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Home Exchange - Stay in Europe for Free!

by Laura Byrne Paquet, August 2009 - updated Jan 2016

Exchange for a house in Tuscany, Italy

Exchange for a house in Tuscany, Italy

The idea of strangers prowling around our homes while we're not there spurred humankind to invent the lock, not to mention alarm systems and nanny cams. So for some of us, the idea of inviting people we've never met to live in our home while we're on vacation seems a bit unnatural, to say the least.

But for a growing number of savvy travelers, that very concept - known as "home exchanging" or "house swapping" - is not only natural, but an excellent way to enrich their holidays without breaking the bank.

In the most informal circumstances, friends or acquaintances just work out a swap between each other. But many swappers make their arrangements through a more formal home exchange organization.

The concept traces its roots back to the 1950s, when several organizations sprang up to help teachers and professors arrange economical summer vacations. Once other people learned of the concept, it spread beyond the education industry.

Now, as then, members pay an annual fee to advertise their wish to swap, promote their house to other members, and list the dates they'd like to travel and the places they'd like to go.

In the early days, organizations published yearly paper catalogues of available houses, which they mailed to each member. Due to the expense of long-distance calls, potential swappers usually contacted each other by postal mail to arrange an exchange, a long process that took patience and organizational skills. As a result, home swapping remained on the fringes of the travel industry for decades.

Then came the Internet.

"Home exchange has become more popular in recent years. There was a major leap in popularity that coincided with the growth of the Internet," says Lois Sealey, who founded a UK-based exchange site called Home Base Holidays in 1985. "Being able to browse all listings before joining, then join and have an exchange listing published online instantly, and send exchange offers by e-mail, has increased the popularity of home swapping enormously."

The home swapping industry blossomed, with dozens of new web-based organizations emerging. And while it still doesn't have the reach of the hotel industry, house swapping is moving into the mainstream.

So how does it work?

Home Base Holidays website

Home Base Holidays website

Let's say you're looking to swap your house in suburban Chicago for an apartment in Paris next July. You join one or more house swapping organizations (at an annual cost of roughly US$50 to US$200 a year each), list your home and start trolling through the other listings.

Most swapping websites have a search engine that allows you to input a range of criteria - size of house, dates, location, amenities and so on. Click "search" and you'll get a list of properties that match your wish list. Then it's up to you to contact the owners to see whether they'd be interested in exchanging their pied à terre in the City of Light for your slice of the Midwest.

Sometimes the negotiation falters on logistics: the week the other person must travel is the week you absolutely have to be in town for your son's graduation, for instance. Or you have a dog and the other person has allergies.

But sometimes, it falls apart just because the two swappers aren't simpatico. Unlike a hotel, where the staff are paid to be nice to you whether they like you or not, in a home swap much depends on the two people getting along. If, during a conversation with your potential swapper, you get the sense that they have a different attitude toward cleanliness or punctuality than you do, it might be best to back out before things get ugly.

"The back and forth communication can really tell you about the person you're dealing with," says Julie Ovenell-Carter, a freelance writer from Bowen Island, British Columbia, who did her first exchange in 2008, to Paris. "You can very quickly tell if it's a good fit."

Once you have found a compatible exchange partner, you agree to switch your properties on certain dates. You also lay out the additional terms of the swap. For example, is your car included in the deal? (Some car insurance plans will cover this situation but others won't; check with your insurance company before agreeing to anything.) Will you expect your guests to walk your dog? Do they want you to water their plants? Clarify everything you can think of - in writing, if that makes you feel more comfortable.

The mechanics of the actual exchange vary. In some cases, one swapper stays in town for an extra day to greet the exchanger, hand over the keys and make sure everything is organized. In others, they mail the keys overseas in advance or leave the keys with a neighbor.

Why do a home exchange?

Exchange for a house in the Cotswolds, England

Exchange for a house in the Cotswolds, England

Given that home swapping is somewhat more complicated than just calling up a big hotel chain and booking a room, why do people do it? For many, the first attraction is the price: free. Aside from the fee they pay the home swapping organization, no money changes hands.

Others - particularly families - are attracted by the idea of having a whole house to relax in, instead of just a hotel room or two.

