The #1 Misconception About House-Sitters and Lifestyle Travelers

by Nora on March 13, 2017

Two recent conversations I’ve had have festered in me, to the point where I woke up this morning feeling downright angry. These conversations were innocent enough, yet they revealed a significant misconception about house-sitters, and lifestyle travelers in general.

house-sitters

 

Conversation #1

I had lunch with an expat friend in Cuenca, who was going away for a few months and recently found a house-sitter to take care of her place.

“She’s a bit odd,” my friend said of her house-sitter.

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, she doesn’t seem like most house-sitters. She….well, she seems to have money.”

 

Misconception: House-Sitters are Broke

I quickly corrected my friend by suggesting it’s very dangerous to assume that house-sitters don’t have money. For many house-sitters – even the “homeless” kind who house-sit full-time – it’s a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. I’ve often waxed poetic about how house-sitting (like many forms of free accommodation) is a unique opportunity to live a slice of local life and peek into different cultures from the inside out. It’s not just about saving money. Far from it, in fact.

When I was in Peru, I met up with some readers of mine who were passing through; a retired couple who had buttoned up their place in the U.S. and were traveling long-term, staying in various short-term rental places along the way. On my recommendation, they started house-sitting, and now, they’ve made it a full-time lifestyle, house-sitting all over Europe. Although I didn’t ask specifically about their finances, it seemed they have no worries about money (after all, they could afford vacation rentals all the time prior to my telling them about house-sitting), and they regularly pop back to the States to visit their grandchildren, gifts in hand. For them, house-sitting is a fun lifestyle choice that allows them to enjoy the comforts of home, the companionship and fun of pets, and even to provide a service to homeowners.

Recently I was lurking a Facebook group dedicated to house-sitting. A homeowner started a thread about how it seemed to her that all house-sitters care about is a WiFi connection and that her off-grid home wouldn’t be appealing to house-sitters. She tried to tone down this abrupt opening statement (but only ended up stoking the fire) by expressing some sort of understanding that house-sitters are obviously broke and need to work online to make whatever money they need for food.

If the irony that this homeowner was sitting in her off-grid home playing on Facebook wasn’t too much…..she was “schooled” by a plethora of house-sitters who suggested that WiFi isn’t always about earning enough money to buy bread; for lifestyle travelers, it’s a lifeline to their friends and family back home. Once she apologized for her curt assumption, she was besieged by lifestyle house-sitters who said they’d love to take care of her place in her absence.

 

Conversation #2

Over another lunch in Cuenca with a woman who was visiting for a month (an American retiree looking for a new place to call “home” in the world), she described the place where she was staying; a little guest house behind a property owned by an expat couple. She had found it on AirBnB before she arrived and described it lovingly. When I asked her how much she was paying for it, she proudly declared it was only $850US/month.

I mustn’t have been able to mask my surprise, given that my research revealed an average furnished place in the centre of Cuenca comparable to her description shouldn’t cost more than half that.

“Well, I don’t think I’m an average traveler. I don’t have to be so careful about money. And besides, by U.S. standards $850 is a bargain,” she said.

 

Misconception: Lifestyle Travelers are Broke/Cheap

Again, I bristled at the assumption that “average travelers” need to be careful about money, and then launched into a short tirade about all the ways tourists unwittingly cripple local economies by saying things like “by U.S. standards it’s a bargain”.

This woman’s transgressions aside, there’s also a problem with AirBnB. People looking for local accommodation from abroad have limited options, and if you insist on committing to something long-term before arriving (which I totally understand, but frankly it’s a rookie move), then you’re usually going to pay a premium. More often than not, in developing countries it’s not locals listing their places on AirBnB, it’s expats and foreign landlords, who know they can jack up the prices. I met another couple of readers who were visiting Cuenca for a month, and booked their apartment again using AirBnB in advance; they paid over $1,000 for it. And again, they thought it was a great deal, while I swallowed hard and kept quiet.

So, while the above two readers either preferred to have their accommodation booked in advance at a premium, or didn’t know that arriving and finding something locally for much less money was possible, or just didn’t care, in all three cases, I felt them financially looking down their nose at me. Like as a lifestyle traveler, I’m some dirty hippy who can’t afford to eat at nice restaurants, or wear nice clothes, or overpay for my accommodation.

I do eat at nice restaurants. I wear designer travel clothing. I just don’t overpay for my accommodation.

