Washington - In the past four years, Toni and Peter Farmer have visited France, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Switzerland and Australia, as well as a number of cities in the US.
For the most part, they haven't paid a dime for accommodation. That's because the two decided, in their retirement, to become housesitters.
They travel to the home on their own dime, then care for the property - and, often, pets - in exchange for the stay. "It's enabled us to live in places we never dreamed we would get to in our lifetime, just because of the cost, and actually experience living in a culture which is not ours," Peter says.
Travellers can find home stays around the world, while homeowners can use adventurous souls to mind their abode, handle a few chores and watch their pets.
If you're looking for an inexpensive way to travel, and don't mind picking up a few responsibilities in exchange, here's advice shared by the Farmers on how to get - and keep - housesitting gigs.
Let people know you're available to housesit, and give references
Talk to friends and family and post on social media that you're looking for housesitting opportunities. You never know when you'll meet someone who needs a housesitter, says Toni, who has met homeowners on a cruise, through her network, via housesitting sites and by referrals.
She suggests signing up on a few housesitting sites and including referrals from friends and employers, and even a background check from your local police department in your profile.
Schedule a video call with the homeowners before accepting
The Farmers request to talk with prospective clients by video so they can get a visual tour of the house, connect with the owners and make sure there are no surprises. "It's a win-win situation for both of us," Toni says.
Don't be shy - ask a lot of questions
You're going to be living in someone else's house and you're going to be responsible for it. It's important to have some frank discussions upfront so you can establish expectations for both parties and banish assumptions about caring for the house, caring for the pets, communicating with one another and more.
Some questions that the Farmers suggest include: How old are the pets? Are they on any medications? What are their habits and what would constitute odd behaviour? If there are dogs, can they be around other dogs? Can they go to a dog park? How many walks do they require per day? How long can the pets be left alone?
Figure out your own preferences and boundaries
Toni says it's important to decide what you're willing to do and say no to situations that aren't appealing - such as properties with large yards that will require mowing, unkempt homes with multiple animals that will need extra cleaning, rural estates that will require renting a car or a farm stay, if you've never cared for barnyard animals.
"You really have to define what you want to do and what you're capable of doing. We've learned a lot along the way and we're very particular about the animals we take, the type of house we do, whether or not it's worth travelling to that area," she says.
Understand that this isn't a luxury vacation and you may need to make some sacrifices
Sure, mansions need to be looked after, too. Odds are, you're not going to start this out with a mansion. And even if you do, you'll be in the caretaker position. Expect to be in homes that have quirks and may lack some of the luxuries you're accustomed to, like a dishwasher. Or a sharp knife. Or a comfortable chair. "Not everyone has the ideal setup in the kitchen," Toni says. Just remember that it's a trade-off. You're in a beautiful new place and you're not paying for accommodation. A dull knife and a stiff chair may just be the price you have to pay.
Treat the house - and pets - like your own
As with any job, if you prove your merit in housesitting, it could lead to referrals or an invitation to housesit again. Maybe both. Toni and Peter say they're able to keep their schedule full because they put their duties as housesitters first - striving to leave the property in a better state than when they arrived - and the rest is its own reward. "Our priority is always to take care of the animals and the house," says Peter. "It's a bonus that we got to walk on specific beaches."
Living like a local allows you to experience different cities away from the tourist zone, and housesitting gets you as close as possible to local-style living, minus the mortgage or lease. Just be forewarned, Peter says, that once you start, you may not want to quit. When he and Toni began housesitting in 2015, the plan was to travel the world for five years.