Guide to house sitting in New Zealand
House sitting the KIWI way
If there's one country that should be praised for it's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, then it's got to be New Zealand. With things pretty much back to normal, house sits are able to go ahead, as people venture out to explore the beauty of their own homeland.
Nicole Gustas tells her story of how she got happily "stuck" in New Zealand, and provides some useful tips for house sitting with the Kiwi lifestyle very much in mind.
In January 2020, we came to New Zealand to housesit for a couple of months. In March our flight home was cancelled due to COVID-19. We’ve been stuck in New Zealand ever since.
But “stuck” implies we don’t want to be here, when the truth is we are incredibly grateful for every minute we get to spend in this country with its gorgeous scenery, wise leaders and non-existent COVID infection rates.
Because we’ve stayed so much longer, we’ve gotten a much more thorough introduction into the things that make housesitting in New Zealand unique compared to other countries. Whether it’s the application process (be fast!), the animals you might encounter (do you like sheep?) or some ways in which homes differ (don’t expect heat!), this is what it’s like to housesit the Kiwi way.
The quirks of Kiwi life
Kiwis are a warm and welcoming people. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on hospitality.
If you go to meet your homeowner before a sit, they will invite you in, offer you a cup of tea or coffee, and gladly sit down for a chat with you. Similarly, if you stay until they return from their sit, you’ll again sit down for tea, and maybe a nibble.
The US sign “no shirt, no shoes, no service” has no place here. We often see people go barefoot into cafes and stores, especially in beach communities. People are also more likely to be dressed as if they’re ready to go fishing or hiking at a moment’s notice – probably because they are.
Secondhand is first-rate
As a culture, Kiwis tend to be thrifty. Secondhand shopping is popular.. and it’s not just clothes and furniture that are bought used. Many cars in New Zealand are used imports from Japan. Even New Zealand’s inter-island ferries are secondhand Scandinavian ferries.
People repair items, from clothing to furniture to washing machines, rather than replace them. Repair makes more economic sense here in New Zealand. Because it’s a couple of small islands in the middle of the Pacific, most items here are significantly more expensive than you’d find in Europe or in North America.
Pay at the counter
Whether you’re eating at a fast food joint or the most elegant restaurant in town, you don’t pay at the table; you pay at the counter. You don’t have to wave at wait staff to get the bill; it streamlines life quite a bit.
No tipping, please!
As an American, it’s programmed into me to tip. When I’ve tried to do so at a salon, a restaurant or a hotel, it has been unbelievably awkward.
By and large, tipping doesn’t exist. People are paid a fair wage – minimum wage will increase to $20/hour on April 1 2021.
Eat seasonally (or go bankrupt)
Lots of the produce in New Zealand’s grocery stores is grown here. The only reason to go to a farmer’s market is to save money; the quality at supermarkets is just as high. In spring, summer and fall, you’ll find a bounty at the grocery store.
In winter the selection declines, and prices for fresh items like tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicum/bell peppers go through the roof.
We stopped buying tomatoes and bell peppers once they crossed the $12/kilo line. Tomatoes got up to $29.99 for the entry-level variety. Cherry tomatoes were in the mid-to-high $30s.
The land of accidental animal owners
Many Kiwis told us the same story: “this cat showed up on my doorstep one day and just didn’t leave.” Lots of owners have gotten two, three or even four cats in just this way.
And it’s not just cats.
One homeowner we sat for had "accidentally" accrued a small flock of sheep. When she took ownership of the house, she discovered that the previous homeowner had left a sheep in the small pasture out back.
The sheep seemed lonely, so she got an enormously fat sheep off "TradeMe", which is New Zealand’s answer to Craigslist.
Two days later she saw a lamb in her pasture and discovered the new sheep she’d acquired had been pregnant, not fat. A few weeks later she looked in the pasture and saw a fourth sheep; her neighbour, who worked at a slaughter-house, decided to rescue that sheep from the meat packing plant.
New Zealand is the kind of place where you wind up with accidental sheep. Or chickens. Maybe even a couple of goats.
That’s just the way it is.
People here are also less sentimental about their pets, perhaps because of the way they just show up at the door. Homeowners are far less likely to be upset by the “what should we do if your pet passes away?” question.
And in most cases the answer is: bring our pet to be cremated and don’t keep the remains.
