The glowing house on the mountain drive in Breckenridge was surrounded by darkness. In a world of empty second homes and snow-covered drives, this bright pocket of plowed pavement was a rare sight. The homeowner had entrusted her place to two complete strangers during her two-week vacation, so that her two labs Rufus and Gracie would be looked after in the comfort of their own home.
Andy Peck, founder of TrustedHousesitters.com, along with Rachel Martin, public relations and strategic development manager, were happy to travel to Colorado from England to look after the dogs for free, all because they had a home to stay in at no cost to them. Peck began this service for homeowners and travelers alike three years ago.
The website allows homeowners to find a sitter for their homes and pets, almost like setting up an online dating profile to find a match. What makes this website different, however, is no money typically exchanges hands. Homeowners find people to look after homes and pets free of charge, in exchange for a place to stay.
“Travel, pet care is expensive,” Peck said. “The cost of kennels, plus someone to clean your driveway, that’s a lot. This is nothing. It’s the most cost-effective ‘stay-cation’ you could have.”
Homeowners can join for $29 for one month, with other increments up to $79 for a year. For sitters, prices are the same but start at three months for $49. There is also a combined option, if the homeowner also wants the option to house-sit someplace else.
Peck is quick to point out this isn’t like the movie “The Holiday”: there’s no swapping requirement, no matching travel times or the size of the house. It works independently, though some homeowners do choose to sit as well.
“It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, people go away,” he said. “They have pets, they have family vacations, they have commitments elsewhere. That’s where we come in.”
Martin said she is unable to have pets in her small apartment in England, and so she enjoys the pet-sitting aspect of the job.
“I can get my fix by doing this,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out because I can hang out with some really good friends along the way.”
Duties don’t just include looking after pets, however. Plants, gardening, pool maintenance and other in-home care is often required. Peck said he has real estate agents who look for sitters to help bring warmth to an empty house they are trying to sell, and second-home owners who will ask for a sitter for months at a time, so that when they come home everything is already working.
“Time is precious to everyone these days,” Peck said. “You don’t want to spend three days to do maintenance, worry about frozen pipes, if you’re only here to ski for five days. It’s like a valet, someone who is there so that when you come back for Thanksgiving, the place is clean and everything is warm and working.”
The website currently has homeowners offering up stays in 55 countries. The Colorado market is one of the fastest growing locations on Trusted Housesitters, especially in Summit County and Colorado Springs. Peck estimated there are also 30 to 40 registered house sitters in the area as well. Of course, sitters can work locally, but he said most look for travel opportunities to other places.
Trusted Housesitters recently won the 2013 Good Web Guide Award for People’s Choice Website of the Year, and Social/Community Website of the Year. Peck said 97 percent of the homeowners who use the site have successfully found sitters.
Homeowners create listings with the time they will be away and the number of pets, and every day, new listings are sent out to registered sitters who have indicated interest in the area — country, state or even city. Owners can browse sitter profiles as well, searching by age, location and availability. House sitters range from retirees looking for affordable travel and vacations to people who sit full time in one location. Many families also house-sit because it’s more effective than finding a hotel room fit for children.
“You get to live like a local,” Martin said. “I would have a very different experience staying in a hotel. They get to immerse themselves in the community and local culture.”
Peck said the cost of joining the website is a natural deterrent for people who might be looking to take advantage of an empty, sometimes wealthy, home. Most importantly, he said, background checks are available and of course, if there ever were an issue, the owner would have all of the sitter’s information to be able to go to the police.
“We’ve never had any issues, because people choose people,” Peck said. “It’s like interviewing for a job or choosing a groomer, people entrust professionals all the time.”
The average posting on the site might get 10 to 20 responses, and from there, the homeowner is able to communicate securely through the site with potential sitters. Martin said many sitters go beyond just the basic duties, getting groceries such as milk, cheese and bread before the owner returns, laying out fresh flowers or even cooking dinner.
Some people do charge for the services, but Peck estimates 95 percent do not, because the philosophy of the site strikes such a cord with people, especially when it comes to taking care of animals.
“Pets get less stressed if they’re in their own environment,” Martin said. “If they can stick to the routine they’re used to as well, they are much happier at home.”
About 23 percent of people signing up have come through word-of-mouth, Martin said. For her, this collaborative consumption is a main reason why Trusted Housesitters has shown such growth and success.
“Trading skills or exchanging things other than money, it works really well, and harkens back to a bygone era,” she said.
During their stay in Breckenridge, Peck and Martin actually noticed yellow lab Gracie was developing an ear infection, and were able to take her to vet before the homeowner returned. Peck said most homeowners prepare a packet with the pets’ routine, including veterinarian and emergency numbers — almost like babysitting.
For him, the biggest benefit of the website is that pets get to stay at home with a responsible caretaker there until the owner returns.
“It’s a very altruistic thing because it gives the homeowners peace of mind but also works brilliantly to deliver a real mutual respect,” he said. “People don’t just want a quick buck from renting out their place. They just like to know their pets are being looked after.”
Martin said the peer-to-peer marketplace yields satisfied parties on both ends of the exchanges, because people are able to come together to help each other out.
“Homeowners are getting their home and pets cared for free of charge, and the house sitter is getting a free retreat,” Martin said. “It works out beautifully. People are really keen to help each other out.”
For more information visit www.trustedhousesitters.com. Homeowners can enter the promo code “summitdailynews” for a free six-month subscription.