Eat This, Don't Touch That: Establishing House Rules for House-sitters
House-sitting has allowed us to travel the world at a slow pace and find comfy places to stay off the well-beaten tourist path. Some of the people for whom we’ve house-sat have become lifelong friends; yet another benefit of this unique form of accommodation. Most house-sitting assignments involve watching pets, and since the homeowners have invited you into their home for that purpose, they typically provide detailed instructions about how to handle their furry or feathered companions. However, limits about house rules for everything else can sometimes fall through the cracks.
House-sitters must remember they are moving in—even for a short time—to someone’s home, which includes all of their precious belongings in addition to Fido and Fluffy. That dusty bottle of Bordeaux tucked away in the cellar might seem perfect for a backyard barbecue, but the owners may have been saving the special vintage for their wedding anniversary. Just as each pet is unique, the same is true for each home and the rules therein.
In our experience, it is best for the homeowner to establish clear guidelines up front regarding “do’s and don’ts” regarding their personal property. When we arrive at a new house-sit, we make a point to discuss these various rules to avoid any misunderstandings.
House-sitters temporarily moving into a home will likely find food in both the cabinets and refrigerator. Michael has a habit of nibbling on any cookies within 20 kilometers, so we make sure it’s clear up front what’s off limits and what is available to us. Some homeowners will even stock up on a few staples such as milk and eggs to get you started. But is everything in the fridge at your disposal? We usually show up with our own provisions, and purchase whatever else we need during our stay. A few areas where we have found it helpful to clarify:
- Condiments and Spices Generally these are available for the house- sitter’s use, but we always replenish something if we’ve finished it.
- Items in the freezer Ice cubes are one thing, but the homeowner may have 10 pounds of steaks in there. Check to see if they are available for your use before firing up the barbecue grill.
- Alcohol Homeowners might leave some wine or beer as a welcome gift. That is not an invitation to drink the liquor cabinet dry or empty the wine cellar. We suggest homeowners make it clear what they are comfortable with house-sitters.
Family Heirlooms and Fragile Items
It’s one thing to cuddle up on the sofa with Kitty to watch TV; it’s another to unleash your inner Jimi Hendrix on a Stradivarius. Homeowners should identify which items are off-limits (or even lock them away) if they are concerned about breakage. During a stay in Nashville, the musician homeowner showed us which instruments were of the “Look, but don’t touch” variety and which ones we could use for our (very amateur) jam sessions.
Similarly, house-sitters should use common sense with personal items in the home. If something looks like a family heirloom, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf. Consider these categories:
- China, crystal, silver and other formal pieces Our rule of thumb is to only use the daily kitchenware; confirm with the homeowner exactly what that is.
- Musical instruments Unless you’re a musician (and have cleared it with the owner), probably best to steer clear.
- Books, CDs, record albums, etc. Are they available for use, or rare first editions that should never be touched?
- Tools and equipment Homeowners who have valuable woodworking tools or expensive sewing machines and the like should make it clear if these items are off-limits.
House-sitting does not necessarily translate to “using the entire house.” Make sure there is a thorough understanding of any rooms that may be off limits. The same is true for the yard and garden.
- Master bedroom/bathroom Some homeowners prefer house-sitters use a guestroom.
- Home office Is the office and/or the computer and/or printer available for use?
- Grill/hot tub/pool Are these available, and if so, what maintenance is required?
- Car If available, can it be used for weekend road trips, or just to drive the pups to the park?
Longer-term house-sits raise questions that might not apply for stays of a week or two.
- Mail and packages Can they be received at the house?
- Online movies and television Is there an option to purchase premium content? How will the homeowner be reimbursed?
- Guests Can house-sitters have guests visit for the day? Overnight?
Larissa and Michael Milne
Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. They chronicle their journey at ChangesInLongitude.com. The Milnes also write the weekly “Field-Tested Travel Tips” column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and online at inquirer.com.