In the past 15 months, I’ve lived in 10 houses across Melbourne – and haven’t paid a cent in rent, electricity, gas or water bills.
I’ve also minded guinea pigs, walked dogs, slept in strangers’ beds, wrestled with a variety of remote controls and, for two weeks, frantically searched the streets of St Kilda East for a missing cat called Boriz.
In August 2012 – tired of sharehousing but dismayed at the rental prices for sardine tin-sized apartments – I decided to quit the rent race and become a professional housesitter.
I decided that if all went well I could save enough money to quit my full-time job, keep paying off my own tenanted apartment and afford a three-month trip to South America.
The great thing about it is you get to move around, you get to see what it’s like to live in different neighbourhoods and you get different pets.
Signing up to websites Aussie House Sitters and Mindahome Australia, I realised that my seemingly wacky idea was far from a rarity. All sorts of people were keen to live in strangers’ houses across Australia – grey nomads looking for adventure, young singles or couples saving for a house, families and creative types who seemed to like the rent-free lifestyle.
As for the homeowners, they wanted to keep their beloved pets in familiar surroundings, avoid hefty kennel fees and have their plants watered. Many were taking a holiday, while others were travelling to weddings, reconnecting with old flames on the other side of the world or setting up businesses.
Melbourne couple Heli Simpson, 26, and Nathan Murfey, 24, are among the 1500 housesitters currently registered with Mindahome, which has been around since 2008.
Simpson, a junior doctor, and Murfey, a second-time uni student, signed up after a friend recommended the experience, and have had virtually back-to-back assignments since May 2013.
“The benefits we saw in doing it were partly financial. It’s not the only reason we’re doing this, but it’s kind of like a really good bonus,” says Simpson.
The money she is saving on rent and bills will help Simpson take a career punt when she leaves the medical profession this month to reignite a passion for acting that began in her teens, when she appeared in TV shows including The Saddle Club.
Aside from the savings, there have been other perks, such as no housemates and the fun of living in suburbs including Richmond, Brunswick West, Reservoir and Preston.
“The great thing about it is you get to move around, you get to see what it’s like to live in different neighbourhoods and you get different pets,” says Simpson.
Simpson says it pays to remember there are some costs, such as extra petrol if housesits are further away, plus registration fees and storage.
Up to their 11th housesit, Simpson says while they’re enjoying it for the moment, it’s not something they will do forever. “It’s a finite experience in terms of convenience of living,” she says.
Mindahome has about 200 to 300 homeowners listed at any one time – registrations spike around Christmas – and the advertisements continually tick over, says co-founder Sue Coombs.
Some sitters do it for years, while others might sign up and only use the service once a year for a cheap holiday.
Coombs says younger sitters tend to favour city areas near their work, while older members like to see the country. One woman saved $30,000 over two years through the site.
Aussie House Sitters, founded in 2004, has about 3000 sitters. The number of homeowners changes monthly, but last November 625 owners placed ads, and about 2000 sent messages directly to sitters, says director Nick Fuad.
Fuad says the number of users has grown each year as the concept of housesitting becomes more mainstream, but in 2013 homeowner numbers doubled following a website upgrade.
He says that – perhaps with the exception of travelling retirees or mature age sitters – everyone would “be doing it to save money one way or another … to save on holiday accommodation, to save a deposit for a home loan and just to save on rent.”
As for this housesitter, I’m nearing the end of my housesitting adventure – but not before getting to know all sorts of pets. They’ve included a hoodie-wearing miniature schnauzer, a pug called Paddy who looked slightly possessed and two Havarti cheese-loving cats named Coco Chanel and Miss Marples.
I’ve stayed in all sorts of neighbourhoods and all sorts of houses; many I could otherwise never have afforded to live in by myself.
My nomadic existence has sparked plenty of questions. Am I unemployed? Do I use the owners’ sheets? Do I get paid? (No.) My friends have just chuckled, as they try and keep up with my latest address.
More than once I have temporarily forgotten where I live, and Google Maps has been a saviour for navigating unfamiliar suburbs.
It’s been funny, annoying, stressful (when I lost Boriz the cat for two weeks – thankfully he returned), and liberating. Throughout it all, my savings have continued to build, allowing me to pursue some long-held dreams.
After nearly a year-and-a-half of gypsy life I can’t wait to have a permanent address again. I won’t have to search for the toaster and I can finally have my own set of drawers … but the rent will be a killer.
How to become an expert housesitter
• Refresh your profile regularly to ensure your listings stays near the top of search results
• Housesitting can be competitive, so put some thought into your profile. Explain what you can do for the homeowner and treat it like a casual job interview
• Have back-up accommodation in case there’s a gap between sits
• Take only what you really need – making it easier to pack up and go.
Larissa Ham is a Melbourne-based freelancer