I rang in my 30th birthday lounging by an outdoor pool in the Portuguese countryside, overlooking a flock of flamingoes. They bathed in their pond-like enclosure while I sipped on a bubbling mimosa and pet a sleepy Labrador. It was the perfect setting, but the house, the pool, and the animals were not mine. The reality of being a 30 year-old house sitter suddenly hit me. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a fraud. I took a deep breath and another sip…
House sitting is the act—and perhaps art—of watching over someone’s home and pets while they travel in exchange for room and board. While the arrangement varies from house sit to house sit, it usually means looking after someone’s domain as if it were your own for a predetermined period of time. It is designed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Though the practice is nothing new, there are now a number of established websites that facilitate house sits for strangers across the globe.
A growing number of travelers are taking advantage of long term house sitting to achieve their travel goals. It offers an affordable alternative to hostels and hotels for backpackers, long-term travelers, and van-lifers alike. My partner and I first considered house sitting after reading articles online; one was written by a digital nomad couple who house sat across Australia until they’d saved up enough for a house. Other house sitters wrote about finding the comforts of home on the road, experiencing the joy of reconnecting with animals, and living like locals in faraway places.
We quickly saw the appeal of house sitting. We had made the leap to online work in 2017, backpacked across India for six months, then made a home base of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Our one-year stint was quickly coming to a close while any future plans had failed to materialize. We talked seriously about staying in Europe, living as digital nomads in Southeast Asia, or embarking on a van adventure in North America. We hoped to continue exploring lifestyles outside of the more typical 9 to 5. If house sitting wasn’t the answer, it could at least postpone our decision-making.
Emboldened by red wine, we signed up for TrustedHousesitters, a ‘community of pet lovers who help each other travel’. We sifted through countless house sit listings, imagining ourselves caring for dogs on the Italian coast or tending to horses in the French countryside. Then we landed on a 3-month long term house sitting in Portugal. It was set to start immediately after our apartment lease expired, as if fated for us. We applied for the gig and awoke the next morning to an unexpected response: a request to interview on Skype.
It all fell into place so seamlessly, there wasn’t time to question it. Fast forward a few months and there we were, collected from the Coimbra train station by a cheerful British couple in their seventies. Margaret, a former-nurse and Richard, a bird expert, were both welcoming and witty. Their property was ensconced on a sleepy hill above a town so tiny that locals in Lisbon and Porto didn’t even know of it. We were introduced to the rest of the family—nine dogs, two cats, a chicken coop, and countless birds including flamingoes, peacocks, crown cranes, and tropical species of every hue. Then we were whisked away to a guest house overlooking the flamingo pond and left to settle in. As you can imagine, it was a lot to take in.
By the time our hosts left for their holiday, we had eased into our new home and routines. They had surprised us with some lovely outings and ensured that we had the lay of the land. More importantly, we knew all eleven pets by name and most of the birds by species. A typical day started with coffee on the porch to the surprisingly pleasant honking of flamingoes. Breakfast was usually made with eggs collected from the coop. We broke up hours of work by letting the labradors into our yard for a play date, or by taking the German Shepherd, Japanese Akita, and chubby Beagle for a run along eucalyptus-lined trails. Feeding began promptly at 5 o’clock and took about an hour with the requisite tidying up. Watering all of the plants on the property took another hour so we didn’t mind days with a little rain. We filled the rest of our time with reading, swimming, writing, and a little exploring.
Those considering a house sit should bear in mind that it is a full-time commitment with certain limitations. We spent most of our time at home but had come prepared for it. We were happy to soak up a place we knew to be temporary. We occasionally drove their car into town to grab groceries and restock fruit for the birds or food for the dogs; believe it or not, you get some strange looks when your shopping cart is loaded with 96 cans of dog food. We also embarked on a few day trips to charming old towns and national parks, always back by 5 pm to feed the hungry gang. As predicted, there were also incidents we weren’t prepared for. These include the Labrador that wounded his leg, the wingless birds that the cat dragged in, and the disappearing Beagle. The worst incident was caused by a couple of stray dogs who broke into the ostrich enclosure and chased one out of the pen. It took a whole lot of yelling, frantic stick-waving, and some backup to sort that one out.
Our long term house sitting commitment was lonely and isolating at times, despite the motley crew of animals that kept us busy. We also made a handful of meaningful human connections. I practiced Portuguese with Fatima, Jose, Ricardo, and Johnny who cared for the birds and did construction work on the property. We enjoyed regular vegan dinner parties with Donna and Jon, the British house sitters up the road who were travelling across Europe in a converted Land Rover Defender ambulance called Gerty. Richard and Margaret kept in touch and by the time they returned, it felt like we were welcoming back family.
Besides that brief moment of second-guessing, I’ve embraced house sitting wholeheartedly. We dared to experiment and in return, gained an idyllic home and new friendships in a foreign country. The experience was as enjoyable as it was productive; I learned basic Portuguese, fell in love with trail running, and wrote a screenplay. And I can proudly declare that I’ve wrangled an ostrich. Poignantly, our Portuguese oasis also offered a quiet place to reflect on two years abroad. I came to the realization that a home is what you build; it can take many forms and embrace you for any length of time.
We’ve since returned home to Canada and bought our own refuge, a tiny apartment on a ski hill at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. We still work online. We still plan to explore with one-way tickets. And we definitely still plan to house sit. In short, we are growing roots but remain open to the serendipity of new surroundings.
It may sound strange to live in someone else’s house and fill their shoes but for us, it was a gift; we found a home on the road and a window into a new community. While house sits generally attract budget-conscious backpackers and animal-loving travelers, this enriching experience is open to everyone. If you’re curious about exploring the meaning of home, then house sitting long term just might suit you.