand a high level of paperwork.

- Do add professional standing, Facebook links etc. They reassure the owner.

- Match yourself to the property.

- Young retired couples are in demand but people with smaller or town properties will take women friends.

- Don’t snoop, it’s not nice.

- Don’t re-set electrical equipment or the TV, use the house as it is.

- Bring a lap-top.

- Feel free to use food that will go off but buy your own supplies.

- Don’t drink the vintage.

- Replace breakages.

- Make sure the pets are happy, exercised and alive, after all you’ve probably loved being in France and want to become that precious commodity – the perfect house sitter!

Helen Millar presents AngloFile, the English-language radio slot for RCF Accords (www.rcf.fr). In the UK, under the name Rosemary Mason, she was one of the original writers for Eastnders.

Published Living Poitou-Charentes 2013 © All rights reserved