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Protect your home while you're away – hire a house-sitter

If you are away often, or have pets and gardens that need looking after, consider employing a professional, says Chiara Cavaglieri

If you're going to have a stranger putting their feet on the sofa or raiding your fridge, let it be a house-sitter rather than a squatter.

With the summer holidays coming up, unoccupied homes are an easy target for burglars and squatters who can be notoriously difficult to get rid of, but it is now common for homeowners to bring people in for protection.

With a house-sitter in place, keen gardeners can rest easy that there is someone to water the plants and keep everything ticking over until they return. Commonly, house-sitters are also used by pet owners who want to avoid the expense and stress of kennels and catteries.

"The cheapest and best way to get a house-sitter is to get a friend, or a trusted friend of a friend, to do it for you," says Jasmine Birtles, the editor of financial advice site Moneymagpie.com. "If you know someone who is looking for somewhere to live anyway – or they're not happy where they are – then it could be a help to them as well as you. Offering a little pin money for walking the dog, for example, would also help."

If you haven't got a loved one available to help out, it is easy enough to find potential house-sitters. You can use an online directory such as Mind My House (mindmyhouse.com) which brings owners and sitters together. This matchmaking service is free for homeowners to use, but house-sitters pay £11 per year to become members.

On other sites, including Trusted Housesitters (trustedhousesitters. com), it is free to place a listing and you are charged only if you are able to find a suitable sitter, with fees ranging from $15 (£9.32) for one month and $60 (£37.27) for annual membership. If you aren't able to find anyone on the site that you are happy to use, you can simply remove your listing and won't have to pay a penny.

Typical house-sitters include writers, academics and retirees, but the onus is on you as the owner to contact sitters you like the look of and discuss the assignment. You should always ask for at least two references, a copy of their passport and a police check. You may also want to ask for a security deposit to insure against potential damage. Local listings sites such as Gumtree also feature various wannabe house-sitters advertising their experience and availability, but you will need to be extra careful.

"Picking someone from Gumtree or Craigslist is dicey," says Ms Birtles. "If you do go down that route, make sure that you get references from them and phone each one (ideally three) to check the references are genuine. Many workers falsify references so it's important to be clear in your own mind that they are genuine."

Many house-sitting websites provide written agreements that you can print off and adapt as needed. These are not legal documents but can be used as the basis for one if you decide to get a contract drawn up. If you're still too nervous about inviting a stranger into your home, an agency providing a full house-sitting service such as Absentia (home-and-pets.co.uk), Homesitters (homesitters.co.uk) and Safe Hand Sitters (safehandssitters.co.uk) could offer you peace of mind.

"Unlike an agency where responsibility can end once the introduction has been made, we employ our homesitters," says Adèle Barclay, the managing director of Homesitters.

"Our clients like this because they know that we not only thoroughly vet our sitters but also take full responsibility for them; basically on assignment they operate on our behalf and under our direction."

Sitters are employed to keep your property safe and tidy, to take phone messages, care for any animals and maintain the garden. Most importantly, because you are paying for a service and not an individual house sitter, you can rely on an immediate replacement if your sitter is ill and cannot complete a booking. Typically, sitters are allowed no more than three hours away from your property each day and must be at home at night.

All this does come at a price, however, with fees at Homesitters starting at £52.80 over a 24-hour period, plus an additional charge of £1.20 per cat or dog. This fee does cover the sitter's food allowance and VAT but you will pay mileage on top of the fee so that the sitter doesn't lose money getting to and from your house.

When it comes to insurance, having someone looking after your property could be a godsend if you are planning to go away for more than 30 consecutive days as many insurance policies are void after this time. You will need to check any house-sitter is covered for accidents or damage to your property.

Unpaid house-sitters such as friends and family should be covered under your existing insurance policy, but you should confirm this before you start looking. If you are paying for a house-sitter that has not been recruited via a house-sitting agency, they should have their own public liability insurance but with professional house-sitters the agency should provide the necessary protection.

Many agencies also have agreements with major insurers so that you get a premium discount for using a recognised house-sitting service while you are away.

"If someone is employed via a house-sitting agency, the homeowner who decides to use a house-sitter while on holiday should ensure that the company is fully insured for employers' liability, public liability personal accident and professional indemnity," says Asia Yasir from home insurance specialist esure.com. "It would be the house-sitting agency's responsibility to ensure that they do a criminal records check on the house-sitter before employing them."

Case Study

Kate Hampton, Photographer

As a wedding and portrait photographer Kate Hampton has to travel all over the world for her work, leaving behind her home in Hertfordshire and a menagerie of animals including two dogs, two goats, chickens and guinea fowl. For more than 10 years Kate has relied on Homesitters to provide capable sitters when work calls.

"When we started using house-sitters our children were quite young so it was really only when we went away on family holidays. But since I've been working as a photographer we probably make eight to 10 bookings every year, usually for long weekends," she says.

Having an agency willing to provide back-up sitters is a big pull, and as Kate runs her business from home, having someone at home to take phone calls and sign for deliveries is a huge help.

"To me it's not about weighing up the cost, it's about the convenience because we've got so many animals," says Kate. "When you're away from home even things like post become quite problematic, but if you have house-sitters you can leave instructions and if something goes wrong they just deal with it."