Housesitting and the Creative Life

In the last post, we mentioned that one way we pay our bills to fund our travels and our housesitting lifestyle is by teaching English online. This helps us ensure that we will have a consistent amount of money that we can count on each month. Here, we’ll talk a bit about our other (less consistent!) jobs: writing books.

Both of us are professional writers. Heather has published a number of critically acclaimed YA novels. She has received awards and recognition for her writing, and her most recent novel, Bad Romance, made the 2018 YALSA list of Best Fiction for Young Adults. Zach is excited that his first novel, American Magic, finally has a release date: it is coming from Simon and Schuster in summer, 2019.

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In December, both of us will both appear in an anthology edited by Heather called Dear Heartbreak. The book takes letters from real teens and pairs them with responses from notable YA writers. These writers draw deeply from their own experiences of heartbreak to offer teens their hard-won wisdom…and the hope that there is life after loss.

Long-term housesitting is ideal for the creative spirit. It enables us to travel while also providing a home base to return to—meaning that it satisfies the hunger that we creatives have for new experiences, while offering the stability required to actually produce creative work. It also limits time- and money-consuming distractions by stripping life down to its essence—if it doesn’t fit in your suitcase, it doesn’t get to come along.

We don’t know what the future holds for us on this particular road, or how long we’ll be living this way. We don’t know what kind of writing it will yield, or what inspiration we may draw from the new experiences, people, and places we’re exposed to every day. But, with our pens in hand and our laptops powered up, we are training in openness. Thanks for coming along with us!

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Paying the Bills: Teaching Online

Let’s start with some great news about long-term housesitting: aside from the new places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet, you get the added bonus of significantly reduced monthly bills! Our mind-bogglingly steep New York City rent? Gone. That high speed internet bill? Also gone. Ditto gas, electricity, and even our cell phone bills (replaced by much cheaper top-up SIM cards, the ins and outs of which we’ll cover in another post).

Now, the reality: bills still exist, albeit in a more limited form. For us, there’s travelers’ insurance, student loans, and the storage bill from the Brooklyn U-Haul, of course. Then there are the transportation costs of getting around town, and from one city or country to another. And that doesn’t count food and drink and other incidentals. So, yeah, you’re still going to need to make money. Lucky for all of us, the Internet opens up a lot of doors in that department.

TEACHING ENGLISH ONLINE WITH VIPKID

Hi, it’s “Teacher Zach”! One way that I make steady money to support our housesitting adventure is by teaching for a China-based company called VIPKID. It’s a totally legit enterprise, not a fly-by-night scam of some sort. I’ve worked with them for four months now and taught hundreds of lessons. They pay well, and they pay on time.

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The newer classroom format

HOW VIPKID WORKS

The company uses their own proprietary software to enable you to teach one-on-one lessons with young learners, primarily in China. The students typically range in age from 4 to 14 years old, with most students (in my experience at least) being about 10 or 11. You do not need to speak Chinese; however, you do often need to speak very…slow…exaggerated…English (with accompanying BIG, BROAD GESTURES!). The teacher is responsible for leading a 25-minute lesson in a virtual classroom, where both teacher and student are visible on camera. The lessons are composed of slides that you and the student can write on (an increasing number of the lessons are now more interactive, with drag-and-drop functionality, for example). There is zero planning on your part, but you are required to fill out a quick post-class assessment after each session (which takes me two minutes, tops).

WHAT VIPKID PAYS

Let’s dispense with formalities and talk money. That’s why you’re reading, isn’t it? Depending on your experience and education, and based also on your performance during the application process (i.e.your demo lessons), you can make between $7 and $11 per class. Since classes are 25-minutes long, this makes the hourly starting rate between $14 and $22. Note that these rates are possible only if you teach more than 45 classes in a month (that is, 22.5 hours). This functions as a participation incentive. If you teach fewer classes than that, you’ll have to knock fifty cents to a buck off your hourly rate. I have a Masters and many years of experience, so I make the full $22. Because I teach around 25 hours per week, I take home $2,000 a month, give or take (before taxes). There are various other ways to make additional money (small rewards and other incentives, as well as referrals) which I won’t go into here.

