What do Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and I have in common, you ask? Aside from ravishing good looks, we share an interest in home exchanges. Cam and Kate’s new movie “The Holiday” follows the exploits of two strangers who decide to swap their residences in Los Angeles and England. I am about to take the plunge and sign up as a house swapper too.
I may be a wee bit travel-obsessed. I devour travel books and magazines and spend hours on tripadvisor.com looking at hotels in Suriname and Morocco that I will probably never visit. So when a friend of mine recently mentioned that she is a veteran home swapper, my interest was greatly piqued.
Simply put, a home exchange is when two parties agree to trade homes for a pre-determined interval. There are many types of agreements, including simultaneous and non-simultaneous exchanges, hospitality exchanges, and exchanges with a vehicle option.
Home swappers normally pay a fee to join a home exchange service, but there is no charge for accommodations once a swap is agreed to by both parties.
The concept of home exchange has been around for a long time, but dedicated websites have taken the home exchange concept to a new level. There are many websites dedicated to introducing prospective home swappers to each other. Some have huge databases of potential exchanges, while others focus on niche markets such as luxury homes or home swaps for singles.
- Cha-Ching! Your family can visit countless destinations and pay nothing for accommodations, beyond the nominal fees charged by the exchange service.
- Local Flavor: You can live like a local by drawing on your exchange family for tips on cultural events, restaurants, shopping, and attractions.
- No Hotel Hassles: You will be immersed in a community rather than being warehoused in a bleak hotel with impersonal service.
- Free Wheels? You may be able to negotiate the use of the exchange family’s car, avoiding pricey rental car fees.
- Convenience: When you stay in someone’s home, you will have use of the kitchen, computer, laundry room, DVD player, toys and games, bookshelf, etc. Cooking and washing at home are huge money savers and all the other items are gravy.
- Camaraderie: You may develop personal connections and long-lasting friendships with other home exchange families.
- Safety: In many cases it is safer to have visitors in your home rather than leave it unoccupied during your vacation. Home exchangers can alert you to any problems that arise during your absence (e.g., leaky roof) and their presence will serve as a deterrent to burglars.
- Free Pet-sitting: Your exchange family may be willing to babysit your pooch while you are on vacation saving you expensive kennel fees.
- Time Suck: It can be difficult and time-consuming to find a suitable exchange property. The sheer volume of listings can be overwhelming, and factors such as location, party size, travel dates, and home amenities and quality can make finding an appropriate exchange a chore.
- Ick Factor: It might give you the heebie-jeebies to have a stranger in your house or to stay in the home of a stranger.
- False Advertising: Inaccurate property descriptions are said to be uncommon, but are always a possibility.
- Tough Sell: Homes in resort or tourist destinations are obviously easier to trade. If your home is in the middle of a wheat field, you might have a harder time attracting potential swap partners.
Normally homeowner’s policies remain in force during a home exchange. This is because visitors are considered guests as opposed to renters, since no money changes hands during a home exchange. Likewise, car insurance normally covers drivers that are using your car with your express permission.
It’s a good idea to check the details of your specific homeowner’s or auto policy or speak to your insurance agent before committing to an exchange. It’s also acceptable to include parameters for the use of the vehicle such as mileage or travel restrictions and minimum age for drivers.
Most swaps are simultaneous, meaning the two parties occupy each other’s homes over the same time period. However, there are also plenty of non-simultaneous swaps available, especially since many people use their vacation homes for exchanges.
A hospitality swap is when you visit another party’s residence, while they are home—essentially as their houseguests. The type of swap you arrange depends on many factors, including the flexibility of your travel dates, your preferred destination, and personal preferences.
Trust, but Verify
The entire principle of home exchange is based on trust: trust that the homes will be as advertised, that both parties will adhere to the stated timeframes and conditions, and that the properties will be cared for responsibly during the stay. Most veteran home exchangers report that the degree of mutual trust and respect is quite high, and negative experiences are rare.
The most important factors in ensuring a positive home exchange experience are good communication and thorough research. Exchanging details about the properties and researching the area to be visited will keep surprises to a minimum and leave both parties satisfied.
Where to Start
There are loads of home exchange sites on the Internet, but a few popular sites are:
For newbies like me, it’s also helpful to get advice and tips from experienced exchangers. There are numerous blogs on home swapping, such as homeexchangeguru.com, which provides valuable insights and information.
Now for the hard part—deciding between an apartment in Amsterdam and a cottage in Scotland…