Dream Digs, No $ Down
by Emily Lambert, 8/22/2005
This article originally appeared in Forbes Magazine
Thomas Cooper, 49, spent nine long years as a sales representative - eight of those spent servicing 7-Eleven convenience stores and other shops in and around Detroit. But traffic, competition and lazy store personnel got to him, and 12 years ago he made a change. In Cooper's last job he drew a salary to live in a 7,800-square-foot house on 40 acres in semi-rural Iowa. The job: caretaking.
If you are burned out on corporate life, here's an option: Go live in someone else's dream home. Caretakers and estate managers are stationed at beach homes, hobby farms and historic houses across the world, taking care of properties for on-site or absentee owners. Some caretaking positions are unpaid, glorified house-sitting jobs; others are management-style positions paying $10,000 a month.
But before you quit your job and pack your bags, read on. Caretaking is a job, not a vacation. You may find yourself dealing with difficult, demanding bosses and doing manual work besides. It's not a 9-to-5 position, so you have to be flexible with hours and duties. If that's not enough, making the jump from the corporate world can be difficult.
That said, if you play your cards right, you could end up like one former oil company executive and his wife, who live in a guest cottage on a 3,500-acre Litchfield County, Conn., estate. He takes care of the property, overseeing contractors and vendors, while she is the estate's chef and manages house staff. As estate managers they make $60,000 each, less than his previous $140,000 salary, but all amenities are now paid. At 55, he's glad he turned down a job with BP to try something different. No more office politics or artificial deadlines, and "you can't beat the commute," says the man, who, bound by a confidentiality agreement, requested anonymity.
Forget paper pushing. Caretaking requires real work, from caring for animals to chlorinating pools to mowing lawns. Even in vacation homes, a caretaker can't kick back.
"Most of these vacation homes are very big. Even though the owners may not be there, there are still other things that need to be done, like keeping the house clean. The house gets dusty," says Vincent Minuto, owner of Hampton Domestics. "You never know, you might get a call like, 'Oh, we're coming in for the weekend' or 'My friends are coming down.' "
If the caretaker is left alone to enjoy a vacation home, check the calendar. Shelly Laukitis is looking for someone to care for her Alaskan property, which is surrounded by the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The caretaker will have minimal work to do, leaving plenty of time to pursue his or her interests. The rub: Laukitis needs a caretaker in the winter months. The e-mail she sends prospective applicants refers to "EXTREME weather conditions" that limit travel to the nearest village, population 60.
Then there's the service aspect - the role you play will be dictated by the owner, so interview prospective employers carefully. While someone who works in a cubicle might joke that he or she is a professional servant, Eddie Clark, 48, in Hawaii actually calls himself one and describes his job as "Yes, sir" and "Right away, sir."
After running a computer distribution business, he spent ten years living in the vacation home of an employer who visited about once a month. Clark says service jobs have a way of evolving, as his did ten years ago when his employer made the home his primary residence. Clark stayed on as a full-time domestic employee. His employer is now selling the home, so Clark is looking for another private service position "anywhere in the maritime tropics."
If caretaking still sounds enticing, take a hard look at your résumé. Prospective employers may not be wowed by middle-management skills. Running a division of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia might not interest them as much as your ability to bake and craft the way Martha does. Karen Ryan, president of Estate Staffing by Heartland, says that to help corporate folks find jobs, she has them talk up their domestic skills and any home remodeling projects, garden projects and even large parties they've thrown.
Minuto, owner of Hampton Domestics, says he gets regular calls from people wanting to escape from the office. He can't place them and recommends that they run ads in local newspapers likely to be read by well-to-do home owners, or in trade publications like the Caretaker Gazette. Minuto, who does not use the word "caretaker" and prefers the term "estate manager," doesn't know how many of his callers follow the advice.
It helps to be flexible and start small. Randy D. Mayer, an activity coordinator for the U.S. Army in Germany, is taking short-term jobs and building up a résumé and contacts. In April he spent ten days caring for an empty house in France. He wasn't paid, although the home owner did purchase food for him to eat. In May he spent ten days at a country house in Wales. If he ever decides to become a full-time caretaker, he will have references to show prospective employers.
Several agencies specialize in estate staffing, but most work primarily or exclusively with people who already have experience. For other opportunities, subscribe to the Caretaker Gazette, a newsletter that runs caretaking ads along with a jumble of other opportunities. If you're not ready or qualified for a high-paying caretaking job, you can apply to volunteer on an organic farm in India or run a bed-and-breakfast in Italy. Or, of course, you could stay where you are - and aspire to hire your own caretaker one day.