The Caretakers

Four Islanders tell us about caring for homes on Martha’s Vineyard.

Scott Ellis; Plumbing and Caretaking, Edgartown

 

What got you started caretaking?

I got into caretaking after fixing a house where all the pipes froze and had burst since no one was watching it. I was working for a plumbing company, and then started doing caretaking on the side. I found I liked it, merged everything together, and started my own company.

 

Tell us about your clients.

This house belongs to one of my 30 clients. All are in downtown Edgartown; I live in Edgartown also. Each client is different, and there is a wide range of things I do for each. Most are seasonal, but 90 percent of my houses stay open and on year-round, so the owners can come down for the weekend and use the house. Leaving heat and hot water on creates a lot more responsibility for the caretaker … lots of monitoring, making sure that fuel levels are full, systems are working. When owners come off-season I need to turn the heat up, turn the water main back on, liven everything back up.

 

What are your responsibilities?

Checking the property — the exterior to make sure there’s not a broken window, or that someone hasn’t tried to break in — coordinating landscapers, window cleaners, whatever people want done. Houses are checked once a week. I don’t have a routine, so that way if someone is watching the house to break in, they don’t see a regularity. Though very rarely is there any crime.

In the spring I get things set up for the houses: put furniture outside, turn the outdoor water on. Then I do the opposite in the fall — put everything away.

I have a great relationship with my clients, and communicate primarily by phone and email. All clients are on computer: I have a spreadsheet in my truck, so I can record whom I checked on what day. My truck is set up for plumbing, also. If I find a problem, I often can fix it while I’m there, or notify their plumber so they’re not troubleshooting. For a lot of the houses that I watch, I was a plumber on the crew that did the construction or renovation, so I know the workings of the house better than the owner sometimes.

Last winter a pipe froze in the wall and burst: When I turned the main on, I heard the water running, opened the wall, and repaired the leak right away. So there was no damage.

 

Is caretaking a 24-hour job? Is your life your business?

It is, yes; it drives my wife crazy. In order for me to go away, I have to have someone watch the houses for me. I work with a couple of other caretakers, so if I need a hand, they will cover for me, and vice versa. I’m always on call 24/7. Yes, I work on weekends too.

 

Any unusual surprises?

I have had a house that was broken into once, but no real surprises. The alarm system went off — I’m the first call, then it goes down the line — the owner is the last call. When the alarm is triggered, it calls the police and calls me — we meet together.

 

A Jeep in the garage

A funny story to this house: I was one of the plumbers on the crew when this house was remodeled in 2003, and I became great friends with the owner, and caretaker for the property. I used to keep my Jeep in the garage in the off-season. When they sold the property, they wrote into the sale of the house that I was to continue to keep my Jeep in the garage in the winter. The new owners were fine with that. Right now my Jeep is sitting outside in the garage — a nice added benefit to caretaking.

 

scottellisplumbing@gmail.com; 508-627-8818.

 

Jenifer Parkinson; At Your Service MV, Oak Bluffs

 

Why caretaking? What got you started?

I’m a very longtime Islander. Four years ago my daughter suggested, “Mom, you are just so good helping people, why don’t you start a service business?” That’s how it started. Initially, I thought I’d be more of a concierge; then I developed more of the caretaking side because I like it, it’s much more solid. For each client I’m handling many aspects of the property, including the family’s needs; we develop a real trusting relationship.

 

Who are your clients, and what do you do for them?

I usually have between six and 10 good solid clients all over the Island. One of the most important things that my customers appreciate about me is I pay great attention to detail, and I go to the nth degree to make sure things are right and taken care of. Customers know they can count on me. I am a resource for the trades; I have a couple of handymen who work with me, and a couple of landscapers and cleaners.

A big thing in the winter is Winter Check — get the snowplow guy there, make sure the systems are all working. In the summer, if the homeowner has tenant rentals, they need to know the condition the house was left in; sometimes I check after the cleaner cleans; often I find something for them that was left behind.

A few people who live on the Island year-round and go away for a few months may just hire me for the period they are gone: to feed their birds, water the plants, start their cars, pick up the mail, check for urgent issues. I stay in touch with clients when they are not here; send them photos of their house in snow. It documents what’s going on.

 

Yes, I can

It’s a business arrangement, but it can be very personal, due to the things people ask you to do — doing errands for people — things they don’t have time for. They go away for the winter and need a prescription from the drugstore; I pick it up and put it in the mail. It’s what you would do anyway for your family.