The Covid refurbishment boom
When we first started house sitting in New Zealand, we found that people here were more likely to hold on to furniture, kitchen appliances, and so forth, longer than people in the US or Europe. Since New Zealand came out of lockdown, that has changed drastically. All that money formerly earmarked for overseas travel has to go somewhere!
About 50% of homes we’ve looked after in the past 6 months have brand-new living room sets, giant TVs, and refreshed kitchen appliances. Most of the ones who don’t have those things yet are on wait-lists for them. At nearly every housesit, homeowners warn us that some area of the house is in the middle of a refurb and the cabinet doors are off / the carpet hasn’t been installed yet / there’s a new kitchen coming / etcetera.
A quick Kiwi glossary
Lifestyle block: Kiwis will tell you this isn’t a farm. If you’re from the rest of the world...it’s a farm, just a tiny one.
Whānau: extended family
Jandal: thong or flip-flop
Munted: messed up, bollixed, completely f*&#ed
Go for your life: use however much of this you want to
Maha: hard work
Kia kaha: stay strong (heard more frequently since the pandemic)
The dominant website in New Zealand
If you want to housesit for any duration in New Zealand, you’ll need to sign up with Kiwi House Sitters.
In a year of house sitting, we’ve booked 4 housesits on Trusted Housesitters (THS) and 12 on Kiwi House Sitters. We’ve got every sit we’ve applied for on THS; there just haven’t been many to apply for.
Adverts on Kiwi House Sitters often have much less information than we were used to from other services. We have noticed that this has evolved since COVID closed the borders.
Our 2 favorite house sit sites in New Zealand
Have you considered using house and pet sitters to look after your pets? Keep them happy and love at home in their normal routines. Browse for free or sign up with a 25% discount here. No code required.
In January only half the housesits we saw had photos and substantial descriptions. Now about 80% have photos, and descriptions are more likely to talk up the benefits of the home and the area. This may be because housesitters are in shorter supply and homeowners have to work harder to get sitters.
Kiwis are much more laid back about the house sitting recruitment process than people in most other countries, in a couple of ways. While people in other nations post months in advance, two-week lead time seems to be the rule of thumb here.
We’ve seen weekend sits go up on a Thursday night and 8-week sits go up with a week’s notice.
The decision process is also less intensive. Often, homeowners pick the first applicant rather than reviewing applications.
Very few do interviews and many are surprised when we ask to do a video interview before confirming.
Because homeowners tend to go for the first applicant, you’ll need to apply quickly.
Right now, new sits generally populate the site around 11am local time, which makes it easier to monitor. If we apply within an hour of the ad being posted, our hit rate is 80%. If we apply more than an hour after posting, it’s about 10%.
Communication style is subtle
Kiwis are often very polite and many things are implied rather than stated outright.
When you talk to your homeowner, it is important to listen for what the homeowner is implying as well as what they say directly.
“We’ll be getting home late, but you don’t need to wait around for us!” Translates as: "I am going to be too exhausted for the obligatory tea and coffee when I get back, please leave the house before we arrive so we can collapse on the couch in peace"
“You’ll find the sun does an excellent job of heating the house, so you shouldn’t need to turn on the heat.” – don’t turn on the heat unless it drops below five degrees
“We dress for the season in this house. I don’t understand why some people want it warm enough to wear short sleeves.” – put on your parka and beanie, not the heater
“You can water every other day if you like.” – water every other day, no exceptions
Adjusting your expectations about Kiwi homes
If you’re coming to New Zealand from another country, particularly somewhere in Europe or North America (which may be a distant dream right now), you will have to adjust some expectations. The biggest of which have to do with heat and moisture.
Prepare for cold winters
New Zealand homes are very cold, especially if they are more than 10 years old. One third of New Zealand households aren’t insulated, many of the rest are only partially insulated, and most have single-pane windows. Central heating is vanishingly rare.
When homes have heat, it is often only in living areas. Almost half of households do not heat bedrooms. Over 35% of homes are heated by wood fires, 15% by bottled gas, and 4% still use coal fires.
We’ve sat in multi-million dollar homes that are heated only by a wood stove in the living room. All this means that, if you’re sitting in a gorgeous historic house, it’s likely to be the same temperature inside as it is outside. We quickly learned why many Kiwis wear beanies and parkas indoors in winter! Make sure to ask if a house has heat before you sit.
