I saved cash by quitting a student room to become a petsitter

My university lecturer is in full flow on my laptop screen. Once upon a time, I’d have been surrounded by fellow students in a lecture hall. Or, earlier this year, I’d have been cramped at a desk in my shared house. Today, my lecture buddy is a rescue dog named Riya.

I didn’t initially consider house-sitting as an accommodation solution. It was a cheap way to experience a new city, definitely. When travelling across Australia, I’d sat for pets in exchange for accommodation using the platform Mindahome. It wasn’t until my second year of university that the budgeting dots connected.

I am a student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where a room on campus costs £5,000 a year on average. Despite the teaching for my course finishing in March, campus accommodation contracts run from September to June, leaving a huge portion of wasted rent.

Similarly, while Egham, where the university is based, has cheaper rented accommodation than central London, most contracts are a year minimum, and you’ll compromise lots for budget-friendly leases.

So, in December, I arrived at the TrustedHousesitters homepage. In exchange for pet care, sitters get free accommodation and occasionally a fridge of food or spending money at the owner’s discretion.

I set notifications for sitting jobs within an hour on public transport from the Royal Holloway, University of London campus and applied for all the suitable dates that came in. After two weeks, I had secured jobs to cover February and March, so in January I could hand in my one-month notice at my shared house.

My first job put me in the company of four labradors: Bean, Frog, Luna and Toby. Their home was a 16th century Tudor house in a village in Surrey, heated entirely by a wood-burning stove and protected from evil spirits by an ancient shoe.

The homeowner even pointed out an original Tudor mural on the living room wall, under which I ended up attending lectures while all four dogs attempted to lie across my lap.

As I write, I am sitting for Riya, who was rehomed from a shelter abroad. She’s quite content to lounge around and only potter out on a daily walk. Riya experiences anxiety when meeting other dogs, especially when they are larger than she is, so I met her owner beforehand for a practice walk. Luckily, in Riya’s case, a quick “good girl” and a well-timed treat soon send the worry away.

After this, I am caring for two rescue dogs that came here from South Africa with their owners, then a cockapoo in a nearby village. That will take me to the end of term – but I’m already scoping out jobs for September.

Using TrustedHousesitters has been straightforward and worked well. It’s a little pricier than other websites, charging £99 a year for a basic sitter membership, but features lots of UK jobs.

The basic sitter membership includes a “vet advice line”, which connects you to a veterinary nurse, while petsitting. You can also cancel individual housesits at any stage without repercussions.

Homeowners get home and contents protection included with the £129 standard owner package. This indirectly protects the sitter against accidental damage since the homeowner’s items are covered.

The worst damage I’ve experienced was when Bean, the youngest of the labrador crew, raced me to the postman and won, soaking a letter with drool. But it’s reassuring to know that the properties I am in are protected against more serious incidents.

The downside to a basic membership is that you don’t receive cancellation insurance, or accident and third-party liability insurance. This means that you aren’t protected if the homeowner cancels at the last minute, or if something goes wrong while you’re handling the pets.

Bearded dragon
You can even petsit for reptiles such as bearded dragons. Photograph: Jorge Torres/EPA

I keep a rainy-day fund: a savings buffer so I can book a cheap hostel should a housesit fall through. I also inquire whether owners insure their pets, and check past reviews for signs of recurring problems.

Still, it may be wise to buy the standard sitter membership for £129, which includes accident and third-party liability protection. Or, the premium sitter membership for additional cancellation insurance at £199. Even £199 is a drop in the ocean compared with a year’s rent.

As well as saving me money, there’s a unique sort of enrichment that comes from cleaning cat litter, spotting deer on sunrise dog walks, and managing the excitement of feeding times.

You can sit for cats and dogs, reptiles such as bearded dragons, or even horses or sheep for the more country-inclined sitter. As an animal lover, housesitting enables me to indulge all my Dr Dolittle aspirations.

Am I glad I swapped my share house for housesitting? Absolutely. In what world could most students rent an entire house in London, let alone stay in one for free?

House-sitting has eased the financial pressure on me, and provided me with privacy to study – alongside cute housemates. As I previously spent a couple of years backpacking, I am comfortable with living out of a suitcase, although this is a factor to consider for those who haven’t tried it before.

One other drawback might be that you won’t be able to invite friends to where you’re staying, unless you’ve cleared it with the owners beforehand.

There might be the occasional cancellation hiccup, or a few nights in a hostel if housesitting work dries up. However, resilience, risk management and problem-solving are all beneficial skills to develop. A challenge or an empty bank account? I’ll vote for a challenge every time.

Other petsitting sites

Cat in a Flat
Sitter registration fee: Free
Sitter compensation: Sitters are paid and can choose their rates.

Mindahome
Sitter registration fee: £15
Sitter compensation: Sitters are unpaid but receive free accommodation.

Pawshake
Sitter registration fee: Free
Sitter compensation: Sitters are paid and choose their rates.

House Sitters UK
Sitter registration fee: £29
Sitter compensation: Sitters receive free accommodation and can choose whether to charge.