Five years ago Sue Prince had a Christmas she would rather forget — her mother had just died and her house had been repossessed by the bank.
The house, which she shared with her husband Kevin, had been mortgaged for a loan for their son’s business, which had just gone bust.
“That was the day I had sunglasses on and was crying [from] too many losses,” she recalled.
“We had to sell our home to pay back the loan and then, we just bought a caravan not knowing what we were going to do.”
With their possessions in storage and the caravan parked out the front of her daughter-in-law’s parents’ house, Ms Prince started searching for options.
“I was just scrolling through the internet on my phone and I discovered house-sitting,” she said.
Life has changed dramatically since that day.
Five years on, Ms Prince is staring at the sprawling countryside from the balcony of a house in the small country town of Bridgetown, in Western Australia.
She and her husband do not own the house though; they are now professional house-sitters.
The couple has used house-sitting to travel to almost every state and territory in Australia and even to save costs on the occasional overseas holiday.
“We don’t have any home bills at all — no electricity, no gas, no rates, no rent,” Ms Prince said.
While their lifestyle requires the couple to be constantly on the move, it does not faze them.
“Kevin and I used to say we come from nowhere, but we thought that was pretty negative so we now say we come from everywhere,” Ms Prince said with a laugh.
The house-sitting trend has grown over the years, with many online websites helping to connect sitters with potential homes.
While the lifestyle has turned Sue Prince’s life around, for some older women, house-sitting can become a necessity rather than a choice.
Liz Lennon returned to WA to care for a sick friend after a long stint living in Ireland and found herself with few housing options.
“I’ve spent nearly two years house-sitting and in those two years I have probably stayed in 12 or more different places,” Ms Lennon said.
At times, she found the life of a house-sitter exciting as she explored the suburbs of Perth, but admits it soon got old.
“After a number of years, I wanted a little place that I could just be in for a while and have my own things,” she said.
“It’s exhausting, it’s a form of homelessness. You have a roof, but you don’t have a home.”
Jeff Fiedler from the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) said house-sitting had become more common for older women at risk of homelessness.
“They have been people who have been coping all of their lives just looking after themselves,” he said.
“They don’t think about going to a homelessness service, for example, because they don’t see that as somehow appropriate to them, so they are looking at strategies such as house-sitting.”
Mr Fiedler said ageing homelessness was an emerging problem across the country.
“There’s been a 16 per cent increase in homelessness between the 2011 and 2016 census for all older people — this is the highest increase of any age group,” he said.
He said during the same period, the number of older women without a home had increased by 27 per cent.
“They’re all of a sudden facing the situation where, on the pension they are looking at having to pay 60 to 70, perhaps even 80, per cent of their income in rent,” Mr Fiedler said.
“It’s really a frightening proposition that many older women are now finding themselves in.”
Ms Lennon said while house-sitting was great for those who chose the lifestyle, it could hide the true picture of homelessness in Australia.
“It abrogates governments and NGO [non-government organisation] responsibility for actually looking at some innovative housing options for older, single women at risk of homelessness,” she said.
“Older single woman at risk of homelessness are silent, invisible and well-behaved; they are just not counted.”
Mr Fielder is calling for governments to invest in more long-term social housing and other alternative housing options.
Co-housing arrangements, co-operatives, and share housing with other older women are some of his suggestions.
“These are terrific ideas that are starting to be developed by older women themselves,” he said.
“We are now looking to government and the not-for-profit sector to come forward and respond to this demand and this interest.”
While house-sitting has been the answer to Sue and Kevin Prince’s financial woes, Mr Fiedler suggests people also plan for the future.
“Get housing applications in and explore that so [you] can get on to waiting lists and have that longer-term plan in place at the same time,” he said.
This article first appeared in abc.net.au