Do I need a house sitting agreement?
House sitting legal issues - is there a place for contracts?
There's a lot of talk about house sitting being a "trust based community" as part of the "sharing economy". So we've always been a little bemused that most of the international house sitting platforms recommend and offer downloads of "house sitting agreements".
We thought we'd take a look into why.
Our own house sitting agreement, always available to our home owners, has been used only once in a decade of house sits. This happened in our first year and was for home owners new to the idea of house sitting. We understood... it provided them with a level of reassurance, making them feel more comfortable about letting strangers into their home.
Is trust in house sitting best practice enough?
But are we relying too much on the trust so often spoken about in our community? Or, can we be confident that we have enough mutual respect to deal with all aspects of a house sitting job by communicating and confirming details together by carrying out house sitting best practice with plenty of due diligence?
Can we do this without the necessity of a formal contract or agreement?
Contract vs agreement
The words contract and agreement are often used to mean the same thing, yet there are unmistakable differences between the two.
According to Laws.com: "A contract is a legally binding agreement reached between two parties, the terms of which the courts have the authority and obligation to enforce. An agreement is a less formal creation of an obligation between the two parties. An agreement usually lacks one or more of the essential elements that are required to be present in order to form a valid contract that will be considered legally enforceable by a court of law."
What does the house sitting community think?
Nat Smith of Travel Lifestyle Plan confirms. "If a house sitter or a home owner finds peace of mind and therefore confidence in having a signed agreement, then they should absolutely use one. However if either party are feeling to follow their instincts and trust the essence of the win/win fair exchange benefits of house sitting, the only documentation required is a handbook, or manual of instructions.
Personally we have never had a signed agreement in our 35 plus house sits, but we would be happy to sign one if a home owner requested it. And just to be clear, an agreement is something very different to a contract."
Should you use a house sitting agreement?
We know some house sitters who do use house sitting agreements, but many others who don't. For the purposes of this article we are talking generally about house sitting assignments listed with match making platforms, or through personal recommendations and referrals. Not those organized by house and pet sitting agencies, where "employees" are paid for the period of the assignment.
Erin Poettker, International House Sitter, told us. "I use the agreement from MindMyHouse for homeowners where we sit for the first time, mainly because I think it gives them some inkling that we're serious about what our role is. It also gives them a place to write down any instructions regarding their pets and home maintenance chores. For repeat house sits, we don't bother, but some owners have chosen to update their last agreement with new information. It's also a good thing for the owners in case they have different sitters in the future, as they don't have to start from scratch.
I send the document in advance via email and just explain that it's mostly for our benefit - that we need written instructions to ensure we do the very best job maintaining their home. It's more important when we are fronting the money to fly somewhere to house sit for owners who are new to us. It makes me feel confident the house sit will actually happen. But it also reassures the homeowners (whom we've never met) that we are going to show up!"
Ask the tough house sitting questions
Long term house sitter, Eden Rudin, gives her perspective. "I have never used contracts nor have I been asked to. Mostly because we aren't residents of the countries where we are sitting, so it would be pretty hard for anyone to pursue any legal action against us. We have also had very good communication with our home owners. We are not embarrassed to ask the tough questions when we take on a sit, so we don't feel we need one either. However, one exception would be if I were sitting in the USA, where we are residents. Here I would absolutely have a contract, just because the culture of suing is so common."
What the house sit platforms say about house sitting agreements
We asked three of the top international house sitting platforms what they think. They all offer non-legal "house sitting agreements" for their members. Rachel Martin (co founder of TrustedHousesitters) describes the options available to their members:
"At TrustedHousesitters we provide lots of tools to facilitate the perfect house sit. These are all available on the members dashboard area. They include:
- A Home Owner's Welcome Guide complete with a "pet profile"
- Guidelines for home owners and house sitters
- A House Sitting Agreement Form
Our House Sitting Agreement is not a legal agreement or contract, but it could be made into one with a lawyers input. What it does do very well, is provide a clear communication to manage the expectations of both parties - home owner and house sitter.
House sitting agreements ensure there are no misunderstandings about what you need to do on the assignment. Ours is comprehensive and covers key areas for the house sitter. This includes (but is not limited to), expectations of behaviour, and requirements within the home and for the pets. It can also cater for any agreed financial arrangements.
