7 tips for avoiding house sitting disasters
How prepared will you be if your house sit goes wrong?
What would happen if a pet in your care becomes ill or worse? How would you cope if the property was damaged in a hurricane? What would you do if something prevents the owners returning home on time?
It's so easy to get caught up in the excitement of your new house sitting adventure and bypass these important questions. After all they're not likely to happen to you. Or are they?
Housesitting provides an amazing lifestyle for both long term travelers and short term vacationers the world over. In 99% of all assignments, the handover of the property and pets back to the home owner is a happy occasion. You may experience the odd hiccup, but nothing too troublesome.
What about the 1% of house sits that turn bad?
We've seen over the past few years in Texas and The Caribbean, as Hurricane Harvey and Irma passed through within a couple of weeks of each other, that there are occasional situations when housesitting doesn't go to plan.
And on the sad occasion where a pet becomes sick, injures itself, goes missing or tragically dies, think about how will you cope with this sad and sensitive situation? It’s hard enough when it’s your own pet, but if someone’s beloved animal has been entrusted to your care, the emotions evoked are possibly more extreme.
The first thing to realize is it’s not your fault
Tragedy can strike at any time and it could have been during your time at the property or when the owners were home.
That said there are a number of precautions and practical steps you can take when starting your assignment. These will help alleviate any issues that you might encounter in the unlikely case of a housesitting disaster.
1. Carry out a house sitting risk assessment
It’s a bit like "risk assessment" or "due diligence" in business. If you consider all the things that could possibly go wrong, you'll be mentally, and in some cases, physically prepared. While housesitting in the Caribbean a few years back, we went through a dry run on what we'd do if a hurricane hit - this included physically checking we knew how the storm shutters attached to the property windows and doors. This isn't something you want to be figuring out just at the moment that bad weather hits!
Here are some of the more difficult situations you might come across:
- One or more pets becomes sick or injured
- There is a tragic pet death as a result of illness, old age or an accident
- A pet goes missing
- You or someone else is attacked by a pet
- One pet fights with another pet
- A broken or leaking pipe floods the property
- There's an infestation of insects or fleas
- The owners are delayed, but you have other commitments
- Expat owners are prevented from coming back into the country
- Extreme weather or other natural disaster causes damage to the property
- A swimming pool turns green
- You become sick or injured
Think about what action you could take in each scenario. This might prompt additional questions at both the house sit interview stage or at the handover.
2. Put together a list of emergency contacts
When you start a house or pet sitting assignment, you should get a list of emergency contacts:
- The country's emergency phone line, like 999 in UK
- The local or preferred vet (make sure an account has been set up or emergency cash fund left)
- The local police station
- A friend or neighbor that could help in an emergency
- Property Management Company if applicable
- A family member that could take care of the pets or make decisions in the case of the owners not returning on time.
- Local evacuation centers if you are in an area where extreme weather, forest fires, or flooding can cause problems.
If using a house sitting agreement then check that these contact numbers have been included and that you have names, as well as numbers. In the absence of the home owners for whatever reason, you should have access to someone who has been briefed and who has authority to make decisions on behalf of the owners.
Nobody wants to alarm a home owner at the handover, or make them worried just as they are getting ready to leave. However, it’s always good to discuss what to do in an emergency situation, in case you are unable to make quick and urgent contact while they are away.
3. Assess the probability of extreme weather and natural disasters
If you are house sitting in an area that is subject to extreme weather, such as hurricanes in the west, typhoons in the east, tsunamis, flooding, earthquakes or forest fires, it’s a good idea to ask if the owners have had any personal experiences, and if they have any precautions or advice for a worst case scenario.
In some areas, there are sirens to warn of extreme weather or tsunamis, or practical procedures for evacuation. Home owners may have storm shutters or window protection hidden away in the garage or basement.
It’s easy to forget these questions at handover, so again put them on your checklist if appropriate.
4. Know what to do if a pet goes missing on a house sit
On arrival at the property and especially in the case of cats, ask the owners if the pets ever roam from the property or disappear overnight or even longer. Check whether the grounds are secure and ask if pets have ever escaped. If the answer is yes, it could save a lot of panic by knowing this in advance. I once had a rural semi-feral cat who would happily go off for two or three days at a time before returning for some attention!
If a pet does go unexpectedly missing while in your care, then act as you would with your own pets. Check with neighbors, call the local vets to see if they have any unknown injured pets and put notices up in the neighborhood.
