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House-Sitting: The Dream Gig Can Become a Nightmare


It's every renter's dream. Free rent for a year just to live in someone else's house.

I got a house-sitting gig years ago. I think the owners even paid me to watch their animals. Those were the good old days when folks could afford to go away for a summer or a year and pay someone to watch their home, pets and belongings.

Nowadays, many prime house-sitting jobs don't pay anything. In fact, many house-sitters are even being asked to pay rent, especially in tight rental markets. Sometimes the rent is a bit cheaper than what you'd normally pay in the area, yet you're required to take care of the animals, watch the house and generally be responsible for the owner's property.

You'd think with a deal like that, no one would touch a house-sitting rental with a 10-foot pole. But in areas where it's tough to find an apartment, a reduced-rent house-sitting rental gets nabbed up in minutes, no matter how bad the deal is. Renters see a discount and jump on it, never considering what they might have to lose.

A couple I know learned this lesson the hard way when they rented a professor's three-story house while he was on an overseas sabbatical. There was a lot wrong with this deal that should have triggered big warning signs. But the landlord "seemed so nice," so they took him at his word and moved in.

No Intention of Returning Deposit

After moving out a year later, they discovered that the landlord had no intention of returning their hefty security deposit. He even claimed that they owed him money and wouldn't reimburse them for the money they'd spent taking care of his pets. And when they took him to Small Claims Court, they lost.

A lot can be learned from their experience. Here are some things to consider before you get involved in any house-sitting-for-rent deal.

When you rent a furnished apartment, you usually sign a move in/move out checklist that indicates the condition of the furniture. So if there's a bed and kitchen table included in the rental, for example, any damage to those items is listed on the checklist that both you and your landlord sign. This checklist protects you from being accused of causing damage that existed before you moved in.

In a house-sitting rental, if your landlord leaves everything in the house as is, the potential for getting into disagreements about damage and lost objects is far greater. Every one of the thousands of objects in the house--from the candlestick on the mantel to the silverware in the drawers--is at risk of being damaged or lost. And guess who's going to be responsible when the owner returns.

This is where my friends got into big trouble. They put away the breakable precious items when they moved in. Also, they had to put away a lot of junk just to make room for their own stuff. In the end, a lot of the dispute was about "lost" items that were really misplaced in other parts of the house.

The couple also had children. Kids and your landlord's most valued possessions do not mix. Inevitably, something was going to get stained or broken. The couple did not have an agreement with the owners about what would happen if something got damaged, and the owners demanded that they pay the replacement cost of the items.

Responsibilities Should Be in Writing

Because it's almost impossible to inventory every item in a large house, you need to make a written agreement with the owner about what you're responsible for. For example, you may want to create a checklist of the items that are most important to the owner and agree that if anything happens to any other items, you cannot be held responsible.

Also, keep your eyes out for easily damaged items and do something about them. If the owner keeps an expensive rug under the dining-room table, tell him to roll it up and store it or make sure your agreement does not hold you responsible for any stains that might occur.

Be very wary about paying a large security deposit. Remember that the owner may hold you responsible for every item in the house.

If you're taking care of the owners' pets, you should ask the owners to give you money for food and veterinary bills in advance. If they don't want to leave money, they should buy enough food for your stay.

My friends made the mistake of paying for an entire year's worth of food and pet bills--to the tune of $500. When their landlord refused to return their security deposit, he also refused to reimburse them for the pet bills.

With any rental, you need to be clear about how repairs get done. What happens if the toilet overflows or the boiler breaks down?

With a house-sitting rental, you need to be even more cautious. If the owner is leaving town or the country, you need to make sure you know what to do when something breaks.

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