Housesitting staycations

Get a change of scenery-and possibly some extra cash-by looking after someone's apartment while they're gone.

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Know what’s expected of you
House-sitting means different things to different people, so make sure both parties are on the same page before you get the keys. “Some homeowners will put you to work and have you clean, fix things, garden and the like,” explains Gary C. Dunn, publisher of newsletter The Caretaker Gazette. But not all gigs require manual labor: Mari Brown, cofounder of the social networking site Life After New York, had a more pampered experience. “I maintained each place out of respect and gratitude, but most of the owners didn’t ask me to do anything but enjoy myself,” she says. “It was as if I were living the life of a much richer person, not a struggling freelance writer.” Whether you’re willing to get your hands dirty to earn your keep or are simply in search of higher thread-count sheets (albeit temporarily), house-sitting can give you a new perspective on living in the city.

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Bulk up your references
Believe it or not, most people don’t want just anyone with a pulse looking after their place. Before you start your search, compile a strong list of references to have at the ready. “If this is your first time house-sitting, list an employer or a friend who’s known you for a long time,” suggests Dunn, though he cautions that “using relatives probably wouldn’t be the most convincing.” Some of the more thorough vacationers might ask to perform a criminal-background check (on their dime, not yours); if you have any deep, dark secrets, be prepared to have them dredged up.

Market yourself online
Though you’ll spot plenty of ads asking for houses to be sat in, you’ll find few—if any—asking for house-sitters. Despite the fierce competition, don’t get discouraged—you just need to make yourself stand out. “Homeowners will want to know as much about you as possible before meeting you,” says Dunn. “A lot of them will want to know what you look like.” With that in mind, he recommends creating a tone of full disclosure to set your ad apart: Briefly describe your educational and professional history, indicate that references are available upon request, and try posting photos, links to a personal website or even a YouTube introduction to show that you’ve got nothing to hide. Christina Kohler, a former Upper West Side pet groomer who is trying to establish her own pet-sitting service online, says that it’s key to be as up front as possible. “Using a real e-mail address instead of one of those anonymous Craigslist addresses has helped me get clients,” she says.

Network
For Mari Brown, a monthlong assignment for a friend quickly led to a year’s worth of back-to-back gigs. “Once word got out that I was house-sitting, suddenly everyone needed a house sitter,” she says. Brown recommends asking colleagues or people who work in the service industry (hello, chatty hairstylists and department-store salespeople!), whether they know of any apartments in need of caretaking. Start chatting people up as soon as the mercury rises: “August in particular is a great time to house-sit,” notes Brown. “A lot of people at a certain socioeconomic level are leaving the city for their beach and country houses.”

Make some extra cash
Paid gigs are few and far between—Dunn says jobs of two weeks or longer are especially unlikely to pay, and some vacationers may even ask you to fork over for a share of the utilities. “They could just as easily find a paying renter instead of a house sitter who gets free room and board,” he explains. Even if your client isn’t willing to pay, you can still make cash by renting our your own digs to out-of-towners while you’re working elsewhere. Chase Williams, a physical therapist, frequently rents out his Morningside Heights studio to visitors (anyone from friends of friends to strangers from the Web) while he’s staying with his boyfriend. “When I break down my monthly rent by day, I pay less than $40 a night,” says Williams. “But I can charge around $80 a night to visitors—I consider the up-charge as sort of a security fee.” Your selling point is that it’s a deal for tourists, considering that some of the cheapest hotels in the city start at $170 per night in Manhattan and $120 in Brooklyn.

Consider pet sitting
Guarantee yourself a new staycation buddy—and some pocket change—by looking after people’s four-legged friends. Cat and dog caretaker Tom Burns’s overnight pet-sitting assignments have taken him to some five-star luxury apartments, including the Richard Meier--designed Perry Street Towers. Burns, who conducts his business almost exclusively through Craigslist, charges $40 to $50 a night, depending on the size of the pet, though he recommends beginners ask for $30 to $40 to start. “I got my foot in the door by selling myself as an animal lover,” he explains. “Experience isn’t a must—if you interview well and you have a couple of solid references, you can find someone willing to give you a chance.” If you’re serious about finding regular jobs, Burns suggests buying insurance from a company like Pet Sitters Associates, LLC (petsitllc.com; policies start at $174 per year), which covers things like lost keys and any harm done to the animal, yourself or to the animal owner’s property. Many sitters looking for assignments will play up their insurance in their online ads, but Burns says it’s strictly optional. “It might help get your foot in the door,” he says, “but it isn’t a must.”

Leave on a good note
Brown credits her success to maintaining a reputation for being a good houseguest. “I did whatever I could to show my appreciation,” she says. “I clean the house within an inch of its life, leave a thank-you note, restock the kitchen and sometimes leave a personalized gift.” After completing a job, Burns sends the pet owner an e-mail with photos that detail his time with the person’s animal. “They really like the personal touches,” he says. Being considerate will leave a lasting impression, and improve your chances of having an apartment for a future staycation.

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