I am so very grateful to be able to provide these detailed guidelines to being a house-sitter. Drafted by two excellent experienced sitters it covers everything from that first offer of a sit to the last day
Starting House sitting
Before accepting an Assignment
Before the Assignment
Arrival – 1st day of Assignment
During the Assignment
The last day
Starting House sitting
We started house sitting a couple of years ago & offered to share our experiences and write this Guide. We feel we’ve learned so much through trial & error since then & thought it will be useful for anyone else starting out. It can feel a bit daunting at first, particularly the first pre-visit and assignment, but the key to success we think is to go in feeling confident and being well prepared – that’s what this is all about.
We’ve found that generally speaking people who use Minders Keepers are caring people & the fact that they’re prepared to trust both their animals and their house to you means they already feel confident about you being there. We’ve stayed in all kinds of houses: farms, modern semis, classic mansions straight out of Jane Austen & even one built in the 16th Century complete with beams. Unfortunately, we had to turn down an assignment with a swimming pool!
No matter who they are & where they live, the clients regard you as a professional & it’s simply a matter of showing them that you are. Right from the initial call to book the pre-visit you will be giving them an impression of yourself & Minders Keepers & we do our best to show them that we are flexible & very willing to look after their house & pets in the way they would like it done. Existing clients are familiar with the routine but new clients obviously need more reassurance. As long as you’re thorough with the pre-visit Questionnaire you’ll find that the client’s confidence is maintained and when you leave everyone concerned feels good about things.
Once you’ve got a couple of assignments under your belt you’ll feel like old hands! We took virtually everything we were offered initially to get an overview & now we’ve settled into some regular ones with the occasional new one which sound tempting. Each time you return it gets easier & the whole process speeds up. Usually it’s a matter of “Any changes?” and this may be over the phone or a visit with a nice cup of coffee with cake. Below are some ideas for a Survival Kit that we’ve put together.
It is worth buying two clear plastic storage boxes which you use just for Assignments, one for food and the other for everything else. Not only does it cut down on preparation, it helps you to keep track of your own possessions whilst there – it’s very easy to pop your favourite paring knife into the drawer and then leave it behind. Also the clear plastic means you can easily locate what’s in it. Some of them may seem unnecessary but it’s amazing how many people do not use a washing up bowl or liquid because they always use the dishwasher, or have blunt knives or complicated tin openers. Equally, trying to find the chopping board or cork mat to stand a hot pan on can be frustrating if you need them quickly & when you’re very used to having them at your fingertips at home. We take basic crockery because we don’t want to chip the Spode if it can be avoided!
This is what’s in our boxes:
kitchen hand towel
teapot & tea cosy
2 cork mats
washing up bowl & scourer
wash up liquid
2 cereal bowls
Multi-socket extension lead
Internet lead (computer-router)
digital camera (see Arrival)
notepaper and postit notes
salt & pepper
tin baked beans
Clothes and footwear – we always take wellies/waterproof shoes, waterproofs and also slip-on outdoor shoes to keep by the door.
The other invaluable items are three ring binder files. The first one is for Minders Keepers information, the other two for paperwork that is saved from each individual Assignment.
File 1. Set of dividers and plastic wallets with headings:
Sections for pending clients ie blue booking form for pending assignments and any notes taken at pre-visit. Once we’ve done the Assignment we move this information into the two Archive folders (see below).
Preliminary Visit Questionnaire several photocopies
Cards – Minders Keepers cards to give out to potential clients and those with our contact details on the back to give to clients at pre-visit
Risk Assessment sheets several photocopies
Sitters’ Pay Rates
List of Useful items in plastic box
File 2. Archive Set of alphabetical dividers A-L plus plastic wallets
File 3. Archive Set of alphabetical dividers M-Z plus plastic wallets
We file blue forms, our notes, clients’ notes, local information we’ve picked up eg Chinese Take-away flyer, bus timetables, walks etc under the Client’s name eg S for Smith. Keeping everything is extremely useful for return Assignments & helps enormously when clients assume you’ve remembered every detail even though you haven’t been there for 18 months!
Books It’s worth having a couple of simple reference books unless you have expert knowledge. We bought 2nd hand copies of Choosing the Right Dog for You by Gwen Bailey, and also a guide about hen keeping as we’d very little experience of poultry. It’s quick and easy then to find out about the clients’ pets. At the Pre-visit the clients feel confident that we know something about the particular breed & during the Assignment it can be very useful particularly if you don’t use or have internet access.
Photo Album This cannot be done without the client’s permission. We have a small photo album of all the pets we’ve looked after (not showing anything that could identify where they are). For clients new to house/pet sitting, going through it often alleviates the anxiety they are feeling about leaving their pets in the care of strangers. It prompts them to talk & gives them the opportunity to get to know us in a relaxed way.
