Housesitting

Josie Schneider and husband Conrad Knutsen at the home in Timonium, where they spent nearly a year as housesitters. For the last two years, the couple has used housesitting to see the world. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / July 29, 2013)

Baltimore might not seem like a hot tourist destination, but for my husband and me, it was the offer of a free place to stay that catapulted Charm City to the top of our travel bucket list.

An advertisement for a split-level suburban home with a bubbling fountain in a well-landscaped backyard caught my eye. After two conversations with the homeowner, we signed contracts for the 11-month-long stay in Timonium.

No, we wouldn't be tourists — we would be housesitters. All we needed was to pack the car and set the GPS from Michigan to Maryland.

In the past 10 years, every aspect of the travel industry has exploded with ideas our grandparents never dreamed of. Case in point: lodging. When I was a kid in the 1960s, our choices for where to stay on the family road trip were two: camping or a motel.

Fifty years later, and the choices for lodging span every desire and pocketbook. There's couch-surfing — pay regular people to crash in their extra bedroom; home exchange — trade homes with someone; and woofing — a now-generic term for staying on farms, which came from the nonprofit organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoof.org).

Housesitting is yet another form of alternative lodging. It functions basically as an exchange. Homeowners get peace of mind knowing their home, and sometimes pets, are looked after while they're away, and housesitters get a free place to stay.

My husband, Conrad, and I fell in love with the idea in 2008 when we met a woman in Australia who was taking care of a property there. Even as she explained the concept, we knew immediately that as retirees, this was for us. We sold most of our possessions and stored the rest in our daughter's home to free us from a mortgage payment. We then set out to "live" across Europe and the United States.

Starting out

Our first housesitting experience in 2010 was in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. For six weeks, we lived in a beautiful, renovated 100-year-old home. During our stay, we really got to know the city, visiting its famous spots like Tivoli or the Little Mermaid statue, but also going off the beaten track to discover dark taverns where only the locals go. We became fast friends with Irene, our next-door neighbor. I used her sewing machine to alter a pair of shorts and she took us shopping to buy fresh plaice, flat fish still flopping in buckets on the docks of the seaport.

The visit left us rich in experiences and not too poor in pocket. If we had stayed in a hotel and eaten every meal in a restaurant, a conservative estimate puts the cost of that six-week stay at around $12,000. Our cost was about $2,500.

We came to housesit in Baltimore last year while the homeowners went to Italy on a work assignment. Conrad and I both have relatives and friends in the Northeast and have reconnected joyfully with them all — an opportunity fulfilled only with the benefit of our long stay here. Not only have we traveled to visit others nearby, but because of our base in a five-bedroom home in Timonium, we have hosted loved ones, including a wonderful Thanksgiving with every bedroom filled.

Baltimore itself has been a surprise. As lovers of public transportation, Conrad and I often take the nearby light rail into the city, and we have discovered Fells Point's beer joints, oyster shooters on the summer sidewalk and funky boutiques. We hopped on a water taxi to Canton and enjoyed fabulous seafood there. During the Sailabration last July, we toured the many ships, both military-style and tall ones, snapped pics of the Blue Angels practicing noisily overhead, and enjoyed the Royal Australian Navy Band playing Sinatra, Chicago and even the Doors.

Out in the suburbs, we have exercised almost daily on the NCR trail. In February, we hopped the fence in our backyard to go to a neighbor's Super Bowl party. We know what we'll miss most about Baltimore is Wegman's and the cosmopolitan vibe of eclectic and educated people.

Growing trend

Since we began housesitting, the trend has grown — especially among retirees, according to TrustedHouseSitters.com. The website recently ran a survey of registered members and found nearly 50 percent of respondents were using the site for travel during retirement. The remaining members were considering housesitting to visit friends and family or as a trial relocation.

There are housesitting websites where you get matched up with homeowners anywhere in the world. The three most popular sites are HouseCarers.com, MindMyHouse.com and TrustedHouseSitters.com. Getting started requires a paid membership, but after you post a profile, you set up parameters for housesitting assignments in the countries where you want to go, including how long you'll stay and if you're willing to look after animals. The website sends you emails with housesitting opportunities that match your parameters, and you contact the homeowners for ones that appeal to you.

Finding the right situation is a back-and-forth process similar to applying for a job. Prime housesits in Paris, for example, may attract hundreds of applicants, so potential housesitters must be have a professional profile and super communication skills. In addition to your presentation, experience is a plus. Conrad and I are premium candidates because we have years of experience taking care of homes, and we know when something's out of whack. Homeowners appreciate that.

Because navigating the ins and outs of housesitting may seem complicated — and because we get questions constantly — I wrote an ebook to help get people started. With the book and my website, housesittingtravel.com, I lay out details about housesitting jargon, step-by-step instructions to succeed and what the pitfalls are. Housesitting is an unregulated practice. There are no government rules or licensing, so common sense must rule.

I want people to learn from our mistakes, too. We once had a housesit go bad because we had not questioned the homeowner enough about his remote, off-the-grid home. We overlooked "red flags" in our excitement about the beautiful southern Spain location. But what we faced once we got there was a disorganized home in need of repairs — not as the homeowner had stated. It went from bad to worse when we started battling via Skype with the homeowner about failing appliances like the refrigerator.

Due diligence is key because you have no front desk to call. As housesitters, it is your responsibility to set things straight. We have since asked more questions of homeowners for potential housesits and followed our instincts more closely about their personalities.