“Where do I get my car fixed? Who is a good plumber who will show up? Where do you get good chocolate in the winter? Can you pick up some groceries for us?” I get paid to do things like that, and I’m happy — nothing is too far-fetched for me. I refer people to my homeowners: I have a list of cleaners, plumbers, carpenters, chauffeurs who will work with the homeowner directly. I always say, Yes I can, or Yes I will, or Let me find you someone who can do that.

 

Taking care of each other

One of the ways we do business well on the Island is that we take care of each other: We give information. It’s a word-of-mouth business — it’s free, and a very good way for me to develop my business. I only recommend people whose work I know, who are dependable, reasonable, trustworthy, and come when they say they’ll come. I’m always gathering more resources by talking to people at church, in the supermarket, on the beach, wherever.

 

What about pipes freezing?

We don’t let the pipes freeze — good property managers don’t let the pipes freeze — you stay ahead of it. If there is a question, then you get the water turned off. The water system has to be secure. Most people don’t want to take chances, as it’s way too costly to have accidents happen. I’m always checking and monitoring the heat. This winter in December and January, we had a very bad cold snap, and I was at the houses checking every day. I could not let two or three of those 9° days go by and be sure the houses were OK without stopping by. Drip their water, keep the closet doors open — all this helps to get more heat to the pipes.

 

Tell us about the baby grand piano — what you do for it?

The piano is a baby grand moved here to the Island by one of my owners. The piano tuner — whom I found for them — recommended this humidifier system (for pianos) that requires water and a treatment fluid added when it’s called for. It’s very important on the Vineyard, where the temperatures fluctuate. That’s part of what I do — I check the system, and when it calls for treatment, I take care of it.

I also test the hot tub about once a week, and add chemicals when needed. That’s kept on all year.

 

What happens when you take a vacation?

When I go away, my son-in-law Michael Savoy covers for me. He has a property management company called True North. He can do anything. I tell my homeowners, Michael will be watching the property for me.

 

atyourservicemv.com; atyourservicemv@gmail.com; 508-524-1459.

 

Will Bryan and Bob Merritt; Osprey Home Watch, East Chop

 

What got you started caretaking?

Will: My family has owned a house here, and over the years we have had a caretaker for the house, but we weren’t happy with the service. We found this to be the case for a lot of people. Bob and I formed our business to improve the situation and fill a need as home watchers. Our goal is to be more responsive and communicate more clearly to our customers on a regular basis.

 

How long have you been in business on the Island?

Bob: We started the business a little over a year ago.

Will: The concept came, then it took us a few months to get bonded and insured; we incorporated and joined the National Home Watchers Association. We decided that if customers were going to entrust their homes to us, we needed to take a business approach.

Bob: Our plan is to apply our business experience and make sure customers know we are doing the job they are paying for.

 

The checklist

Will: Part of our daily routine is a simple checklist: We’ll check the house and property, fill out the list, add notes to the bottom, and take photos of anything odd. At the end of day, we scan the checklist and email it and photos to the client. They really appreciate that bit of extra effort and update.

Bob: Each client determines a regular schedule for us to visit: weekly, monthly, or bimonthly. Our belief is that they really want to know that someone is actually going to the house and checking things out.

 

What towns do you cover?

Will: Primarily we service Oak Bluffs, Edgartown/Katama, Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, and Chilmark. We look forward to building more clients Islandwide.

Currently we have 21 customers, and look forward to building up to 30 or 40. Then we will assess where we are at that point.

 

Are most of your clients seasonal residents?

Will: All of them; they live in all different parts —Connecticut, Westchester, California — wherever. This is their second or third home.

Bob: For the most part, it’s a winter business for us, seven to eight months; but a few of our customers want us on a year-round basis, since they may rent during the summer. They need us to deal with issues that may come up when they aren’t here — making sure the trash is picked up, the cleaners have come, perhaps bringing in the plumber. Or to provide access to the house in the winter to other trades like the electrician or delivery of a couch off-season.

Will: We are here to do that when the homeowner isn’t.

 

Do you find you are on call 24/7?

Will: A number of clients have security systems; in that case, you can be on call 24 hours.

Bob: We had three false alarms at a house in Chilmark.

With a partnership, when one of us has to leave for holiday, or to take a vacation, the other one is here. Always one of us is here on call.

 

What is your typical day like — any surprises to share?

Will: We signed up a new customer three weeks ago, did the first call, and found no lock on one window and a screen door blown off the hinges.

Bob: We had a tankless water heater during a really cold spell, where the pipe was facing out toward the bluff; –2° winds froze the pipe, water got into the house. It got cleaned up pretty quickly.