Before accepting an Assignment
Once Jackie’s contacted us with the possibility of an Assignment there are 3 opportunities to ensure that it will work for us.
1. We check our diaries – IMPORTANT – to make sure that we’re free for the dates, no impending hospital appointments, theatre trips, ‘surprise’ holidays, parties, weddings etc. The Assignment may be some months ahead and whilst it’s sometimes difficult to predict it’s better to say no at this stage rather than back out later. We’ve even got a Year Planner that’s just for our Assignments – it helps us to see how many days/weeks we’ve got in between because that’s very much a catch-up time at home.
2. We tell Jackie that we’re free and then ring the clients. It’s important at this point to think about our own personal preferences and find out as much as we can about whether it will work for us eg Is there internet access, off road parking, local shops? Do the dogs sleep in the bedroom?
3. After the Preliminary visit (see below) if we’re happy with the routines, pets and various requirements only then do we accept the Assignment. As Jackie says “Once an assignment has been accepted it is very difficult to reassign. Clients tend to consider it unprofessional to chop and change. They lose their confidence in the company and from the company perspective it can be very expensive. Once we have sent out the booking form we put ourselves in a contractual situation and therefore are obliged to find replacements at our own cost of pre-visit and occasionally have to supplement travel from considerable distances to ensure that the client is not let down.”
Allow plenty of time for this visit. We make sure we’re going to arrive early; some houses are tucked away in obscure locations (one was in the middle of a wood!) and we’ve been totally lost before and had to ring the clients for directions. We’ve now invested in a SatNav & it’s become invaluable not only for finding the house but also getting around whilst there.
Through experience we’ve found that spending time getting ALL the information and getting to know the animals and clients is crucial to a successful Assignment. The first 10 minutes are usually about meeting the pets & showing that we are confident and comfortable with them; clients relax when they see their pets relax.
Then, using a photocopy of the Preliminary Visit Questionnaire & notepaper we usually spend a good 2 hours on getting all the information. Remember the clients know their own house inside out & somehow imagine that we do too so sometimes we have to say that there seem to be a lot of questions but that once it’s done that’s it. If they’ve got new appliances/equipment it can be daunting if we’ve not come across it before – some have the latest technology & are only just getting to grips with it themselves. Those who are very security conscious like to talk about the various measures they take & it’s important that they see us taking this seriously – it’s their home. Those already familiar with Minders Keepers rattle off the answers, new clients obviously take a little longer. It’s easiest to work methodically through the questions (usually over a cup of tea) but the most important thing is TO FEEL ABSOLUTELY SURE that we understand any instructions and have actually been shown how things work if they’re anything out of the ordinary. Eg cooker, TV, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, tumble dryer, heating controls, security system, garage remote, how to access the Internet (codes etc). Unfortunately it’s impossible now to escape technology & instructions are vital. Experienced clients tend to provide the Appliance Instructions but new ones usually need to be asked.
We always take our notes outside too: clients give very detailed instructions about feeding, housing, & idiosyncrasies when they’re with their animals. Security equipment/gates etc are usually talked about here too. This also applies to the garden: watering, dead-heading etc. & what to eat if it’s ripe! If it’s a summer assignment with extensive gardens then remember watering can take a long time & exceed the 2 hours daily work. This means agreeing extra time at this stage as Jackie cannot go back post-sit to invoice clients for routine tasks. Never be afraid to ask questions and write everything down. It’s impossible to remember everything and you may be doing other Assignments in between.
If there are several animals all of the same breed it’s worth taking individual photos; we find that invaluable to identify them if the client doesn’t provide photos. (This is particularly important if certain animals have medication/are in season etc or there is a clearly defined feeding order/place where they have their bowls).
It’s not as daunting as it sounds! By the end of this visit we have a very clear idea of whether it’s for us and usually have a good rapport with the client. However we know we can still say no – we know Jackie would much rather we said it wasn’t for us at this stage when she still has time to find an alternative. (But this has actually never happened to us.)
We also ask them if it’s possible to send us the Instructions about a week before the Assignment starts & some clients are able to do this, particularly if they have email. It makes it so much easier to digest information & then ask any questions when we go.
Clients pay mileage costs for the pre-visit so we make sure we know the figures; there’s never any problem with this.
We say goodbye and give them our contact details on an MK card inviting them to contact us at any time. In reality they don’t generally do this as they usually seem happy that they’ve got it sorted. On one occasion the Pre-Visit was 6 months ahead so we did a 2nd brief visit a few weeks before the Assignment to reassure her that all was well.
