• U.S.

Workplace: Paradise

6 minute read
Sally S. Stich

How’s this for a job offer: Live rent-free for the summer on 64-acre Seguin Island off the coast of Maine. And for a small stipend, give tours of the historic lighthouse, work at the small store and museum attached to the lighthouse, and keep a daily log of the sunset, sunrise and tides. For retirees Michael Brzoza, 51, and his wife Marilyn Lucey, 60, it was irresistible. “We loved the idea of living on a beautiful island 2½ miles out to sea,” says Lucey, a former toy designer. “We could see whales and migrating birds. We could pick wild raspberries and tend a vegetable garden.”

They ended up working 12-hour days, taking tourists through the lighthouse, maintaining trails on the island, selling souvenirs at the gift shop and repairing the somewhat dilapidated keeper’s house, where they lived. But they would do it again–if that particular caretaking position weren’t so sought after. Instead, the couple returned to a home on Maquoit Bay, Maine, where they house-sit nine months of the year while the owner is in the Cook Islands doing research on whales.

Lucey and Brzoza are among a growing number of retirees who take care of other people’s property. Variety, novelty and sometimes adventure come with the territory. While property caretaking is hardly new, the number and diversity of positions have grown in the past 10 years, says Gary Dunn, editor of the Caretaker Gazette, the only publication that connects property owners with property caretakers. Since the Gazette was launched in 1982, its subscription base has grown from 200 to 10,000. Dunn notes that 75% of his subscribers are 50 or older. “This is a job that practices reverse age discrimination,” he says. “Many property owners only want people of a certain age because they have a maturity that equates with common sense and reliability.”

Many property caretakers are people thinking about where they want to retire, and they take a short-term job in a certain location to see if it really is where they want to be. Caretaking is also attractive to people who have downsized in midlife and want to travel while living rent-free.

Typical advertisers in the Caretaker Gazette are people needing a house sitter while they go on an extended vacation; corporate retreats wanting to have someone on-site during months of vacancy; and national parks requiring a groundskeeper during the winter. Jobs can last from a few weeks to several years. Compensation runs the gamut from rent-free living in exchange for light chores to a small stipend for more extensive tasks to $60,000-to-80,000 a year plus living expenses for a more-than-full-time job.

Subscriber Cherie Hanks, 54, has been a property caretaker since 2001, when she moved to Colorado to be near her four grown children. Her first position came about by chance, after she wandered into something called the P.E.O. Chapter House in Cheyenne Canyon, near Colorado Springs. “I was curious about it,” she says, “and discovered it was a retirement home for older members of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, a nonprofit devoted to promoting higher education for women.” Though a small staff took care of the grounds and meals, the house manager was looking for someone to live on-site. Hanks signed on, and for the next three years, she lived in her own small cottage, created special events for the residents, filled in when the cook was gone and received $1,300 a month in pay.

The appeal of caring for the property of others is as varied as the people who take those positions. For Don Davison, 72, a retired banker in Knowlton, Quebec, the decision was strictly financial. “I can rent my condo, which is in a resort area, for three months and make a chunk of change that will help me overcome inflation, since my pension isn’t indexed,” Davison says. Still, he needed someplace to live for three months. The solution: he took a position as summer house manager at his ski club at Mont Tremblant, in eastern Canada, where he lives rent-free in exchange for greeting guests at the 43-bed lodge and making sure they follow house rules.

Bob and Camille Armantrout, 46 and 50, respectively, had very different motives when they started caretaking in 1996. “We both hated the noise and bustle of the car culture,” says Bob, a former general manager of a factory in Virginia. “We wanted to be somewhere where there is plenty of fresh air, animals nearby and time to think our own thoughts.”

Nine years ago, they sold their home and possessions and headed to Belize for their first caretaking position, running a four-room lodge where they had once vacationed. Last December they moved farther south, to Little Corn Island, off the coast of Nicaragua, where they run a 13-room hotel, Casa Iguana, on seven acres. They work 14-hour days seven days a week, but they enjoy a car-free island, magnificent wildlife and pesticide-free oranges, tangerines and grapefruit picked right before they’re eaten.

If that sounds like a perfect retirement gig, caretakers are quick to point out that it’s not all bucolic bliss. “Some property owners want servants, not caretakers,” says Keith Cliver, 53, who with his wife Emily Moddelmog, 37, currently caretakes at the Oasis, a bird sanctuary in a former pecan orchard in Benson, Ariz. “We worked at an estate in Las Vegas where the owner eventually got rid of all the help and wanted the two of us to do everything 24/7.” They quit shortly thereafter.

Caretaking often doesn’t come with benefits. Cliver and his wife have worked for owners who provided health insurance and for others who didn’t. They are currently waiting to get it through the Oasis, but meanwhile they are on their own.

Nor is every living situation a trip to paradise. Lucey and Brzoza loved their summer on Seguin Island but note that they couldn’t drink the water (they had to bring it in once a week), couldn’t do laundry with the water (they laundered with captured rainwater) and didn’t have a working toilet in their quarters (they had to walk 400 feet down an embankment to a compost toilet). Still, the beauty and seclusion of the island outweighed the inconveniences.

After all, for most of the year caretakers live a good life, working in houses in scenic settings that are not all that different from the comfortable middle-class existence they enjoyed before retiring. Except now the mortgage payments, property taxes and maintenance expenses are someone else’s problems.

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