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The older version of the classroom

THE UPSIDE

  • No commute.
  • No planning, no grading.
  • Work from anywhere in your sweatpants (with a nice shirt on top, naturally. I call this hideous combination “the mullet of outfits”: business on top, party on the bottom—and no I’m not posting pics).
  • The kids are usually adorable, precocious, or both.
  • It’s fun! You get to be a playful goofball to your heart’s content. At least until an eight-year-old girl rolls her eyes at you, then you tone it down a notch.
  • The pay isn’t excellent, but if you keep your bills down, it’s decent.
  • (Not to be underestimated when engaged in long-term, foreign housesits) It gives you the opportunity for real connection with others. It’s not mature, adult conversation, perhaps, but it’s something.

THE DOWNSIDE

  • No benefits.
  • It can be exhausting. Trying to hold the attention of a youngster when you’re only a tiny face on their computer screen is a unique skill you kind of have to learn on the job. A bad class is the longest 25-minutes of your life.
  • There are technical issues that emerge on a semi-regular basis—either my internet acts up, or the student’s does, or (rarely) the system is experiencing some weirdness. These glitches can be frustrating.
  • Sounding like a goofy ass to your partner who’s trying to concentrate in the next room.

HOW TO APPLY

If you have at least a Bachelor’s degree, are eligible to work in the USA or Canada, and have one year of teaching experience of any kind (including tutoring, coaching, or mentoring), you can apply to teach for VIPKID. In addition, you’ll need a computer and headset, and high-speed internet. The application process (at least when I went through it) involves two mock lessons which are also interviews, with your interviewers playing the part of the student. They are awkward, because it is strange to talk to an adult like a small child who doesn’t speak English, but lean into the weird and you’ll be fine! Feel free to contact me with more questions about the job or the process, and click the link below to get started.

*Please use my referral code so I can make a bit of money to keep the travels and the helpful blog posts going! My code is: ZACHA0032, and you can go here to get started.*

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5 Things We’ve Learned So Far…

It’s been over six months since we had our first housesit, one of the short résumé builders that we secured in Manhattan to prepare to launch ourselves overseas. We’ve been abroad for nearly two months now, and in that time we’ve added sits in Lyon, France, and the southern English seaside town of Bournemouth. Here, in no particular order, are five things we’ve learned that we wanted to share with any potential sitters out there.

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  1. COFFEE IS A WILD CARD

We both like our coffee strong and frequent. Writing books and teaching high-energy youngsters online takes the kind of fortification that only a ready supply of java can provide. At home, we typically made our joe the popular American way—in a drip machine—but these are much less common abroad. Now, every time we go to a new housesit, we have to adjust to a new caffeine-generating apparatus. No two have been alike! We’ve accustomed ourselves to weak brews from K-cup machines. We’ve had to read instructions online for a handful of different single-serve espresso makers. We’ve dealt with French presses (known in these parts as cafetières) of all shapes and sizes, struggling to get the ratios of coffee-to-water-to-time just right. In one apartment, we even learned the ropes of a microwave-sized grinding/brewing/steaming device that retails for nearly $1000! Look: when it’s first thing in the morning, (almost) no coffee is bad coffee, but when you’re housesitting, be aware that your morning brew is probably not going to be what you’re used to. Then again, if you wanted what you were used to, you could have stayed home…