For the home owner it provides a lot as well. Examples include a check list of key areas that the home and pet owner should consider covering with their house sitter. There is also an area to provide emergency contact details for their home and pets.
Though the form is not mandatory for our members, we do actively encourage them to use the house sitting agreement form, It absolutely helps the parties to ensure clear communication from the outset of the house sitting assignment."
Do pet sit agreements keep us focused on detail?
It seems that a contract or agreement can really focus the home owner and the house sitter, ensuring that misunderstandings do not arise, especially on first-time assignments. International platform Nomador uses a standard contract, which takes its inspiration from the "Lending for Use Contract of Articles 1875" and follows the French Civil Code.
Platform owner Mariannig Ferrari explains:
"The spirit of house sitting is usually one of mutual trust. Nevertheless, signing a contract is always important because it provides a formal framework for the relationship. It helps avoid any ambiguities or misunderstandings. In international house sitting, the degree to which a contract is recognized in law may vary. It will depend on the countries of origin and nationalities of the parties. But a written contract will formalize each party’s commitments.
At Nomador we propose a standard contract. You can adapt this agreement to the assignment's specific requirements. It is best accompanied by a home-book (house and pet instructions etc.), and a basic home-inventory. All of these documents are downloadable on our website for free."
Building trust on a house sit is important ...
... but even friends fall out occasionally, and often over the smallest of issues.
While developing your reputation and feeling your way in the house sitting community, an agreement may be a good option. It could avoid conflict when things go wrong that are outside your control.
Lamia Walker of HouseSitMatch is very clear about preparing for the unexpected. She tells us in which situations she believes an agreement is a prudent move:
"Anyone engaging in an assignment should prepare well. Obtain a clear brief from the home owner and fully understand your responsibilities as a house sitter. We recommend both parties formulate an agreement together, because we all occasionally have to deal with the unexpected.
Thinking through "what ifs" prepares you, and the very process of writing an agreement together protects you both. It allows your to outline your expectations, and ensures you know what to do 'just in case'.
HouseSitMatch offer lawyer-prepared templates for house sitting agreements to all registered members.
These are my suggestions for when to use written house sitting agreements:
- The first time you house sit for a home owner
- When you care for pets and medication is involved
- If the home owner requests a damages deposit
- When you agree a payment for services
- If the home owner requests utility payments (including WiFi)
- Where the home owner offers you a vehicle
My advice is to protect yourself against the unexpected and create a house sitting agreement."
Discuss your mutual house sit expectations
It is rare that house sits go wrong. When they do, however, having a clear understanding of each others original expectations goes a long way to preventing a situation of conflict. This can be either a verbal contract based on trust, or a written house sitting agreement or other document that provides a higher level of reassurance.
To build trust between two parties you need to talk and air your concerns. Make sure you understand fully each parties requirements. If this needs to be in writing then so be it. If you are happy to trust each others word then that is fine too. At the end of the day it seems it really is down to personal choice.
You can read more about both house sitter and home owner etiquette and expectations here.
Communication is key
A lot of problems that occur on house sits are simply down to a lack of honest and upfront communication. For instance the home owner didn't mention that the food in the freezer was off limits. Or, the house sitter forgot to ask what to do if expensive vet fees needed to be paid.
Alternatives - a house sit questionnaire
Preparing a house sitting agreement, or at the very least a house sit questionnaire, means all of these things are considered and thought through by all parties. A detailed questionnaire can be just as effective and far less formal. It still allows you to address expectations and requirements, and clarifies everything including duties and responsibilities for the house sitters and the owners.
Gavin Merritt has five years of house sitting under his belt. He sums this up very succinctly: "The interesting thing (and I know it's only perception), is that we love a lifestyle of trust and appreciation. It was why house and pet sitting fitted so well. Having a questionnaire promotes that lifestyle for us, while contracts and house sitting agreements seem to detract from it. We feel that building relationships works better than any written word ever could."