About half the people we sat for made it clear that they were happy for us to heat the house as needed. Other owners, however, told us stories of how previous housesitters had overused the heat and explained that heat was expensive. This made the underlying message clear: put your beanie and parka on!
Humidity is an issue
In humid areas of North America and Europe, most homes have built-in humidity controls. New Zealand homes don’t have these, and mould is an endemic issue. Kiwis generally leave the bathroom and toilet windows open at all times to disperse moisture.
Farm animals are more common
It’s not unusual for people to keep a couple of farm animals on the property, especially on the South Island. Sheep are the easiest because they usually take care of themselves. Chickens are also fairly easy and often will provide you with eggs. Goats, cows and horses require more significant care.
We haven’t done any farm sits, but we’ve heard about them from other people. Bachelor farmers are legendary in New Zealand for living a lifestyle that’s light on cleanliness and cooking implements.
In New Zealand you are always next to nature
In New Zealand, you’re always close to the natural world. This is mostly amazing, but there’s a few lookouts as well.
The shaky islands
I’ve experienced more earthquakes in a year in New Zealand than in 10 years in Los Angeles. Kiwis are used to them and react to a 4.5 with a shrug.
And those pretty North Island mountains? Occasionally they burp. As I write this, there’s a warning about increased activity at Mount Ruapehu, the volcano in the middle of the North Island that played Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
Don't panic about the weather
My local weather app constantly has “SEVERE WEATHER WARNINGS” in yellow or red. Initially I handled these like New Englanders handle blizzards: I bought bread, milk and toilet paper and I hunkered down.
I’ve come to learn that the very existence of weather warrants a warning here. Which is weird, because they have so much of it.
By and large, it’s not as intense as what we experienced in the US and Canada; a SEVERE WEATHER WARNING is mostly a notice to bring the laundry inside.
The beach and bush are always a short drive away
It is very easy to get out into nature here, even if you’re in the middle of Auckland. Maybe especially if you’re in the middle of Auckland, because you can take a ferry to a volcanic island! (Don’t worry, it hasn’t erupted in a few centuries.)
You can go on nature walks for a few minutes or a few days. There are back country huts all over, where you can stay for a minimal donation. There’s a tradition here of people “going bush” and living in the woods for a while.
The sun is much more powerful here than in Europe or North America, and you’re less likely to notice because the weather is so temperate. Back in the pre-COVID times, we watched incoming tourists turn boiling red under its deceptive rays. Wear a hat, slap on some sunscreen and don’t forget your water!
You won’t need to worry about dangerous mammals or poisonous snakes (neither of which exist here in New Zealand), but you will want bug spray. Lots of it. Mosquitoes are many and voracious, and there’s a bug that locals call a sand fly that leaves hard welts that itch for weeks. DEET is your best friend.
We feel like we won the lottery
We feel like the luckiest people on Earth (literally) to have been “trapped” in New Zealand by COVID. The country has done a legendary job of handling the disease. Because of that, we’ve had the chance to go out and see every corner of the country. From Mount Taranaki (covered by clouds) to Mount Ruapehu (covered by clouds) to Franz Josef Glacier (covered by clouds) to Aoraki Mount Cook (covered by clouds), we’ve managed to see amazing cloud formations in every part of the country, and some great postcards that show the views we would have had on a sunny day.
We’re kidding. (Well, not about the fact that every mountain we’ve tried to see has been obscured by clouds. That part is painfully true.) This country has jaw-dropping views everywhere you go. Seeing it from top to bottom has completely and utterly spoiled us for any other land.
And the people here have been just as wonderful. Everyone we meet has been happy to share their recommendations for where we should go, and the secret spots that only they know about. They’ve given us the warmest welcome, and the deepest condolences for what’s going on back in our home country. We have seen friends in other countries scrambling to get home due to visa issues, and are endlessly thankful to this nation for extending ours.
As of January 12, we will have been in New Zealand a year. This is my tenth visit, and I thought I knew this country. But every day we are here, I learn something new about the people, the place, and how it is evolving and changing. It may be a while before house sitting opens up again here, but once it does, you should put it at the top of your list.
guest contributor - nicole gustas
When she was four, Nicole ran away from home to see the world. She only traveled half a block, but she's gone much further since. Together with her partner Mike, they have been house sitting around the world for three years. You can see their travels on Cheapskate Nomad or on Mike’s Instagram
Photo credits - Mike Rainey