Before moving to Florida from Seattle, my friend asked if I’d like to take a two-month break to stay at her house in Albuquerque and look after her three-legged cat, Mocha.
Two months without rent or bills? Punctuation.
She and her husband organized all the pet sitting through an app, so they asked me to apply. It cost $100, and while I thought it was just a casual arrangement between friends, it would save at least $3,000 over the two months, so I agreed without complaint. That small order, that $100 investment, that app would revive and reinflate my life so dramatically over the next semester that, in the end, I would mark the era with a tattoo.
It’s not like I’ve never heard of pet sitting. I don’t know why I had never seriously considered this before, why it wasn’t until I actually swiped through the app that it felt like a real option.
I saw Airbnb but with pet faces instead of prices. Each listing included pictures of dogs or cats, goats or chickens, and the houses, with a description of responsibilities and ratings. For my part, it asked for a general description of who I am, an explanation of why I wanted to live at the house, my experience with animals, age, when I was available, and which countries I would be interested in visiting. Although I chose any country, most of the sits are posted in places where people actually take real vacations, like the UK and Australia.
I packed my stuff into a storage unit that cost $81 a month and flew to New Mexico, where I began an experience that not only saved me a ton on travel—it also allowed me to jump-start life. I enjoyed the open-budget and adventure so much that I kept going, completing over 17 pet sits and spending 134 free nights at other people’s homes, from Santa Fe to Seattle to London.
You can save a lot of money by taking care of pets; if you need to pay off debt, if you need to get rid of the pressure of bills or living expenses, or if you’re young and have no other way to pay for accommodation, it might be for you. Pet sitting can be a perfect option for single travelers who are often financially punished for traveling alone. They have to pay for single occupancy. They don’t share Uber. It’s good to take a break. Plus, when you’re alone, an extra measure of security makes you feel more secure. I didn’t worry about a thing keeping, for example, a 135lb Newfoundland named Dozer in Sante Fe.
Take advantage of the trust economy
There is a currency that pulsates under the world of home services, and it is the trust economy. To prosper within it, leverage what is called reputation capital. Ask yourself how anyone would know you’re not an ax murderer. Do you have social media followings you can link to? Do you have a job with a high trust factor, like nursing or teaching? Or maybe you have a connection to a trusted organization that you can publicize. Don’t be shy about selling yourself and your reliability.
Part of being trustworthy is being honest about what you can and cannot do. I love horses, but I wouldn’t take care of a horse myself. It wouldn’t be fair, when someone who knows how to take care of them could come. (Now an alpaca, I’d give it a try.) If you’ve never taken care of a pet, be honest. One family even let me take care of pygmy goats on an island near Seattle, no experience necessary!
Don’t forget that as much as they trust you, you trust them too. Take the full name and Google it. Do minimal due diligence. I also like to find people on LinkedIn or Facebook if possible.
Meet in person or at least via video beforehand and ask hosts about past sessions to gauge how easy it is to please them. Ask them what the most important thing about a pet sitter is to them. You can get a sense of whether they are relaxed or uptight. I’ve found people who open up their homes to generally be super chill. They were my kind of people.
Enter the game by configuring notifications
I’m big about my focus, so I don’t have push alerts for almost anything except pet-sitting posts. You can be notified when a house you’ve favorited adds dates or when a posting arrives that meets the conditions you’re looking for. I have some searches set up for places I want to go: Hawaii, Colombia, New Zealand, and Banff, as well as times I know I want to travel. It often comes down to who responds the fastest, so you have to be on the lookout.
To help me be one of the first people to sign up, I wrote a quick cover letter in my phone’s note app with blanks to fill in and customize it for each session. You want to give yourself a head start, but be sure to add details about why you’re the best person for that particular seat. Mention anything you have in common with the owners or experience you have with this type of pet.
Set up your pet sits for success (communication is key)
Every pet sit is a little different, so once chosen, be sure to set expectations. Lots of people offered to eat the food out of their cupboard or fridge, which was lovely, especially if they had a gallon of M&Ms in their pantry. Make sure it’s cool before snacking. Talk about everything from how long you walk the dog to how often you brush the cat. Be sure to read all written instructions in advance so you can ask questions before you travel.
Go the extra mile during your session
No host gave me less than five stars because I really tried. I washed the sheets, cleaned more than I should have, left things better than I found them. I remember the thought going through my head that I wanted them to think I was a good pet sitter. And in that, I realized that I became a good pet sitter.
There is nothing more comforting than actually seeing the pet having fun, so take lots of pictures of the pets and upload them. It seems like an extra service and a nice surprise, and owners tend to really appreciate it. But be sure to ask. A British couple we sat down to really just wanted to relax and were nice not to hear about their four wild cubs.
Prepare for when things go wrong
What if something bad happens? The app I used has a 24/7 vet advice line, and in the written instructions, pet owners are asked to leave their own vet’s contact information. Often, the owners also left the number of neighbors and close friends. Don’t be afraid to lead the security conversation. At one house, I asked where the fire extinguisher was and they realized they didn’t have it!
Save some savings for things like shower rod repair if you hang your toiletries bag on it and it falls to the floor. (In the end, they told me not to worry about it.) But other things might not go as planned. At one point a pet passed away before I got there and my services were not needed. So I had to figure out my own accommodations.
Consider first sitting the pet close to the house
During the last few years in Seattle, I had lost the price of the kind of trip I used to take when the city was cheaper: the weekend drive in the mountains. I regret now that all this time I could have been looking for pet sits that would have been free. Now, where I live in Florida, I have my eye on beach houses.
You might wonder, isn’t it a little weird living in other people’s houses? Yes a little! But I had a bigger goal that mattered more. After two years of quarantine, I wanted a freaking adventure. After a decade of living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, I wanted some spending money. Yes, I lived in strangers’ houses. I also significantly increased my payments to my credit cards to about what I was paying in rent. And instead of paying my electric bill, I took cooking classes. Instead of spending money on Wi-Fi, I ate blue corn pancakes at cafes and bought handmade earrings and scarves at the little shops in the Old Town. lived a little. All of this was totally worth any awkwardness I might have felt about being in someone’s shower.
The tattoo I ended up getting to commemorate my experience I got in London – a match lit at an angle, as if about to set something on fire. After being locked in place for so long, I lost the ability to see that things could get amazing again. It’s a reminder that you never know when something new will come along. Maybe you’ll even be surprised and find yourself at someone’s house, a new furry friend on your lap, a new view out the window.
Paulette Perhach is a freelance writer and writing coach covering creativity, personal finance, business, life design, and travel.
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