Did you ever see the movie, The Holiday? In it, Cameron Diaz is fed up with her busy Los Angeles life and decides to swap her mansion with an anonymous stranger. The stranger, Kate Winslet, lives in a tidy cottage in England and the two spend the Christmas holiday in each other’s homes. They both fall in love and get to experience life in a foreign country as a local instead of a tourist.
This charming movie exposed a lot of people to the idea of house swapping, where you trade homes for a week or two with someone else. Instead of staying in an anonymous hotel, you stay in their home and they stay in yours. Millions of people swap homes every year all over the world. And for the frugal or budget-minded, swapping homes is one of the best ways to experience a new place and save money on your vacation at the same time.
How Does Home Exchange Work?
Home swaps usually occur simultaneously. For instance, imagine you live in New York and want to visit Paris for a week. First, you’d find someone in Paris who wishes to visit New York. Then, both of you would vacation at the same time and stay in each other’s home during the same week.
However, if you’ll be away on business or a separate vacation while they wish to visit, you can still swap out your home. In this case, you simply arrange to stay at their home at a later date.
Hosting an Exchange
Some home exchange sites allow you to “host” your exchanger. This is called a hospitality exchange. You can go this route if your vacation times don’t match up or if you simply like the idea of hosting.
Basically, you stay at home while your exchanger visits one week, and then you visit them a different week. Swapping homes while you’re still at home allows you to develop friendships with your exchange family and get an inside look at who they are.
Benefits of Home Swapping
The benefits of home swapping are many and make for a unique vacation experience that isn’t available via traditional lodging options.
1. It’s Low-Cost
When you swap homes, you don’t pay a dime for your lodging. The only cost associated with house swapping is the membership fee for the online listing service (which is essential to find someone to swap with). These fees are usually $100 or more per year, but since the average price for one night in a hotel often exceeds $100, most people find this to be a bargain.
Another travel expense that can get prohibitive is eating out. But since you’ll have a full kitchen to cook in, you won’t need to eat three meals “out” every day. Plus, you’ll get to experience local grocery shopping, which can be quite different in other countries. Further, if you and your host agree to swap cars, you’ll eliminate car rental costs as well.
2. Live Like a Local
Staying in someone’s home rather than a hotel is often more comfortable; there are usually movies to watch, books to read, and perhaps even toys for your kids to play with. Some homes have a pool or fitness room as well. Remember, when you swap, you’re in an actual home and not an impersonal hotel room.
You’re also more likely to get a better sense of the area’s culture because you’re in a neighborhood rather than a hotel. Living amidst “the locals” can add a depth of perspective to your trip that you would otherwise miss out on in a hotel or tourist-centric area.
3. Utilize Your Second Home
Home exchange is especially easy if you have a vacation home. Because you’re not living there year round, you don’t have to try as hard to coordinate schedules. You can make your home available to a wider array of exchangers with different travel needs.
4. Want to Stay on a Yacht?
Home exchanges don’t always involve homes. People swap homes to stay in someone’s yacht, or even their RV so they can tour an area. You can often find unique lodging options that are unavailable, or quite expensive, via other means.
Downsides of Home Swapping
As with virtually everything else, there are cons as well as pros to swapping houses. Here are a few to consider:
1. Strangers Living in Each Other’s Homes
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a complete stranger staying in their home. This is why it’s so important to use a reputable listing service. These services give you a detailed look at a potential exchanger’s home online (and they get a detailed look at yours).
You’ll also talk to them several times over the phone and through email. Only once you’re comfortable do you agree to swap homes, and there’s no pressure.
That said, because you live in different locales, your interaction is obviously limited. You may not feel able to gather enough information to assess whether or not a potential exchanger is worthy of your home. This is one reason why some people “host” their exchanger the first time around.
2. Potential Damage to Property
You might also be concerned about your valuables, or that your property or items might be damaged by strangers. Again, this is why using a reputable listing service is essential. The biggest sites report that they’ve never had a complaint from any user because of theft or vandalism.