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  1. USING OTHER PEOPLE’S THINGS CAN BE STRESSFUL

Neither of us were prepared for what it was going to mean to be using other people’s things for extended periods of time, and the weird stress that that entails. Because we want to be good guests (and not get hammered in reviews on housesitting sites!) we find ourselves worrying about things that we normally wouldn’t bat an eye about, treating every object as though it were made of glass (especially the stuff that’s actually made of glass). Sometimes we notice things and grow alarmed: Was that stain already on the rug when we got here? Was there a little tear in that blanket? Was the faucet doing that? Was there a scratch on that pot? And even if it was already there, will the homeowner remember, or will they blame us? It’s enough to make you paranoid! Then there’s the matter of electricity and heating cost. We’re digital nomads who are basically home all day, but most of our homeowners work traditional jobs. Will they be upset when they see their bills inevitably rise? Now, as the weather is getting colder, we’re doing our best to put on that extra sweater and extra pair of socks instead of inching the thermostat ever higher. The stress and responsibility of being caretakers of other people’s things is real.

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  1. PRIVACY NOT GUARANTEED? 

Even though we have a disclaimer in our housesitting agreement about the importance of privacy, and an explicitly stated “no nanny cam” policy, one of our very first housesits had a camera in an upper corner of the dining room that we didn’t see until we had “moved in.” The camera was angled to primarily cover the front door and, presumably, to keep track of the entrances and exits of guests, but it also half-pointed into the main sitting area of the apartment. The fact was, it creeped us the hell out. We weren’t plotting some crime, just living our normal lives—but we don’t like an audience, and the camera’s eye was a presence. After a day or two of speaking in hushed voices and side-eying the lens, Zach unplugged it. We felt better, but it still made us leery about the rest of the sit. Did a visible camera suggest that there were hidden cameras elsewhere? We did a little search and turned up nothing, but the incident just hit home the fact that when you’re in another person’s house, you never really know if Big Brother is watching you. I mean, you’re probably not being recorded (most people do not live in swank apartments in Midtown Manhattan filled with valuable goods, as was the case with this place), but you could be.

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  1. CATS ARE NOT DOGS

I know: sounds obvious, right? But before we began housesitting, our experience of pet ownership was pretty much limited to species of the canine persuasion. Yet, on our very first housesit, we found ourselves in the care of a skin-and-bones feline. Within a few minutes of making his acquaintance, both of us had been hissed at and bit on the finger. Apparently, we’d been petting him wrong? Most of our sits thus far have involved cats, and while there are some wonderful things about them—namely, they demand very little time and attention, and don’t need to be walked—there are also things that take some getting used to. Cleaning a littler box, and continuously sweeping up all the little granules that make it onto the ground around it, can be dusty, stinky, unpleasant chores. It’s also an adjustment learning about the mercurial natures of the animals themselves: they like you, then they’re afraid of you; they come up to you meowing desperately, then run away when you try to pet them; you catch them out of the corner of your eye darting to and fro in silent ninja-mode, and then they vanish so utterly you wonder if you’re seeing things. So basically, one of our biggest lessons has simply been learning what the deal is with these odd little beasts.

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  1. WONDERFUL SURPRISES AWAIT

One of the joys of housesitting is the little side perks that you could never have really anticipated or expected. Each of our sits has included a little something that was not listed in the ad and was not communicated by the homeowner, but nonetheless was a serendipitous surprise that added something special to the sit, and by extension, to our lives. On an early New York City sit, it turned out that the homeowner worked for a company that distributed scotch, and she had plenty of top shelf stuff lying around that she said we could help ourselves to. Bonus! On another sit, we discovered that we’d be sleeping in a gigantic bed that was so comfortable it was like the angels had knit it out of clouds. Bonus! We arrived at our apartment in Lyon only to find that it was located in a neighborhood perched atop a large hill, with breathtaking views for many miles in all directions – and the homeowner possessed a terrific CD collection of French music with a great sound system. Double bonus! And it was only after a few weeks in our current place in the UK that we discovered the large nature reserve that sits less than ten minutes’ walk away, an area of beautiful trees, heather, and various scrubby bushes and wildflowers that makes for a great afternoon stroll. We had no idea any of these things would be around, but like travel itself, housesitting provides plenty of opportunities for surprise and delight.

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