Being Safe as Houses by Arrangement

Being Safe as Houses by arrangement JUDITH WOMERSLEY reports on a new house-minding service. “The Age”

CHRIS KAINE is a small, efficient woman with a humorous smile. She was a medical representative (“I’ve always liked working with people”) before establishing her house-minding business, Safe as Houses, this year.

Sixty per cent of her business comes from referrals. She explains the increasing demand for professional house-minders thus: “Drug-related crimes are increasing and with the break-up of the family unit or members living interstate, relatives are often too busy to want to know about feeding the dog or bringing in the mail.”

She has found that business people going on trips, academics on sabbatical leave and retired people are the groups most interested in using her service. The shortest house-minding job she has had to fill was for eight days and the longest for eight months.

Each person leaving a house is asked to nominate a third party who can be contacted if any big problems such as plumbing faults arise, and who can pop in from time to time. Owners are asked to fill in the answers to such questions as: “Will you have a smoker in the house? Is your insurance policy current? Names of people who are allowed access to the house? Do you object to the minder being absent overnight? Can the minder entertain friends?”

People wanting their house minded pay a service of $100 for each “mind”. Minders pay $200 to join and although they are not paid for their services, they have the use of another house for long or short periods. It may be that their own place is being renovated, they may be between buying and selling houses, they may be saving to travel, be mature-age people wanting a change of scene, or creative people wanting space in a different environment.

Ms Kaine says she has so many minders on her books that she can be very fussy about whom she chooses. Each minder has to provide three written references from people of standing and they are asked questions such as: “Do you have experience with swimming pools and security systems? Will you look after the garden? Will you care for pets?”

Ms Kaine says: “The key thing is that I match personalities. For example, I am careful not to put a very tidy person in an untidy house.”

Both couples and singles are on the books as minders, but single females outnumber men. “I’m probably not as prone to accept a male minder and always ask males about their idea of keeping house. Some males are tidier than females, though.”

She quotes one couple whose only criteria for a minder was: “We want the tomatoes planted and the loganberries picked and put in the freezer.” And the reaction of the minder? “I’ve got a green thumb and I’ll be glad to plant the tomatoes, but I’ll only pick the loganberries if I can eat some.”

June Ryan is minding a house in Blackburn for eight weeks while the owner is overseas. She says: “My children are grown up and it’s lovely to be on my own after looking after a big family. I’ve had only two assignments but I want to travel around Victoria and this is a good way of being able to stay in places without rushing through them. You meet interesting neighbors: With the first house I minded in Beechworth I stayed on for two weeks afterwards because the owner and I got on so well together.”

“I think my wife rates our cat higher than me,” says house owner Peter Macdougall. “It was her concern for the cat that prompted us to get in minders, Cindy and Howard O’Meara. It also stopped niggling worries while we were away like ‘Did I really shut all the windows?’ We have unqualified praise for Safe as Houses and would never go away again without using it.”

Cindy and Howard O’Meara, the Macdougall’s minders, have travelled extensively. Cindy is a nutritionist with her own practice and Howard was in the New Zealand Police Force for nine years. He was assigned as Prince Ed-ward’s personal protection officer when the prince was at Wanganui Collegiate as a tutor. The O’Meara’s live in a small Greens-borough apartment and would love to move nearer the city but can’t afford it because Howard is now studying to be a chiropractor. Cindy says: “By minding houses we can live in a bigger, more comfortable and more central house for a while. We are pet lovers and with no garden we can’t have any of our own, but this way we get to mind other people’s animals.”

“Anyone who goes away these days and leaves their house unattended is asking for trouble,” says house owner John McDonald.

Minders of his house were a married couple, Robina Watson, a law student who has deferred, and Richard Daw, a merchant banker, both originally from Adelaide. Robina said that the McDonalds’ house has “everything that opens and shuts, including an intercom and television sets in each room”.

She remembers vividly the night the two-year-old daughter of friends who were visiting pressed the red panic button of the burglar alarm system. Within minutes two armed policeman had vaulted the front fence. Just as Robina and Richard took on the minding job to coincide with their house being renovated, they learned that their builder could not start for another six weeks. She mentioned this in passing to John McDonald who suggested she contact the builder, who had just finished his house earlier than expected. You guessed it. The Watson / Daw house was renovated by John McDonald’s builder while Robins and Richard minded his place.

Home is Where the Minder is

Pollyanna Sutton. “The Sunday Age”

Tired of returning home from your holidays to a dusty house and a dead garden. Pollyanna Sutton reports on an alternative, a house-minding agency.

REMEMBER that pitiful look in the eyes of your dog or cat as you waved it goodbye at the pet motel? You were off on a six-week tour, the house was empty, the garden crying for water, the living room light blinking on, then off, on the same timer pattern every night.

You may have considered a house minder but, short of asking your friend’s teenage son who is into late nights and loud metal music, there was no one available.

I have been on both sides of the house-minding fence, the professional person looking for solace from an awful house share and the proud home maker waving my extremely healthy gardenia goodbye.

It is an arrangement that can work beautifully for people going away and who just want someone they can trust to feed the labrador, water the plants and act as a passive deterrent to curious outsiders. In return, the minder has an interim place to live rent free.

