Whenever I mention that I exchange homes with strangers, I can count on one of two responses. Someone will either say:
“I could never let a stranger sleep in my bed!”
“That’s amazing! Where do I sign up?”
I find that people are not exactly wishy washy on this topic. It either excites you or it doesn’t.
What is home exchange exactly?
It’s an agreement between two parties to trade homes for a defined period of time…a weekend, a month or even a year! And it’s a great way to be able to afford more travel.
In a “simultaneous exchange,” people trade during the same dates.
In a “non-simultaneous exchange,” one party agrees to make their home available during certain dates with the promise that the other party will do the same at a future date of their choosing. Non-simultaneous exchanges work best for people who own vacation homes or for those who can conveniently stay with a friend to make their home available.
Have you seen the 2006 comedy The Holiday, where Cameron Diaz in LA swaps with Kate Winselt in the English countryside? It’s a great introduction to home exchange.
There are even hospitality stays, where one person agrees to host someone in their home in exchange for them doing the same on a future visit to their town. (Think of it as an adult exchange student program.)
To date, I’ve done 10 home exchanges, mostly in the Western U.S.…including Taos, New Mexico, Bozeman, MT, and Lake Tahoe, CA (where it’s otherwise impossible to find a last minute summer rental). And one with a family from Paris (but more on that later).
This week, I’ve received inquiries from homeexchange.com—the website I subscribe to—from:
A family in the Cotswolds in England:
“Our house has a hot tub, sun deck and Juliette balcony overlooking the countryside where Downton Abbey was filmed.”
A couple in Copenhagen:
“We have a large apartment within walking distance of all the museums and Tivoli Gardens.”
and a single mom who lives in a stunning “ocean view sanctuary” near Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica.
This is the view from her place:
Honestly, the hardest part of home exchange is saying no to so many wonderful opportunities!
I started home exchanging back when my kids were small…when I just couldn’t face the idea of the four of us crowded into an expensive hotel room or the cost of so many restaurant meals for picky eaters. Vacations were much more relaxing when the kids had their own rooms and we could cook.
Sometimes we fed another child’s goldfish or walked their dog, which I viewed as a bonus. There was one very affectionate cat my son almost kidnapped. Once I arrived to our exchange home in Vancouver to find the book I’d been reading at home on the bedside table.
Finding the right home exchange is a lot like dating. You’re looking for a fit…people that seem like they share similar standards of cleanliness and organization—check out photos of their home in the listing for clues—who want to travel when you do and are interested in visiting your location. Can you see yourself staying in their home? Can you see them staying in yours?
If you’ve got young kids, it’s a bonus to meet someone who has a crib and a high chair you can borrow. If you don’t, you might want to skip the family with the toddler who likes to wander with a sippy cup. (Although full disclosure: I did trade with a single mom and toddler when I had teens…It was the photo of her pristine white carpets that convinced me. She left our place immaculate.)
So you don’t own a mansion? Not a problem. As I said, it’s just like dating. If you own a budget apartment that requires a car to get to city center, your offer may be less attractive to the couple that owns that fancy Paris loft you’re eyeing. But if you’re okay with the Paris suburbs, there’s a great chance you’ll find a match.
Or perhaps the people with the Paris loft are desperate to get to just your neighborhood because their daughter attends college there…or family lives there…or there’s a business opportunity there. Happens all the time.
In fact, I once heard of a family that traded their European chateau for the RV of a Michigan family because they’d always wanted to road trip the U.S.!
“Will they steal my stuff?”
That’s usually the top concern of people who have never done a home exchange. But I’ve yet to hear of a case where that’s occurred, and certainly never in my personal experience. When you trade homes with someone, both people have “skin in the game,” as it were. Each party has a stake in ensuring everything goes well. Communication is key.
Typically, first time exchangers are very focused on locking up jewelry and valuables only to feel a pang of guilt when they arrive to their new temporary home to find that their exchangers have left a bottle of wine or a lovely meal in the refrigerator. Think of it as preparing your home for a dear friend who will be staying. You want it to be looking its best.
Recently, a friend of my brother’s rented his lovely, three bedroom home in New York City out on Airbnb for $700 a night. This was a nice cash influx for him until New Year’s Eve when the renter invited 300 of his closest friends to a rap party at his house doing $100,000 worth of damage!
This is not that.
An exchange is very different than a rental situation because of the mutuality. I have consistently found that exchangers go above and beyond to ensure they leave a place better than they found it. Once, at the end of a vacation, our exchanger called me to sheepishly apologize for a stain on our bathroom vanity that her kids managed when she wasn’t looking.
