Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Your Home… With House-Sitting
By filling empty homes with house sitters, we could reduce construction waste, social disconnection, and stress.
“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”Steve Jobs
In a world where 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing and over 800 million face chronic food deprivation, it’s easy to despair. Costs are rising. Societal issues are escalating. Food waste has gotten out of hand, and house waste is no better.
By “house waste,” I mean homes left vacant for long stretches of the year. In Vancouver, BC — which recently introduced an empty homes tax — an estimated 11,000 houses sit empty at any given time. In England, that number is 200,000; and in Melbourne and Sydney collectively, it’s over 300,000.
These realities can be overwhelming. Faced with these statistics, it’s easy to fall into paralysis, thinking “I’m just one person, I can’t do anything.” Or we may grow numb to it all, with the same result: inaction.
In the last couple of years, I’ve found reassurance that individual actions can have an impact, in a perhaps unlikely place: the world of house-sitting. It’s a simple swap — housing in exchange for house-, garden-, and pet-care — but in that simplicity I’ve come to see a remedy for some serious social and environmental ills.
I came to house-sitting in July 2018, as a means of seeing the world on a limited budget. My first house-sitting experience was a three-week stay in New York City, watching a pair of cats: Shoes and Socks. From that first night in Queens, I was hooked — on the warm community, the loving animals, the time afforded me for creativity, the experience of being embedded in local culture, and, of course, the savings.
Through my membership with the website TrustedHousesitters, I’ve since spent three more months house-sitting — in Manhattan and Oxfordshire — and have four more months lined up in Scotland and London. I imagine I’ll carry on forever, not only because of the benefits to me, but because I’ve come to see house-sitting’s potential to make an impact beyond the individuals involved.
If you’ve ever passed through a beach town in winter, a ski resort in summer, or a university campus over the holidays, you know what a ghost town feels like. By replacing absent residents with house sitters, communities could avoid the ills associated with a drop in population: rising crime rates, a reduction in foot traffic to local businesses, and increased feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.
And, of course, house sitters form mutually beneficial — even transformative — connections within their adopted community. Emily, a fellow sitter with TrustedHousesitters, has written of her experiences: “I could not have dreamed of what an impact it would have on my family.” She highlights the pleasures of meeting “wonderful people,” acquaintances developing into friends, and watching her kids “opening up” and learning responsibility through respecting owners’ homes and caring for their pets.
Freed from the burden of paying rent, house-sitters can also contribute to communities as volunteers and creators. In an interview, TrustedHousesitters’ social media manager Angela Laws told me of her experiences house-sitting in Andalucía, Spain. An animal lover, she was able to volunteer three or four times a week at the Andalucian Rescue Centre For Horses.
It’s no secret that most artists can’t live on the proceeds of their art, and end up spending at least some of their time working a day job. Time and again, studies show art’s myriad societal benefits, but the reality of the “starving artist” persists. The beauty of house-sitting is that, by taking rent out of the equation, it gives creatives like me time to actually create. It makes us time-rich.
Personally, house-sitting has allowed me to make videos, and write poetry, articles, and now novels that wouldn’t otherwise have seen the light of day. Imagine the profound works on important issues — mental health, inequality, family dysfunction — that could be created by artists living rent-free in otherwise empty homes.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that those wishing to dedicate more time to the arts or community service simply give up stable housing arrangements and dive into full-time house-sitting. That said, I’ve come across many stays of three or four months, as well as the occasional six-month opportunity, so it’s possible to house-sit most of the year, if more uncertain than a traditional lease.
I suggest prospective sitters first test out a stay of a few weeks to see if the experience is right for them. Like any freelance “work” it’s risky at first, but over time you can build up a clientele of regulars who will ask for you, and offer longer stays. By building a reputation as a good sitter, it’s possible to make house-sitting less precarious, and use the time you gain to make the art or change you want to see in the world.
Beyond helping individuals and communities, house-sitting could also help the environment. By reducing the need for new living spaces, an increase in house-sitting would conserve land, wood, stone, metal, glass, and all the other resources that go into home construction. According to a calculation based on US Census Bureau data, the average new American home is built from 22 mature pine trees. With over a million single-family housing units built each year in the US alone, it’s no wonder only about 15% of the world’s forests remain intact.
According to research published in 2009 by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the construction sector created 26% of that country’s non-industrial waste, of which only 20–30% was recovered for recycling. In 2015, construction generated 27 million metric tonnes of debris (demolition contributed a staggering further 470 tonnes). And recent research shows that the construction industry is responsible for 23% of global carbon emissions produced by economic activity.
Those statistics make a compelling case for filling empty homes with house-sitters, even without the individual and societal benefits. The question is, how can we make it more common?
Enter: The internet
Though a source of many evils, the web does make it easy for strangers to connect, and people are using the internet to establish house-sitting relationships. Most online house-sitting platforms — including Nomador and House Sitters Canada — let users review listings for free, and only charge a fee to those wishing to apply for opportunities. Others, like HouseSitter.com, even allow users to apply for a number of house-sits before charging them.
Membership rates vary, from the surprisingly affordable Luxury House Sitting ($25 US/year) up to TrustedHousesitters ($130 US/year). The difference in cost seems to come down to things like the quality of the website experience, customer support, and the number of active listings. HouseSitter.com and TrustedHousesitters typically have thousands of house-sits available, compared to 400 or so on Nomador, 200 on HouseCarers, and 50 on HouseSit Match. Housesitting Magazine has published a detailed comparison of house-sitting sites that was recently updated.
Though most platforms promote the free exchange of services, there are some others like HouseSitter.com, that expect sitters to be paid. The home-owners on those sites generally require more maintenance for their homes, often in the form of landscaping.
The process of signing up is usually straightforward, like setting up any other online profile. However, sometimes sitters are required to provide a criminal record check, depending on the site and the homeowner. Nomador, for instance, requires a police check up-front. MindMyHouse, HouseSitter.com, TrustedHousesitters, and HouseCarers don’t, but they do encourage it. The more proof a sitter can provide a homeowner that they are who they say they are, the likelier they’ll be invited for a sit — it’s part of the trust-building process. Depending on where you live, the clearance process will require varying amounts of time and money.
Personally, I’ve found that what I spent getting set up as a house sitter pales in comparison to what I’ve saved financially, and gained personally. If we can keep growing the number of house-sitting opportunities, those savings and gains could extend to our environment and communities.
When we spoke, TrustedHousesitters’ Angela Laws reflected on the impact of our negative news cycle: “All we hear about is the bad stuff. You open the newspapers, or turn on the news, and are led to believe this world is on the brink of self-destruction, that there’s nothing good left.”
Like me, she’s found that house-sitting can be an antidote to that kind of thinking: “When you enter a community, you see that people are basically good — they’re kind, caring, and they want to enrich lives. We need to start hearing about that.”