Almost no one owns sharp knives.

Now, this could be a unique characteristic shared only among people who have housesitters. But we’re pretty sure it’s a universal human condition. In our time housesitting we’ve squashed many a tomato that we meant to slice, because the blade of the knife was just as blunt as the spine. We can’t blame anyone; knife sharpening is one of those things you always mean to get around to, but never seem to do.

If you find the idea of a kitchen with dull knives shocking – well, hold on to your hats, because there’s a lot of other “standard” items that many homeowners don’t have.

The Utensil-Free Kitchen

A solid 25% of the people we’ve housesat for do not own coffee makers. Not everyone is into coffee. If you love coffee, make sure you have a coffee apparatus with you (we recommend the Aeropress), or you will be spending lots of money on a coffeemaker or Starbucks. And no matter what the Internet says, a sock does not make a good coffee filter.

On any housesit you will find that there is some vital piece of kitchen equipment missing – but it’s almost never the same one. The most consistent is the coffee maker, but you may have to forego other items you find important, including but not limited to:

  • Potholders/hot pads (do all homeowners have hands of asbestos?)
  • Colander
  • Microwave
  • Toasting apparatus (i.e. neither toaster nor toaster oven)
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Tupperware (or other storage container)
  • Ice trays
  • Frying pan
  • Soup pot
  • Plastic wrap
  • Salad bowl
  • Wine glasses
  • Dishwasher
  • Spatula
  • Cookie sheet
  • Sponge
  • Rubber scraper
  • Whisk
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons

Or you may have to do without all of the above – and more. A fellow housesitter arrived at a sit in a major US city to discover the homeowners did not own any dishes, glasses, silverware or pots and pans. There were only leftover paper plates and plasticware from takeout, as well as many condiment packets.

“On the bright side, these missing elements can stretch your ingenuity,” my partner Mike says. “We now know how to make hummus without the benefit of a blender, a food processor or a mortar and pestle.” (Well, he does. I just watch and admire.)

TV or Not TV?

“What do you mean, they don’t have a TV?!?” my mom asked me in panic as I told her about the home we were sitting in. She finds the idea that people could live without a TV deeply disturbing. If you do, too, you may be in for a surprise on your next sit.

More people are cutting the cord than ever. At least 50% of the people we’ve sat for do not have cable. Many of the people without cable don’t have a TV at all and just stream content on their laptops. Generally speaking, homeowners over 55 are far more likely to have cable than homeowners under 55. But we’ve sat for young Millennials who had the full cable package, and Boomers who were dedicated cord-cutters.

Why WiFi?

What was unexpected, however, was when the cord-cutters we sat for had a data cap. We were shocked both that data caps still existed and that the homeowners we were sitting for had forgotten to mention it. “Well, it’s not a problem so long as you don’t stream anything or download music or TV,” they told us.

None of the housesitting sites do bandwidth tests on a homeowner’s wifi; it’s all self-reported. You may find yourself in a home that listed itself as having “high-speed wifi” that is using a 4G mobile hotspot. On the other hand, you may have a home that lists “basic wifi” and has 50mbps download speeds. It’s really a crapshoot.

Remember, upload speeds are usually a lot slower than download speeds. So if you’re working remotely you should educate yourself about other places you can get on the Internet near your sit such as coffee shops, libraries or co-working spaces.

Some Like It Hot (and Some Sweat When the Heat Is On)

You may think the normal thermostat setting is 68 degrees Fahrenheit / 20 degrees Celsius. Or 72 degrees Fahrenheit / 22 degrees Celsius. But as you housesit you will discover that other people live in an entirely different climate than you do.

We’ve sat for people who preferred interior temperatures of 63F/17C, and people who push their heat up to 78F/25.5C in winter. We’ve sat for people whose air conditioning kicks in once it hits 74F/23C, and for people who don’t turn on the air conditioning until it’s at least 86F/30C. Sometimes it’s a matter of economy. Sometimes people are just acclimated to a different temperature range than you are. Either way, you may need a sweater in the summer – or a swimsuit in the winter.

Do People Really Sit Here?

Everyone’s body is different. We know, because we sat on approximately 600 couches before we found one that fit us perfectly. (Which is, of course, now in storage.) And as we sit on couches apparently designed for the body dimensions of the Toronto Raptors, we recognize that every person has a different idea of what is comfortable.

The couch may be weirdly low. Or so high your feet won’t touch the ground. The bed may be as hard as sleeping on the floor, or so soft that every morning is a kicking, clawing battle against gravity to emerge from bed. The pillows may be too flat. The dining room chairs may be so high that you have to boost yourself to get into them. Or there may be no dining room chairs at all!

Behind Closed Doors

We’ve sat at a surprising number of homes that don’t have any doors that close – or any doors, period. Generally the bathroom door closes, but not always. If the idea of sleeping in a bedroom without a door that closes freaks you out, you’ll want to ask carefully about this one.

Want to clean the toilet? You may find yourself in a home without toilet brushes. Looking to hang your towel? You could be in a home with no towel hooks or rails at all (surprisingly common), which always makes getting out of the shower an exciting challenge.

And you may need to make sure you’re fully clothed when you leave the bathroom. We sat at one home that had no blinds, curtains, or other way to obstruct outsiders that wanted to ogle the interior. The rear of the home was exposed to a main street, while the front of the home was on a popular pedestrian path. Though neither of us is prone to stage fright, being exhibit A in our own 24-hour reality show was a bit more than we’d bargained for.

The Pet Care Regimen is Always Unique

Some people feed their pets in the morning. Or at night. Or both. Or three times a day. Or one spoonful every two hours.

Some pets get kibble. Or raw food. Or canned food. Or all of the above. Maybe it’s supplemented with bread. Or eggs.

The pets may sleep in the bed with you. Or they may sleep in a crate. Or a closet. Or the laundry room.

You may have grown up with cats or dogs and you may think you know how to take care of a cat or a dog. But your routine will be very different from everyone else’s routine. And unless it obviously harms the pet, the owner’s routine must be sacrosanct no matter how odd it may seem.

Ponder This: Maybe You’re The Weird One

The first time I sat for someone with a rice cooker, I actually hugged the rice cooker. Outside of Asia it’s rarely considered an essential item, but it’s been a key part of my kitchen system for at least a decade. It may not be normal, but it’s normal for me.

And that’s the thing about housesitting. When you step into someone else’s home you’re seeing what’s normal for them. You’re getting an intimate view into someone else’s life in a way few other people ever will – and that’s a privilege

You’re probably aware that if you sit in a foreign country you’ll encounter cultural differences (we’ll get to those in another post), but you’ll have just as much culture shock sitting in your own nation. Every family is a culture unto themselves, and your normal is not everyone else’s normal.

That doesn’t mean you can’t help out a little bit. After squashing tomatoes with dull knives at several sits, Mike bought a whetstone. Now, wherever we go, he sharpens their knives (with the owner’s permission, of course). It’s just one little way we can make homeowners’ lives better.