The Importance of Being Earnest

Tim posted recently about our house sit in Bingley, Yorkshire, detailing some of the sights, adventures and challenges that confronted us. I welcome you to read those for yourself rather than my repeating them here.

Yorkshire is stunning, to be sure. There is an a untamed wildness about its natural surroundings which are awesome, rugged, and humbling. The colours and the elevation are ever-astounding. Our drives to small towns within an hour of our sit were defined by narrow and harrowing roads, sheer cliffs, and vast sprays of purple heather (or heath?) over the moors. One imagines that, in the winter, this would be a very desolate, isolating place, for which one must be well prepared.

Sprays of heather turn the Moors’ landscape into lovely lavender

That’s well and good. What you know if you’ve read Tim’s post is that we departed this sit early, the the first and only time across 13 sits so far where we could not resolve difficult circumstances. While we came to mutual agreement with the owner, and ensured that contingency care was in place for the home and pets, we never had the opportunity of an ‘exit’ conversation. I wish we had: There was a good learning opportunity available for both sides were there a robust post-mortem. Certainly one does this in the course of business, projects, and events, and a house sit in theory should be no different. What worked? What didn’t? What can we do differently next time to improve outcomes? Alas, that owner quietly unfriended us on Facebook and deleted us from Skype, so that seemed a pretty final opinion on the matter.

It’s unfortunate, because I understand this was the owner’s first experience with house sitters, and I sense she may be closed to trying it again. It’s a shame, because the situation can work well, but the ‘matchmaking’ part is crucial.

We had emailed with the owner, and had a Skype call a few months prior to the start of the sit. The call connection was poor, so we weren’t able to see much of the home or pets, but we thought she was lovely (and indeed, she was; this is by no means intended as a character assassination). We agreed in principle to the sit and continued corresponding by email.

Not asking for photographs of the home was a mistake on our part; none were appended to the house sitting ad that we’d answered. We aren’t here to judge the taste, decor, or lifestyle choices of the people we sit for, and aren’t interested to. However, if we had seen that the place was quite dark, both in its available natural light and in its decoration, we may have thought seriously about whether it suited us. On arriving, we were given a tour, during which time the homeowner professed (jokingly?) to hoarding, and said that she didn’t believe in cleaning the oven. Would that we had known! In my myriad travels I have studied cooking, worked in restaurants, and written a food safety manual for a public catering operation, and I was not okay about using this oven (nor the cookery stored in it) in its presented state. We chose to enjoy stove top cooking and salads during our stay.

That said, there was no space made available for us to properly unpack our bags, save for a small dresser in the dormer room. This may sound picky, but a bit of closet space and a few free hangers go a long way when spending five weeks in a place. It was hard to settle in, feeling as if we were expected to exist amid and around someone else’s personal items.

A little bit of space in the closet can help a house sitter feel at home.

All of these are smaller things, and independently of other challenges these could have been dealt with. Bigger challenges presented themselves fairly quickly, though. For one, we didn’t know about the extension being added to the neighboring semi-detached, which had well and obviously been underway for a while. It would seem absurd to ask every each homeowner, by default, whether major construction works were a consideration of the sit. The construction noise was constant and plentiful; had we been informed in advance we’d have taken pause for thought. Could we handle the banging of hammers and whine of drills all day long? We had advised that we were both working from home at this time, so a peaceful atmosphere in which to think was of some importance.

We were attracted by the opportunity to hop on the nearby train to Leeds, but on arrival the owner presented us with a contract that had never been raised before. Personally, I felt on the spot. I could refuse to sign, but if that meant leaving, where would we go for five weeks? Owners frequently ask us about contracts, and we answer this question honestly and openly (we are generally happy to sign something, but in reality it wouldn’t likely be enforced; we feel it better to discuss all concerns openly and honestly, and maintain strong, open communication throughout). In this case, we’d been in discussion for months. It would have been appropriate and courteous to send us the contract for our consideration beforehand, so we could negotiate any concerns, or at least not feel taken by surprise.

So here we were, on the spot with a contract that asked us not to leave the dog for more than four hours at a time. So much for Leeds: by the time we’d arrived there, we’d be near to flagging the train to go back.

Okay, so we’d stick around town, maybe do a few drives, and hang out with the dog (there was also a cat, but it tended to stay away; if the came in through the cat flap, the dog would then chase her back out of it. We were asked to stop the dog from doing this, but the stress of scolding a dog who is bred to chase furry animals down small holes for doing what’s instinctive to it became quite stressful. The cat, however, started to come around more often once we got into a habit of putting the dog behind a closed door for bedtime).

A more successful dog-walking excursion

This cute-looking terrier, unfortunately, was a lot to handle. We had little success walking her near the house, as she stubbornly and insistently would sniff at – quite literally – every crack in the sidewalk. I’d give her leash a little tug to signify that we’re moving forward, but she would pull back on it, giving passers-by the impression that I might be strangling her. I was conscientious of this, and was certainly careful not to hurt the dog, but it got very frustrating progressing two feet in 10 minutes when the park is a 15-minute walk away at a normal clip. Tim was able to take her in the car, but this left him with all the doggie duties, as I can’t drive on the UK side of the road. This also frequently left me alone at home and feeling depressed. It was only after the dog’s owner landed on the other side of the world that she admitted not having properly trained her as a puppy. This would have been very, very good to know well ahead of time.

We gave this tricky situation our best shot. For sitters of another nature or disposition, it might have been just fine, but for us (and for me especially), we struggled. We’ve learned that we need to ask a few more questions upfront besides the standard, ‘how is your pet’s health?,’ and, ‘do they need special care?,’ but we also trust owners to disclose fully and honestly what the situation will be, including the surrounding environment and the physical and psychological state of the pets and their needs.

I would encourage the owner in Bingley not to give up on house sitters as a concept, but to more fully and clearly present the situation as it is. Present clear and honest instructions in advance about how you’d like your pets cared for: frequency and timing of walks, special dietary plans, remedial behviour considerations, and any other potentially sticky areas. Presenting things in writing helps both parties to clarify and recall what was discussed. One is then more likely to find a sitter well-suited to the needs of that situation, and it allows sitters to more accurately assess whether the sit suits their needs and abilities.

Strong, open and honest communication is the backbone of a successful sit, from the first point of contact. We’re pleased to have become friends with some of the individuals we’ve sat for, and are grateful for both those relationships and the kind referrals sent to us. We’ve also learned tremendously along the way. Despite the challenges, focusing on the learning and the silver linings helps us to do better every time.



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