Traveling around the world while staying in other people’s homes for free might sound too good to be true. But a semi-retired couple from Norfolk, England have managed to do just that.
Jonathan and Julie Ashworth, who are both in their 50s, sold their home back in 2017 and now spend their days globetrotting while looking after other people’s houses, and pets, in exchange for free accommodation.
The couple’s house sitting adventures have taken them to destinations such as France, Thailand, Australia, Spain and California, as well as around much of the UK.
They’ve stayed in an array of homes, including villas and country houses, and have cared for numerous cats and dogs, as well as horses, chickens, hamsters, rabbits, a kunekune pig and even a tortoise.
The Ashworths booked their first house sit back in 2018 while looking for ways they could travel more while on a budget, and say they’ve never looked back.
Pet loving travelers
While they were initially skeptical about the idea of receiving free accommodation in exchange for looking after homes and pets, they decided to give it a try, and signed up to popular platform Trusted House Sitters, which connects owners with sitters.
The site works in a similar way to Airbnb, with both the owner and the house sitter leaving reviews for each other. All members are required to pay an annual fee to join.
As they were new to the practice, the couple opted to house sit locally in order to build up their profiles, and often went to visit owners in person before securing their stay.
“We didn’t have the reviews to start with, so we wanted to have face to face contact with them [the owners] to reassure them that we were good sitters,” explains Jonathan.
Both are huge animal lovers, which is an important factor, as the vast majority of house sits involve looking after a pet of some sort.
“There are a few houses that are pet-free,” says Julie. “But most do come with pets. You have to be a pet loving traveler.”
Once they’d clocked up a significant amount of positive reviews, they began to apply for house sits slightly further afield.
The couple then traveled to America, where they spent around three months house sitting California, and managed to squeeze in trips to Yosemite, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, before heading to Javea, Spain, for a seven-week house sit in a beautiful villa with a private pool while caring for two ridgeback dogs.
The owners gave them permission to use their Vespa during their stay, and they were able to spend time exploring the area while the dogs were resting.
While house sitting might sound like a breeze, it’s rarely as simple as just turning up at someone’s home, watering a few plants and walking the owner’s dog every day. Anyone considering house sitting should check with the labor laws of the country they plan to visit.
The Ashworths say they are hugely committed to making the experience as positive as possible for both the owners and the pets, as well as themselves.
They see house sitting as an opportunity to travel and live like locals rather than as a holiday, and go all out to ensure that the pets they are looking after have a great time with them.
The couple regularly send videos and photos of their escapades to the owners in order to keep them updated and try to “give the pets a holiday” during their stay at a home.
“There’s no better reply from an owner than to say that they’re totally reassured by us being there,” adds Jonathan.”They love to see their pets having a great time. For us, the pets completely take over our lives when we’re doing a sit.”
In order to ensure they are well prepared for each house sit, the pair arrive a few hours before the owners leave, or sometimes the night before, so that they can meet face to face and have the opportunity to discuss any concerns.
“Sometimes you get like a lot of pets and you really have to be committed,” says Julie. “You have to really make sure you are aware of the responsibilities and that you can do it all.”
They were due to travel to Cape Town and London after finishing up at a Spanish villa in March 2020, but the global pandemic put paid to their plans.
Julie and Jonathan, who were booked up until the end of the year at that point, saw all of their upcoming house sits canceled due to border restrictions and were forced to return to the UK, where they stayed in a caravan until they were able to begin house sitting again.
Aside from the inevitable cancellations brought about by Covid, the Ashworths say it is rare for an owner to pull out of a house sit, particularly as they, along with sitters, are required to pay an annual fee to use the house-sitting platform.
“Obviously it’s important that we don’t get cancellations all the time, especially if we’re traveling abroad,” says Jonathan.
“If someone cancels, and we lose our flight money, that doesn’t work very well for us.”
While most of their house sits have been pretty smooth sailing, their toughest was at a home in Santa Monica, California, where they looked after a “ferocious” rescue dog who took a while to settle.
“Although that was one of our hardest house sits, it was one of the most rewarding, because we won him over,” admits Jonathan, who’s since completed a course on rescue dogs to ensure he’s better prepared if a similar scenario were to arise.
While the Ashworths admit they’ve heard a few negative stories from fellow house sitters who’ve had owners “pop back” to the home, or have gone to stay in properties that were very different than described, pretty much all of their experiences have been good.
“We have been very lucky,” admits Julie.
Jonathan, a former school swimming teacher and property manager, and Julie, who previously worked as a school secretary, have a small internet business that brings in enough money to allow them to cover their expenses while they’re house sitting across the world.
The practice has been growing in popularity in recent years, with a number of platforms, such as HouseSitMatch, Nomador, HouseCarers and MindMyHouse, to choose from, along with Trusted House Sitters, which is the Ashworths’ favorite.
Now that they’ve built up a strong reputation as house sitters and have racked up 54 five-star reviews on Trusted House Sitters, the couple tend to get most of the house sitting requests they apply for.
“We’re really quite in demand, which is lovely,” says Julie.
Although they have a wish list of destinations they’d like to travel to, it’s often not the actual house or location that attracts them to a particular request.
“We have different reasons for applying for different house sits, but very often it’s for the pet,” admits Julie. “We’re animal lovers. Sometimes we see a pet and we fall in love with it.”
In late 2021, they were granted a travel exemption to visit their son in Australia (before the country officially reopened its international border to travelers again in February 2022) and managed to combine the trip with two house-sitting bookings close to his home in the beach suburb of Manly, Sydney.
This included a seven-week house sit where they looked after the owner’s Cavapoo, a cross between a Poodle and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
“This accommodation would cost us easily £1,000 (about $1,357) per week,” says Julie. “Plus we have the company of a cute and cuddly little pup.”
Since returning from Australia, they’ve been mainly house sitting around the UK, staying at a house close to the beach near Cromer in English county Norfolk while caring for the owner’s Dogue de Bordeaux, as well as homes in Dorset, southwest England, and the city of York.
They have house sit booked in Bulgaria in late August, as well as a beach holiday to Thailand. The Ashworths plan to return to Australia later this year, where they’ll be house sitting while looking after a rabbit, before heading to New Zealand.
“We’re super excited,” adds Julie via email. “We’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand.”
Aside from the money they’ve saved on accommodation costs, the Ashworths have formed strong friendships with many of the homeowners they’ve done house sits for.
“We nearly always keep in touch, so many of them will be lifelong friends,” says Julie. “We’ll often get sent pictures of a pet that we’ve looked after months ago, which is really nice.”
Both feel that house sitting has opened up many new doors for them in every sense, and say they’d recommend it to anyone.
“It [house sitting] can help so many people,” adds Julie. “So many of our friends and family say that we are ‘living the dream’ and that is how we feel.”
This story has been updated with additional information.