Her handy husband literally replaced the cabinet door and stained it to match while they were staying. She was a bit surprised when I told her that actually one of my kids had done that damage before we left, but hey, thanks!
The biggest risk in a home exchange is that one party cancels, leaving the other party potentially holding non-refundable plane tickets with nowhere to stay. That’s where travel insurance comes in handy. If you have a “cancel for any reason” policy, you’re set!
In 2008, weeks before a long planned exchange to Paris, I found myself in just such a situation—where I became so ill I knew I couldn’t manage an overseas trip. But instead of canceling, our family relocated to my mom’s in Portland, OR for our vacation to make our home available as agreed and banked the Paris exchange for future.
What about Car Swaps?
How do you feel about swapping cars? In most home exchange listings, it will specify if the family prefers to exchange cars or would prefer not to. The choice is yours. I’ve done car swaps a time or two without issue although I do hesitate a bit because if an accident were to happen, a third party—your auto insurer—is involved. (Inevitably, I feel ridiculous and second guess myself when someone wants to trade their new BMW for my VW Golf.)
If you do swap cars, it’s important to spell out your expectations. How many miles are you comfortable with on your vehicle? An exchanger on vacation may be driving more than you would in order to pack more into a trip. (But then maybe you want to drive too so you’re good with that.) Be sure to collect insurance information (although they are likely covered under your insurance as a driver of your car).
3 Tips for a Great Exchange
Interested in landing a great swap? Here are my top tips to make it happen:
1. Join a home exchange website.
If you want to enjoy the adrenaline rush of beautiful offers from around the world dropping into your email inbox (and I promise they will!), you’ve got to put yourself out there. Membership on homeexchange.com costs $150 per year and if you don’t make an exchange in the first year, they give you a second year free.
I like this site because they have one of the largest numbers of listings and the listing format offers lots of detail on the home, neighborhood, and individuals you’d be exchanging with.
I also really love the “reverse search feature” where I can look at the listings of everyone interested in visiting San Diego where I live. Communications are also easily managed and tracked through the website, making it easy to get back in touch with someone who made an offer in the past.
To maximize the number of responses to queries you make, ensure you have an amazing listing. Include lots of detail about what makes your home and area wonderful. Add many quality photos. And most importantly, add a personal photo and details about you and your family. A listing without a photo looks scary!
By ensuring your listing looks attractive and personal, you’ll hear back from more people. Always take the time to respond to an offer, even if you can’t accept. Homeexchange.com lists your response rate next to your listing, which will either encourage or deter others from getting in touch.
2. Sign a home exchange agreement.
You can download a template for a home exchange agreement from homeexchange.com and most of the other websites.
Is this contract enforceable in any meaningful way? Not really. The home exchange websites aren’t particularly helpful if your exchange were to fall through.
Rather, the act of completing the form with dates and signing it signals to your exchange partner that you consider this agreement final and you’ll be making travel plans accordingly. Otherwise, you may be thinking you have a definite plan while your exchanger decides to change his mind when a better offer comes along later.
3. Look for exchangers with previous experience and great reviews.
As a newbie to home exchange, you’ll feel more comfortable with travelers who have done this many times before. Think about it like Yelp. In the same way, ask those who complete an exchange with you to take the time to leave a review for you on the site.
Back to Paris
Remember how I mentioned the Paris exchange I had to miss? It’s been nine years since then, but I just reconnected with those exchangers. Steve and I were headed to Paris last summer, but I didn’t feel right about requesting the exchange they owed us so many years later later.
But since we were in town, we met for a lovely dinner and evening walk along the Seine, where Claudine assured me they still wanted to reciprocate.
These days, they also own a vacation home in Provence in addition to their lovely Paris apartment.
Why not a week in each? she suggested.
So we are likely headed back to France for two weeks someday soon. Which will be free.
When the world seems bleak and divided, my long experience with home exchange sustains me. It reminds me that it’s not that difficult to find plenty of people who are honest, responsible, and thoughtful if you use due diligence. People who are generous enough to share the treasured place they call home.
I’ve shared—and benefited from—babysitters, restaurant recommendations, and met so many fun neighbors over the years that have made vacations unforgettable.
As the poet William Butler Yeats famously said, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.”
And with home exchange, it’s true.
Looking for other ways to afford more travel? I asked top travel bloggers and this is what they said.