Home sit home
In the UK and the US, families leave their homes to housesitters in their absence. CHIN YONG CHANG (firstname.lastname@example.org) finds out if Singaporeans would warm up to the idea of leaving their homes in the care of strangers
He stretches out in a Sentosa Cove bungalow complete with a large manicured garden and a swimming pool. He even has two dogs to amuse him.
You could say Mr Bernie Ong, 48, has it all - except it's not his home.
Mr Ong is a housesitter, getting paid up to $150 a day for taking care of other people's homes. He offers his services through his website homesitting.com.sg
Housesitters like Mr Ong take care of properties while the occupants are away, making the homes look "lived in" to deter burglars.
And often, the home owners also need the housesitters to take care of their pets.
He says home owners do not take their pets overseas because of the quarantine laws that animals are subject to.
He cites Australia, which has strict regulations, as an example. "If you take your dog to Australia, it'll be placed under quarantine for a number of weeks," he said.
"Most pet owners don't want to subject their pets to an enclosed and cramped environment like a quarantine centre."
Mr Ong says he has been housesitting for five years after he left his previous jobs, in manufacturing and insurance.
He told The New Paper on Sunday it began as a hobby, after a colleague asked him for a housesitting favour in 2011.
He says: "He was going on a holiday and asked if I was willing to take care of his house in his absence.
"There was no money involved, but that job made me wonder if I could turn it into a business."
After setting up his website in 2012, it took him three months to get his first job.
Business was initially rocky, but improved after positive reviews from his first few clients.
While he admits that the leisurely stays in Bukit Timah and Sentosa Cove bungalows are a nice change from his Bishan flat, this is not the case most of the time.
Mr Ong, who is married and has two children, says: "Some days I can have no jobs at all, while other times I might have eight or nine jobs a day."
A typical day would have him running across the island feeding the dog and watering the plants at each house.
He says: "It's very tiring, and there are days when I have my meals on the go because I simply don't have time to rest.
"If I don't make it to the house, the dog goes hungry. I have the pets' welfare in mind and I do my best to get to them as quickly as I can."
For these simple visits, he charges an average of $30, but if his clients ask him for extra services like clearing their swimming pool of leaves he would increase his fee.He says: "If a client asks for things that take time, I will charge more because I could have used the time to go to another job."
Then there are jobs which require him to be at the house for the entire day, usually because the homeowner has pets that need constant supervision.
For these jobs, he usually seeks permission from his clients before using their furniture and kitchen equipment.
He says: "Sometimes I take a sleeping bag to the home and sleep on the floor or sofa, and go out to buy food as I don't touch the food in the fridge."
In some of the bigger homes, his clients might have a guest room that he can use.
And there are some clients who tell him to make himself at home.
He recalls: "There were clients who were even open about me sleeping on the beds they normally use."
Trust is a major element in this job. Before taking on any job, he always asks to meet the clients and their pets.
"It's important to meet for both sides to understand each other," he says.
In September last year, a housesitter from the US went to the Netherlands and took on a housesitting job in Amsterdam without meeting the homeowners beforehand.
In her blog, she said she realised too late that the homeowners left a flea infestation for her to deal with, without warning her.
Mr Ong says such scenarios can be avoided if homeowner and housesitter communicate more.
He would discuss his clients' needs, and visits the home before agreeing to housesit.
He says he is most careful when it comes to pets, saying: "Once, after a week of dropping by the house delivering food to the dog, it suddenly turned violent and bit my hand. They're still a big question mark for me when I take on a job."
"There are days when I have my meals on the go because I simply don't have time to rest."
- Mr Bernie Ong
Housesitting for free so she can have a staycation
WIN-WIN: Miss Sabrina Fan uses the website to get a free staycation. PHOTO: TRUSTEDHOUSESITTERS.COM
Some housesitters don't charge a fee.
Miss Sabrina Fan, 26, a business executive, has been a housesitter for a year and has done three jobs locally.
All three jobs have been for foreigners living in Singapore.
She says: "Most Singaporeans would rather lock up their homes... than find someone to housesit for them."
The biggest reason why homeowners ask for a housesitter is for their pets to be looked after.
She says: "Families with pets do not want to take them overseas or leave them at the kennel as they thrive best in an environment they know best - their homes.
"So most home owners want housesitters to have animal care experience."
She joined British housesitting website trustedhousesitters.com, which matches housesitters and homeowners.
Its spokesman tells The New Paper on Sunday their business has doubled every year for the last few years, with users in more than 130 countries.
But in Singapore, where housesitting is less popular, there are only 24 users.
The number includes homeowners and housesitters in Singapore.
After housesitters and homeowners each pay a fee, which starts from $9 a month, the site matches housesitters to homeowners anywhere in the world.
The matching process is free and the fee is for registration to the site. No money changes hands between homeowner and housesitter.
Miss Fan took up housesitting as a means of taking a staycation.
She says: "I go to the homeowner's house after work in the evening and spend my nights there.
"Even though no money changes hands, it's a good service because the homeowner has his house taken care of, and I get a free staycation."
Miss Fan, who lives in an HDB flat in Tiong Bahru, says some of the condominium units and landed properties she housesits are a nice change from her flat, but she isn't "envious".
She is careful not to mess up the homes because reputation is everything in her business. Homeowners post their experiences on the site.
Apart from the reviews, there is no way for users of trustedhousesitters.com to know how trustworthy their homesitters are.
She says: "Singaporeans are still very close-minded about this issue.
"There are those who housesit for a living, but I do it to get some 'me' time away from my family at home."
Stranger in my home? No thanks
Most homeowners contacted by The New Paper on Sunday say they are hesitant about housesitting services, mainly because it would mean letting a stranger into their homes.Civil servant Lim Zhi Yang, 36, who is going overseas for a year with his family to complete his master's degree, is not prepared to have a stranger over at his home.
The Choa Chu Kang flat owner says: "I'm not comfortable trusting my home to a stranger. I might hire a part-time cleaner once a week, but I'll have relatives supervise the process."
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says this reluctance has more to do with the geography of the region.
He tells TNPS: "I don't think Westerners are necessarily more trusting of strangers than Singaporeans. Singaporeans would probably be willing to ask a relative or friend to housesit."
He says that in the West, homes may be located in relatively rural areas andmore susceptible to harsh weather.
"You would need a housesitter if you are concerned about extreme weather changes, which could lead to bush fires, flooding, or pipes bursting."
Madam Yvonne Lim, 56, a housewife who lives in a private apartment near Tiong Bahru, says that she would seriously consider getting a housesitter when they visit their daughter, who is studying in the US.
"We will be away for at least a week. This way, I don't bother any of my family members."
Housesitters and homeowners have to discuss what they expect from the other. Here is a checklist:
- A copy of the key to the home must be given to the housesitter.
- To prevent misunderstandings, the homeowner's neighbours should be informed about the arrangement.
- If the home is in a condominium, security personnel should be informed.
- Homeowners need to give a list of things to do, for example, water the plants, feed the dog, or start the car engine once a week.
- Homeowners should tell the housesitter about rooms or things he is not allowed to enter/use.
- For pet and garden care, there must be sufficient tools with instructions on how to use them.
- Unless the homeowner allows the housesitter to use the fridge, perishable food items should be removed.