Finding comfortable and affordable accommodations is one of the most difficult aspects of long-term travel. What if you could find quality, furnished apartments and stay for free? House sitting might be the answer. Professional house sitter, Teresa Roberts, author of the book Finding the Gypsy In Me – Tales of An International House Sitter, shares her experiences house sitting around the world in this interview.
Please tell us a little about your background?
I was born and raised in the United States. I sort of grew up on the road. You might say that I inherited the gypsy blood from my father. Most of my adult life, I lived in the state of Maine. That is where I raised my two kids. For about fifty years, I was in school. That’s the truth! I was either a student, a classroom teacher, or a principal of an elementary school. No matter which category, I have been on the school schedule for most of my life. I made a decision not too long after my youngest graduated from college to retire early. I was fifty-four years old. I actually still enjoyed my career as an educator at that point, but I had a strong urge to free myself up from routine responsibilities and roam the planet. It was a powerful desire. My pension from the state of Maine, although modest, not only funds my travels, but my husband’s travels as well.
What was the impetus to retire early?
No major trauma of any kind served as the driving force behind my decision to retire early. Mostly, it was a measure of self awareness that came into play and helped me to define what I wanted to do when I finally grew up. All that I knew for sure was that I wanted two things. I wanted to experience a level of freedom from convention and certain self-imposed feelings of responsibility. I also wanted to find out what it would be like to live all over the world. I wasn’t interested in tourism, particularly. I was drawn to the quieter aspects of living in a community and having as many new cultural and natural experiences as possible.
How did you get started in house sitting?
Quite by accident, most would say. I had never heard of anyone house sitting in the way I planned on doing it. Before I got the idea to become an international house sitter, I had thought of house sitting more as a local business endeavor where someone might take care of homes in the town where they lived. So in the beginning, I traveled for almost a year, outside of the United States, by renting holiday houses and apartments. The hitch was that I usually rented those places for longer stretches, up to ninety days. That would qualify me for massive reductions in price. It was after that first year that I stumbled across house sitting on an international level. I actually found out about it online, but I have to believe that for me, personally, it wasn’t a fluke but rather the universe delivering an answer to my powerful desires.
Where have you house sat so far?
I have taken care of houses in Prague, multiple places in Mexico, England, Spain, the isle of Saba in the Dutch Antilles, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and more. I have even taken care of a 57-foot boat in Baja California. I have lived in Malta, Italy, and Ireland multiple times as well. I return regularly to Spain as a house sitter. I return regularly to Ireland and Mexico as well. Usually, I only take assignments for no less than three weeks and no more than ninety days. I am not opposed to recycled assignments.
Do you get paid to house sit?
I do not get paid. I use the bartering system. There are two things that I have discovered that make my new life possible. The first one is living without debts. The second one is bartering. For the price of an airline ticket, I can live in, let’s say Malta, for 90 days. That means that for roughly $900, I get to live in a beautiful region of the world, not as a tourist but as a community member for months on end. Only the painfully rich could afford to travel for three months. It would require thousands and thousands of dollars. Give me that money and I can do what I do for a year or more. You see, when you no longer have to pay for hotels, restaurant food and car rentals, you have a lot of money left in your pocket. I negotiate for amenities, however. I have had pools, the use of cars, maids, gardeners, tickets to the opera, keys to the wine cellar, a fully-stocked pantry and more. Money becomes much less important when all of your day to day needs are taken care of on a regular basis.
Do homeowners typically expect a lot of work to be done on their homes and yards?
Every assignment is different. That’s why I negotiate on an individual basis. I normally contract for two hours of hands-on tasks a day.
How long is the typical stay?
I prefer no less than 3 weeks and no more than 90 days. Most of the assignments that I have accepted have been in countries where I am allowed to stay for 90 days on my American passport. Except for England, Ireland and Mexico where it is possible for me stay up to six months. As a general rule, I house sit outside of the United States.
When you are house sitting, do you still have time for sight-seeing, work or other personal activities?
I definitely get to indulge myself in lots of local activities. I also will take day trips here and there, just as long as I can return at the end of the day to my assignment. After all, I have promised to remain on the premises while the home owner is gone.
Have you had any major problems while home-sitting?
No problems with owners, but then I have a specific method for selecting assignments. Most of my former clients have become friends of mine and many call me back for a repeat assignment.
I have had a few issues living abroad. I had my camera lifted on a tram in Prague. My husband lost his money belt in Malta, containing our passports and credit cards. Not true emergencies, after all. We reacted to them at the time as though they were though. We have become a lot more relaxed these days about occasional problems on the road. Most things work out in the end. However, our clients and the houses and pets that we cared for have been mostly very enjoyable.
Do you still maintain a house in the US?
We have done both. My first couple of years as an international house sitter, I still owned my home in Maine. It was not impossible to do both, but after I sold my house and 99% of all of my personal possessions, I traveled without ownership issues. That was great! It was kind of like being seventeen again with money in my pocket. When my granddaughter was born, I returned stateside and rented an apartment for a while. That is easy, too. You can just lock your apartment up and go away. No property responsibilities to drag you down!
Your website says you sold everything, does that mean you are living nomadically now?
I was living nomadically for a while and loved it. Each year has been different as my needs change. That is the beauty of being retired. There are a lot fewer rules in my life. I like living without tons of restrictions, even self-imposed ones. The fact of the matter is, there are lots of different models for traveling the way I do. I like to think that international house sitting can be a useful method of travel for all kinds of people, not just empty nesters and retirees. With a little imagination, it is encouraging what people can come up with in order to see their dreams manifested.
What do you do between house sitting gigs?
I sometimes rent holiday houses between gigs. For example, at the end of an assignment in England, I decided to return to Ireland, so I rented a holiday apartment in Killarney for two months.
You wrote a book on house-sitting, can you tell us about it?
Finding the Gypsy In Me – Tales of An International House Sitter, was published in August 2011. It can be purchased on Amazon as a Kindle book and paperback version.
I noticed that people always reacted with great interest to my adventures as an international house sitter. Most people had never heard of doing it, at least not the way I do it. They were fascinated! I usually had to drop what I was doing and explain how it worked. I loved watching their faces light up with awe. People tend to believe that only wealthy people could live the life that I have lived. When they find out that I am just an ordinary gal doing this on an ordinary income, they love it!
Yes, the book has really taken off! Lots of people are looking for creative routes to freedom these days.
Can you recommend websites to find house-sitting opportunities?
I recommend my own web site: findingthegypsyinme.com. It features my book, of course, but it has a broader theme. I want to explore creative paths to freedom. I have met loads of interesting people during my travels. These were ordinary people with ordinary incomes who found a way to live a life that they were truly intended to live. My blog is a continual exploration of this theme. I also list other recommended web sites and resources that may help people to sort through their choices, including finding house-sitting opportunities.
Can you offer any advice for people considering house-sitting for a vacation or as a more permanent way to travel?
Yeah, read my book! Gypsy is an equal mixture of inspirational storytelling and practical advice. I say in the book that by the time a person finishes reading it, they will know everything that I know. It really is full of a lot of information about how to go about being an international house sitter.
In general, stay out of debt. It will be much easier to create your own path to freedom if you are free of debt. Also, be able to articulate your dream. Make it specific. Picture yourself in the perfect location, doing the things that you are good at doing. I spent a lot of time defining that for myself. By the time I was ready to go, there was a part of me that had already arrived and was just waiting for me to catch up with it. I spend more time thinking about who I am becoming than I do about where I have been. That is where the magic lies.