In fact, the tables are turning when it comes to lifestyle travel. The more Financial Case Studies I curate and publish, the more amazed I am at how much money people are making with their online businesses while traveling full-time. I nearly fell off my chair when I read a submission by some travel blogging colleagues (who started in the game years after I did) who are making well over $120,000/year. And they also house-sit regularly; obviously not because they need to save money, but because they enjoy house-sitting.

 

The Irony of it All

The big misconception used to be that lifestyle travelers must be rich to travel full-time. In fact, my entire website is dedicated to showing people that traveling full-time can be financially sustainable. In my initial years of full-time travel, I was building my online business and didn’t have a huge disposable income to work with. In my quest to make ends meet, I stumbled on some amazing ways to travel full-time and live around the world for way less money than you might ever suspect. For example, in 2010 and 2011, I spent $17,000 each year all-in, visiting 22 countries in those two years. (My secret? How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World)

So, I certainly created a case for how it’s possible to be a lifestyle traveler for very little money.

But now this perception is backfiring on me. I’ve been publishing my annual income and expenses for over five years now, and have actually been “accused” by some people of spending “too much” money! This, from a commenter on my last expense post:

“I am surprised how expensive eating and drinking is in Peru. In one month you spent almost $300! How is that possible?? In Spain for myself I spend 140€. My goal is to spend 500€ per month living in Thailand or Manila or New Zealand. No way I can spend $1,500-2,000 per month.”

Good for you. You win a prize for eating cheaply. I could certainly have spent less money on food and drink in Peru if I had needed to. And I sure don’t make $120,000/year, but I’ve said it over and over again: financially sustainable travel is not synonymous with budget travel; it’s about making lifestyle choices that are in line with the money you make.

Now, it seems the tables have turned and the outside assumption is that anybody who travels the world full-time in any sort of budget-conscious way (eg: house-sitting) must be broke. Prior to the location independent career movement, which allows people of all ages to earn a living with little more than a laptop and internet connection, I would have said that the assumption that house-sitters and lifestyle travelers are broke(ish) might have been pretty accurate. But this is simply not the case any more. Just look at my $120k/year travel blogging colleagues.

Add into the mix a huge demographic of retirees hitting the travel scene with disposable income and a desire to experience life around the world, and house-sitters and lifestyle travelers now come with all kinds of financial configurations and budgets.

So, before you look at me pityingly because I have no money and must live a tough life because I enjoy getting free accommodation around the world, please consider the possibility that I just might have more money in my bank account than you do.

Then again, you know how much money I make. It’s not a lot by any standards. So maybe you should be the one paying for my lunch, if it’s such a bargain for you.

 

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tiffany March 13, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Oh Nora – this post covers a lot of topics. And yes, the whole, well back home this would be a bargain comment and all the assumptions, ah. I feel you on these points. And yeah, the whole, you spent how much money? It’s kinda ironic bc I’ve been in some of the ‘cheaper’ places and spent the most bc that’s where I did the most amazing things that just cost most – like scuba dive in UNESCO sites, etc. To me it’s all about value and appreciation and gratitude and understanding to create this lifestyle.

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2 Nora March 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Hey Tiffany,
Thanks for weighing in! I’m glad I’m not the only one who has encountered these challenges/reactions. (We can suffer in solidarity – ha ha ha)!
Indeed, in some of the more expensive countries I’ve lived, I’ve had the lowest expenses, and vice versa. It’s such a personal thing…..

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3 Julian March 15, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Exactly, it’s a lifestyle choice, not a necessity!! It’s about being a smart traveler and knowing how to manage your costs and make logic, sustainable decisions. Thanks for the post 🙂

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4 Nora March 16, 2017 at 8:48 pm

Thank you, Julian! Glad you “get it”. 😉

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5 Bob Weisenberg March 16, 2017 at 10:48 pm

Hi, Nora.

It’s true! We housesit because we enjoy the pets and because of the instant community. We’re booked for the next six months in Vancouver, Brooklyn, Peebles (Scotland), and Chambery (French Alps). Thank you for encouraging us to try housesitting.

Enjoyed this article. Could you please elaborate on the idea of arriving without an apartment and looking for one locally after you arrive? We always book Airbnb months in advance. I like the idea of just arriving and looking, but when I’ve tested the method out by looking around a city we’re living in, I have not had much luck in finding good short term furnished rentals on the spot. The best places see to be either longer term (more that 1-3 months), or unfurnished, or already rented. Plus it’s easy for any cost savings to be eaten up by the extra cost of a hotel or B&B while searching. Perhaps you have some techniques I’m not using (and probably an article you’ve already written you can point me to).

Thanks.

