Like a lot of young people, Ben Harris wants to travel the globe. Unlike most of them, Harris, 26, is doing it full-time. He has been to 39 countries over the past year and a half – all while working and even saving money.
Harris and his boyfriend, 28-year-old Mariano Rebattini Capurro, have spent the last 18 months traveling the world, stopping everywhere from Sydney, Australia, to Seoul, South Korea. It might sound like one long, expensive vacation, but the pair has an unusual strategy to make their globe-trotting affordable.
They're part of a new iteration of the sharing economy: an online community of house sitters, where, with diligence and a little luck, they have become a top-rated couple on the website TrustedHouseSitters. Throughout their no-cost stays in strangers' vacant homes, which last anywhere from a few days to a month, the couple watches dogs, feeds cats and waters plants in the homeowner's absence.
It’s not all sightseeing. The two travelers, who both work remotely, meticulously plan their trips, scheduling their days around sometimes finicky pets. But house sitting also offers a level of comfort Harris says they can’t find in a hotel. “It’s like staying at a friend’s house that’s just as comfortable as yours,” he says.
While the pair takes the practice to an extreme, its popularity has been growing. An assortment of sites, like MindMyHouse, House Carers and TrustedHouseSitters, that cater to house sitters have popped up in recent years. Since TrustedHouseSitters began in 2010, it has attracted more than 30,000 registered house sitters and more than 1,500 active listings.
Learning the ropes
Harris was born in Richmond, Va., but grew up in Georgia, where he attended college. After graduating with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese, Harris moved to Argentina for a job, which is where he met Rebattini Capurro.
The pair left their Buenos Aires apartment at the end of 2016 and backpacked for six months, staying in Airbnbs and hostels throughout the Americas. Come summertime, the two were planning a trip to New York City when they hit a snag.
The problem was housing. Not only were options like Airbnbs and hostels expensive, but neither provided the kind of work space Harris and Rebattini Capurro needed to concentrate on their remote work.
Without much knowledge about house sitting beyond what they learned from travel blogs, the couple applied for their first gig in New York City. One Skype interview later, and they were approved for their first sit, a month in a three-bedroom East Harlem apartment caring for a golden retriever and watering plants.
"We looked at each other like it was too good to be true," Harris says, "but we bought the tickets anyway."
From there, the pair embarked on a tour of the world, house sitting in Montréal, Milan, Brussels, London, Zürich and Cairo over the next three months. As of June 1, the pair has watched 23 houses in 16 countries, while also taking side trips to more than a dozen other nations.
There have been moments of uncertainty. On the way to his third house sit, Harris was approaching the train station Milan when it hit him: "What the hell am I doing?" he thought. “I just flew halfway across the world so I can take care of a cat.”
The feeling was gone by the time Harris arrived at the house sit, but it occasionally comes back when the couple starts off for a new destination.
"It's an exciting thing," Harris says. "You never know what it's going to be like."
How it works
Of course, scoring a house sitting gig isn't quite as easy as booking a hotel room.
"Mariano makes fun of me because when we figure out where we would like to go next, I incessantly check the listings just in case something comes up," Harris says. It's obsessive, he adds. But since staying staying in alluring locales for free is an attractive proposition, homes in sought-after areas are highly competitive.
"Almost any property in Manhattan or Brooklyn can easily receive 50 applicants within a one or two-day period," Harris says. It's unusual for a home in an in-demand destination, like Tokyo or Reykjavik, to accrue less than 25 applicants in a day, he adds. To stand out from the crowd, the couple include a video introduction on their TrustedHouseSitters profile and writes every application from scratch. The pair has a high success rate, Harris says, because they only apply to homes for which they feel they would be a good fit. After they are approved, they often correspond with homeowners in the run up to the sit.
While other travelers might plan their trips around sights they want to see, Harris's house sitting schedule revolves around the pets in his care. That means everything from waking up at 6 a.m. to take the dog on a morning walk to making sure the cat gets fed at same time each day.
Harris and his boyfriend also carve out time for their day jobs. Both work remotely for an online language instruction company, earning about $23,000 a year between them. They also freelance as translators, which brings in an extra $400 to $1,200 per month.
With a $2,000-a-month budget that includes travel, food and visits to local sites, Harris says he has saved about $2,000 over the past year.
Despite their discipline, the pair does occasionally spend more than they plan, such as a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, where a decision to stay in a hotel and several Airbnbs, along with some extra travel, blew out their budget. And some extra costs -- like thrifting for climate-appropriate clothing or medical bills -- have caught them by surprise. A health scare sent Harris to the doctor's office in Malaysia, but, he adds, the cost was low compared to the same treatment in the U.S.
End of the road
While scoring the most desirable houses isn't easy, Harris says the best thing an aspiring sitter can do is to not just meet, but exceed, homeowners' expectations.
"Go the extra mile, especially when you're new and have no reviews," Harris says. For him, that means sending plenty of pictures of happy pets, keeping the house clean and leaving a thoughtful touch -- a note, flowers or a nice small gift -- before heading to the next house.
"Every step of the way, you want to reassure the homeowner that they made the right decision," he adds.
Now back in the U.S., Harris says he has come to appreciate some of the benefits of staying in one place. He misses having a social life, he says, while Rebattini Capurro wants to pursue higher education in the fall. The pair may settle down after the summer, but it will be with a new understanding of the world.
"It's made the world feel a little smaller," Harris says.