a roof over my head and savings in my pocket
July 31, 2012 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Give me all of your best tips and strategies for living rent-free, especially if that involves house sitting for strangers.

I am fortunate enough to have a job I love at a great organization with some health benefits. However, I am on a very tight budget and I happen to live in a college town with relatively high rents. To rent a room in a shared house here averages about $500 per month. Believe me, I am willing to live in a really run-down place, but I just cannot find anywhere cheaper, especially when utilities are factored in.

My salary is not amazing (though I will be getting a 15% raise in September), but it is enough that I have been able to manage paying rent every month. However, I really want to save as much money as possible. If I could just get out of paying rent for even 6 months, it would allow me to save a substantial (for me anyway) emergency fund. I'm really excited about being debt-free and building a 3-6 month emergency fund.

I had some really positive experiences pet-sitting at two different houses over the winter holidays last year and I lucked into house-sitting for a college professor for three weeks next month. I have nowhere lined up to live after that and (while I'll keep searching for a sublet), I would love to find other house sitting gigs.

If you have managed to line up house-sitting gigs in the past, please share your tips with me! Should I take out an ad in the local classifieds? Post on Craigslist? Send out a mass email with various contacts bcc'd? Register with an agency?

Thanks in advance.

[Just to help keep the thread focused on house-sitting: I want to rule out asking family for help as an option completely. Also, while I think my friends are great, I don't feel comfortable imposing on them for extended couch surfing since this is not an emergency situation. If I were out of work or desperate, then I would ask, but this situation isn't like that. Oh, and of course I'm trying to boost my income as much as possible and I already have a second job working for a catering company on the weekends.]
posted by pinetree to Work & Money (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
P.S. I'm a woman, late twenties, and live in the mid-Atlantic region.
posted by pinetree at 5:11 PM on July 31, 2012

Perhaps a subscription to The Caretaker Gazette?
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:16 PM on July 31, 2012

I ocassionally see job postings for live-in aids to help with basic household chores and maybe some assistance for people with physical disabilities. If your job allows you to be able to help in the mornings and evenings (dressing/undressing, preparing meals, running errands like grocery shopping, etc.) I think that might be be a good way to live rent free. I see similar posts for live-in child care to help to dress, feed and drop kids off at school and pick them up, babysit until parent(s) get home with the ocassional evening of watching the kids for an evening. I know my college friends have gotten these jobs through craigslist.

Besides scouring help wanted ads, you might contact some organizations that deal with elderly population to see if they know of any elders who might want live-in assistance? You might even consider posting on community bulletin boards of some places like the library or local food co-op advertising a room/board exchange situation. Good luck!
posted by loquat at 5:25 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

"HelpX is an online listing of organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation."
posted by HotPatatta at 5:27 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have not house-sat myself, but I availed myself of house-sitting services for 3 months this spring while I went to India for work. I found my house sitter on housesitters.com and she was A-MA-ZING. For a general idea of what happened, I posted an ad detailing the situation, she responded, we emailed a couple of times and talked on the phone once, I sent pictures of the house, I contacted her references, and then we committed.

As far as tips that made me choose her over the other people that contacted me, it's hard to say --- I could just tell from interacting with her that she wasn't sketchy and would take good care of my kitties. Having lots of glowing references helped, so make sure that your previous "clients" are willing to talk you up.

Note that this was a situation where she traveled a long way to take the gig (Pennsylvania to Missouri). It will probably be more difficult for you to find gigs since you have to be in the same town the whole time. Regardless, I guess I recommend joining up with a specialized house-sitting site, rather than just putting your stuff out in the classifieds or on Craigslist. (Not that you can't do that too.)

I know you haven't done the professor gig yet, but could you post some fliers around the college, or try to work your existing contacts there? Profs sometimes teach abroad for a semester at a time, which would be perfect for you.
posted by slenderloris at 5:45 PM on July 31, 2012

This is probably more extreme than you're thinking of but if you work out all of the details of securely and safely living in a car or van it's fairly similar to living in a capsule hotel. If you can stomach it and become comfortable doing it, it transforms a tight budget into having scads of spare cash and budgetary breathing room. If the school you attend has gyms where you could shower that takes care of one of the major logistical obstacles. Cuts down your carbon footprint too if you're into that.