At handover discuss at what stage home owners would expect you to notify them of any emergency situations.
5. Discuss and prepare for pet health issues
If a pet becomes sick or is injured, then it’s common sense to take it immediately to the local vets. However, if you are in a remote location, this needs to be a discussion point at handover.
You might also want to discuss with the homeowners about payment. In extreme cases vet’s bills will be high, and whilst I’m sure you would be happy to pay in the case of a sick or injured pet, you simply may not have the resources to do so.
If you’ve been entrusted with a sick or elderly pet then the owners should have already mentally prepared themselves for the worst, and prepped you accordingly. It’s rare that someone will leave you with a poorly pet, but we spent time in America with a pooch on his last legs. We had to medicate, prepare special diets and deal with the poor animal’s anxiety issues. Check where pet carriers are stored in the home.
The worst situation would be if a pet becomes terminally ill or dies while in your care. Of course you should contact the owners as soon as possible or as instructed at handover. This is why the emergency numbers are so important.
Be aware that in some countries the vet will ask you to sign a disclaimer regarding surgery and you'll have to answer questions about resuscitation if things go awry. Best to have checked these first with the homeowner.
6. Are you skilled in caring for large, aggressive or untrained dogs?
There are some dog breeds that require more experience and others that just haven’t been trained as well as one might hope. This is why it is very important to properly assess the animals that will be left in your care, and be honest about your own ability to control or deal with difficult situations.
If you don’t have experience with large dogs, for instance, don’t take on an assignment with three powerful Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs). Similarly, if you haven't had experience with potentially aggressive dogs, don’t sign up to look after a Doberman. Think about interactions with other dogs – could you control a dog fight?
Ask about the dog’s temperament, how he mixes with other dogs on walks and whether he's been socialized. Find out if the dogs have ever bitten a person or another dog, even if it was "accidental" in a playful situation.
For pet sits with more than one dog, ask questions about how well they get along together, whether they need to be separated at feeding time, whether they've displayed territorial behaviours or fought unexpectedly with each other.
Again it will be rare that you’ll encounter a problem – but be prepared. We like to go for a walk with the home owners and the dogs, where we can to see how well they are socialized. It also helps to see how the home owner walks their dog on and off leash.
Try to match your experience to the pets, and you shouldn’t encounter any difficulties.
7. Anticipate what you'll do if home owners are delayed
If the owners are delayed through sickness, travel issues, bad weather, or other reasons, you'll need to have a back-up plan. This is especially important during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
You can’t simply leave the pets and move onto your next assignment. But, you might have visa restrictions that mean you can’t stay longer than the agreed time. For this reason it's always advisable not to schedule your last day as the same day your visa expires. We always ensure you have one or even two days spare if we can.
This is when it’s important to have a family member or friend that you can call on. Often home owners themselves will make provisions, but in case of an emergency situation this might not be possible.
You can also call on the services of the house sitting communities on Facebook. There are thousands of people that might be able to help you find cover in an emergency situation. Our own Facebook support group at House Sitting Magazine might even be able to help with this.
If the owners are expats or temporary residents, they might experience a problem returning into the country – again a back-up plan will prevent last minute difficulties. If you’ve discussed this at the outset then there will be no surprises.
Make sure also, that you have a contingency plan for your late arrival due to flight delays or other travel issues. Obviously it's prudent to leave plenty of time, but there are some occasions where this might be difficult to organize, so again, prepare in advance.
Be prepared - Ask for the homeowner's Home Book
Experienced home owners will usually have some sort of “house sitting manual” with all this information readily available, but sometimes the more difficult questions are not covered. Members of TrustedHousesitters are encouraged in a standard procedure now to enter an online "home book". So if using this particular house sitting platform, ask the home owner if they have their home book prepared for download before the sit - we've found these invaluable when available.
So, it is very rare for something to go wrong, but being mentally and physically prepared will add to your professionalism and make the assignment much less stressful should you run into problems. Take a look at our popular article House Sitting Expectations for further reading on this topic.
With all these issues properly catered for you can sit back and enjoy the property the pets and your new temporary location. And when house sitting goes wrong for whatever reason, you'll be prepared for at least the most common situations.
What do you do to prepare for when house sits go wrong? Please post your comments - we'd love to hear your thoughts too.
Last updated on December 30th, 2020