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Property Caretaking: A Flourishing Field That Suits Free Spirits Fine

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Craig Rundle’s career--if you can call it that, since money and advancement are not part of the game plan--is taking him places he never dreamed he’d be.

These days he’s gardening, rounding up cattle, harvesting wheat and fixing up a farmhouse in east-central Kansas, the location of his latest assignment in a 20-year string of property-caretaking jobs.

At 46, Rundle is a relative old-timer in a field attracting an increasing number of free spirits willing to put up with a little heavy lifting in exchange for setting their own hours and living on the land.

The caretaker ranks are swelling with recent college graduates eager to see the world, retirees with recreational vehicles and former corporate climbers seeking refuge from the 9-to-5 grind, folks in the business say.

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For Rundle, the occupation was a ticket to the open spaces that seemed so distant during his childhood in a Cleveland suburb.

“I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I still don’t really,” he said. “I really enjoy just having the opportunity to do a lot of different things.

“Out here in the country, it’s a great place to kick back and relax. As a caretaker, you have chores to do every day, but it’s not like you have to do them right now.”

Gary and Thea Dunn are making the most of the rising interest in caretaking by matching up would-be caretakers with property owners seeking someone to maintain their spreads and protect against vandalism.

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Four years ago, the Dunns left high-paying jobs in New York City--he as a marketing vice president, she as an IBM consultant--to teach in the Third World.

They’ve since moved with their three children to Pullman, 80 miles south of Spokane, where they publish the Caretaker Gazette, a 13-year-old bimonthly newsletter featuring job listings from property owners and classified ads from caretakers offering their services.

In the three years since they bought the newsletter--formerly published by Keith Kratz in Carpentersville, Ill.,--the Dunns have received more than 15,000 inquiries about caretaking jobs or caretaking in general. The publication now averages nearly 100 job listings per issue, up from 40 in 1993, Gary Dunn said.

Most of the jobs are in the western United States, but not all. A recent issue featured opportunities in eight other countries, ranging from Jamaica to Australia.

Often, the positions are in tropical destinations. For example, a disabled woman on the Hawaiian island of Maui recently sought someone to help with household chores and tend a garden and farm animals.

The compensation: a rent-free cottage, meals, a small salary and a view of the Pacific Ocean, with pools and waterfalls nearby.

“Do you know how many people pay $500 a day in Hawaii for something like that, and here you can do this for free?” Gary Dunn said.

At the other extreme, climatically speaking, was a listing seeking someone to look after a primitive, fly-in-only homestead in the interior of Alaska during the winter.

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“This is not a romantic, idealized Far North-situation,” the ad warned.

State and federal officials say they don’t keep records to track the growth the Dunns are seeing in the field.

Dunn attributes the growing demand to a recent increase in the number of elderly property owners no longer able to maintain their spreads by themselves. And multiple home ownership has increased, with owners seeking people to look after their properties when they’re away.

Duties often go beyond picking up the mail, watering the plants and feeding the cat. Assignments can include land restoration, organic farming and cattle ranching.

Compensation varies. Boarding costs are usually provided. Pay, when it’s offered, is often negotiable. Insurance benefits are rare. Other forms of compensation include phone expenses and use of a vehicle.

In rare instances, the financial rewards are great.

“I’ve had cases where millionaires in the New York City area offered up to $75,000 a year for a couple, plus housing, health insurance and other benefits,” Dunn said.

But such clients have high expectations.

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“They want a professional couple who can set up a dinner party at a moment’s notice for 10 clients and then chauffeur them back to the airport,” he said.

“It really ranges all over the place, and there is no typical caretaking situation.”

With more people seeking caretaking jobs, owners can be choosy. References can help, but may be unnecessary if an applicant has a good general work record, Dunn said.

“In general, what every property owner is looking for is trustworthiness, reliability and loyalty to whatever the arrangement is,” he said.

Property owners often don’t wish to hire people who just want a short vacation, Dunn said. “They can’t be like a vagabond and say, ‘I’m going to take care of your house for a year,’ and then three months later decide to head off to Europe. They’ve got to stay on the property.”

For many caretakers, the attraction is not the work but the off-hours opportunities.

Mike Ross, who landed a job looking after a 5,000-acre ranch east of Sacramento for its 90-year-old resident owner, hikes and camps in the area’s rolling hills--something he had little opportunity to do growing up in Los Angeles.

“There’s no barking dogs, no traffic and no sirens,” Ross said. “I really got fed up with city life.”

Caretaking also attracts artists and writers seeking time and peace and quiet to create.

But the lifestyle isn’t for everyone.

“You’ve got to be mobile and it can be lonely sometimes,” Rundle said. “You’ve got to be willing to go out and meet new people.”

He says he has had jobs where the temptation to leave early was great, mostly because of difficult-to-please property owners.

But often the hard part is leaving.

“You put a lot of time and effort into a place, and then you have to go,” he said. “It can be real heartbreaking sometimes.”

Subscription information can be obtained by calling (509) 332-0806 or writing to: The Caretaker Gazette, 1845 NW Deane St., Pullman, Wash., 99163-3509. The Gazette’s e-mail address: garydunn@pullman.com


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