Pandemic moves: ‘I swapped WFH in a tiny London flat for pet-sitting in beautiful houses across the country’

·7-min read
The view from a dog-sitting stay in Clevedon in Somerset  (Handout)
The view from a dog-sitting stay in Clevedon in Somerset (Handout)

Working from a Georgian manor house overlooking the sparkling sea on the second floor of a four-storey Georgian manor house is not how I anticipated working when I bought a one-bedroom ex-council flat in north London.

But living alone with no outdoor space during the pandemic made me look for temporary alternatives when I was asked to work-from-home.

Now, twenty-one months since the UK went into its first lockdown, I’ve done more than 10 house sits, which has meant I’ve upgraded my living situation to beautiful homes with outdoor space and the company of pets.

You can become a house sitter through sites such as housesitters.co.uk, or you can house sit for friends or their friends by word-of-mouth, and some people even do house sitting as a paid job.

A stay in a cosy flat in Guildford felt quite isolated as thing were starting to reopen last year (Handout)
A stay in a cosy flat in Guildford felt quite isolated as thing were starting to reopen last year (Handout)

I decided Airbnb was too expensive an option to just upgrade where I worked-from-home and after browsing house sitting options, I decided to sign up for TrustedHousesitters.com. This is a well-known global membership (from £129 a year) site mainly focused on looking after people’s pets in exchange for free accommodation.

The company of pets and the responsibility to look after them has been great for my mental health through the pandemic. Stepping into stranger’s houses also means I get to experience different interiors and try out all sorts of furniture and kitchen appliances. As I put my feet up on different sofas, I am able to collate a mental moodboard of what I might like in my future dream home.

My first cat sit in August 2020 was a stylish two-floor maisonette in Bristol’s trendy Stokes Croft. It was so minimalist and thoughtful with its design, I felt like I was in an upmarket Airbnb. After the first lockdown, it was such a privilege to have a garden and this one was adorned with apple and pear trees, which I was welcome to pick.

The pros: bedroom in the basement level was cool for the hot summer and quiet for the busy, central area. The cons: the perils of a velvet sofa - not suitable for someone a bit clumsy like me.

Next up, was a stylish, cosy flat in Guildford with lovely views of the sunset. I enjoyed that the second bedroom had been made into a calming yoga room. I had made a small mistake with this one though — the balcony referred to in the listing wasn’t an outdoor one but the stairwell leading to the front door of the building.

Despite no outdoor space, which is a prerequisite for me; it was still nice to explore a town I didn’t know, just as things were reopening. However, I will add; choosing a house sit in a place where I knew nobody made me feel quite isolated.

My third sit was the best one of 2020 - a stunning Georgian family home in Henleaze, Bristol. Here, I could work from the 10-person long kitchen table under the skylight, with my feet up on the sofa in the snug, or in the bright sitting room complete with piano at the front of the house.

The kitchen was so well-equipped, airy and spacious, it made me want to cook. There was a lovely garden and an extremely comfortable bed too.

All other planned sits in 2020 were sadly cancelled due to Covid restrictions, but things picked up again in 2021 from April onwards.

This year, I decided to take on house sits in London as well as further afield. This took me to Walthamstow a couple of times, North Finchley and also to a beautiful Victorian home in Haringey.

It had a stunning garden full of blueberries and tomatoes, and Paula Rego prints throughout the house.

House sits that might be just down the road from my own home in Wood Green help me explore different areas that I might want to potentially move to in the future and catch up with friends who live in different areas.

Cat-sitting in a beautiful Victorian home in Haringey (Handout)
Cat-sitting in a beautiful Victorian home in Haringey (Handout)

Another highlight of my sits in 2021 was looking after a dog for the whole of June in the seaside town of Clevedon in Somerset. I fell in love with the labradoodle and I also fell in love with the aforementioned manor house I was lucky enough to stay in. It had a tiered garden that looked over the sea and the sunset at the top, a roof terrace at the front of the house and a huge bath.

Pros: the dog, the views, the walks. Cons: Old houses leak in stormy weather and I was a little bit scared of the Henry VIII statue in the cellar.

A sandy beach and the sea were just five minutes’ walk away when I stayed in a four-storey Grade II-listed townhouse in Ramsgate, Kent, on another dog sit in October. Being near the sea did wonders for my mental health again and I enjoyed the wood-burning stove in the cosy snug.

After all these house sits, I know I definitely want a fridge that dispenses ice and a dishwasher in my future dream home. Outdoor space is so essential too. And I’ve certainly learnt a lot about people’s eclectic tastes in their home decor and what is and isn’t for me.

Top tips for house sitting

How to find the right stays

If you are a novice, I would recommend going through one of the well-known sites as they will do verifications for you, you can read reviews and it feels safe.

If you want to become a paid house sitter, there are several online communities on sites such as Facebook, which offer support and advice on what to charge, how to be insured and how to stay safe. There are online courses available where you can learn about animal care and pet behaviour.

What to watch out for

Make sure you are aware about the level of responsibility that is expected of you from the home owner. If there are pets, they might need long walks or have additional medical needs; for example one dog I looked after needed a minimum of two hours walk per day, which personally for me was great for my health.

I’ve also had to administer a daily asthma inhaler to an elderly cat, clean out a dog’s ear and take her to the vet, and make sure pets take their medicine.

It’s good to be clear on other expectations such as what plants need watering or any parcels to be taken in.

Make sure nothing crosses your boundaries, for example I would not be comfortable with some house sitters who insist on cameras inside the house or have a lodger staying at the same time you are there.

How to do it safely

It’s good to meet the homeowner beforehand - this can be done via Zoom for an interview, or if Covid restrictions allow, it can be great to visit the home beforehand, meet the pets and make sure you have the key for day one.

For me, as a single woman, I feel comfortable doing it through a respected website. Ultimately, you have to find what works for you and your situation.

How to make the most of it

The kindness of strangers is really great in situations like these. I’ve been gifted all sorts of nice bottles of wine, food, a candle and been made to feel really at home by other people.

In return, it’s important to look after people’s homes, respect their wishes and leave it really clean.

A lot of people would prefer you not to have guests, but if I have ever wanted to invite a friend over for coffee or dinner, or have someone stay over, then I check with the owner first.

My last and final top tip is asking the owner how much communication they want from you - especially if you are looking after their beloved pet. Some people might want a daily photo, others might want to enjoy their holiday. If you establish these boundaries before the sit, it sets it up for success.

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