House-sitting is often regarded as an arrangement between somebody with a winter home in the Bahamas and somebody else with no place to live. The financial element is a major consideration, but entertainment, relaxation and privacy also provide strong motivations.

I recently volunteered my sitting services to several people I knew were leaving the area on vacations or business. To my surprise, everyone I approached accepted my offer -- I could provide security, water plants, feed pets, take in mail and newspapers, answer phones. I didn't mind these chores because they were not my phone calls, my mail or my full-time responsibility. And the sense of adventure appealed to me. Each part of the metropolitan area has its own culture, ambiance and pace. It was fun to experiment with other lifestyles, and I didn't have to give my temporary number to anyone I didn't want to hear from.

Since house-sitting requires a time when someone's leaving town on business or vacation, it can be done any time of year, whether the sun is blazing hot or the city is blanketed under three-foot snowdrifts.

Naturally, location depends upon avail ability of an empty house or apartment. However, you should concentrate your efforts in new areas, territories you haven't explored yet. If you live in Camp Springs, look for a place in Rosslyn. If you're from Potomac, an apartment in Foggy Bottom might be just the thing to get you out of winter doldrums and provide an escape from ringing phones and well-meaning friends disturbing a weekend of rest.

If you don't know anyone leaving the city for a weekend or longer, advertise in the Personal Services column of the newspaper. Make sure you mention something respect able about yourself. If you need a place to live, you can house-sit free; but if you're in a position to choose, ask for money, particularly if the owners have pets. It costs several dollars a day to board an animal, and they should at least pay you that much -- especially since they have the security of knowing you're a responsible person who will see that their home doesn't burn down, etc.

One vital element of this escape plan is that it's a local one, not interfering with your job, season tickets at the Kennedy Center, previous appointments and the like. This may seem as if you're staying home, but activities will take on a new perspective --work, shopping in a different supermarket with another brand of anchovies or peanut butter, meeting the neighbors and frequenting local restaurants and bars. Yet there's no nagging guilt about waxing the kitchen floor or fixing the toaster. When you're cleaning someone else's home, it's a novelty rather than a chore. (As a guest you never mind drying the dishes, whereas at home they sit on the draining board for days.) And as long as the people are away, you have the option to stay or return home.

House-sitting is a fantasy that lets you live above your means and see that the wealthy also have spiders, leaky faucets and squeaky floorboards. By living in other people's homes, you learn about people and their habits -- getting ideas you may be able to use in your own home. The change of environment is both educational and entertaining as you make use of the color television, record collection, library and pool table.

No doubt you are quite comfortable in your usual surroundings. You know the locations of the cheapest gasoline station, the post office, shoe repair, banks, grocery stores, cleaners, stop signs, bus stops and drugstore. Moving to a new neighborhood your perceptions are sharpened by necessity. Short of moving, house-sitting fosters this same sense of newness and atmosphere of adventure with little or no expense; sometimes you can even make money. I always ask questions of the neighbors -- they're usually quite friendly, as well as curious about me and why I'm there.

There are some dangers to house-sitting: You can come to love where you're staying and hate going home (but this could happen if you went to the Swiss Alps or the French, Riviera, too). You can accidentally damage the furniture or break an appliance. Or you can decide to move and then realize your budget won't let you duplicate the 30-room mansion with stained-glass windows and Gothic turrets that you've been living in.

Most likely you'll be glad to return home, although a little melancholy that your "vacation" is over. But you'll be refreshed, rested and interested in a section of town formerly unfamiliar; for until you live in a place, no matter how briefly, you can't really understand what makes the community unique. And you've found an escape that you can continue to use, for it's as diverse as the people in the entire metropolitan area -- no two homes are ever alike.