the rise of home-sitting among older Australians
The severe lack of affordable housing is hurting Australians across the community – from young tenants to families looking to buy and older people in need of stable accommodation.
The number of Australians over the age of 55 who are homeless jumped 28% between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.
The growing lack of affordable housing is forcing some seniors to take unconventional approaches to finding housing. One of them is home-sitting.
My new research published in Australian Geographer examines how it works – and how it doesn’t – for this often vulnerable group.
What is house sitting?
In exchange for free accommodation, the house-sitters take care of the house (and the garden and the animals), during the absence of the owner. Home care episodes can be as short as one day to over three years.
House sitters use different methods to find a potential house sitter property. Most rely on specific babysitting websites and Facebook groups. Some people also find house sitting opportunities through referrals and repeat bookings.
In the first analysis of its kind, a colleague and I interviewed 20 Australians between the ages of 53 and 78 who had been housesitting for over a year.
Read more: ‘I tell everyone I like being alone, but I hate it’: What older Aussies want you to know about loneliness
Half of our respondents had permanent accommodation (either rented or owned) and were mostly occasional house-sitters. The others were full-time house-sitters and had no permanent address.
We asked people about their experiences as elderly house-sitters and the impact of this type of accommodation on their well-being.
Temporary stress relief
Nearly half of the house sitters we surveyed said financial issues, such as unemployment, unstable or low-paying jobs, and unaffordable housing, were the main reason for starting house sitters. A relationship breakdown that left people without a safe home was the second most common reason.
They told us that house sitting offered temporary relief from the high and relentless costs of paying rent. As one interviewee noted:
This [house-sitting] is pretty essential, where else would we live? So we rented for a little while, but money is an issue, because I still don’t earn enough to pay rent […] [It] turns out to be a very good solution to the situation in which we find ourselves.
This, in turn, freed up funds to spend on other things, like their health and social life.
My husband is getting his pension this year. So, [if we house-sit] this means that we will indeed have an income, which in theory means that we could actually save money.
Less common reasons for starting to keep house included free accommodation for traveling and spending time with animals.
In addition to saving money, respondents described the multiple benefits of housesitting. The majority mentioned the possibility of traveling and discovering different places.
Participants also enjoyed the opportunity to live in nice homes and meet new people. They liked freedom, variety and “getting rid of unnecessary things”.
As one interviewee noted:
we were able to live in beautiful homes and with wonderful pets.
But not feeling safe
However, house-sitting was not seen as a long-term option. Respondents worried about the lack of safety and increased health needs as they age.
Well, for short breaks and vacations, this [house-sitting] is viable, but in the long run you have to have plans B and C. As you see when COVID hit, it affected many people and some even stay in their cars.
Most caregivers also found that the temporary, short-term nature of home care made it difficult to engage with the local community and develop a sense of belonging.
You may make temporary friends, but then you move on and leave the community.
Constant travel also makes it difficult to acquire local knowledge, which is especially important in unforeseen circumstances, such as natural disasters. As one interviewee explained:
It was pretty scary in the bushfire […] when suddenly you need to know […] where to go, where is the evacuation center […] If I was at home, at home, I might talk to friends or neighbors and make decisions together, but […] loneliness becomes evident when something like this happens.
Lack of transparency
Another problem is the power imbalance. House sitters have few, if any, rights – owners have ultimate control over their properties. The house-sitters spoke of a series of challenges due to the lack of a clear agreement between the parties.
Read more: What type of housing do older Australians want and where do they want to live?
These included disputes over the cost of repairs to the accommodation and disagreements over the status of the property upon departure, such as the cleanliness of the house and the cleanliness of the garden.
Unexpected changes or cancellation of babysitting schedules by landlords also contributed to feelings of insecurity and distress among older housekeepers.
Make house-sitting more stable
House-sitting may not yet be a widespread practice, but it is growing. As it grows in importance, we need transparent policies to clarify the rights and privileges of owners and custodians and address the inherent power imbalance.
We also need to look at ways to make housesitting a safer proposition for people in the longer term.
And to prioritize informed discussions about safe housing options for people as they age.