Before the Assignment
One week before we check the blue booking form and contact the clients to confirm the exact date and time of arrival. This confirms any last minute arrangements so that everyone feels confident about what’s happening. Also if they’ve sent you their Instructions it’s a good opportunity to clarify anything in advance.
A couple of days before going we call the client to touch base and re-read all our notes from the pre-visit. Also we remind ourselves of the pets’ names as clients find it very reassuring when we arrive and say “Hello Maisie” or “Spot” as they jump up and lick us like long lost friends. (This is particularly important if there are several dogs that are remarkably alike – clients love it when we are able to recognise each one – no mean feat!)
Arrival – 1st day of Assignment
We always aim to arrive about 30 minutes early – clients always have last minute things to tell/show you and if they have children then they are often stressed! Remember, it may be several weeks or even months since the pre-visit and things sometimes change. Write everything down then it’s easy to sit calmly with a cup of tea when they’ve gone and go through it.
We always leave everything in the car and go in with a notepad and ask:
a) Confirmation of their return date and time & will they be ringing us from the airport/ferry?
b) Are pets still as listed & have there been any changes to the feeding instructions? If they have managed to send us these in advance we have them ready to amend if necessary. Also we ask them to show us exactly where the food (and any spare) is as sometimes it’s been moved, is in an unmarked container and isn’t always obvious.
c) Is the dog on heat or do any of the pets have any new medical problem/medication?
d) Has anything else changed since we came on the pre-visit? Eg new TV or other electrical item that needs instructions, internet access code
e) Is anyone expected? Eg Deliveries, repairs, car-valeting, cleaner, gardener, window-cleaner, decorator
f) If dry weather what is the watering schedule, where are taps, hoses, water butts, watering cans etc?
g) Fridge – we usually ask where our space is & then it’s at that point that the client usually says “Well, please eat up …..” and we then leave everything else for their return.
h) Do they want us to get anything when they return? eg milk, bread
i) Where exactly are the keys we will need and are they labelled? If they simply say “In the key cupboard” we make sure we look with the client as there could be 50 keys in there most of which are never used & they’re generally unlabelled.
Wave goodbye, we’ve done our best to make sure that the clients feel confident that their animals and house will be well cared for and they can have a well-earned rest.
When they’ve left, still with bags in the car, we then take photos of every room we will be using, the pets’ feeding/sleeping areas both in & outside eg barn, hen house and even the garden. Why? It’s invaluable as it enables us to leave the clients’ home exactly as they left it “As if they’d never been away.” It makes it very easy to keep the pets areas exactly as the client wants them, return moved chairs etc. (See Put Back list).
We often clear a shelf in the fridge to put our food so that we don’t accidentally eat anything else. Clients often leave milk, wine or a cake as a good-will gesture.
Then, once bags etc are in we check that we can operate appliances eg cooker, TV. and can ring the clients before they leave the country if necessary! It can be difficult to spend two weeks without a cooker or the TV – even their close friend or relative doesn’t often know how their cooker or complicated Home Entertainment system works…
Finally we do a slow ‘walkabout’ of the entire property which can be quite extensive, taking the camera with us. This is a very useful exercise – it gives the chance to look carefully at everything & can save you asking the question in a few days time “Was there a hole in that outbuilding’s roof when we arrived?”
Other examples we look out for: open/shut gates, padlocks, hoses wound/left out, animals’ food levels & bedding.
We’re now ready to settle down. We get 3 sheets of paper:
• Phone messages – Date & name We always ascertain who is calling & to what extent they know the clients before divulging the fact that they are away; only then do we give their return date.
• Feedback sheet – A daily dated log of anything that happens eg How many eggs from chickens, a dog’s tummy upset, breakages, gardener unable to come, power failure, neighbour invited us in for coffee etc.
• Put Back list – If we move anything out of its usual place eg furniture, toiletries from bathroom shelf, garden equipment we write it down. It’s very easy then on the last day to use the photos & this list to return everything to its proper place. It’s very reassuring for clients to come home & find their house exactly as they like it.
We never open doors that clients have left closed but do close doors to rooms we will not be using – much easier to find cats if they are not allowed in there or have to be put out at night.
And of course we contact Jackie to say we’ve started the Assignment.
During the Assignment
The clients assume that we know what we’re doing and generally don’t contact us whilst away. Occasionally they’d like to be kept informed & on one occasion we emailed someone in Australia with photos and a “diary” (written by the dogs!) that she greatly enjoyed.
Client’s Instructions – We follow all Instructions: Feeding, Cleaning & Exercise – to the letter – even though it may be different to what we’d do ourselves. It’s what the animals are used to & it’s the client’s decision.
