Paying rent is for suckers. Since finishing college in 2005, I have lived in nine states on both coasts and have only signed one lease (when I was in Baltimore for a year for grad school). My secret? Housesitting! I first stumbled into housesitting when I was living in Oregon and my dear Uncle Frank talked some absent neighbors of his into letting me stay in their empty cabin for the winter:
The cabin’s owners had been living in Kansas for two years and a family of raccoons had moved in and made a horrendous mess. My job was to evict the animals, clean the place up and keep out the riff-raff.
Even once the raccoons were out, it was hardly luxury living; the cabin was off-grid and the only electricity came from a temperamental generator that charged four old car batteries, enough power to run one lightbulb for a few hours in the evening. It was also bone cold; the woodstove wasn’t big enough to heat the whole place and I could never keep it going overnight. But I loved the place.
Four days a week, I walked to and from work at my uncle’s organic farm a mile down our winding country road. Most of my free time was spent hiking in the woods and reading in a hammock strung between two massive live oaks. Every day I had deer in my yard and once, Bowie treed a mountain lion in one of the oaks shading my porch. I stayed, rent-free, for almost exactly a year: October to October.
After moving back east for a year to earn a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins (a career path inspired by a eureka-moment in that hammock) I found my next housesitting gig in the Caretaker Gazette, a classified magazine that advertises caretaking and housesitting positions all over the world. Ads range from house-swaps to estate caretakers to overseeing island resorts in Palau in the off season (really!).
The ad I answered was short and sweet:
Winter caretaker needed in New Mexico for 200+ acres of quiet country living. Off-grid/ remote living experience a must. No salary.
At that moment, I was sitting at a desk in an office in the heart of mid-Atlantic sprawl, halfway through a summer internship at EARTH magazine, and I couldn’t resist sending an email. Two days later, after a flurry of phone conversations with Judy, an artist who didn’t own a digital camera, but who assured me her place was something special, I found myself saying, “Yes, I’ll see you in October!”
I had never been to New Mexico, but I had heard great things and the West was calling me back. I finished my internship (and turned down a staff-writing position) packed my car and headed to New Mexico via Savannah, Georgia and New Orleans. Upon my arrival in Cerrillos, I was not disappointed. Judy’s place turned out to be a stunningly beautiful off-grid solar-powered Earthship surrounded by thousands of acres of wide open land. It was love at first sight:
I still can’t believe my good fortune. I found out later that more than a hundred people had applied for the job (a typical turnout for Gazette ads). Judy says she just had a good feeling about me, as I did about her, and we both consider ourselves lucky to have found one another. So far, I have spent two winters in the Earthship, from October to April, while Judy and her husband Tom relax pool-side in Florida, near their kids and grandkids.
This spring, after Tom and Judy returned from Florida, I decided I wanted to stay in New Mexico, so I spread the word through the local community that I was looking for a summer gig. Within a few days, I got one. I’m now at a place called the Garden of the Gods, a geologic wonder surrounded by towering fins of red, white and pink sandstone. I’m in heaven.
In exchange for gardening and dog sitting, I get free use of a refurbished airstream on the property:
Housesitting is such a sweet gig, but it’s not for everybody. You have to be extremely flexible and mobile (I move every 4 to 6 months, on average, often all the way across the country) and have some way to make outside income, no matter where you are.
The nomadic lifestyle suits me perfectly: Everything I own fits in my car and I’ve perfected the art of feeling at home no matter where I am in the world. Housesitting has also been a important secret of my success as a writer: I couldn’t freelance if I had to pay rent every month and I couldn’t be a professional housesitter if I didn’t have the flexibility of freelancing from anywhere.
In the past six years, my housesitting side-career has landed me on a private ranch elsewhere in New Mexico, an empty mansion overlooking Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, a one-room dune shack on Cape Cod National Seashore and a 200 year-old Cape on the coast of Maine.
Every position is different. Some require a fair amount of work, caring for horses, dogs and cats or landscaping. In Montana I logged more than a dozen hours a week walking behind a lawnmower (the place had been sitting on the real estate market for some time and the owners wanted somebody there for the summer to keep up the yard).
People often ask me when I’m going to settle down. Hopefully, never! I love being a nomad! Sure, it has its drawbacks – somedays I do feel adrift – but housesitting has taken me all over the country and I’ve seen and experienced a lot of the world, while accumulating very little literal or figurative baggage.
I’ll go almost anywhere (I have applied for jobs in Alaska, Nevada, Virginia, California, Washington State, Vermont and Palau) as long as the living is rent-free and I can take a hike everyday, preferably by walking out my back door and into wilderness. Housesitting has set me free in the world and in this world, freedom is priceless.