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6 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:16 pm

Hey Bob,
I’m so glad you got on the house-sitting bandwagon! It’s perfect for you guys.

I should have been more specific about the idea of finding a place after arrival – because it works better in some places than others. I have a friend in Cuenca who lived in a few places (very cheaply!), and she found them by walking down the street and looking for “se aquila” (for rent) signs in windows above storefronts. In Pisac Peru, I discovered it’s possible to find places by word of mouth or local Facebook groups. I think the kinds of places where you can find a better deal on arrival tend to be developing countries, where a local owner might not have the desire/budget/knowhow to post their place online, or places where word-of-mouth prevails.

In locales like Europe, I suspect it would be harder to find something locally (especially in-season), but maybe easier in smaller towns.

And you’re absolutely right – there’s a balance if you’re paying for a hotel while looking for a place…..

Maybe a happy medium would be to find a place on AirBnB/CraigsList/Facebook prior to arrival but just to rent it for a month, and to give yourself that month to find something else. You run the risk of being “homeless” after that month if you can’t find anything and your place has incoming guests, but….

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7 Liz Ziser March 16, 2017 at 11:50 pm

I couldn’t agree more! And unfortunately, have seen this seep into work exchange lifestyles as well. In my experience, I’ve seen hosts take advantage of (what they believe to be) budget travelers’ time. Assigning double the expected workload since their volunteers are “broke and lucky to be there”. Work exchange (or house sitting) can be an incredible experience, but we’ve got to break these misconceptions that travelers don’t have money and are perhaps more interested in the lifestyle/experience of it all. Great post!

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8 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Hey Liz,
You bring up a great point about greedy work exchange hosts. I’ve met my share of volunteer hosts with the “you’re lucky to be here” attitude…..and I don’t particularly care for it.
I think as more and more people retire and start to explore unconventional ways of life such as these, homeowners and volunteer hosts will start to get the picture that it’s more of a two-way exchange. It’s not all about broke 20-year-olds any more!

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9 Russell March 17, 2017 at 1:46 am

Hey Nora,
Since you came to us all those years ago as our house sitter, I have taken from both our chats then and your subsequent blogs, how it facilitates the ability to accommodate in exchange for chores (especially looking after pets!) and was a way to travel in my retirement but also to broaden my outlook on the world by perhaps visiting more places and experiences a different culture and learning. Perhaps even have my children come to stay during those travels too…how is your mum?
Take care
Russ & Sarah

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10 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:21 pm

Hey Russ & Sarah!
How wonderful to hear from you guys. And how cool that you’re considering a bit of house-sitting yourself! It’s a great way to travel/visit with the kids – I can certainly attest to that after getting to take care of your awesome place and pups with my Mum. (She’s doing great BTW! I won a trip to Ireland last year so I took her – her only trip abroad since we were at your place, so it was a great gift).

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11 Barb March 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

I appreciate your point of view, Nora, but sometimes it can be an advantage to be thought of as ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ financially. If I don’t appear to have much money I am not a target for being robbed, and sometimes I can get bargains the seemly well-heeled aren’t offered. Sure, I can also be talked down to but I don’t have to hang out with those sort of folks, and usually won’t.

Love your blog and enjoy your writing style. Keep it up. 🙂

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12 Nora March 24, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Hi Barb,
Interesting point, Barb! However are you describing your appearance of not having much money by your lifestyle, or by your outward appearance? In my experience outward appearances can also be very deceiving, which, as you point out, can be worked to your advantage!

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13 Barb March 24, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Well, both really. As I’ve gotten older ‘things’, especially name brand ‘things’, just don’t appeal to me anymore except when they do, lol. I will by decent shoes, camera and pack, anything else can be a thrift store semi-original for all I care. And I do care! I care a lot about my carbon footprint. I also care about being of service so house sitting is interesting to me. I already get paid for ranch/farm sitting gigs which can be more challenging than simple house sitting, but I try to give a little something extra where ever I am at. The shear nature of ranch sitting does require a little less upscale wardrobe as I am sure you can imagine, lol, and maybe I get treated like the poor relation at times because of it but I find a smile, an upbeat attitude and the ability to speak clearly and intelligently gets some would be snobs to reassess their first impressions. If that isn’t happening I’ve already picked up on the vibe and waste no further energy on them.

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14 Nora March 25, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Great attitude, Barb!
I’m also not a “brand name” snob….I certainly never understood the whole $1,000 purse trend! I buy quality things (like shoes, etc) that will last and look good. I also have my share of work clothes….and if I need some extra stuff at a destination, I also love thrift stores.

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