Create a bespoke house sit agreement
Jane Dempster-Smith of ToTravelToo has taken this idea of a questionnaire and developed a personal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). She told us. "Our MOU explains that it is not a legal contract as no money passes hands, and no consideration is involved. However, the MOU asks a number of questions. Recently we added,
- Do you have external and/or internal security or web cameras?
- What is their purpose?
- Where are they located?
- What is the process if a call back to base is activated?
We find the MOU clarifies and presents in one place exactly what each parties expectations are."
No need for a house sit contract
However, for long term house sitter Martin Gray, things are much more clear cut:
"I don't necessarily see myself as part of a trust-based community. With each new home I am potentially dealing with people who see this as a clear service that they have a requirement for, at any given time. They need what they need, (i.e. contracts, house sitting agreements, references, assurances). They offer what they offer, (free utilities, use of car, comfort of home, etc.). Many see this as a straightforward transaction between two parties. They don't conceive of the community that lies behind that in a circle of like-oriented, inter-networked house sitters."
Is it a case of trust your instinct?
So it seems there is no definitive answer one way or the other. In some cases a contract or agreement may be purely practical, providing a degree of reassurance. In other cases they are unnecessary. As with many decisions when house sitting, it appears that the best advice is to trust your instinct. Weigh up each house sitting assignment individually.
A final note on contract law
We'd like to thank everyone who contributed to this discussion and also stress that none of us are "legal" experts. Contract law is complicated and varies country to country. Even state to state in the USA. There's a very fine line between a contract and an agreement in America. Many people we spoke with were much more concerned about the use of contracts and agreements in the US.
If you have any concerns about the legality and possible consequences of using house sitting agreements in the USA, talk with a lawyer experienced in US contract law.
Where to find downloadable house sitting agreements
If you want to take a look at some house sitting agreements and associated documents, you'll find most of the major platforms have useful downloadable resources. You'll usually find these on their websites or within their "Member Areas".
If you are still unsure, you can always talk to customer services at the house sitting platform you've signed up with, or start a conversation in the comments below.
House sit agreements during the Covid-19 pandemic (update March 2021)
It's hard to plan for anything during the unfolding pandemic, but one thing we can be quite sure of is the uncertainty. There is no guarantee at the moment that repeated lock-downs might not result in a sit being cancelled for reasons outside the home owner or house sitter's control. If a border shuts down unexpectedly, and house sitters can't get into a country, or quarantine measures are implemented out of the blue, a booked house sit may simply not come to fruition.
We are pleased to see that platforms like TrustedHousesitters are moving with the times. They are in the process of rolling out new tiered memberships with options for sit cancellation insurance for when house sits are cancelled outside of your control.
Here are a few articles to help you keep safe during the pandemic when conducting handovers and handbacks on house sits:
Covid-19 Backup Plans for Sitters
House Sitting during Covid-19 - Tips for safe handovers
What can you do in this unusual situation?
Communication from the outset is obviously paramount. Our current view is that home owners will be looking for sitters who are already in the country to alleviate issues surrounding immigration and quarantine. But, if a lock-down prevents a sitter arriving, it will be necessary to have a Plan B in place, especially if you are leaving on essential travel.
To minimise any misunderstandings during difficult circumstances, we would suggest at the very least having an email or message trail to confirm your conversations about how you see the process unfolding during a cancellation out of your control.
As a home-owner, you might have secondary accommodation that you aren't letting. Maybe you can offer this to sitters in the event the sit can't go ahead. We've had this offer on two sits later in 2020 where we were asked to remain available and flexible, on the promise of a separate place to stay should travel not have been possible.
In these times, we need to work together to try and help each other keep house sitting working wherever it can. But being clear about things that might go awry, in writing, while we live alongside Covid-19, will help avoid any hard feelings if things don't pan out as expected. This also applies to making sure you are both thinking the same about Covid safety, including social distancing, mask wearing and adhering to government guidelines where applicable.
author - vanessa anderson
Vanessa and her partner Ian are full-time British travelers and house sitters who have published the online publication House Sitting Magazine since 2016. They provide numerous resources for the community as they continue their explorations and slow travel adventures across the globe. You can find out more about their house sitting lifestyle here or at LongTermHouseSitters.com
Last updated on March 11th, 2021