Property Caretaking: How To Get The Job & Make The Most Of It
Never Pay Rent Or A Mortgage Again
You may have heard some buzz about "The Best Job in the World." That was a live-in position on Australia's Hamilton Island -- an island of the Great Barrier Reef -- that paid AUD$150,000 (about $115,000 U.S. dollars) for a six-month stay in a three-bedroom home, where some of the most important tasks included writing a weekly blog, clearing the stray leaf out of the pool (while swimming in it, of course) and collecting the mail. Yep, that's property caretaking.
Of course, most property caretaking positions aren't quite as cushy and don't pay that well. Still, based on years of experience as a property and estate caretaker, I highly recommend the field in general.
And it is a general field, as I'll explain here. Property caretaking jobs run the gamut from basic, seasonal house-sitting arrangements to permanent, salaried positions in a range of locations and with employees and employers as varied as can be. But there's one thing all of these caretaking situations have in common: free housing of one kind or another.
So, if a job that comes with a rent-free, mortgage-free home sounds appealing to you, read on for more information about how to get started and what to do (and maybe not do) if you do get hired.
Types of Property Caretaking Jobs: From the Rustic to the Elegant
From farms to estates to retreats and inns and even yachts, caretakers and house-sitters live and work on a wide variety of property types all over the world. Some positions come with lots of perks, and salaries and benefits too (we received health insurance with one of our caretaking jobs), while others are merely an exchange of work for free housing. Some require full-time hours and some only a few hours per week.
Property caretaking can encompass tasks such as landscaping, gardening, building and equipment maintenance and repair, even milking cows. Every job is unique and so are the people you'll work for. Sometimes the owners are present, oftentimes not. Some caretaking jobs are year-round, some seasonal.
Here are a few (old) sample ads from the Caretaker Gazette, the publication we used to find our own property caretaking jobs:
CARETAKER NEEDED late September to May on a self-sufficient Aleutian homestead. Free housing and stipend. Orcas, eiders, sea otters, caribou, hydroelectric power, Internet, loom, hot tub. Writers and naturalists have prospered here.
CARETAKER(S) NEEDED. Responsible, competent single man or couple, with strong body and alternative-minded. Must be enthusiastic about rustic jungle life and have experience with off-the-grid living and solar equipment. No tobacco or alcohol users please. Maintenance of a homestead in a beautiful coastal jungle area in an eclectic neighborhood on the Big Island. Care for orchards, garden, and cats. Small but comfortable cabin provided.
HELP WANTED year-round to caretake home, property, and pets (one dog, six cats). 37-acre property midway between Santa Fe and Taos, bordered by the Rio Grande. Two-bedroom, recently remodeled, unfurnished home plus utilities offered, as well as a negotiated salary.
YOU ARE INVITED TO SHARE in the benefits of our growing nature retreat, organic farm and alternative teaching center. Our 10-acre primitive retreat is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Home of a developing healing arts center, we are only 2000 feet from the Caribbean, safe, secure, and private. The farm has a running river and Artesian springs. We grow almost every tropical fruit and vegetable imaginable. We are registered with environmental groups and agencies worldwide as a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Live rent-free in exchange for light maintenance work such as weeding, raking, gardening, maintenance of fences and buildings, shopping for supplies, rototilling and weed-whacking. Applicants should be in good health, handy, and resourceful with a common sense understanding of the hazards of nature.
Benefits of Property Caretaking Positions
Both the direct and indirect rewards....
- Rent-free, mortgage-free housing is the obvious one, and free utilities often--usually--go along with that.
- Caretaking can allow couples and families to spend more time together.
- Caretakers and housesitters are often afforded significant amounts of free time to pursue other interests, which makes these great situations for artists, writers and photographers, among others.
- Some caretaking positions, particularly those that require only a minimal number of hours per week, allow for the caretakers to work off-property as well. That salary, combined with the free housing and other perks the caretaking position may include, can really help one become financially fit and even debt-free. Of course, you could also do other work at home and online for additional income.
- Many caretaking positions offer a stipend or salary along with the free housing. There are often other perks as well, such as space to garden, use of tools and equipment, and sometimes use of a vehicle.
- Caretaking and housesitting can give you the chance to live for extended periods in all sorts of interesting places around the world, without having to buy or rent property there or spend money on lodging.
