Housesitting: Our 3-Year, Rent-Free European Tour

Helsinki Finland
Helsinki tops Todra and Paul’s lists of favorite places. |©iStock/scanrail

"As housesitters, we stayed in areas the tourists don’t know about… and learned all the secret places the locals go," says Todra Payne.

For three-plus years, Todra and her now-husband Paul Emberger enjoyed exploring Europe as full-time housesitters. Their adventures began in early 2018, after the LA couple experienced coincidental job losses. When their work dried up, Todra said, "Why don’t we do what we really love: traveling?"

They’d been housesitting domestically for years, so they gave up their tiny studio apartment to try international housesitting. They’d been considering moving out of the US, and housesitting would let them explore areas to settle down in. Once they made their decision to take the leap, Paul and Todra sold 90% of their belongings and stuffed the rest in their car.

After scouring several different house-sitting sites (which Paul says is essential to make full-time housesitting viable), Todra found their first opportunity abroad in Helsinki, Finland. "We simply had to live the homeowner’s life for six weeks," Paul explains. "We’d take care of her kitty and maintain a presence in her apartment."

They were in the Hermanni neighborhood, just a short bike ride from Vanhankaupunginselkä, a park composed of forests and a large marshy bay full of walking paths and secluded areas to sunbathe or birdwatch. During the summer’s long days, everyone enjoys the sunshine there late into the night. "It’s not uncommon to have dinner at 9 p.m. at a waterside restaurant, then wander around Esplanade Park not realizing it’s past 11 p.m.," Paul says.

We lived in beautiful homes in sought-after areas.

Summers are short, and in winter, Helsinki is cold. Buildings are built with thick walls. As a result, homes are kept warm but—even better—it’s quiet. You don’t hear the neighbor’s TV, their kids, or the dog barking outside. "You hear nothing, even if you live in an apartment," says Paul.

Even the people in Helsinki are quiet. Paul continues: "For two noise-sensitive people, these things add up to a way of living that I have never found in the US."

Well before their six-week stay in Helsinki was up, Paul and Todra decided they would keep housesitting around Europe. Sometimes they would split up to take overlapping housesits. After Helsinki, Todra went to Valencia, Spain, for a month, while Paul went to Prague and the Netherlands. They met back up in a home outside of London, a place they returned to five or six times during their multi-year adventure. They became friends with the homeowners.

Todra adored London for its cultural diversity, the food, and the shopping, while Paul fell in love with Istanbul. "Walking through the grand bazaar in Istanbul, I was enveloped by the smells of the spices piled three feet high, the freshly baked baklava, the coffee beans, and the hot tea. Food is everywhere—there are windows and stands selling treats in all the colors of the rainbow—plus rug vendors, clothing stores, and more. It’s alive with an energy you don’t experience in the States."

Todra and Paul also stayed in three different places in southern France: an Airbnb in Bordeaux, a tastefully-renovated home near Toulouse, and a farming village called Monet with an ancient city center.

During their three years roaming Europe, Todra and Paul enjoyed a rich lifestyle for a remarkably low cost. Paul and Todra’s 325-square-foot, rent-controlled apartment in LA had cost them $1,050 monthly. As housesitters, though, their lodging was free, and they almost never paid for utilities. "We were able to live in large, beautiful homes in some of the most sought-after areas," says Todra. "We sometimes had housekeepers and gardeners on loan while we were in the homes."

They’re not paid for their services, but they usually get to enjoy all or most of the amenities that come with the home, such as club memberships, use of the pool (if one comes with the house), fresh produce from the gardens or orchards, and more. Homeowners often stocked their fridges with the kinds of foods Todra and Paul like, and occasionally they’ve been permitted to drink a few bottles from a homeowner’s wine cellar.

The modest income they made from teaching English via online video went a long way, especially since the cost of living in most of the countries they visited was considerably lower than in the US. Healthcare was also much more affordable. Paul saw a private doctor in London and paid $65, which included a diagnostic test and a prescription. In rural Albania, a local doctor stitched Todra’s finger and wrote her a prescription, but waved off Todra’s attempts to pay her (though she accepted Todra’s "tip"). The antibiotic cost only $2.

Of all the places they lived as housesitters—including the UK, Portugal, Turkey, Sweden, Spain, Prague, Netherlands, Croatia, and Montenegro—their favorites are Helsinki and southern France.

Helsinki tops both of their lists of favorite places because they "loved the quiet nature of this book-loving culture. There is so much trust and a general sense of peace and acceptance here. If it weren’t for the cold and reduced daylight in the winter, we could easily call this city home," explains Paul. Southern France, on the other hand, has a much milder climate. Plus, Paul and Todra love the people, the food, and the beauty of the area. "It’s like a painting," says Todra.

Paul and Todra are back in the US—where they recently tied the knot—for now, and they’re planning for the day when they can relocate permanently. Their new goal: to settle down in the storybook countryside of Southern France.