Alex Beecroft didn't pay a cent in rent for nearly a year. No, he wasn't couch surfing or mooching off of friends. The Michigan native traveled the country, helping organic farmers plant crops and tend to greenhouses in exchange for warm meals and warm beds. It was all thanks to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in the United States (WWOOF-USA (opens in new tab)), a network that connects more than 2,000 organic farmers in the U.S. with people willing to work in return for a lesson about agriculture, a free place to sleep and three meals a day. Along his journey, the 23-year-old Beecroft worked in the Appalachians, splashed in the Atlantic Ocean and hiked mountains in Montana. "This experience has been a gift, and I've learned a lot," he says. "Every farm housed and fed me beautifully."
Beecroft was fortunate to be able to pursue a passion without busting the bank on housing costs. Rental prices are high across the country: According to Trulia.com (opens in new tab), the median monthly rent for the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. is $1,314, with prices ranging from $865 in Youngstown, Ohio, to $3,236 in San Jose, Calif. Paying such a high price can be particularly painful when it's a large chunk of your paltry entry-level paycheck.
If farming isn't your thing, there are other programs that enable you to live rent-free for months or even years at a time. We've identified six ways you can skip paying full rent. Note that many of these living arrangements require the kindness of strangers to some extent. Vet your possible hosts via e-mail and phone. Also search for critical background info via Google and Pipl.com, as well as the Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Public Web site (opens in new tab).
1. Farm Livin'
For $40 a year, you can search WWOOF's database of farms based on how long you want to stay, from a few days to several months; the type of farm, from a ranch to a vineyard; or kind of lodging, from a spare bedroom to a teepee.
Volunteers work about six hours a day (depending on the farm) feeding animals, planting crops or harvesting vegetables. WWOOF helps farmers and volunteers find each other, but it is up to individuals to work out the details of their stay. The organization does not screen hosts or volunteers, but you can see what other WWOOFers have to say about them in the site's online comments, ratings and forums.
2. Fun With Fido
If you're not keen on tending to Mother Earth but are a fan of her furry friends, consider pet-sitting opportunities. You can search online for people hiring live-in pet sitters to watch over their home and pets over a weekend or for up to a year or longer—often in houses that are much nicer than a young professional can afford. The flexible schedule of watering plants and walking dogs will leave you time to keep up with your day job, if you're able to find a house-sitting opportunity near your office.
At TrustedHousesitters.com (opens in new tab), you can create a profile and post your services for $72 for three months or $96 for a year. The site lists opportunities throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
3. Share a Home
Whether they have lost a spouse or live far from family, many older adults are looking for a way to reduce the cost of rent while still living independently. In many cities across the country, nonprofit organizations coordinate home-sharing programs that match individuals who are looking to cut down on the cost of rent with seniors who have extra space in their homes. You help out with light housework, cooking, cleaning or washing dishes in exchange for rent below market cost. However, the relationship doesn't have to be all business. Companionship is a big part of the arrangement, and young folks can take advantage of learning from elders' years of wisdom.
To find a program near you, check out the National Shared Housing resource center (opens in new tab). As with pet sitting, this arrangement will leave you free to pursue your career.
4. Work as a Nanny or Au Pair
When Emilee Morehouse, 24, lost her job in Seattle, she worked to turn her love of children into an opportunity. She spent two and a half years honing her childcare skills with a local family before deciding to branch out and take her talent overseas. She traveled to Paris, where she lived for nine months and got to explore the catacombs and the Alps while helping to watch after two young boys. "I love traveling and speak a good amount of French, so I wanted to live out my childhood dream of moving to France," Emilee says. "Since I already had child-care experience, being an au pair was a great option for me."
AuPairWorld (opens in new tab) provides listings of host families around the world who are looking for someone to help care for their children. You can register free as an au pair, but in order to use the site's secure messaging system, either you or the host family needs to be a premium member, which costs about $45 (U.S.). The position requires you to provide up to 30 hours a week of child care. You'll have your own room and free access to the food of the house, but it's up to you and your host family to work out your salary and the details of your stay. To ensure the safety of its users, AuPairWorld reviews profiles, often verifies identities and provides plenty of tips for potential au pairs (opens in new tab). Being an au pair is a full-time job, so don't expect to hold down another position while taking care of youngsters. However, you can use your added travel experience and beefed up foreign-language skills to spice up your resume.
If you want to stay stateside, consider becoming a nanny. Sites such as Care.com (opens in new tab) can help you find live-in nanny positions in dozens of cities. You can register free at Care.com, but the site also offers a premium membership starting at $37 a month that can get you early notice of job postings and priority ranking in search results.
5. Volunteer for Uncle Sam
Volunteering with the Peace Corps gave Kim Townsend, 28, more than just an opportunity for free rent; it also helped boost her career. She lived rent-free and worked in Durres, Albania, for more than two years, helping to develop a youth-activism program. During her stay, she got to explore a handful of countries in the region, including Spain, Morocco and Greece. Now she's back in the states and works with the Smithsonian's National Museum for African American History and Culture.
Fair warning: Volunteering with the Peace Corps is far from a vacation. It is hard work helping developing countries improve education, health care, community development and more. The application process is time consuming and rigorous, and the program is very selective (only about one in three volunteers ends up serving). Volunteers must adjust to a new language and culture and adapt to being far from family and loved ones for 27 months. In addition to living rent-free, you'll receive a stipend and more than $8,000 before tax upon completion of your service.
6. Move Back In With Mom and Dad
It can be hard to give up your freedom after flying the coop, but staying with your parents can save you some serious cash. Your relationship will vary greatly from when you were a child, so in order to avoid clashes you should sit down with your parents before moving in to set up ground rules and go over expectations. Draw up a loose contract so that you are all on the same page. Some issues you may want to discuss: payments for food or utilities, rules on overnight guests, and responsibilities such as chores. See How to Establish Financial Independence (with Some Help from Mom and Dad) for tips on making a fair and responsible arrangement with your folks.
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