How To Find A Property Caretaking Job
Step One: Get The Caretaker Gazette
Are you interested in pursuing a property caretaking job yourself? In my opinion, there's really just one great resource. Sure, you can try other avenues, like putting a "situation wanted ad" in newspapers in an area you're interested in living. And there's always Craigslist perhaps and a number of websites related to housesitting, but, to me, the Caretaker Gazette is the #1 source for caretaking and housesitting jobs around the world.
The Caretaker Gazette is a family-owned and operated publishing business that's been run by founder Gary Dunn since 1983. The Gazette is approved by Consumer Reports Web Watch.
If you want to be sure a property caretaking advertisement is legitimate, this is the source to use. You can even submit your own "situation wanted" ad.
The Gazette can be mailed in hard copy or you can receive the listings, along with new ads submitted between publications, by email.
For more information and to look for a property caretaking job, visit the website of The Caretaker Gazette
A Message From Gary Dunn - Publisher: The Caretaker Gazette
Gary has been publishing this newsletter dedicated to property caretaking for three decades and counting, so he knows as much about this lifestyle and line of work as anyone.
Gain An Edge On The Property Caretaking Competition
Making A Great First Impression
I found that the number one skill which gave my husband and I the edge over other applicants was our ability to write a really good, down-to-earth letter.
Often, property owners will ask for applications in writing, either by snail-mail, e-mail or fax, rather than a phone call. And this was how I preferred to make a first impression as well. Letter-writing gave me (because I did most of the writing for the both of us) the chance to express myself, to explain our backgrounds, skills and experience and relate what we were looking for in a property caretaking position.
I suggest making your letter personal and personable, not like a formal business letter. Property owners are essentially inviting you into their homes and entrusting you, the caretaker/s, with some of their most valuable possessions, often including pets, so they really want to know who you are. A detached bit of correspondence is really not going to do the trick in most cases, and you may never even get a response.
If spelling and punctuation aren't your forte, it would probably be a good idea to have someone proofread your letter. A goof here and there would be no big deal, but a letter riddled with errors can and will detract from your message.
Also, attach a resume to your letter. Yes, gear that resume towards caretaking, meaning add any skills you think will apply but that may not have been included when you used your resume for other types of jobs, but, at the same time, keep all or most of your prior work experience on the resume, too. Again, owners want to know who you are and where you've come from. Even though you may be applying for a farm caretaking position, owners will be interested to know your background as an accountant, for example. After all, caretakers often have to manage money. So you never know when skills you've acquired and used in other types of work will be appealing to property owners.
Provide references, just like you would with any other job application. In fact, references are often very important to property owners, who will likely check with one or more of them. So contact your references first and make sure they're okay with being used as such. Tell them they will likely get a call or email from your perspective employer and explain what type of position you're going for. Usually, property owners request three references, but I always provided more, including family and friends, previous or current employers, and other types of contacts who could provide good character references.
You might even provide a photo or two of yourself. Just make sure it doesn't look like a driver's license photo ... or a mug shot. Send a picture taken of you in a location or doing something you enjoy or, if you're a couple, of the two of you together.
And if or when you finally get on the phone and then meet the property owners, be yourself. Try to relax. For the most part, you can dress casually. (Just make it neat-and-clean casual, of course.) These "interviews" generally aren't the type where you'll be sitting across a desk from the employer. Rather, you'll probably end up walking around the property and maybe even jumping in to help, possibly getting your hands and clothes dirty in the process. Happened to us more than once.
A Suggestion From "Caretaker Gazette" Publisher, Gary Dunn - A message about providing references
After all, if someone were housesitting for you, you'd want to know you can trust this person in your absence. Providing a good number of references -- references that are easy to check -- really is important.
How To Make The Most Of A Property Caretaking Job
And Pitfalls To Avoid....
Image is in the public domain
Having been caretakers for seven years, we learned a thing or two about how to make the experience the best it can be for both caretakers and property owners. Here are some things to consider:
- Communication is key: Keep the lines of communication open at all times, even if the owners are absent. Be sure to let them know that you want to know right away if they aren't satisfied with something or if you're not doing something the way they'd like. By the same token, you as the caretaker/s need to let the owners know what you need. If things are left to fester on either end, nothing good will come of it and very minor and manageable issues can easily get blown out of proportion.
- Be clear about what's expected by each party, right from the get-go: Discuss not only the tasks the caretaker is expected to perform but how many hours of property-related work are expected each week or month. Do you get days off? When? How many? How about vacation time? When can you or should you call in outside vendors or contractors to take care of problems? What can or can't you use on the property? And so forth. Make a list of questions for the property owner, and encourage them to do the same for you.
