Sunny and Soot Gardner live in the lap of gentle and loving affluence.
They reside in one of the better neighborhoods in Orange County in a rambling two-story, four-bedroom Santa Ana house with an immaculately clipped lawn and gleaming swimming pool.
They share the premises with J.D. and Loretta Gardner, who cater to Sunny's and Soot's every little want, from delectable vittles and romps throughout the house to naps atop the cushioned chairs.
But twice a year, when J.D. and Loretta go on trips back East or up North that last weeks at a time, they have to leave Sunny, 4, and Soot, 3, behind.
"It breaks our hearts, but no way are we about to dump them in a kennel," says Loretta Gardner, 58, a former UCI Medical Center surgical nurse, whose husband, also 58, is a retired computer designer.
And that is where Mary Betancourt comes to the rescue.
Betancourt, you see, is a professional "house-sitter," and the companionship of Sunny, a bouncy golden retriever, and Soot, a mellow charcoal-colored cat, is one of the pleasures of her round-the-clock occupancy.
Oh, to be sure, she sees to it that the plants are watered, the grass is sprinkled, the mail is collected and the house is made secure.
But Mary knows the chief concern of this household is the pampering of its resident pets.
"They (Gardners) tell me my job is to treat them like little princesses. Well, that's easy," she says, sitting in the Gardners' kitchen, looking at Sunny and Soot with affection. "I just love spoiling them rotten!"
Mary Betancourt, 74 and a widow, belongs to a little-known but fast-growing kind of American entrepreneurship--the business of house-sitting.
Normally, Mary lives in a comfortable but modest mobile home in Garden Grove. But four months out of the year, she works as a "live-in" sitter in some of the swankiest homes in Orange County, from oceanside locales in Dana Point and Huntington Beach to inland hilltops in Irvine and Anaheim.
Her clients are all affluent homeowners--mostly of the "yuppie class," she says--all willing and able to pay the going rates, around $30 a day for basic live-in services. Most clients are gone on vacations or business trips one to two weeks. Others, like the Gardners, go four to five weeks.
What's more, Betancourt isn't a free-lancer. She is one of 65 professional sitters with Home Sitting Services of Orange County, one of hundreds of similar agencies to emerge nationwide in recent years, including an estimated 30 firms in Southern California.
There is no mystery behind the accelerating demand for house-sitters. It is tied to mounting crime rates and to the knowledge that affluent neighborhoods are choice targets for burglaries.
"It's the whole issue of home security and the genuine fears that go with it," explains Joan Sullivan, whose Costa Mesa-based Homewatch is one of six house-sitting agencies currently listed in Orange County.
"Homeowners want peace of mind. They want the newspapers picked up, the garbage put out, the pets walked, the prize artifacts guarded--the whole works," adds Sullivan, who oversees six sitters. "They don't want to go away and be worried to death about possible break-ins."
The more familiar form of house-sitting has long been the strictly casual family-to-family or friend-to-friend arrangements. But many homeowners don't have relatives or friends who can sit for them.
Furthermore, there are the horror stories about still other kinds of sitters hired the old, informal way. Such tales have depicted live-in sitters who left houses unattended for hours, held wild parties or inflicted serious property damage.
Thus, in recent years, as the fears of burglaries and related residential crimes rose, so, too, agency operators claim, did the demand for "professionalizing" house sitting.
These house-sitting firms proclaim "full protection" for clients, be it a weekend jaunt to Las Vegas or a monthlong safari in East Africa. They offer services from "drop-in" visits (generally $8 to $18 a day in Orange County) to round-the-clock occupancy (up to $60 a day if it involves children).
And their sitters are touted as a select bunch--all bonded and insured "professionals."
Which brings us back to Mary Betancourt: Senior citizens are now the most sought-after house-sitters.
"It makes good business sense," says Joanne Wojahn, operator of Home Sitting Services of Orange County, which uses only senior citizens, ranging in ages from 55 to the mid-70s. Others in the 60-agency, nationwide Home Sitting Services network, including those in San Diego, West Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley, do the same.
"You have this untapped labor pool going to waste," she says. "These are people who are the most experienced and temperamentally suited for this line of work."
For example, there are Stanley and Evelyn Conklin, a retired couple from San Dimas. But at first, the Conklins knew nothing of house-sitting firms.