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Housesitters Glad to Keep Watchful Eye on Family Pet

June 09, 1990|EVE BELSON | Eve Belson is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You are on vacation and your worries are far behind you. You made sure of that.

You stopped newspaper delivery and instructed the post office to hold your mail. You boarded all your pets and put a three-week food bar into the aquarium. You tacked up signs reminding the pool man and the gardener to please close the side gate when they leave. And your sister-in-law has promised to water your indoor plants once a week.

No matter. All it takes to destroy your idyll are those two dreaded words: "What if . . . ?" What if the house is burgled? Or catches fire? What if your sister-in-law drowns your aspidistras? What if kennel life scars Fido emotionally? What if the cheese bubbles to life in the refrigerator?

Although the odds of something actually going wrong back home may be small, vacation anxiety can set in as soon as the front door slams shut behind you. Which is why more homeowners are turning to a growing corps of professionals to come and baby-sit their homes, pets, plants and even their children while they sail--worry free--into the sunset.

The well-being of pets is often the top priority for homeowners who consider their animals members of the family. "Pets go through enough stress with their family gone," says Laurie Hamer who, along with her partner, Debra Trombley, operates an Irvine-based company whose name says it all--Mammal Mom. "Having someone come to care for the animals in their own environment is one less stress they have to deal with. Pet owners sense that very strongly."

Once or twice a day, a Mammal Mom staffer will visit a home for about half an hour. The pets will be fed. Dogs will be exercised and played with. Cats will be cuddled and their litter boxes cleaned out. Many critter clients are older animals that require medication and special supervision.

Prices start at $10 a visit, but clients get more than a mobile pet sitter. The company also includes home security as part of its service. Mail and newspapers are brought in. Plants and lawns are watered. Chemicals are added to pools and spas. An eye is kept out for expected deliveries.

"We do just about anything to make it look like somebody is home," says Hamer. "We switch lights around, we open and close drapes and we come at different times in case somebody is watching the house."

Bobby Cox of Newport Beach, who owns two cats, doesn't leave town without contacting Mammal Mom. "We go to the desert on many weekends and occasionally we'll take a couple of weeks a year to travel," she says. "Laurie has her own key now, so I just call her up, tell her I'm leaving and she knows what to do."

Professional housesitter Patty Linebarger of Corona del Mar says she got into the business 10 years ago when her own house was burglarized while she was away. "The police told me the only thing that could have prevented it was to have a body coming and going at the house," she says. She began housesitting for vacationing neighbors for free but soon went professional under the name Security Plus.

Most of her clients engage a housesitter for security reasons, says Linebarger. "Eight out of 10 of them have security systems, but they still feel better knowing someone is around," she says.

Like most home sitters, she offers two services--drop-in and live-in. For about $15 to $20 per visit, she will spend about an hour in a client's home, bringing in the mail, feeding and playing with the pets, watering the plants and checking the overall security.

Most of her clients prefer Linebarger's live-in service, for which she charges $35 per 24-hour period "be it for one night or three months." She says she has done everything from tending a prize vegetable garden to overseeing a remodeling job. She drew the line at looking after a pet cheetah, however.

Individual home sitters such as Linebarger are usually covered by the homeowner's insurance policy. Companies that contract out sitters are bonded and insured. Normal procedure begins with the homeowner filling out an extensive questionnaire, providing what becomes in effect an encyclopedic directory of the domestic routine: emergency phone numbers, the name of the family vet, pet likes and dislikes, security system information, pool and yard maintenance schedules and a Who's Who of people allowed into the house during the owner's absence.

An appointment is then made for the homeowner and the sitter to meet, during which time they do a walk-through together, familiarizing the sitter with the household and its routine and making introductions to the family menagerie.

Most live-in sitters tend to be retirees, since they have the kind of free time needed for minding someone else's home. The companies that hire them also believe them to be more dependable. Most companies will usually work only with nonsmokers and genuine pet-lovers as well.

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