Phone-a-friend – Client’s friends/neighbours are often vital & usually we’ve been given a couple of people to call at any time. It’s worth making use of them – when we’re at home we take it for granted that we can ask friends and neighbours and so this is the next best thing when we’re doing an Assignment. They’re usually people who know the house & animals very well. They’re always more than happy to have a chat however trivial it may seem eg “We can’t get the hang of the window locks” and will pop round if necessary. Obviously we only do this with people the clients have suggested.
Animal’s illness – Usually the client has given instructions about what to do in the case of minor illness eg tummy upset but we tend also to ring the friend they have suggested to get a second opinion. If it seems more serious however we always ring the Vet & follow the advice given. If it does turn into a visit we then tend to ring Jackie to keep her in the picture. Asking the Vet for a written explanation of the treatment & cost for the client clarifies exactly what’s happened. If the animals are new to you/or you aren’t that familiar with the species eg quail, it’s sometimes difficult to know what’s ‘usual’ for them. In our experience clients prefer us to be overcautious and are pleased that such good care has been taken of their animals. Our most important expertise is knowing when to get advice.
Risk Assessment – If we see anything which is a potential hazard we make a note of it eg slippery stones when wet, unexpected step in the dark & send the form to Jackie to help prevent future accidents.
Cleaners/gardeners etc – Usually lovely, friendly people who can be extremely helpful & give lots of advice if asked; they enjoy finding out about what it’s like to be a housesitter. However, they also know that they are in a position of trust in the client’s house and respect the fact that we don’t want to share any kind of personal information about any of Minders Keeper’s clients or their homes.
Challenges – They’re inevitable but solvable! We’ve been locked in a pantry, had door handles fall off, couldn’t find the toilet brush – anywhere…., broken crockery, had the electronic garage door stick half way down…. but common sense, WD40 & phone-a-friend (the client’s) usually works. Clients accept that these things happen & always leave several phone numbers of friends/trades people. They are always very grateful if we’ve managed to sort it out. If in doubt we ring Jackie because the chances are it’s happened before to someone.
The Last day
We aim to leave the house and animals exactly as we found them. Here’s what we always do (sometimes if necessary the day/night before.)
• Clean and vacuum all areas we’ve used
• Using the Put Back list & the photos make sure everything is back in the right place inside and out
• Make sure the animals have fresh food/water & that their sleeping areas/litter trays are clean
• Strip the bed(s), wash sheets/towels & dry if possible. Leave neatly folded on bed/hanging in bathroom
• Clear own food from fridge & freezer – wipe out
• Pack car
We always aim to finish 2 hours earlier than the clients’ expected return because in our experience they can often be much earlier than they anticipated. It’s very helpful if the client does phone, most do but not all. It also gives us the chance to relax before they arrive & we can calmly focus on them when they arrive rather than worrying about our own packing. On the other hand if they are delayed they usually ring & it means we avail ourselves of the local take-away – no washing up!
4 things we have ready for their return:
• Feedback sheet
• Phone messages
• Blue sign-off sheet already signed by us
• Mileage costs/Expenses
When they arrive they’re sometimes very tired & it’s a matter of playing it by ear how much chatting to do. The important thing first is to assure them that their pets are well and happy & everything is fine. We’ve never had clients who have wanted to check around the house/grounds before we left. After all the excitement of the animals’ welcome we go through the Feedback sheet & anything in particular from Phone messages. Clients seem to find this very reassuring. It’s worth thinking about the order of this sometimes eg starting with a positive “The vegetables are growing wonderfully & they’ve been watered every day”, putting more difficult ones in the middle eg “The chickens got into the neighbour’s garden” & then finishing with a positive about their pets eg “The dogs were so well behaved every time we walked them.” They usually have cash for petrol/expenses but if not they’ll usually give us a cheque.
Why be a Sitter? We actually find working for Minders Keepers is very rewarding. It’s a long established business – we’ve always felt totally supported by Jackie – very important when essentially we are in someone else’s house and looking after their most treasured possessions (in every sense of the word.) There’s never any fuss if we can’t do an assignment or want some time off.
What do we get out of it? Well, mostly we enjoy the change to our own routine and the different environments. The animals are always a joy and we really look forward to seeing them again; not having our own any more it’s lovely having them around. It’s interesting being in other people’s homes. We’ve also become friends of the some of our regular clients, their friends and neighbours. Extending our knowledge about different animals is a challenge and we enjoy that. We get a sense of achievement and feel valued both by Jackie & the clients.
Is it worth it financially? Yes, we think so. It’s a very enjoyable way to supplement our income & our home bills are lower.
Walking through the English countryside on a lovely summer’s day with a couple of healthy dogs is a great pleasure, as is sitting by the fire with a purring cat on your lap and others napping nearby. Getting into a routine and returning to the same clients has meant that they and their animals have become very much part of our lives over the past couple of years and we intend doing it for some time to come. We hope you do too.