‘It makes sense’: the UK homeowners renting out rooms in exchange for babysitting, cleaning or dog-walking

‘It makes sense’: the UK homeowners renting out rooms in exchange for babysitting, cleaning or dog-walking

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When Tom’s* ex-wife and the mother of his then seven-year-old moved to France, he needed help with babysitting. The family once had an au pair but Tom wanted something less formal – so he posted an advert on the flatsharing website SpareRoom. The offer was simple: below-market-rate rent in his house in north London in exchange for some help looking after his daughter. In the space of a morning he had 30 responses.

He is far from alone – many people are willing to offer cheaper or even free accommodation in return for help with all kinds of tasks. This might include anything from dog-sitting to housekeeping and DIY around the house.

One advert said the homeowner was away a lot and had a chocolate labrador that needed someone to be there

Guardian Money analysed adverts on SpareRoom and found 74 live posts offering this type of arrangement.

One advert on the site appealed to “dog lovers”. It said the homeowner was away a lot and had a chocolate labrador that needed someone to be there. The ad said that in return for help, “you’ll get cheap rent and a whole house to yourself for the most part”.

Another was from a mother who lives with her 12-year-old son. She was looking for help around the house in exchange for £300 a month in rent, including bills. The ad read: “I am offering a room in my home for a housekeeping position … The person will be required to do cleaning, food preparation and some cooking.”

All these posts appear amid a cost of living crisis, and at a time when the price of household repairs, dog care and lots of other services has shot up.

Meanwhile, the average cost of renting a room in the UK has risen to more than £700 a month for the first time, according to the latest SpareRoom data. Renting a house is equally costly. A few days ago, the property website Rightmove revealed that the typical advertised private rent outside London has risen to a new record of £1,231 a month, while the equivalent figure in the capital is £2,567.

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Tom has been offering low rent in exchange for babysitting and childcare for the last two and a half years, and two women, both in their mid-20s, have stayed as tenants in that time. When his ex-wife moved to France, he says he realised he had to do something.

“I had not heard of anyone doing [this type of arrangement] but figured it might be possible,” he says. His advert promoted a double room in a terrace house with a big living room and kitchen and a garden for £500. He says he was looking for a babysitter for one to two nights a week. Rents for a room in his area are typically about £1,200 a month, excluding bills.

View image in fullscreenSome homeowners are offering low rent on rooms in exchange for help with babysitting. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Joeli Brearley, a campaigner at the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, says these adverts are a "symptom of an unaffordable childcare system, soaring interest rates, rental prices at a record high, and Brexit – which means it is now almost impossible to get an au pair”.

She says: “Parents of young children are trapped – they need to work to pay for their housing but they can’t afford to work because of childcare costs. It’s an impossible situation.”

Brearley thinks these ads are unlikely to have broad appeal because British nationals, unlike au pairs, “gain no cultural benefit from using a room in another British national’s house”. She adds: “This shows how desperate parents have become – they are trying everything and anything to make the numbers stack up.”

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Tom says there are two main advantages for his family in this arrangement. “My daughter gets to now have people living here, and we pick who that is together. With babysitters before, my daughter used to dislike it but when we had someone living in here, she could not wait for me to go out.”

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Tom adds that he used to feel guilty about going out and spending a lot of money on a babysitter. “I would think: ‘Is this night worth it? Is it good enough?’”

His advert was popular. “I was very specific in the advert that I wanted a female to look after my daughter … I also wanted them to be a student or first-time worker. I wanted them to be younger – someone my daughter could relate to.” He says that of the 30 responses, about 20 were appropriate, so he took down the ad and interviewed two or three people via Zoom. “One ended up accepting it and then ghosting me but the second person we selected stayed for a year,” he says.

“It suits people who do not have a hugely active social life, as I like to go out some weekends. The first girl we had moved up from Somerset, so she did not have much of a social life, but after 10 months she did, and that got trickier.”

Tom does not put in place a contract or deposit fee, and he does not do DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) or other checks. There are also no formal arrangements on what specific days need to be worked. “It’s informal – some months I may be out more than others,” he says. He adds that how well it works depends on how much the person is integrated into the house. “We would arrange a schedule about a month in advance. They are very much part of the household.”

When he first posted the advert, he worried that people might think it was exploitative. He read articles about people offering low rent to people for “sleazy things”. But he has not had a negative response from friends or those who have stayed.

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View image in fullscreenHave you considered renting out a room in exchange for help around the house? Photograph: matthewleesdixon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“If you have two parents, then maybe you do not need this, it doesn’t make sense – but, for me and the flexibility I need, it makes sense. There must be lots of people in my position. Would I recommend it? Yes, I did recommend it to a friend of mine who is also a single parent of a daughter who is five or six. He is struggling as work picks up to find a good babysitter where he lives.”

Tom thinks whether this works depends on the type of person you are. “Some may be scared to do this without checks … But I am not. I trust people and the process put in place for picking someone.”

He says that in a way it is like “someone pays you money to babysit a child” because of the fact he receives monthly rental payments.

Portia Msimang, a project coordinator at Renters’ Rights London, says there is an “unfettered market in rents, while state benefit levels and the wages of lower-paid workers have been suppressed for years”.

She adds: “Of course people are desperate, so taking up such an offer might well be understood as a rational choice. The really shameful part is how readily the comfortable middle classes will exploit desperation.”

Matt Hutchinson, a SpareRoom director, says it has not noted an increase in these kinds of ads in recent months. “All our ads are monitored – if we feel an ad is inappropriate, we’ll take it down and contact the user to explain why. For example, we wouldn’t allow ads asking for more than 15 hours a week of support.”

* Tom is a pseudonym

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