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SITTING IN : What with pet care, crime and natural disasters, who can risk leaving the house these days? You can-with the help of professional sitters.


Nelson Ley, a 53-year-old La Canada Flintridge loan officer, was in agony. He had to go on a business trip but couldn't find anybody who would look after his home and pets.

"I didn't want to leave my house empty. Also, I have three miniature dachshunds with a strict routine. If they don't get their cookies for breakfast and have dinner between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., they go nuts," Ley said. "None of my friends would take time off to watch the house and to care for the dogs."

While worrying about canceling yet another trip, Ley remembered a flyer by Home Sitting Services, a South Pasadena house-sitting agency. "I called and they introduced me to Hazel, a sweet old lady. She stayed in the house while I was away, fed the dachshunds, watered the plants, picked up the newspaper and even had all my blankets washed when I got back," Ley said. "Home Sitting Services took a load off my mind."

Home Sitting Services is one of about a dozen businesses in the greater Los Angeles area that specialize in caring for homes while owners are away. Scattered from Calabasas to Redondo Beach to South Pasadena, they serve a diverse clientele ranging from vacationing families with stay-at-home pets to business travelers who want to keep burglars away from unoccupied condos. Depending on the homeowner's needs, house sitters tend to such duties as taking in mail and newspapers, setting out garbage, looking after pets, watering houseplants and checking home security.

Although some house-sitting services are one-person operations, most operate as referral agencies with up to 40 home watchers, including senior citizens and professionals. Prices start at $8 for a half-hour visit and $25 for an overnight stay and go up to $50 for such additional services as taking phone messages or mowing the lawn. Live-in house-sitting runs about $40 for 24 hours.

Once considered a neighborly chore, house-sitting became a profession in the United States in the early 1970s. Importing the concept from Great Britain, retiree W. Alfred Sutherland expanded his favors for friends and family into a referral service for senior home sitters in Denver.

House-sitting came to the Los Angeles area about 10 years ago when Sutherland, the self-declared "Colonel Sanders of home-sitting," started to sell distributorships nationwide. Soon, entrepreneurs from all walks of life adopted the idea and opened independent house-sitting businesses.

According to local house sitters, there has been a growing demand for professional sitters in the last five to six years. With crime figures soaring, most homeowners consider a lived-in look the best protection against break-ins.

Also, recent years' earthquakes, fires and floods have made more and more people reluctant to leave their dwellings unoccupied. "Having a sitter at home while I'm away gives me 100% peace of mind," Ley said. "I can enjoy a trip without worries about a leaky roof, some guy cleaning out the house or my dogs chewing up the couch."

Before Ley called Home Sitting Services in 1989, he had renounced traveling. Bonnie, Benji and Twitty, his dachshunds, would not allow a change of routine, let alone being kenneled. Also Ley, who works for Great Western Bank, did not want to leave his home unoccupied.

These days, the native of Cuba hits the road five or six times a year--thanks to Hazel, the house sitter. "In a way, Hazel changed my life. I've become more independent and less worrisome," said Ley, who leaves a blank check for the sitter to cover any household emergencies.

Although temporarily unoccupied homes are covered against property damage and burglary by the standard homeowners policy, insurance agencies often recommend the preventive measure of hiring a house sitter. "You just don't want to come home after a weekend in Palm Springs and find your furniture floating about your flooded living room," said Marvin Marlowe, an agent for Allstate Insurance in Santa Monica. "But that can happen if a pipe bursts and nobody checks on the house for a couple of days."

According to Marlowe, appliances like dishwashers and washing machines are the main troublemakers in an empty house. "Appliances get old, are short-circuited and cause fires," Marlowe said. "By having somebody stop by or even stay in the house while you are away, a little defect can be fixed before it develops into an emergency."

The services make painstaking efforts to match the client with the appropriate home watcher. Most services visit the client's home to list specific instructions, like pet care, plant care, switching off and on lights and checking the alarm system, before assigning a sitter. The service then selects the right licensed and bonded sitter for the tasks involved. Once a match is made, most homeowners hire the same sitter each time they leave town.

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