If a showing of newer or younger foreign faces seems evident around Lake Chapala, it may be due to the growth of a novel way to travel while living more like a local than a tourist.
“Lakeside is becoming a hub for international housesitting,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, who in November published a book, “How to Become a Housesitter – Insider Tips from the Housesit Diva.”
Hayes-Raitt calls Santa Monica, California, her home base. Yet she has spent several months every year for the last nine years house- and pet-sitting for one Ajijic homeowner (and a large pit-lab named Cha Cha), and most of the rest of her time sitting in other far flung spots. Hayes-Raitt uses the income from writing and renting her California home to facilitate her full time housesitting. (She house sits for free but pays her own travel and living expenses.) When she returns to Santa Monica, she sometimes must even housesit there if her own home is fully rented.
Her book has been selling well, she said, and getting attention in such publications as the Globe and Mail, USA Today, Newsday, Forbes and Prevention.
“It has sold to more than just my little cadre of lakeside writers,” she said, referring to fellow members of local writers groups. “I get buyers who pay in euros and pounds.” But Hayes-Raitt credits the support she has received over the years from writers here, as well as the stability from her long gig at lakeside, as very instrumental in helping her write and publish the book.
Meanwhile – and perhaps coincidental to her book, perhaps not – the Lake Chapala area, she said, has become a magnet for housesitters.
“It’s my understanding that Ajijic is the largest expat community in the world,” she said. “It’s different from San Miguel de Allende, for example, because there are so many more expats here. And many of these expats need to go home for a while.” This creates a strong need for reliable people to care for the homes and, significantly, for the pets who stay there.
“Housesitting has been on a trajectory the last three or four years and there’s been a big upswing in basic knowledge that housesitting exists. Nine years ago, very few homeowners realized they could get someone to stay at their house for free. And now there are so many really good housesitters who don’t charge.”
Hayes-Raitt adds that recent developments have accelerated the popularity of housesitting among people offering their services – people who like to travel. One is the mushrooming of sophisticated Web sites for bringing housesitters and homeowners together.
“Now there are about 50 platforms where homeowners state their needs and sitters put up their profiles,” she pointed out, adding that the platforms charge an annual fee, but that sitters live for free, in exchange for their duties, and that this is much cheaper than staying in hotels.
“I like TrustedHousesitters.com and Nomador.com, which is mostly in France, and bilingual. There are platforms for vegans and Christians too.
“Specifically for Mexico, there’s HouseSitMexico.com, which covers the whole country. I got my current sit in Ajijic through them,” she pointed out.
Alexandra Gordon, who geared up that site with all its bells and whistles 1 1/2 years ago, agreed with Hayes-Raitt that housesitting at lakeside seems to enjoy an exalted position.
“HouseSitMexico has filled over 300 housesitting assignments” on her watch and “nearly half of them have been in the Lake Chapala area,” she explained, although she noted that housesitting at lakeside has always been popular and that paid sitters have long been established in the area.
As for the benefits to housesitters, Hayes-Raitt is effusive. “In Africa, I housesat in Senegal, Malawi and Mozambique; in Asia I’ve stayed in Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and China; and in Europe, I housesat in England, the Netherlands, Germany and Gibraltar.
“There have been many repeats. I’ve become friends with many homeowners. And I’ve bonded with their pets – the first time I left Cha Cha, I sobbed. It’s a joy to be asked back to see those pets.
“I housesit full time because I love to travel and see the world,” she added. “But people often housesit at Lake Chapala as a way to check out the area and decide if they want to live here. You get a much more realistic idea about lakeside from housesitting than from staying in a hotel, and think of all the money you’re saving.
“A lot of people just do it for vacations. I know a couple in London who visit their kids in Australia – and when they do, they housesit there so they don’t crowd their kids.
“I think housesitting has grown partly because of better communications,” she explained. “I can be anywhere in the world and still call Mom. And I can do online banking more securely by housesitting,” she said, pointing out that banking from a home’s Internet is more secure than by hotel Wifi.
“All the housesitting sites charge,” she summed up. (One, www.HouseSitSearch performs a free meta-search of various sites and lays out the housesit opportunities at the moment in your area of interest, and you can then join a specific platform and apply for the housesit, she noted.)
“But for me the experience of housesitting is priceless. For example, I sat in a village in China where mine was the only non-Asian face I saw in a week. To have that kind of experience is priceless.”