Chris Kaine began a house-sharing agency 11 years ago and it seemed a natural progression to introduce house minders to people who wanted their properties looked after.

She said that, in the current real-estate market, there were a large number of high-calibre people willing to mind houses. They have sold their properties and haven’t found a new home, or they are renovating and need to escape the building site.

“We have a new elite homeless,” she said with a laugh. One of her regular home owners telephones and asks for “another squatter, dear”. Ms Kaine said most of her home owners had pets and, if they were going away, it became a very economical exercise to have a house minder. ”

People also say it is much nicer to come home to a lived-in house than a cold dusty one,” she said. Corporate writer Judith McBride and her seven-year-old son Sam are on the house-minding register at Chris Kaine. Ms McBride has sold her house in Clifton Hill and, because she is putting a lot of energy into starting a second business, she wanted breathing space from house hunting.

“While I am looking for another house to buy, Sam and I want to have an adventure,” she said. “I don’t particularly want to rent, it is not as interesting as minding an established house with pets for Sam to look after.”

Ms McBride said her son was used to living with antiques and was more fastidious than her. “We want to find something lovely that we can look after as our home, do the gardening, feed the animals.” Chris Kaine’s house-minding service only acts as a register to match like-minded people. The minder, who must be over 30, pays a fee of $200 to join the register for a year’s worth of minding. They are interviewed with great focus put on the responsibility they are taking on. A home owner pays $110 to register and $110 per subsequent house mind.

The home owner is asked to nominate a third party to oversee the arrangement so there is someone to contact in case of emergency.

“It is not a domestic service, it is a community thing, of two professional people helping each other out,” Ms Kaine said. “The database matches people with similar standards and values and people who are going away with those who are available.”


Peter Weekes

June 26, 2002 The Age Domain

Need someone to look after Fluffy or Spot and mind the place while you’re away for a while? Join the club.

YOU’VE Just boarded the plane for a much-needed holiday, having rationalised away your worst fears about leaving the ageing family pet at some unknown pettery. It is then that the next wave of panic hits: have you turned off the iron? Did you lock the back door? Did you set the light timer?

But for Imira and Ray Goldsmith, these are fears already confronted, and conquered.

For the past two years, the couple from one of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs have been using a house-sitting agency.

“We feel much more comfortable going away now,” says Imira Goldsmith. “When we know our 13-year-old Siamese (cat) is unsettled, we are unsettled”, Chris Kaine, of house-sitting agency Chris Kaine & Associates, who finds sitters for the Goldsmiths, says there was a time when people could rely on family members to look after pets and homes.

“Those times are now gone,” she says. “People are more mobile and independent. Most children have their own children and their own lives, they just don’t have time to look after their parents’ home while they are away, even if they live in the same city.”

Kaine, who started her business in Melbourne 15 years ago as a house-share service, is part of the burgeoning house-sitting industry, which Paul Collis, of Australian House Sitters Directory, estimates is growing at 15 per cent annually.

The premise is simple enough: people have ageing pets that need to stay at home and gardens that need watering, or they don’t like returning to a dusty musty house after a holiday.

Enter the house-sitter, who in exchange for rent-free accommodation, will walk the family dog, feed the cat and goldfish, water the garden and air the home. While most sits last two to three weeks, they can range from a weekend to 12 months.

“It’s all about community,” Kaine says. “I guess that’s what I really do: put people in touch with like-minded people, who create a community of their own. Some of my sitters and home owners have become good friends.”

The cost of signing up as an owner or sitter depends on the agency and the service it provides.

For the home owner, registration costs vary from free to $100, while, for the sitter, fees range from $185 to $300 a year, depending on both the agency and area.

Chris Kaine & Associates give perspective house-sitters an extensive questionnaire that is used to vet applicants, then match them with a suitable owner.

Others, such as Australian Home Sitters and Happy House Sitters, give owners a list of registered sitters in the area, including occupation, age and a brief description written by the sitter. It is then up to the owner to interview perspective sitters. Some agencies can also put the sitter’s bond in an independent trust account if the owner asks for one.

Still, Collis and Kaine say problems between owners and sitters rarely arise and, when they do, they are usually as trivial as a carpet stain and are easily and quickly resolved.

“Basically, the sitters live in the house as you would,” says Goldsmith. “The day we got home from our Easter holiday, the sheets had been washed and were drying on the line. We have never had a problem.”

Ian White, of Internet-based, says there are two basic groups of sitters: retired couples, who are travelling; and professional people, who may be renovating their own home, saving for a deposit, or just wanting a change of scenery.

“I make myself at home,” says data analyst Sue Nelson, who first sat 11 years ago after her relationship broke down, “but I am always respectful of the owner’s property.”

“Owners ring me up to thank me when they get home. Often they leave the house in a bit of a mess and expect it to be the same when they get back, but I always clean the place before I leave.”

Nelson, who has lived alternately with her parents and brother over the past 11 years, says house-sitting gives her a break from her family, and her family from her.