On the whole, house swappers are considerate and educated people. They’ll likely treat your home, and your possessions, with as much respect as they treat their own. Remember, you’ll be occupying their house as well and they’re probably concerned about the same things you are! Also, it doesn’t hurt to make sure your insurance covers your valuables in an amount that is equal to or exceeds their worth.
3. Time Investment
Home exchanges take time to set up. You can’t and wouldn’t want to just book your desired dates. Remember, you need to get to know the people you’ll be exchanging with, and vice versa. In fact, most sites recommend starting your search at least four to six months before you plan to go on vacation. You’ll also want to be flexible on the exact location and dates.
How to Get Started House Swapping
Though it takes some effort, house swapping isn’t a difficult process. Follow the steps below:
1. Find a Listing Service
Listing your home online is the first step. There are several highly respected websites that allow you to do this. The two most popular are Home Exchange (the site used in the movie, The Holiday) and Home Link.
2. Create Your Listing
Once you’ve chosen a site, your next step will be to create a listing for your home. The more detail you provide, the better. Include plenty of photographs as well as a thorough description of your home’s location and amenities. Talk about your neighborhood and area and let people know why they’d want to stay there.
List how many people will participate in the exchange and whether or not you’ll be traveling with children. You want to make sure the exchange is a good fit for both of you. Case in point, if you have young children and visit a home filled with valuable art, you could end up on the hook for replacing costly items or spend your vacation worrying about your children breaking things.
Don’t forget to mention your pets as well since may exchangers will be happy to look after them in your absence. More importantly, others may have allergies. Also clarify whether or not you smoke and if you’ll allow others to smoke in your home.
3. Find Someone to Exchange with
Once your listing is created and posted, you’ll need to search for a good match. This process can take time, although if you’re in a desirable location, it may take less time than you’d think.
However, you’ll still need to get to know the person or family you’re interested in swapping with. Start by looking carefully at the pictures they’ve provided and ask if they have any references they can give you from past swaps.
Since there are many to consider, it can be easy to overlook important details when you get started house swapping.
Your homeowner’s insurance should cover your personal belongings, such as furniture, up to a set amount, as well as certain types of damage to your home. It should also protect you up to a set amount should someone get injured on your property and need medical care or decide to sue you.
Be sure to call your insurance company and check your coverage details and limits first. Also, confirm that these will apply to someone with whom you are exchanging homes. You may even want to increase your coverage limits before you agree to a house swap, or purchase more comprehensive coverage.
Additionally, if you agree to swap cars, make sure your car insurance is sufficient to cover damages incurred by a different driver as well as medical expenses and liability. Definitely take notes from your conversations with your insurance company and record the date, time, and the name of the agent you spoke with.
2. Leaving Instructions
Especially if your home exchangers are coming from a foreign country, leave instructions on how to use your appliances, including the dishwasher, washer, and dryer. If you’ll be providing Internet access, make sure your guests know how to get online.
You’ll also want to print up directions to the nearest restaurants and grocery store, and provide contact information for someone local should any problems arise. This will make their first few days far less stressful, and they’ll definitely appreciate the gesture!
Think about how to handle telephone charges. While many travelers will carry phone cards or cell phones with them, it’s important to outline exactly what you expect in your agreement.
4. Location, Location, Location
If you live in a desirable place such as Paris, New York, or San Francisco, you’re going to get many more inquiries than if you live in a small town or out in the country. However, there are many reasons people want to swap homes. Perhaps an idyllic rural escape is exactly what one family wants, while another is interested in the particular history or geography associated with your area.
The point is, you never know. So even if you don’t live in New Orleans or Hawaii, don’t preclude yourself from participating in a home exchange.
Once you’ve made an agreement to exchange homes, it’s essential that you keep your end of the bargain. Remember, if you decide to cancel, you’re leaving them in the lurch too.
It’s true that the process can be more time consuming than planning a traditional vacation, but exchanging homes is often a wonderful way to see a new place. It’s less expensive, and it immerses you in the local culture more than a hotel ever could. If this sounds like your type of vacation, a home exchange will be well worth the extra effort required.
Have you ever participated in a home exchange? What was it like and what would you do differently the next time around?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)