The day before Thanksgiving, we got a text from a client who couldn’t get the electric igniter on his very large gas range going. We had some phone action with the electrician and the owner, and it was a faulty GFI outlet. He figured it out, and got the turkey in the oven and cooked in time for dinner.

 

Risk management

Bob: This kind of business is a bit risk management. You are hoping that you aren’t going to find too much. Frankly, our house checks quite often don’t have a lot to say, and the owner is delighted when we have nothing to report.

Will: There’s quite a variety of homes that we cover, and everybody’s home is important to them. Things can happen, if you don’t have somebody checking. What one pays a caretaker is pretty short money compared to what it could cost if no one checked the house for three months.

Bob: And when you think about the value of these houses, it’s pretty cheap insurance.

Will: Our customers know their homes are being checked; they’ll get a report. That’s what the people off-Island really care about: getting things done on a timely basis by people they can trust. They are hiring us to make sure things are OK.

 

ospreyhomewatch.com; 214-697-2404 (cell); 508-560-0273 (cell).

 

Martha W. Cohan; Cohan Property Management and Caretaking Services, Katama

 

Can you describe your services?

I formed my business in 2013; I’ve worked in property management and caretaking for 10 years on the Island. I have about 30 caretaking clients all over the Island; we do different jobs for different families. Very much depends on the family and their needs. It’s varied, and client-driven.

Spring is our busiest time, for sure, getting houses and properties ready for the season with people arriving Memorial Day. We do landscaping, spring and fall cleanups, gutter cleaning.

In the summer we also do tenant changeovers: I check houses between tenants, meet with cleaners, make sure nothing is amiss … being the eyes for the owner when they’re not here. The tenant needs something, the coffeemaker breaks, the pool needs servicing. I have “Concierge” painted on my truck: I organize things for people, I fix things, I’m very responsive … I have a good relationship with vendors, and I get action.

Business slows down in the wintertime, when we do house checks; start cars, make sure there are no mice, check windows. Some owners have winter rentals, so that’s another challenge. And some keep their houses open all winter so they can come for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or have friends come, so houses need maintaining.

 

Project list

Quite often in the spring I create a project list with my clients before they arrive, to recommend repairs … we do the same in the fall. I walk around the house and grounds, noting needs. I have a carpenter who works with me, to fix screens, handle painting, and deal with issues that come up. I’m helping a client right now who wants to renovate her kitchen.

 

What is your role here at Herring Creek Farm in Katama?

My dad bought this property on Herring Creek Farm in the ’40s as a summer home, and I moved here full-time about 10 years ago. My sister and I rent the house in the summertime, and move up to our barn — the “Island shuffle” that so many Islanders do.

I have the management contract with Herring Creek Farm to do all the mowing, fence repairs, landscaping, and trash pickup. I caretake for seven or eight folks of the 20 that live here on the farm.

 

Do you have staff?

I’m full-time, and I have four part-time employees. My son who is in his 30s works with me, and I have an 18-year-old son at the Charter School who runs errands, helps us out in the summer. It’s kind of a family business … one of my cousins works for me. My trucks are lettered with my name … we get a lot of free advertising with the trucks. People say, “We see you guys everywhere.”

 

Any unusual fun tasks?

We also handle removals and estate cleanouts, often when people sell properties. It’s dealing with collections of stuff owners have had for years and years. We love doing cleanouts — they are a blast. We meet great people, see cool places. Sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes dirty. We give a lot of stuff to the thrift shop, post things on MV Stuff For Sale on Facebook — it’s such a good way to swap things around the Island.

 

What’s the most challenging?

It’s stressful to have the responsibility of peoples’ valuable homes and automobiles. I have a lot of pride in my work, but things can go wrong here and there. Inevitably with big houses there can be problems —the challenge is trying to be one step ahead of the problem.

There are days in the summertime when I can have 60 calls on my iPhone. You have to really be able to multitask — it’s key — and being present and calm for people. It’s a lot of premeditating what people need and being able to keep everybody happy.

 

Client friendships, and paradise

I am a friendly person, and a lot of my clients have become friends … On the flip side, I have a number of clients I’ve never met who I’ve become great pals with on the phone. We build up a good relationship of trust over time.

Many of the houses we take care of are spectacular — you look out at the ocean and think, “Another day in Paradise.” I love my job, as it’s always different, never monotonous. I love the variety of it — we do everything!

 

marthacohan.com; marthacohan@comcast.net; 774-280-4184.