She is now in her seventh and last house-sit, before she migrates to Canada with her new husband. “This house is huge, and I mean huge. The owner took me from room to room and told me which ones I could and couldn’t use, which is fine with me.”

Michael Myers, of Happy House Sitters, says owners usually leave instructions on looking after pets, watering the garden and who to contact in case of emergencies, such as burst pipes.

Utility bills are usually paid by the sitter. However, there are exceptions. Sometimes, he says, the owner may want the heat left on to keep a pet comfortable, in which case they will pay part or all of the power bill.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Myers says. “The owner can go away safe in the knowledge that someone is looking after their home and pet’s, and the sitter gets a few weeks of rent-free accommodation.”

Feed the dog, water the garden, collect the mail and live for free!


The Age Money & Investment

House-sitting is proving to be a popular win-win solution for absent home owners and tenants seeking a cheap and easy alternative.

Moving into rental property can leave you feeling like a cash register, doling out money for bonds to the landlord, rent to an estate agent, phone connection fees and removalist charges.

But a matchmaking service for both home owners and prospective tenants exists that saves on rent and matches home owners with tenants to mind the property and any pets during the home owner’s absence. In return for playing babysitter, the home-minders earn free (or limited rental) accommodation in the home owner’s house. Such “house-sits”, organised through home-sitting agencies, can last from one weekend while the owner is interstate to four years while the owner is on overseas assignment, but Chris Kaine, the director of People Brokers, says sitters can save serious money.

Ms Kaine has matched home owners with house-sitters for 11 years, and says most house-sits last three to six weeks, using minders mainly over 30 years old. But she adds that sitters can also be pensioners seeking furnished homes where overheads comprise just their own utilities and phone bills.

Ms Kaine has about five houses being minded at any one time and up to 30 willing home-minders on her books, who may be saving for their own mortgage or renovating their existing home and don’t want to be slugged with rental or hotel fees during construction.

Cohn McKay, the director of Newcastle-based Australian House Sitters (AHS), says house-sitters may also be saving for vehicles or travel. And, he adds, house-sitting can in itself provide inexpensive travel. “We have a real shortage of people to look after homes in non-metropolitan areas. We get about 5000 calls a year from people wanting their homes cared for… from non-metropolitan areas, but at last count we had only about 415 people registered looking to house-sit in non- metro areas,” Mr McKay says. For AHS, non-metropolitan areas include the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong.

Ms Kaine adds that some homeminders may need accommodation due to personal circumstances such as separation from spouses or mature-age students coming to the city for study. (A fine-arts student on People Brokers’ books house-sat the home of a fine-arts lecturer, and so had access to an extensive home library for study.)

“Others may be between buying and selling properties, and so avoid bridging finance, or people may have their family home on sale snapped up and may have had no time to assess the real estate market to buy,” she says. Or house-sitters may be visiting relatives interstate and need accommodation, and find a home owner who is leaving their house but doesn’t want to pay storage costs for their goods while they lease out their property.

“You add up the sums and say yes. we could lease the home for this amount of time and get this income, but there’s going to be cost involved in dismantling the household, putting things in storage and reassembling it on our return,” says Mr McKay, who has 15,000 home owners and about 3500 prospective house-sitters on his books and has organised home-sits from one weekend to four years’ duration.

“Unless someone’s going away for 12 months, a lot of the time they don’t find the benefits outweigh the hassles.” Overseas assignments, Mr McKay adds, have a nasty habit of ending early and, if homes are leased for a set period, a home owner can return to tenants unwilling to move.

Ms Kaine finds most house-sitters and home owners on her books come from middle socio-economic streams, and says any bill-payment responsibility may be negotiated between the two parties. Minders pay People Brokers $200 for a year’s worth of home-minding, whether that 365 days takes one year or 10 years to complete. And home owners pay a $110 joining fee, which includes the first home-sit, and then $110 per subsequent home-sit. Home owners may stipulate their pets be fed, or gardens maintained, or that house-sitters not take extended holidays during their stay.

“For a pet owner having a house minded, home-sitting tends to work out to be economical if they go away for three weeks or more, taking kennel fees at about $8 a day. For two pets, it becomes economical more quickly,” Ms Kaine says.

She interviews tenants herself, and then suggests the home owner appoint a third party to deal with problems or decide on maintenance costs. If the home-minder proves unsuitable, they must vacate the property, she adds.

How home-sits help

  • If you’re saving for a home-loan down payment and need free accommodation
  • If you’re saving for travel or personal loans
  • While your home is being renovated
  • If you’re between selling and buying properties
  • If you need accommodation quickly
  • Travel opportunities to regional Australia

AHS provides to home owners a free directory of available house-sitters for their area, but leaves the interviewing of homeminders up to home owners themselves.

AHS derives its income from homeminders’ annual registration fees, which can range from $150 to $325 a year, depending upon their preferred homesitting location. Each geographic location a home-sitter registers interest in incurs an extra fee.

“For the majority of the time, the home owner will simply expect the house-sitter to cover their own costs like electricity and telephone usage. For shorter periods like four weeks there may be no charge, but for four years, house-sitters may be expected to pay for everything and maybe chip in for rates.”