For Barbara Coughlin, the next best thing to owning her own rural retreat is taking care of country dwellers' dogs, cats and even horses while they're away.

The Delmar resident figures she spends a third of each year as a house sitter, most often in Columbia County. "It's the only way I survive the suburbs," said Coughlin.

She and her husband, John Fallen, have been house sitting intensively since 1991, helping homeowners with everything from caring for pets and gardens to paying bills during extended absences.

Their first local arrangement was with a concert pianist in Chatham who was on tour for three or four months a year. They now regularly spend long weekends and a couple of weeks each summer at another couple's house in Harlemville, and they have five homes-away-frorn-home along one road in New Lebanon.

Not like home

"In a strange way, this doesn't seem like home," she said of the Delmar residence that she sometimes returns to only once a week, to mow the lawn, during the busy summer house-sitting season. "It's just where we keep our things most of the year."

House sitters and the homeowners who call on their services say theirs is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Homeowners rest easier knowing that their properties maintain a lived-in look and their dogs, cats and livestock are cared for in familiar surroundings. House sitters, meanwhile, appreciate the change in scenery for a few days or weeks.

Some of these informal arrangements include payments of up to $25 per day. Others are between friends or acquaintances where all that's asked for is some food in the cupboards and perhaps, money to cover gas for longer commutes.

House sitters and homeowners find each other mostly through word of mouth, but also through postings on community bulletin boards and even on the Internet.

Diane DeBlois and her husband, Rob Dalton Harris, have a long list of friends, acquaintances and ex-spouses who have taken care of their West Sand I,ake home and pets over the past 20 years.

"Most of the times, it's been friends of ours who were living in Albany in small apartments and enjoy being in a large house," DeBlois said. Or they're between marriages, between jobs or between houses of their own and seeking a place to stay and sort put their lives, she added.

She and Harris, who own a business centered on historical documents, usually spend a couple if months each winter traveling around the western United States to visit family and attend rare book shows. This year, they also plan to vacation for a month in China.

The couple only ask house sitters to feed their two cats, but sometimes they get much more. They often return to find their mail picked up from the post office and their phone messages taken. Once they were surprised by a Japanese rock garden newly installed in the back yard.

Pet-Sitting service lets owners travel

Formal arrangements.

Some homeowners seek more formal arrangements, and contract with pet-sitting businesses for overnight stays while they're away.

Carolyn and Tom Giacomini of Still water, for instance, call on Stephen Ames of Malta to take care of their two dogs and lame cat. They feel secure with his business, Tender Loving Care Pet-Sitting Service, which is bonded and, carries insurance.    

"We've had animals forever and we won't put them in a kennel," Carolyn Giacomini said. Before making any vacation plans, she first calls Ames to check on his availability.

"The animals liked him right away," said Giacomini, who booked Ames for two weekends in April and plans on relying on him for in June.

"It's not cheap but it's worth it not to put them in the kennel," she said. Arnes charges $15 for each overnight stay on top of the  regular pet-sitting fees, which average $120 per week for one dog.

The typical house sitting arrangement, however, comes without 'payment, according to lan White of, an Internet matching. service based in Australia.  He does encourage homeowners to use a formal selection process, though, which includes obtaining personal references, conducting interviews and drafting a written agreement that states, expected duties.

Tasks typically include caring for pets, gardening, mowing the lawn, disposing of garbage, maintaining a swimming pool and forwarding important mail that might come during a home-owner's absence, he said.

Web Site receives on average 3,000 visitors each day White said. Most are homeowners searching through the data-base for sitters. Eighty percent of the registered house sitters are from the United States, 10 percent from Australia, 5 percent from Canada and 4 percent from Great Britain. House sitters can register on the site free, but must upgrade to a full membership ($50) to read messages. The service is free to homeowners.

 "I decided to hold off on home-buying decisions until knowing whether the professorship will be renewed after two years," he said. Flores and his two roommates have a broad range of experiences behind them in the Boston area, where they live. They stay occasionally with a young autistic man when his parents are away on business; last summer, they stayed at the home of a semi-retired physician who wanted someone around to bring in regular UPS packages and mail; most recently, they stayed with some high school students while their father was away.

Flores said he first began thinking about house sitting when he was awakened one night by the sound of fire trucks while renting a condominium.. The resident of a basement unit had been away for three weeks and in the cold weather, a hot water pipe had broken.

"The scene  was awful," Flores recalled. "The steam and hot water had caused very extensive  damage, including a computer that was just a pile of. melted plastic and cables.

"I thought that if someone had been checking on the unit, the damage could have been, minimized," he said.

Ready for emergencies

Lisa Bonney of East Poestenkill said that when she used to house-sit regularly she always asked beforehand about locations of circuit breakers, and the source for shutting off water in case of such an emergency. .

She recalled once staying at a former dairy farm in Berne and caring for the owners' cats and , horses. The power went out and  the basement flooded during a sleet storm, and she surrounded the horses with bales of hay and blankets to keep the animals warm until the heat returned.

Bonney was a college student living in Albany at the time and enjoyed getting out of the city whenever she could.

"It would be like going away to an inn for the weekend," she recalled. "It'd be totally romantic," especially when her. boyfriend at the time joined her and they had a fireplace available for atmosphere.

Now that she is renting her own place in the country, Bonney said she is less interested in staying in other people's homes. She instead is calling on friends to take care of her two cats when.she is away, leaving behind a long list of duties, instructions and phone numbers.

Barbara Coughlin hopes someday to move into her own place in the country. In the meantime, she said, "this is the way we vacation. We don't go away to expensive places."

She has considered selling the couple's house and simply moving from one house-sitting arrangement to another. But she said the winter would be difficult for her husband, who would have to commute to Albany.

"If it weren't for the winter, I'd do it year-round," said Coughlin. "We've got stuck in some bad snowstorms."