If you’ve ever had to take an extended business trip or gone on a nice long holiday, you know how much trouble it can be to arrange for someone to come by and pick up the mail, water the plants and make sure everything is secure. That doesn’t even include more detailed tasks such as cutting the grass, shovelling snow, or other maintenance items that might arise while you’re gone.
Of course, you can always rely on a friend, relative or neighbour to look after the place for a few days, but how much can you reasonably expect from people – especially if you are away for an extended period?
That’s where the professional house-sitter comes into play.
Running a house sitting service can be very profitable for the entrepreneur who is organized and is able to gain the trust of potential clients in this growing industry. For the right person, the opportunity can be unlimited. Once you have a list of repeat customers, you have a source of income that you can rely on for years to come. Trust is a big factor in this business and once people have someone they can trust in their homes, they are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Why is this service in such demand?
Simply put, homeowners are away much more frequently than in the past. Many more people are taking extended holidays, seniors are heading south for months at a time, and business people are travelling more than ever.
But perhaps the biggest factor for the recent surge in popularity for house-sitting services is the fact that the baby boomer generation is quickly approaching retirement. Unlike previous generations, these individuals have more assets, and hence, more disposable income to enjoy their retirement. They are also less likely to spend as much time at home, and more time traveling. In fact, many will have more than one residence (sometimes in different counties) and will divide their time between both homes.
How to start
Getting started in this business is not easy. Your biggest challenge will not be startup costs (they are negligible), or marketing – your biggest hurdle will be your ability to gain the trust of your first few clients.
Unlike other service businesses, you can not start out by marketing to complete strangers via normal print media methods such as flyering or newspaper ads. Trust is such a big factor here that you will only be able to start with friends, family, or people you know. Gradually, your business should grow simply by way of repeat customers and referrals. Of course, once you make a name for yourself and your business becomes well-known, you could try advertising in the local paper. Again, the biggest factor here is to gain the trust of all your customers and build a reputation for honesty and good service.
Ironically, there are people that are desperate for this type of service but are hesitant to hire just anyone. A homeowner wants to find someone who is trustworthy, honest, and will look after their property as if it were their own.
Though there are very few costs involved in the start up of this business, you should at least have some business cards printed. Many of your satisfied customers will request a few business cards to pass on to their friends, family, and acquaintances. That’s how the referral process works – and that will be the lifeblood of your business.
Start up costs
As mentioned, the start-up costs for a house-sitting service are very low. Initially, you might want to put out a little money for business cards, a price list, and maybe some letterhead. The only other expenses you should incur in the beginning are the cost of a business registration, and any municipal licenses you might require. Eventually, you will want to take out some liability insurance for your own protection. Accidents happen and things get broken (sometimes very expensive things). While it is not cheap, it may allow you to get jobs that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Before you start out, you need to have some idea of what you will be able to offer your customers, what they will expect from you, and how you will structure your time.
Will you offer live-in services? Will you divide your time between several homes – scheduling each one for a specific time of day? Will you offer pet-sitting? What chores will you take care of while you’re there (lawn cutting, snow shovelling, paying bills, security checks, basic maintenance, house cleaning)?
You will find that everyone will have a unique situation and no two homes will be alike. For this reason, you must be able to quote a fair price for any combination of tasks and be prepared for anything. What will you charge to shovel a 6 car driveway with 2 feet of snow? What if the basement floods from a broken pipe? Do you have the authority to call a qualified tradesman, and how will you pay them?
Many times, the final amount will vary according to the tasks involved and the homeowner must be willing to accept this. You should also write down the dates and times you arrived, how long you were there, and what tasks you performed – just in case there is any question as to the final bill. Keep a separate journal for each house.
Additionally, you should make up some sort of contract that clearly lists your responsibilities, the rights assigned to you by the homeowner, and an acknowledgement that the homeowner has given you permission to be on the premises. Always make sure you get the full contact details for your customer should an emergency arise.
What should you charge?
This is where experience can make your life a whole lot easier. When starting out, you will more or less be guessing at the amount of time required to complete each task. Unfortunately, there will be times when you underestimate the job in a big way. Chalk this up to experience and know that, although you are taking a loss this time, you won’t be making that mistake again.
Ideally, you will have a written contract with a list of basic prices for services so that the customer can have some sort of idea what the final bill will be. At this time you should also let them know that many of these services are dependent on circumstances that are out of your control. For example: there could be several winter storms that will require that you shovel the driveway more frequently than normal – or you could have an emergency that will take up many more hours of your time than anticipated. Don’t agree to a set amount, but rather, give the homeowner a rough estimate under normal circumstances.
Generally, you should be aiming for $20-$30 an hour while you are on the premises performing the required tasks. The amount you get paid per house will vary, of course, due to the fact that some people will require certain services and others will not. If you are being paid to simply collect the mail and newspapers and perform a security check, you might only charge $50 per week for your services. If your responsibilities include add-ons such as grass cutting, snow clearing, or pet setting, then obviously you will be charging accordingly.
Leveraging your time
The profit potential for this business can be huge if you are efficient. Ideally, you will want to have a full schedule so that you can do your rounds each day. Try to schedule homes in the same area on the same day so that your driving time will be minimal. Make sure you establish routines while you are in the homes so that you are able to perform the work in the most efficient manner possible. Of course, this will improve with time and experience.
The bottom line
House sitting is one of the best shoestring business opportunities out there. However, that’s not to say that it’s easy to start up. In fact, you will find that it’s very difficult to get any momentum going in the beginning. This is due to the fact that you must put in time to build your reputation and customer base. If you do a superb job, you will be surprised at how quickly the referrals come in. In most cases, all that people really want to hear is that someone they know has used your services and you’ve proven to be trustworthy and hard working.
To that end, you should be squeaky clean as far as any prior criminal activity or record. Many people will ask if you are bonded or if you can provide a police criminal record search paper. For a nominal fee, you can obtain a criminal record abstract from most police departments. It would be in your best interest to obtain this document well before you seek out your first client.
Your best bet for starting out would be to provide this service for someone you know and hope that they refer you to their friends and neighbours. Expect that things will start slowly but have the confidence that eventually you will gain much more momentum and a full roster of clients.
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