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Trustworthy to house sit for free? Grab your passport

Andrew Peck, founder of Trustedhousesitters.com, tended a pool at a house in Galicia, Spain. Andrew Peck, founder of Trustedhousesitters.com, tended a pool at a house in Galicia, Spain. (Photo Courtesy Trustedhousesitters.Com)
By Joseph A. Lieberman
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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“So let me get this straight: We choose a house we’d like to stay at for a couple of months in, say, France or Australia, and we get to live there for free?’’

“Well, not quite that simple. There is a membership fee of up to $60 for a year,’’ says the British-accented voice on the phone, “and of course you’d need to submit basic info about who you are, and why you’re seeking an overseas living experience.’’

Why indeed. Who wouldn’t want a chance to live for free in the overseas home of their dreams, even if only for a week or two? That mixture of wanderlust and practicality is exactly what English entrepreneur Andrew Peck is counting on with his Trustedhousesitters.com website, launched in November.

“But what about the homeowners?’’ I say. “What are they getting out of this? Wouldn’t they rather rent their place out for cash, or leave it empty but untouched during their absence?’’

Peck has a ready answer. “To the surprise of many homeowners,’’ he says, “houses left unoccupied for long periods of time, usually over 30 days, may lose their full insurance coverage. Insurers know that empty houses or flats are more exposed to burglary and arson, not to mention burst pipes and other weather-related damage. Then there’s maintaining healthy plants and gardens, and of course, if there’s pets, it’s far less expensive, and less stressful for the animal, to have them cared for at home.’’

Peck’s website makes it clear that each side must win approval from the other. He cautions, “There may be several sitters competing for one house, but even if it’s only one, the owner still has the right to refuse.’’

Nevertheless, I suggest, sitters seem to have the advantage. Having not only a place to stay but also a fully equipped kitchen saves on both hotel and meal costs. Taking care of pets and plants, especially if you enjoy both, is a fair price to pay.

“We think the benefits far outweigh the risks for all parties concerned,’’ Peck says. “Most owners conduct a quite detailed interview process, just as they would if renting out the place. Contact is made online, then continued by exchanges of e-mails, photos, video clips if you have them, and maybe Skyping a few times to build up trust. Feedback from homeowners so far has been extremely positive, as sitters appear to take better care of houses and pets than renters do.’’

After signing up, house sitters can improve their prospects by posting references from business associates, pastors, and the like on their profile, and by voluntarily submitting a police report that confirms they have no criminal record. In our case, we went to the local sheriff’s office and got a report in six minutes for $10.

Before pressing the “join’’ button, I tried to come up with possible disadvantages for house sitters. I thought of only one: By basically committing to remain within one limited geographic area, travel would likely be restricted to exploring the local scene in same-day or perhaps overnight trips, especially when there are pets to consider.

“Yet it’s exactly that attachment to a single place which makes this concept so attractive to many people,’’ Peck counters. “They don’t want to visit as a tourist, they want to experience living there as good neighbors, shopping at the market square, trimming the hedge, bicycling to the post office, that sort of thing. Sitters are most often experienced travelers who’ve done the rapid sightseer tours and now want a deeper, richer experience.’’

In this digital age, we have grown accustomed to viewing new offers with a cynical eye. What appears to be “too good to be true’’ often is. That sort of critical outlook is healthy. At the same time, it should not blind us to real opportunities, if they are cautiously vetted.

I thought about the other programs we had used to try to immerse ourselves in unfamiliar cultures while avoiding high hotel costs. Home exchanges such as Intervac had worked well when we were living in Japan. We traded our small apartment, normal by Japanese standards, for a four-bedroom dream house in Kauai, and later for a spacious condo on a Greek island. The idea was not perfect equality but fairness. People on both sides got what they wanted, and everyone respected one another’s property.

When I was younger, the SERVAS homestay organization was a lifesaver. Begun as a network of peace activists in Denmark in 1948, it has grown to encompass about 16,000 “open doors’’ in 130 countries. For a modest annual fee, you join as host or traveler, or both. Without further exchanges of money, host families or individuals provide travelers with a two-night stay (longer by mutual agreement), some meals, and a glimpse into their day-to-day life.

With SERVAS, we stayed in everything from bare-necessity apartments to grand mansions, but we also hosted many international travelers in Japan with equal pleasure. With home exchanges, we got far longer stays, but it was not always easy to coordinate the best timing with an overseas partner.

Trustedhousesitters.com could change the way we travel. With the economy still uncertain, the timing could not be better.

Joseph A. Lieberman can be reached at gone2oregon@yahoo.com.

If You Go

For more information about Trustedhousesitters.com, country specific statistics, and case studies or testimonials, call Andrew Peck at 011-44-7972-774623 or e-mail andy@trustedhouse sitters.com.
For US SERVAS (www.usservas.org), call 011-707-825-1714 in California or e-mail info@usservas.org.
For Intervac home exchanges (www.intervacus.com), call 800-756-4663, or e-mail justin@intervacus.com.