February 8, 2023

Before I moved from Seattle to Florida, my friend asked if I’d want to take a two-month pause in between to stay at her place in Albuquerque and pet sit her three-legged cat, Mocha.

Two months without rent or bills? Score.

She and her husband organized all their pet-sits through an app, so they asked me to sign up for it. It cost $100, and though I felt like this was just a casual arrangement between buddies, I would save at least $3,000 over the two months, so I complied without complaint. That small request, that $100 investment, that one app would revive and reinflate my life so dramatically over the next half a year that, at the end, I would mark the era with a tattoo.

It’s not like I’d never heard of pet sitting. I don’t know why I had never seriously considered it before, why it wasn’t until I actually swiped through the app that it felt like a real option.

I saw Airbnb, but with faces of pets instead of prices. Each listing included pictures of dogs or cats, goats or chickens, and the homes, with a description of responsibilities and reviews. On my end, it asked for a general description of who I am, an explanation of why I wanted to housesit, then my experience with animals, age, when I was available, and what countries I’d be interested in visiting. Though I chose any country, most of the sits are posted from places people actually get real vacation time, like the UK and Australia.

I packed my things 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 allowed me to life hop. I enjoyed the wide-open budget and the adventure so much that I kept going, completing more than 17 pet sits and spending 134 nights for free in other people’s homes, from Santa Fe to Seattle to London.

You could save a lot of money by pet sitting; if you need to pay off debt, if you need a release from the pressure of bills or living expenses, or if you’re young and have no other way to afford accommodations, 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 split the Uber. It’s nice to catch a break. Plus, when you’re alone, an extra security measure makes you feel safer. I didn’t worry about anything while staying with, for example, a 135-pound Newfoundland named Dozer in Sante Fe.

Take advantage of the trust economy

There’s a currency that pulses under the world of housesitting, and it’s the trust economy. To thrive within it, leverage what’s called your reputation capital. Ask yourself how someone would know you’re not an ax murderer. Do you have social media with a following you can link to? Do you have a job with a high trust factor, like nursing or teaching? Or perhaps you have a connection with a trusted organization you can tout. Don’t be shy when selling yourself and your trustworthiness.

Part of being trustworthy is being honest about what you can and can’t do. I love horses, but I wouldn’t pet sit a horse by myself. It just wouldn’t be fair, when someone who knows how to care for them could come. (Now an alpaca, I’d try.) If you’ve never cared for a pet, just be honest. One family still let me take care of pygmy goats on an island off Seattle, no experience necessary!

Don’t forget that as much as they’re trusting you, you are also trusting them. Get their full name and Google them. Do your minimum due diligence. I like to find people on LinkedIn or Facebook as well if possible.

Meet in person or at least over video beforehand and ask the hosts about previous sits to gauge how easy they are to please. Ask them what the most important thing about a pet sitter is to them. You can get a sense of whether or not they’re easygoing or uptight. I found people who open their homes to generally be super chill. They were my kind of people.

Get in the game by setting up notifications

I’m big about my focus, so I don’t have push alerts for nearly anything else except pet sitting posts. You can be notified when a house you favorited adds dates, or when a posting hits that meets 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 for times I know I want to travel. It often comes down to who responds the fastest, so you have to be on it.

To help me be one of the first people to apply, I wrote a quick intro letter in my phone’s notes app with blanks to fill in to customize it for each sit. You want to give yourself a head start, but be sure to add details about why you’re the best person for that particular sit. Mention anything you have in common with the owners or experience you have with that kind of pet.

Set up your pet sits for success (communication is key)

Each pet sit is a little different, so once chosen, make sure you set up expectations. Many people offered for me to eat the food in their cabinet or fridge, which was lovely, especially if they had a gallon of M&Ms in the pantry. Make sure that’s cool before you snack. Talk through everything from how long you’ll walk the dog to how often you’ll brush the cat. Be sure to read any written instructions beforehand so you can ask questions prior to them traveling.

Go above and beyond during your sit

No host gave me less than five stars because I really tried for it. I washed the sheets, cleaned more than I had to, left things better than I found them. I remember the thought going through my mind that I wanted them to think I was a good pet sitter. And in that, I realized I became a good pet sitter.

There’s nothing more reassuring than actually seeing the pet having a good time, so take lots of pictures of the pets and send them. It feels like an extra service and a nice surprise, and the homeowners tend to really appreciate it. But make sure you ask. One British couple we sat for really wanted to just relax and were good on not hearing about their four wild pups.

Prepare for when things go wrong

What about if something bad happens? The app I used has a 24/7 advice line from veterinarians, and in the written instructions, pet owners are prompted to leave you the contact information for their own vet. Owners often left, as well, the numbers of neighbors and friends close by. Don’t be afraid to lead the safety conversation. At one house, I asked where the fire extinguisher was, and they realized they didn’t have one!

Keep some savings for things like shower rod repair if you hang your toiletries bag on it and it crashes to the ground. (In the end, they told me not to worry about it.) But other things might not go to plan. At one point, a pet passed away before I got there and my services weren’t needed. So I had to figure out my own accommodations.

Consider pet sitting close to home first

During the last few years in Seattle, I’d gotten priced out of the kind of trip I used to take back when the city was less expensive: the weekend jaunt out to the mountains. I regret now that all that time I could have been looking for pet sits, which would have been free. Now where I live in Florida, I have an eye out for beach houses.

Isn’t it, you might wonder, a bit weird to live in other people’s houses? Yeah, a little! But I had a grander goal that mattered more. After two years of quarantine, I wanted some freaking adventure. After a decade living in one of the nation’s most expensive cities, I wanted some spending money. Yes, I lived in strangers’ houses. I also majorly upped my payments to my credit cards, to about what I’d been paying in rent. And instead of paying my electric bill, I took cooking classes. Instead of shelling out for wifi, I ate blue corn piñon pancakes at cafes and bought artisan earrings and scarves in the little shops in Old Town. I lived a little. All that was totally worth whatever weirdness I might have felt about being in someone’s shower.

The tattoo I ended up getting to memorialize my experience, I got in London — a match lit at an angle, as if about to set something aflame. After so long of being locked in place, I’d lost the ability to see that things might get surprising again. It’s a reminder that you never know when something new will spark. Perhaps you might even surprise yourself and find yourself in someone’s home, 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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