I’m living all over the US for free by pet-sitting for strangers — here’s what it’s like

Meagan Drillinger

My partner and I are rich in many ways, but money isn’t one of them.

So when we made the decision to ditch our NYC apartment and drive cross-country in search of the next place we wanted to call home, we had to be very, very practical about how we planned the trip. A week in an Airbnb could easily blow our entire $2,000 monthly accommodation budget.

We quickly realized that on our incomes — I’m a freelance travel writer and he’s retired military — we’d have to spend the majority of our journey camping (which, in your mid-30s isn’t as enticing or romantic as it is in your 20s), or the trip would have to be much shorter than we intended.

It wouldn’t have been the trip we envisioned — truly experiencing what it would be like to live in each location — at all 

But then we found Trusted Housesitters. It’s an online database of homeowners who are going on vacation and need trusted people to come stay at their homes and take care of their pets. The best part: The housesitters stay for free. 

It seemed too good to be true. There has to be a catch, we kept repeating to each other. But as we dug more into it, it didn’t seem like there was any fine print other than the overt principle: You apply for house-sits and if you get accepted, you’re invited to stay for free in someone’s home. 

We made a profile and started applying

Meagan Drillinger.

In lots of ways, Trusted Housesitters is kind of like Airbnb:

  • You create a profile.
  • You input dates and location for when and where you’d like to travel.
  • You see what’s available. There are homes listed all over the world.
  • You send your profile and a note to the owners explaining why you’re a great fit.
  • If selected, you have a place to stay at no cost.
  • You as the housesitter are reviewed by the homeowner, and vice versa. You want to get good reviews and keep your satisfaction rating high.

But in many ways, Trusted Housesitters is not at all like Airbnb:

  • You pay an annual fee of $119 to be a member, whether you’re a homeowner or a potential house sitter (and an additional $29 to be both).
  • You get more housesits if you upload your official documents and become verified.
  • You’re staying in someone’s primary residence with all of their day-to-day belongings.
  • You’re responsible for their pets while you stay, and all that that entails.
  • Other than the annual fee, your stays are completely free.

The week we started applying for housesits (from a Seattle Airbnb, where we were paying $1,000 for a week, mind you — half our monthly budget) we were able to line up two immediately. It took a matter of days. 

It turns out, we were in high demand

Meagan Drillinger.

As a freelance writer and an Army veteran, it was appealing to hosts that we had plenty of time to spend with their pets. We also advertised that we have our own car; some homes offer their car to sitters, but many ask that you bring your own. Posting pictures on our profile of us spending time with our friends’ pets was a wise move, too — it helped to show that animals feel comfortable around us.

Our first house sit was over Memorial Day Weekend in Buffalo, New York for an English Mastiff named Dolly. Buffalo may not have been our first choice on our "where to live next" road trip, but seeing as we didn’t have any reviews yet, we were grateful to be given a blind opportunity. 

It ended up being the best introduction to Trusted Housesitters

We were welcomed into a gorgeously renovated Victorian home in Buffalo by our hosts — a couple who were longtime users of Trusted Housesitters and thus didn’t feel the need to hover. We were watching Dolly, who could have been intimidating upon first encounter, seeing as her head could tower over my shoulder blades. But her size was the only thing daunting about her. By day David would sprawl out on the couch with her, as she tried her best to convince him that she was a lapdog. By night, the three of us would squeeze into a king-sized bed. (Yes, squeeze — she was that big.)

By the end of the weekend, we had not only fallen in love with Dolly, but we had really had a feel for Buffalo. There was ample time to go out to dinners, see the sights, go to the gym. The experience offered what we were seeking from Airbnb — the opportunity to "live like a local" in a place, minus the outrageous taxes and fees that seemed to increase exponentially during the pandemic.

Our second sit took us to Raleigh, NC, where we cared for a small menagerie of animals, including two chihuahua mixes, two cats, two hamsters (one of which had gotten loose before we arrived), and a bunny. Again, our hosts were incredibly laidback. It seemed like a zoo to care for at first, but once we got into the swing of things, it was the dogs we spent the most time with — and happily so. In fact, saying goodbye to the dogs was the most difficult part of this entire experience.

A great choice for remote work

Maxwell the dog enjoying a workday nap. Meagan Drillinger

The pandemic taught many of us that working remotely isn’t as challenging as previously thought. Luckily, I’ve always been able to be nomadic and earn an income — I’ve been a freelance writer for almost seven years. Working from home or in remote corners of places like Mexico or Southeast Asia has been my routine for quite some time. In fact, while we’ve been on the road I’ve picked up thousands of dollars in new travel assignments from publications focusing on US travel. (My partner has been pensioned from the Army for seven years, as well, which frees him up to travel as he wishes.) 

Reality check: It’s still a little strange

Meagan Drillinger

When  my uncle heard we were pet-sitting around the country in exchange for free places to stay he said, "That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard." Truthfully, he has a point.

It’s definitely strange to be in someone else’s home, complete with their things, their bedroom, their family photos, and, sometimes, their mess. Even though an Airbnb rental is technically someone else’s property, these days there’s anonymity to Airbnb that makes it feel a whole lot more like a hotel. 

It’s also strange to take someone else’s keys from them and wave goodbye to them in their own driveway, but the second they’re gone, we find we relax and feel less like a guest in someone’s home and more like we’ve checked in for a week of local immersion. It’s great for our main goal, which is to see what it’s really like to live in a place. When you throw pets into the mix, the reality factor increases even more.

This gig is not for everyone

Meagan Drillinger

You have to be adventurous. You have to be able to go with the flow. And, at the bare minimum, you need to like animals. As much as this can feel like a vacation, you are still here, mostly, for the pets: massive poops, slimy drool, runaway hamsters, and all. 

That said, everyone we’ve met through Trusted Housesitters has been exactly "our kind" of people: world travelers themselves, with great stories to tell. It’s a laid-back, trusting community, and one that is deeply respectful of each other. It’s also one that is, truly, all over the world. 

Currently we’re in Arlington, Virginia on our third house-sit caring for two gorgeous Great Dane pups, and from here we’ve got gigs lined up in Minnesota, Denver, and Petaluma in California. 

In between house-sits we find time to do the road trip things that we want to do, like hiking the National Parks, visiting friends we haven’t seen since pre-pandemic, and exploring the romantic two-lane highways that criss-cross the country. (During those times, we *gasp* splurge on Airbnbs and hotels.)

What started as a way to get us across the country this summer has changed us and our style of travel dramatically. Pending the state of the world, we plan to take this show on the road to Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia soon.

While I don’t love picking up poop or sleeping in someone else’s master bedroom, it helps that the savings are kind of unbelievable. In July, for example, we will only need to spend money on five nights’ accommodation. The rest of our budget we stash in a savings account so that when we do eventually find our next home, we can buy something special. 

Although, at this rate, I don’t think either of us is in any hurry to land anywhere anytime soon.

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Meagan Drillinger August 14, 2021 at 06:24PM

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