By Sharyn Alden
Imagine sipping a glass of wine while gazing at hundred-year-old vineyards from a villa in Tuscany that did not cost you a cent. Such is the life of a home-swapper, a person who gets a home of their choice rent-free in exchange for allowing the other owner to stay in their home.
Home-swapping may sound like a concept fresh from the Age of Airbnb, but exchanges have been going on without Internet help since the 1950s. They’re just easier these days, thanks to sites like HomeLink, HomeExchange and Intervac.
The majority of exchange sites—especially the more reputable ones—charge a membership fee to list and search for homes. (HomeLink charges $95 a year; Intervac, $99 and up; HomeExchange, $150.) Some exchanges list homes all over the world, while others focus on U.S. homes.
There are three types of exchanges. The simultaneous exchange means you stay in their place while they stay in yours. There’s also the non-simultaneous exchange, where you stay in your partner’s second house or vacation home and they stay at your home. Finally, the “hospitality” exchange is only sort-of swapping, because you stay in someone’s home as a guest when they’re there.
If you’ve backed away from swapping your place because it’s not palatial, don’t worry. There’s no need to hold the deed to a palace (though that would definitely draw hordes of swappers).
Location is often the deciding factor in determining a swappable home, although homes that look lovely online (thanks, Photoshop!) will always garner attention. Move that soiled carpet or crumbling tile out of camera range, and you’re in business.
So what types of homes make good swaps? Major draws are houses, condos and townhouses in pricey places to rent or book rooms, so if you’re a swapper in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, or San Francisco, you’re sitting pretty.
If you have a modest home in a small town, you’re not out of luck; you simply have to position your home as a golden opportunity for people who have never explored Upper Michigan in summer, hiked a canyon in Arizona, or caroused in a college town. Point out area highlights; you never know what will trip people’s fancy.
One thing that will trip people’s fancy is a car. If you really want to see Copenhagen this summer and the trip is dependent on a swap, include your car in the swap. Unless you live in a Manhattan high-rise, your guests are probably going to need a car, and a car rental (and parking) adds to the cost of coming to your place.
On the other side, you’ll probably want a car too. Words to the wise: if you’re heading to Europe or Asia, many cars have a stick shift. If you’re stick-averse, find out before you depend on your swapping partner’s car to get around. (Don’t forget that they drive on the left – and therefore, shift on the right – in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malta, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Singapore, New Zealand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and many former British colonies. A stick shift in the opposite hand – and a whole bunch of car to your left – is far more disconcerting than a simple stick shift.)
Most swappers like to stay a while; a week is often a short stay, and two to four weeks is not uncommon – another incentive to stay somewhere where they don’t charge by the day.
How do you know if home swapping is for you? Here are a few things to consider.
If you can’t imagine someone you’ve never met taking over your house and touching your stuff, swapping may not be for you.
Home-swapping is also not for the wishy-washy. If you solicit someone for an exchange and they say yes, you’re accepting them on your end, too. Don’t look for better offers and leave these people hanging by backing out after they’ve bought airfare to your city.
It’s not for the naïve, either. There are home-swapping scams like there are in many business transactions, so research your potential partner. Ask for and check references. Look up prospective swap partners on Facebook and ask your home-exchange company for information about them. Read online reviews, but remember that others’ experiences may be very different from yours.
Surprisingly, problems with home swapping are generally rare. Here are some tips to make sure your home-swapping experience goes smoothly:
- Make sure you spell out house rules in writing, in advance.
- Don’t leave valuables around. Take them to friends or relatives. Pets, too. The opposite also applies: If you don’t want other people’s pets in your house, say so.
- Agree on who does what when you’re not home. Do you really expect them to finish painting the garage because you ran out of time? Forget it, unless the swappers are anxious to have a “project” because they can’t sit still in your quiet little lean-to on the Alaskan tundra. (That reminds me. In a lovely lakeside cabin in the Colorado Rockies, a note left by the owner said, “If you hear an alarm coming from the toilet, immediately go into emergency mode,” followed with a page of instructions on how to stop the flow of you-name-it streaming up into the house. I hadn’t signed up for major plumbing drama, so it was a bit of a scare.)
- Be proactive. Prepare an up-to-date checklist of who to call in all kinds of emergencies, from the furnace company to the plumber to the mowing service to your insurance agents and finally to the handyman – the guy who really knows what’s going on in the basement.
- Tell your visitors where the grocery stores are and why you like shopping at specific places. Make a list of nearby neighbors and their contacts.
- Leave a list of idiosyncrasies – not about your life, but your home’s kooky traits. Maybe there’s a trick to getting hot water or a reason why the showerhead can’t face the inside of the tub.
- Be sure to mention any “missing parts.” Case in point. At a beautiful oceanside home in Mexico, the owner forgot to mention that the drapes were off the windows – all the windows. She had sent them to the dry cleaners and forgot to pick them up before she left on vacation. They weren’t ready for pickup when we arrived, or at all during our stay. The views of the ocean were great, but the light streaming in the bedroom windows at 5 a.m. was more than we bargained for. The light forced one person to sleep in a closet the whole trip, and another in a windowless laundry room.
That reminds me of the French Alps. I did a swap for a rustic townhouse in Megève where my name is, I’m guessing, still mud. After a day on the slopes I kept the shower going and going until a pounding on the door interrupted my steamy respite.
Stepping out of the shower, I walked through an inch or more of hot water on the floor to a raging Frenchwoman at the door who was loudly explaining (in French) that water was streaming through her ceiling.
Despite episodes like this, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a new place and pretending you live there – at least until the exchange is up and you’re on to the next one.
Successful swapping is based on attitude, a sense of discovery and patience. It takes time to arrange a swap, and courage to step out of your comfort zone, trust the other guy, and hand over your house and car to strangers. But it is so worth it.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
Editor’s Note: When jetting off on your next home-swapping vacation, don’t forget the AirCare, from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.