The Proper Handling of Client House Keys in Professional Pet Sitting
Unlocking important info regarding your clients' keys
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the biggest service pet sitters provide for their clients is peace of mind. Proper key use, labeling, policies, and storage help make that happen.
Pet sitting clients trust their sitters with their two most precious possessions - their pets and their homes - and it is up to the sitter to guard that trust with the utmost seriousness and diligence.
It is a leap of faith to hand over one's house keys to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a stranger. Sure, you've had the initial phone consultation, and then the Meet and Greet, and lots of good vibes all around, but when the client turns over their house keys to a new pet sitter, well, that is when the rubber really hits the road. This is the moment when the sitter / client relationship is formalized. Now, it is up to the sitter to carry through with the trust that has just been given by the new client.
It is imperative, in my opinion, that new pet sitters do all they can to acquire wisdom from experienced pet sitters - whether that is from a personal connection with a sitter, lots of reading, video watching, coaching, whatever - but if you are a new pet sitter do your homework in regards to the handling of client keys, because truly, your pet sitting client has just given you the "keys to the kingdom" so now you must prove yourself trustworthy otherwise your business reputation is toast (without the PB and J).
I was only able to attend one pet sitting conference, the reading of two books, and the experience of being a pet sitting client two times, before opening my pet sitting business. That's not bad, but looking back, I wish I had the opportunity to have a sit-down meeting with a professional pet sitter to pick his/her mind about the business before getting started. It would have helped my own sense of confidence going into it. But any business, no matter how much you study before opening it, still has a learning curve.
I want to share with you how I dealt with client keys and my key policies in hopes that they will help you, a new pet sitter, or a potential pet sitting client. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the initial phone consultation, after a Meet and Greet appointment is set up, I would tell the client what info I would be asking them at our meeting. One bit of info would be that, at the end of the Meet and Greet, when agreements (contracts) are signed, I will need to receive two copies of their house key(s) from them. One of those keys will be with the sitter when actively pet sitting, and the other will be a backup should the first key be lost, broken, or if for some reason the key malfunctioned there would be an extra one as a backup.
In the first few years of my business, I asked for one key and that was a mistake because there were a few instances where a backup key was essential (one key broke in a lock and one key decided it wasn't going to work even after it was previously tested). Live and learn. Eventually, I wised up and asked for two keys. What I did initially was ask the client who had an extra key to the house and how could I contact this person if needed, or if there was a key hidden outside, just in case I had key trouble. That worked, but I learned that it wasn't the most ideal or professional way of doing things, and asking for two keys was better.
Before leaving the new client's home at the end of the Meet and Greet, I would test out both keys in the door with the client present. House keys and locks can be tricky and anybody who is currently in pet sitting knows this. Some locks are tougher than others - some houses are older - some locks are older - and sometimes you have to push or pull the door a little in order to get the key to work. It is when the sitter is trying out the key, that the client will give great info regarding the specificity of their locks.
Example: I had one house where the lock was well over a hundred years old and you had to jiggle the key just so in order to get the door to open. Once the client talked me through it at the end of the Meet and Greet it was easy peasy and I just knew I'd have to work at it a bit before the door would open. It would have brought me much anxiety had I just showed up cold at the first visit and had to struggle with trying to unlock the door.
Make sure you ask the client if the key works in both the front and back doors, or just one door. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Ask for keys to the other door if the key is different - because, things happen. Trust me on this and the more access you have to a house if one key malfunctions, the better. Make sure you label which key is for the front door or top lock and which is for the back door or bottom lock. It will save you lots of hassles when you need to get into a house after dark - but even in the sunshine who wants to fiddle with finding the right key on an already stacked key chain?
Once you know the keys work properly - and before leaving the presence of the client - put a pre-made tag on it with your own special key code, so once you get it home and put it with the rest of your client keys, you can identify it easily.
Here's a tip: Do not put the client's name and address on the key label. Why? Because what if your home or office gets robbed and the crook sees all these keys with the addresses and names on them? He would grab all the keys and enjoy a thievery adventure. What if you dropped the key out in public while on your rounds? The finder would either bring it back to the house or might go and rob the place. Caution is the word.
You may even want to put an additional label on it that says, "If found call __________" and put your pet sitting cell number on it ( not your house phone # because a crook could find your address ). If someone calls you meet them in the parking lot of a store or someplace else, but not at your home.
Make a label key code that works for you, but does not reveal a client's name or address. An example, you might put one of the pet's names on the tag or the client's initials, or a number or lettering system. You might want to spell part of the client's name backward, or color code it in some way. Whatever you come up with, make it easy for you and the sitters in your hire (if you have some). Put the same tag on both keys. Record the code in your client's file for added protection and ease of finding it.
Tell the client that you will only have their house key on your key ring when you are actively pet sitting for them, and otherwise, the key will be in a safe, preferably locked place that is out of sight from anyone who comes to your house or office. If you have children make sure the keys are out of their access as well.
There are some clients who may not want you to keep their key and may want it returned after each of their trips, or at least the first trip if they just want to try you out as a pet sitter. Perhaps the client only goes away once a year and that is all they want you for and want their key back in between. Picking up and returning house keys to clients uses up precious time, so I always charged a nominal fee for time, mileage and gas if this was requested.
In this situation, I would also explain to the client that if you had the key in between their yearly trips and they experienced an emergency that took them out of town, they'd be saving themselves time trying to get in touch with you for a last-minute key pickup. Which by the way, if you do have a situation like this, make sure when you pick up the key that you try it out in the doors again. It may not be the same key they are giving you, but one of many house key copies. Better safe than sorry. It only takes a minute and they will appreciate your diligence and safety protocol.