- Don't get in the habit of doing a lot more than is expected: "Over and above" can become expected, if you know what I mean. Do what you're asked to do and do it well and with good attention to detail, but be aware that continually going above and beyond may lead to it seeming like the norm. That's not to say you can't or shouldn't do extra tasks you're not asked to do on the property, to be helpful and nice. Besides, unexpected needs arise and sometimes they arise often. But it's prudent to be aware of what overdoing it on a frequent basis can lead to, including resentment and of feeling of the work versus the compensation being out of balance. It happened to us.
- Treat the property as if it were your own: That is, the caretaker has a vested interest in the property, too, and owners will notice and appreciate that frame of mind in their caretaker/s.
Read this article from the New York Times about a New Wave Of Caretakers
- Caretakers Go Professional - NYTimes.com
Some intrepid souls have found that leaving the rat race can mean living in a dream house, with mortgages, taxes and utilities already covered.
Our Own Property Caretaking Jobs
From Connecticut to Pennsylvania to Arizona
Before we learned of the Caretaker Gazette, my husband and I had decided we wanted to live on a small, working farm. So we put our own "situation wanted" ad in an organic farming newsletter and soon began receiving correspondence from around the eastern U.S., with offers of all kinds. One response came from a Buddhist retreat, while another was from an off-grid homestead tucked in the very green mountains of Vermont.
Where we ended up, though, was on Howland Homestead Farm in South Kent, Connecticut. There, the owners raised rare-breed, grass-fed cows for both meat and milk, along with chickens, pigs and eventually sheep, and grew their own fruits and vegetables. Steve and I were offered the upstairs apartment in their historic farmhouse, more than an acre of land for our own garden, a share of the farm's produce, and use of the equipment.
This first arrangement wasn't exactly caretaking, because we did pay a reduced rent. At the same time, though, we were paid for working on the farm, earned some additional income from selling our own produce at the farmers market and a self-serve roadside stand, and received meat, milk and eggs from the farm. We also had time to work off the property if we chose to do so.
After about a year and half at Howland Homestead, we discovered the Gazette and learned what kinds of property caretaking jobs were out there. We then decided to move on. After meeting and interviewing with several property owners in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, Steve and I settled on a caretaking situation in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.
RamCat Farms was more of a "gentleman's farm," because it really didn't produce any income for the owners. (Quite the contrary, actually.) On the farm were horses and a pony, angora goats (which did require sheering--something we learned to do the hard way), lots of rescued dogs and cats, and eventually, once Steve and I built the chicken house (pictured right), a dozen hens and one very happy rooster. The owners, a doctor and his wife, lived about two hours north in the city of Pittsburgh and would come to the farm for a day or two at a time, roughly once a week, while Steve and I lived there full-time.
In exchange for free housing in our own spacious apartment above the garage, free utilities, all the garden space we wanted, use of a truck and any and all equipment and tools on the property, a monthly salary, and health insurance, Steve and I cared for the animals, made hay, mowed the grass (a lot of it!), did building and equipment maintenance, and kept an eye on the property--about 180 acres of it. We didn't have a set number of working hours; we just did what needed doing. Otherwise, our time was our own.
During our years at RamCat Farms, Steve did a lot of art--particularly artistic metalwork (like the branch-patterned railing pictured left), which provided extra income--and worked as a river guide on the Youghiogheny. Our caretaking position also allowed me the time to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail for six months. And I had the chance to write two novels. Caretaking gave us both the opportunity to pursue other interests, both individually and as a couple, and to enjoy more time together.
We stayed on RamCat Farms for more than five years, until the doctor/owner retired, and he and his wife made the transition from their city home to the farm. We could have stayed on, but Steve and I decided to move back to Arizona, where we took another caretaking job, this time at a remote property in the Bradshaw Mountains.
That last property caretaking job of ours began in April, 2003. Our duties included basic grounds work, upkeep of the pool, some minor animal care (the owners only had a few dogs, a few pet goats and a few chickens), building maintenance and some easy house-cleaning. In exchange, we received free housing in two casitas and a monthly stipend of $800. Ultimately, though, we decided the property was a bit too remote for us, and we ended up moving back to Flagstaff, Steve's hometown, six months later.
Share Your Experience
If you've done any type of property caretaking or long-term housesitting, let us know how it went in the comments section below.
Would you do it again?
Are you currently employed as a property caretaker?
Please share any lessons learned or helpful suggestions.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury