Holiday makers leave their worries behind

The property is safe and the pets are being fed. House sitters let you forget about home, says Melanie Bien
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The Independent Online

acking your suitcase and remembering to pick up the passports and tickets is stress enough when you're getting ready to go on holiday, without worrying about what you're leaving behind. Yet the security of your house or flat and the care of your pets may be a big concern as you jet off for a couple of weeks in the sun.

If a cattery, kennels and asking a neighbour to keep an eye on the property isn't the answer, it could be time to call in the house sitters. These are usually retired professionals, looking for extra money to supplement their pensions, who move in while you're away and keep an eye on your home. For an extra fee, they will also tend to your shrubs, feed the cat and make sure your dog gets enough exercise.

Thousands of sitters are now employed by various companies to look after the homes of absent owners. There is also demand for house sitters to stay at properties awaiting probate after someone has died, because an empty house full of family heirlooms is an invitation to burglars. And, of course, there are those people who prefer their pets to be cared for in their own home rather than be uprooted to a cattery or kennels.

Homesitters, established in 1980, is the oldest agency of its kind. With more than 900 sitters on the books, its managing director, Adele Barclay, believes it can find the perfect person for most customers. "It is tricky matching some people but we'd prefer to turn a client down than send the wrong sitter," she says. "If the client has an exotic pet and we haven't got qualified sitters to handle that, we will say we can't do it. But if it is just a matter of the booking being short notice, we can usually find someone suitable for the client."

The length of a sit can be anything from a weekend to a 10-week stay, and charges vary depending on the level of service the client requires. Many properties come with pets, who need feeding and exercising, and there may be garden maintenance to be done. Generally, though, Homesitters charges £29 a day for a sitter, with extra for gardening or looking after pets. A cat costs an extra £1 a day, while a dog costs £2.90 to reflect the exercise needed. The client also has to pay the sitter £6 a day for food and travel, including their initial meeting before the appointment starts.

It's not just a matter of caring for cats and dogs and switching the burglar alarm on, though. Owners of farm livestock and horses often call in house sitters, while snakes also need looking after on occasion. The good news for those with more exotic pets is that, with so many agencies willing to mind your home, there's bound to be someone to take on unusual responsibilities.

When choosing a sitter, find out what backup they get in case something goes wrong. Big national agencies have other qualified sitters they can draft in should yours fall ill, but a smaller, local agency might struggle to find a suitable replacement at short notice. You should also arrange to meet your sitter before you go away to make sure you'd be happy leaving them in charge.

Reassure yourself, too, about the agency's vetting procedures: what checks are run on sitters before they're allowed into clients' houses? And exactly how much time will they spend there? Homesitters lets its sitters go out, but they are not allowed to leave the property for more than three consecutive hours during the day and one hour after dark. If you want a round-the-clock presence, it will cost extra.

Contact: www.homesitters.co.uk or 01296 630730.

Fully booked till November and no pet they can't handle

Barbara and Peter Smith, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, have been house sitting for nearly two years. They applied to join Homesitters shortly after they retired from careers in, respectively, retail management and the police force.

"We were house sitting for friends who were away on holiday and we were really enjoying it," says Mrs Smith. "Then another friend suggested we should do it on a regular basis."

Since they joined Homesitters, the Smiths have done 23 house sits. These have ranged in duration from long weekends to six, eight or even 10-week stays. They have already built up a regular client base and often return to the same properties. They are fully booked until November and have stayed in a variety of areas, from London to Oxfordshire.

The Smiths enjoy staying in other people's "beautiful homes". "We have got a six-week sit coming up and we are allowed to use the swimming pool," says Mrs Smith.

"The other thing we love is looking after animals. We live in an apartment so we can't have pets, which is a shame because we used to have dogs."

The Smiths have looked after a range of animals, including cats and dogs, fish, a goat, sheep and chickens. "We did have a naughty dog to look after once," adds Mrs Smith, "but the owner had had problems with it and we were forewarned."

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