Also, when getting the key at the Meet and Greet, have a short form they fill out stating that on such and such a date they gave you their house keys and have them check off a choice. One choice says something like "I am giving the pet sitter my keys to keep for future pet sitting visits" and the other, "I want my keys returned after each round of pet sitting and I agree that I will pay $ _____ for each time this occurs."
When the keys are returned, either after a round of pet sitting or at the end of pet sitting altogether, have the client sign a form that basically says they've received their key back from you and have them sign and date it. That way, neither of you will forget six months down the road when the client asks for the key back they have already received. Having a signed copy on file of the return helps with a situation like this.
All in all, I have found that 99% of clients let the pet sitter keep their keys. That way future pet visits are arranged over the phone with no need to run out and do a key pickup. It saves time for everybody.
Also, ask the client if they have a specific locksmith they use if there are problems with their lock, otherwise, check out local locksmiths to have someone on file. Somewhere in your pet sitting agreement, make a statement about problems with locks, and if it is truly not the sitter's negligence, and a locksmith has to be called, the client will reimburse you. As an example, what if a key, through no fault of the sitter's, breaks off and gets stuck in the lock? You might need a locksmith to get it out so you can use the backup key.
If a sitter loses the key and truly can't get into the house, then this would be the sitter's responsibility to pay the locksmith in order to get into the house to care for the pets. This might also result in a needed call to interrupt a client's trip to tell them what was going on as the locksmith might need permission from the homeowner to work on the lock.
Check with your pet sitting insurance policy at the get-go to see if any key problems and fees for locksmiths are covered.
Oh, and regarding returning the key at the end of a pet sitter/client relationship.... if someone's pet passes away (they all do eventually) and they had no further need of a pet sitter and they ask for their key back, I'd recommend that you don't charge a return fee. They've been through enough with the loss of their pet and that is time and travel that a pet sitter will just have to absorb. Plus, it gives the sitter a chance for proper closure with the client, a chance to further express your condolences in person, and if appropriate at the time, ask the client if they can use you for a reference going forward.
Personal sharing: I had a situation once where I had the right keys and showed up at the right house for a round of pet sitting. When leaving, the clients exited through their kitchen garage entry and forgot that they had locked their front screen door, which had no key. I could not get in because I couldn't open the screen door. The house had an alarm system too. Ugh.... luckily my clients were just going a half-hour away and after an hour I was finally able to get in touch with them and they ran home to let me in. They apologized profusely. Talk about stress! What was my plan B? Well, when I initially couldn't reach the clients, I knew I'd have to somehow get into the house to care for the pets, so I called the local police and explained my situation. They told me that they'd be able to help me get into the house and then when the alarm went off I would call the company and explain. That was one of my most stressful incidents as a pet sitter because the dog could see me and he was barking and time was ticking by. Strange things happen when pet sitting. Things don't always go smoothly so just keep that in mind!
Can you believe that a little thing like a key can be such a big responsibility? It is truly the key to someone's personal kingdom, whether a small apartment, tiny home, condo, RV, or 4,000 sq ft home. Guard the key as if it were your own.
If you pet sit for someone for several years and notice their key is wearing or starting to bend, ask the owner for a new one before it breaks off in the door. For a situation like that, they can leave the new key on their counter and when you let yourself in for your next round of pet sitting, you can pick it up, try it out in the door and replace the worn one on the key ring. Make sure you try it out just as carefully as you did at the Meet and Greet, keeping the old key on your person when you step out to test the new one in the door. God forbid, you are testing the new key after leaving the old key in the house and then get yourself locked out because the new key isn't good. Not good at all - lol !
One final note about key care. When you are pet sitting keep all your keys on your person. Get a clip for your belt, or wear a lanyard around your neck, but never ever step out of the client's house with the keys left on their kitchen counter. You might get yourself locked out of the house -even if you just step out into the garage to toss the empty food cans in the recyclable bin, and the door closes behind you and locks.
When you enter a home, close and lock the door behind you, for obvious safety reasons, which not all pet sitters adhere to, but I am of the mindset that one should be safe at all times. Again, God forbid that an unlocked door is blown open by the wind, and out runs the cat or dog, or a neighbor or intruder comes walking into the house when you are upstairs or in the basement scooping out the litter boxes. Think safety at all times.
For those pet owners who are reading this, you will now see the great care that a pet sitter must have when caring for your little personal kingdom. Pet sitters are very careful so your home and your pets are safe. So, if they ask you for two keys, please provide them. If they ask you for a new key because the old one is warping, please get them one. And, I am of the mindset that pet sitters should keep the clients' keys until which time a pet sitter isn't needed anymore - like when a pet passes away, or a client moves, or the pet sitter goes out of business, so I urge pet owners to let the sitter keep your key.
Having the pet sitter keep the key also provides another valuable and unexpected service. What if an owner locks him/herself out of their own home and doesn't have a spare key hidden outside? The pet sitter can be called. I had this happen twice in all my years of pet sitting - where the owners lost or locked themselves out of their house and called me to help out. For this service, I would charge the cost of one pet visit because it is your time - usually on the spot - and for gas and mileage.
This is getting very long, and I apologize for that. There is just so much information I wanted to share with you today!
Proper key storage, labeling, and use, create peace of mind for pet sitting clients and saves the sitter lots of hassles, so peace of mind all around!
Happy Pet Sitting ya'll !