Along the lines of what HotPattata suggests, while staying at some youth hostels in the U.S. I have encountered people who had arranged to stay long-term in exchange for doing chores and farm work.
posted by XMLicious at 5:49 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you able to telecommute? I'm volunteering part time at a non-profit in exchange for free rent in a tiny cabin in the woods of Alaska (moose browsing among the willows outside my door, outhouse a meandering path away). No running water, but I've got internet and a bar or two on my phone so I can work remote.
posted by mochapickle at 5:53 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

You say that you live in a college town, is it possible to ask if you can put up flyers offering your house sitting services at various college department offices? Professors sometimes live abroad or at least away from their home for sabbaticals. Also, I'm not sure if this is still the case, but when I was in grad school (for art history) in the 90s, practically all my professors, even those who were married, were in long distance relationships and they traveled to join their partners for the entire summer and winter breaks (in addition to the occasional sabbatical).
posted by kaybdc at 5:54 PM on July 31, 2012

I know you're concentrating on lining up 'house-sitting' gigs, but since you're in a college town it might behoove you to also look into subletting. Students studying abroad or otherwise out of town for a semester may be willing to sublet their lease to you at a substantial discount.
posted by carsonb at 6:19 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the Odd Fellows halls sometimes let people live there if they're caretakers. Also, some historical homes have that sort of arrangement, as well.
posted by xingcat at 7:10 PM on July 31, 2012

A thought occurred to me: I wonder if the shortage of priests in the Catholic Church, for example, results in rectories or other residential properties where caretakers are needed? Churches might in general be another venue through which to ask about accommodation arrangements, anyways.
posted by XMLicious at 7:21 PM on July 31, 2012

IANAL, but just want to add that "vandwelling" is considered illegal in many cities and states, so check your local laws. It also is not that cheap compared to renting a cheap room unless automotive costs are already in the equation for you. That doesn't mean people can't do it even while working very hard. But be prepared for a certain amount of skepticism from friends and hassle from cops. Finding safe, legal, and quiet places to park is going to be your biggest challenge.

I considered doing this once for similar reasons (saving money) and my family freaked out at the mere mention. My parents really wanted me to move home, even after I explained that it wasn't a true hardship situation and that I just wanted to save some cash while I'm young and unencumbered. It's probably best to keep it on the DL if you want to go this route.
posted by jlh at 7:53 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you enroll in said college and be an RA? Most of the RAs I know got free room and board. Downside it means putting up with and entertaining drunk college students.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:12 PM on July 31, 2012

Thanks everybody so far!

I definitely have carefully considering living out of my car once the temperatures drop a bit, but I think it might be too much trouble for me in terms of safety and stress. So, for the foreseeable future, I'm focusing on other options like house-sitting.

I'm actually a graduate of the university in this town and I'm not interested currently in going back to graduate school, though of course in a couple years when I do, I definitely plan to look into being an RA to save money.

I like the idea of fliers in college departments -- I know several tenured and adjunct professors at the university so I think I could approach them about it.
posted by pinetree at 8:43 PM on July 31, 2012

*considered (not considering)
posted by pinetree at 8:44 PM on July 31, 2012

What about becoming a superintendent in an apartment building? It's a job that normally goes to men or to couples, but its a way of getting free/discounted housing in exchange for doing some maintenance work.

Also: is there any chance someone might want a live-in nanny for school age kids? You'd be able to go to work while they are in school (assuming that your only duties would be childcare, and not taking care of their home.) Seems like that would be exhausting to me, but i also wouldn't consider living in my car in a non-emergency situation, so you might have a different perspective.
posted by Kololo at 8:57 PM on July 31, 2012

I know in the UK there are companies that recruit 'property guardians' - you stay in a building which is disused, and pay a low rent (£60 in London per week when a typical rent for a room in a shared house is £120-150). However, the buildings are not designed for dwellings, so they rarely have more than basic facilities, and you can be asked to leave with two weeks' notice. If you're a minimalist or someone who can make this work for you, it would be great - artists do this because they can get more space for their money. For me, the downsides outweigh the cheap rent.
posted by mippy at 3:53 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

You may also wish to look into resident manager gigs. I found this book on being a resident manager a while ago, written by a couple living in a college town who got started young. You can probably get it from the library via interlibrary loan, if nothing else.
posted by yomimono at 6:43 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

In alot of college towns, those big surbarbany-type apartment complexes are now popping around. My friends lived in one of those rent-free, and got a stipend for doing a couple hours of week of maintenance, showing people around apartments, etc. Would probably need a car, but places are all brand new and usually actually more than the average cost to live.
posted by sandmanwv at 6:50 AM on August 1, 2012

In case anyone comes to read this thread later, I opted for virtual fliering and making a profile on housesitting.com. For the first, I composed an email and BCC'd every contact I have at the local college with a short, friendly email about my interesting in house or pet sitting. So far, it's only netted me an offer for a place in January, but other people replied saying that they would let me know the next time they hear of something from a colleague. For the second, I made a profile, added a picture, and am keeping my fingers crossed. I think I'm a lot more likely to find an opportunity through my personal network than through a website, though.
posted by pinetree at 12:38 PM on August 13, 2012

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