- Erin McKee is a former mental health nurse from the UK. She quit her job a year after the pandemic began.
- She now travels and lives for free as a house-sitter, looking after the owner’s pets or plants.
- McKee has stayed in the Costa Rican jungle and a musician’s home in LA, which had its own studio.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Erin McKee, a former nurse turned house-sitter. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Our love of travel was something that my boyfriend Solomon and I bonded over when we first started dating. One rainy day when we were staying at a hotel in Ireland, we made a list of countries we’d like to live in. Costa Rica and Mexico were the top two. We booked a trip to Costa Rica, but in March 2020, the pandemic hit and all our travel plans were put on hold.
After living and working in London for 12 years, I was ready to make a change and embrace a slower pace of life. But as I worked as a mental health nurse in the UK, this wasn’t a time for me to walk away.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many unknowns
The city was in lockdown, but because I was part of a crisis team, we needed to meet patients face-to-face.
When I wasn’t at work, I was isolating. Like many other healthcare workers, I became increasingly tired, deflated, and generally burnt out. While this wasn’t an easy decision to make, after a year of working on the frontlines, I decided to leave.
I rented a room in a friend’s apartment so I didn’t have any huge outgoings. I was able to slowly save up, and when COVID-19 restrictions changed and borders started to open up, I decided to make the change that I’d been thinking about for a long time.
My boyfriend had heard of Workaway, a website that lists volunteer jobs across the globe in return for free accommodation
Solomon already worked as a digital nomad finding funding for creatives, but I wasn’t sure what else I’d be good at.
We scrolled through the site and saw that an off-the-grid yoga retreat in Portugal was looking for staff, which sounded perfect. We sent an email to the British couple running the retreat, and by April 2021, we were both living in Portugal tending the garden, learning how to install solar power, and even helping build a tiny house.
We spent the next three months surrounded by nature and eating healthy Mediterranean food. This time away helped me focus on my own wellbeing, which I’d overlooked over the past year. It helped me prioritise good habits and generally take better care of my health.
It was at the yoga retreat we found out about house-sitting
They told us about Trusted Housesitters, where you could live in someone’s home for free in return for looking after their pets or houseplants. As animal lovers, we were immediately hooked by the idea. It seemed to fit perfectly with this new slow-life journey we were taking.
We checked out the site, and we typed in “Costa Rica” when it asked “Where do you want to go?” This would be the start of an 18-month adventure that’d take us from Portugal to Costa Rica, through Mexico, up to Los Angeles, and back to Europe. So far, we’ve stayed in 10 homes in landscapes as varied as the desert of Palm Springs and the jungle of Costa Rica.
Our first house-sit was at a jungle casita in Costa Rica, where we looked after a little rescue dog
It proved to be one of our favorites. Each morning, we would sit on the balcony and drink our coffee as a troupe of monkeys with babies on their backs would swing through the trees that surrounded us. We used to say it looked as if they were commuting.
Living in Palm Springs was also a dream come true, as it gave us the chance to drive out to the Joshua Tree National Park, which had always been on my bucket list. We had two stays in Palm Springs; we looked after three rescue dogs and three elderly guinea pigs in one home and an elderly cat at the other. It was the first time we’d looked after guinea pigs, but as long as we gave them carrots and celery, they were very happy.
We also had the chance to stay in a musician’s home in Los Angeles. The couple was going on tour, and they needed us to house-sit their energetic puppy for two weeks. It was a beautiful cottage decorated in roses, but there was still a rockstar touch. A music studio could be found at the back of the house.
While house-sitting, we fit in with the animal’s routine
Our day now starts about 7 a.m. After a shot of coffee, we’ll take the dogs for a walk. If there are any houseplants to water or housework that’s needed, we’ll do that too. Then we will start work.
As our house-sits can be up to six weeks at a time, we love becoming part of the community and finding local coworking spaces. When I pivoted to becoming a digital nomad, I started copywriting for Solomon’s business, then I booked virtual assistant jobs through Fiverr and Upwork.
In the evening, we might also attend meet-up events where we can network with other entrepreneurs. It’s at events like this where I’ve found new clients, so I’m not as reliant on Fiverr and Upwork. However, we will only be away from the house for just a few hours at a time. We don’t like leaving the animals on their own.
We’ll usually send the owner a daily update about their pet
It all depends on the trip the owners are taking. If they’re visiting a sick family member or working, they might not want to be contacted as frequently, so we always bear that in mind when we do any messaging.
I grew up with pets, so I feel confident about looking after them. For people who are new to house-sitting, I’d recommend they try a few house-sits in their local area first to see if they enjoy it. This is also a good way to start getting references and so owners can see how good you are.
We’ve faced some challenges while traveling and pet-sitting
When we arrived in Lisbon, at our latest house-sit, the owners explained that their dog had an upset stomach. So after keeping an eye on the elderly Portuguese Podengo, we chose to take him to the vet.
He’s now back to his normal self, loving his walks and his treats, but I’m pleased that the vet spoke English. Being able to talk to a vet and ask what’s wrong in a language I know is something I would bear in mind when we do another house-sit.
Traveling full time also has its challenges. Being away from family and friends, constantly starting over in a new place, and often lacking a routine can be a few of the downsides. But I’ve also found it incredibly exciting to discover so many parts of the world. It has also given me more flexibility.
Because we haven’t paid any rent, which can now be around $900 a month for a room in London, I’ve been able to use that money to pay for copywriting courses online, making it easier for me to pivot my career.
One of my biggest surprises was when I joined TikTok
I shared my story about how I left nursing, felt burnt out, and decided to take life at a slower pace and become a house-sitter. The video received more than 10,000 views.
I received lots of comments from people asking how I made the change, so I started posting videos to help answer their queries about house-sitting. It’s also become an unexpected revenue stream, as brands such as Trusted Housesitters and insurance companies have asked if they can sponsor me.
Through house-sitting, we’ve visited lots of places we wouldn’t otherwise have known about
These places aren’t on the normal tourist trails, and I’ve always enjoyed experiencing different cultures. Traveling this way has helped me do that once more.
I’ve also been able to think laterally about how I want to show up in the world and how best I can support others moving forward. I’m now planning to start my own business in the wellness space.