6 ways to live rent-free in an expensive city

Young woman contemplating how to live rent-free in an expensive cityImage: Young woman contemplating how to live rent-free in an expensive city

In a Nutshell

If you live in an expensive city or dream of living in one, there are ways to hack the system and get free rent. Of course, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch — many of these opportunities require you to work in some shape or form.
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Have you ever cringed at how much you’re paying for rent? Or felt like you couldn’t move to somewhere like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco because of rental costs?

Housing is typically considered affordable if your rent/mortgage payment is less than 30% of your income. In some cities, though, rent can take up a much larger percentage. For example, according to real estate website StreetEasy, new renters in Brooklyn were projected to pay almost 60% of their income toward rent in 2015.

If that figure makes your head spin, check out these six ways you may be able to live rent-free in an expensive city.

  1. Trade your skills
  2. Work at a hostel
  3. Become a pet sitter/house sitter
  4. Work as a live-in nanny
  5. Get hired as a property manager
  6. Be a resident assistant on campus

1. Trade your skills

Instead of forking over a hefty chunk of change for rent, you may be able to trade your skills for free accommodations. Elizabeth Aldrich, a 27-year-old freelance writer and founder of Temporary Provisions, currently lives rent-free in New York City in exchange for helping the owners out with various projects.

“I’m living in a house in New York City that’s a 10-minute subway ride from downtown Manhattan. I have a private bedroom (though I share the house with several other roommates), pay no rent or utilities, have access to a stocked kitchen and receive a small stipend each week for additional food and drinks,” she says.

In return, Elizabeth works 25 hours per week helping the owners of the house with writing, digital marketing and pet sitting. To supplement her income, she works as a freelance writer.

Elizabeth enjoys being able to cut down her living expenses and partake in slow travel, living in places for several months at a time.

“It’s a good solution for temporary living because the places are furnished and everything is ready to go,” she says. However, while trading your skills for free rent is a great way to reduce costs in expensive cities, there are some downsides.

“The cons are that you don’t have a space of your own, so you don’t have free rein over how a place looks or what you can do with or in it,” she says.

In addition, it may be difficult to fit in extra work on top of any work-trade commitments. For Elizabeth, the pros outweigh the cons and allow her to pursue her dream of long-term travel. Over the past year, she’s lived for free near the beaches of Costa Rica as well as in Atlanta.

To secure her living arrangements, Elizabeth has used housesitting website MindMyHouse.com and work exchange website WorkAway.info.

2. Work at a hostel

A year ago, I met Weimin Chen while staying at a hostel in Lisbon. There, he let me in on his ultimate travel hack — living rent-free by working at the hostel part-time.

Seven months ago, the 24-year-old storyteller behind Funboat Diplomacy moved to one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. — San Francisco. Instead of opting for a traditional living arrangement and likely paying a high price, Weimin decided to continue working at a hostel in exchange for free accommodations.

Cheapest states to live in

“In an expensive city like San Francisco, you can feel a bit smug that you live rent-free because it’s a true hack of the established order of things,” he says.

Working at a hostel has not only given him the opportunity to live rent-free, but has also helped him grow personally and professionally. “[The job] requires much coordination, compromise and responsibility. It’s a great place to build a range of competencies,” he says.

Weimin_ChenImage: Weimin_Chen
Weimin at work. Image provided by Weimin Chen.

As for living conditions, he likens it to dorm life, where you share a room with others, and cleaning is a team effort. Weimin works three eight-hour shifts per week and is free to do as he pleases the rest of the time. In his free time, he works for delivery service DoorDash to make extra cash, which he can work around his flexible schedule.

“Since you’re a volunteer, your manager or supervisor may be much more flexible in scheduling and work hours than other conventional jobs,” he says.

The downside of this type of living arrangement? The lack of privacy. “There is very little privacy, but it becomes a norm eventually — if not right from the beginning,” he says.

If you’re interested in this arrangement, consider contacting a local hostel and ask about any work-trade opportunities. Weimin suggests making a good impression by being social with guests and creating a fun community for them. Once you get your first gig, he says it’s easier to get more opportunities, as prior hostel experience could help grab a manager’s attention.

He says, “People work tough jobs to scrounge together enough money for rent in these kinds of cities, but in a work exchange [at a hostel], you do a job where you meet amazing people and go on unforgettable adventures while having a hand in shaping your own living space.”

3. Become a pet sitter/house sitter

Another way city dwellers can lower their living costs is by working as a full-time pet sitter or house sitter. Of course, this arrangement will likely require you to constantly think of your next step, but it is possible.

I have a friend who worked as a full-time pet sitter/house sitter for a year. She had no address of her own and went from place to place, taking care of dogs, cats and plants.

You can find opportunities on Rover.com, TrustedHouseSitters.com, Care.com and MindMyHouse.com. The key is to keep your profile up-to-date and get positive reviews from your clients. Referrals are everything!

If you’re open to changing locations every couple of days or weeks, this could be a great way to live for free in an expensive city. Just be sure to have a friend to crash with if you’re in between gigs, and set up a P.O. box.

4. Work as a live-in nanny

Do you love interacting with children? By working as a live-in nanny, you may get the best of both worlds: meaningful work with children and free rent. Live-in nannies typically get to live in the family’s house for free, while also getting paid for their work.

The drawback: It’s usually a full-time commitment, which means it may be difficult to create a separation between your work and your life. But it could be a good fit if you find the right family.

To find live-in nanny opportunities, you can check out Care.com or Indeed.com. You may be able to work as a live-in nanny with almost any degree, though a background in education could help. In order to work as a live-in nanny, a love for children is a must, as well as a patient personality and a flexible schedule.

5. Get hired as a property manager

Some apartment complexes have live-in property managers that are in charge of handling any issues with tenants, working with contractors and ensuring everything is running smoothly. In exchange for working on-site at a building, property managers could get free rent.

But work hours may be long. There may be late night calls or emergencies you have to contend with, and you may have limited flexibility in your schedule, as you’re seen as the on-call person to deal with tenants’ needs.

If you’re handy with repairs, good with people and organized, this could be a great way to live rent-free and have a place to yourself. You can contact local property management companies and look on Indeed.com.

6. Be a resident assistant on campus

If you’re in college and want to lower your expenses, one way to cut costs while going to school is to work as a resident assistant, or RA. As an RA, you could get free room and board in exchange for supporting dorm residents, planning activities and being the go-to person should any problems arise.

Being an RA typically requires a commitment of 10 to 20 hours per week, but could be more time-consuming depending on the issues that arise.

Of course this can mean working more often than you’re out partying. But it could be a useful way to lower expenses — and help you take out fewer student loans.

Bottom line

If you live in an expensive city or dream of living in one, there are ways to hack the system and get free rent. Of course, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch — many of these opportunities require you to work in some shape or form. But it could still be a lucrative opportunity to live rent-free and minimize your costs.

About the author: Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy and empowering people to take control of their finances. Her work has been f… Read more.