For many, the chance to "live like a local" is a huge part of the appeal. In most cases, they spend their holidays based in ordinary neighborhoods far off the tourist trail. They shop in local grocery stores, meet the neighbors, get a sense for what life is really like outside the tourist bubble.

"Home exchange appeals to independent travelers. The most commonly cited reason for taking part is the desire to get away from resorts and other tourists and get to know a real neighborhood and local people," says Sealey of Home Base Holidays. "However, there has definitely been more interest in home exchange in the last few months for cost-saving reasons too."

A home exchange is similar to the travel experience you get staying in vacation rentals - you are staying in a home, in a neighborhood and "living like a local" - but the price is better and the experience can be more interesting.

With all these advantages, though, house swapping isn't for everyone. For one thing, if you absolutely must be in a very specific place at a certain time - say, near the hotel where your daughter's wedding reception is taking place - you might find it hard to find exactly what you want. Even just being tied to a specific neighborhood can limit your chances of success, says Ruth Wilson, an editor from North Vancouver, British Columbia, who has done several swaps. "You can't just get stuck and say I have to be in the Latin Quarter in Paris."

Second, if you like to travel spontaneously, this probably isn't for you. Even the most straightforward swap takes a while to pull together.

Probably the biggest factor deterring potential swappers, though, is any discomfort with the idea of strangers in their house.

"You have to have a basic level of trust in humanity," says Ovenell-Carter. If you're terrified of people putting their feet on your coffee table or putting the dishes back in the "wrong" places in the cupboard, house swapping probably won't be your cup of tea. "You have to be someone who doesn't require the rest of humanity to live the way you do," she says. (That being said, Ovenell-Carter and most other swappers strongly advise hiding or locking up any fragile or very valuable items, for everyone's peace of mind.)

House swapping also takes a bit more work than renting a vacation home, since you need to make sure your house is ready for visitors. At the bare minimum, all your appliances should be in working order, you should clear out some closet space for your guests, and the house should be sparkling clean. It's also a nice idea to leave a guide to the neighborhood for your visitors. And try to minimize surprises for your guests.

"Think through the quirks of your house," advises Linda Edgar, who has swapped her second home in Peoria, Arizona, for homes in Dublin and London. "You may know you have to kick the water heater, but they won't."

For more tips on getting your house ready for your swapping partners, see the article Top 10 tips for a successful home exchange on Ovenell-Carter's These Boots website and the article 66 Practical Home Exchange Tips on 1stHomeExchange.com.

You don't always need a mansion

Exchange for a house in the Aquitaine, France

Exchange for a house in the Aquitaine, France

Home swapping got a big publicity boost a few years ago from a movie called The Holiday, in which a character played by Kate Winslet swaps her cute English cottage for Cameron Diaz's modern LA mansion.

The movie plays on a common perception: that to swap successfully, you need a great house in a very popular location. And while it's true that someone living in a New York penthouse probably gets more swap requests than, say, the owner of a bungalow in Des Moines, it's easier than you might think to swap properties in less touristy locations. For a family with small children, for instance, the play structure in the spacious backyard of that Des Moines house is probably more attractive than the most fancy granite kitchen in Manhattan. "Exchanges work best between families who are in similar phases of life," points out Richard Rysak, the Canadian representative for home exchange site Intervac.

People travel for all sorts of reasons beyond seeing the world's famous sites. They may need to be in an off-the-beaten-track place for a family event. Or they may live in a busy city and yearn to learn about life on the other side of the fence. They may be planning a cross country trip and looking for convenient places to stop for a week along the way. It doesn't hurt, though, if your home is in a place with great weather.

Shirley Fogge-Piazza-Freeman, for instance, traded her home in Florida for a fourth-floor apartment in Paris that featured a formal living and dining room. Very quickly, she says, she and her husband felt at home.

"By the fourth day in, we'd become friends with the local pharmacist, the local baker ... it became like a small community to us," she says of the April 2008 trip. The driver on the bus route that went by their apartment in the 13th arrondissment even began to recognize them. "I think we really did experience the true Paris."

Another happy home exchanger is Annie Hoddinott, a San Francisco firefighter who swapped her home in 2008 for a five-bedroom, three-bath property in England's Cotswolds, near her parents' home. "It was exactly what we wanted," says Hoddinott, who used the Home Base Holidays swap service. The home's owner "didn't leave a stone unturned in terms of taking care of us," even leaving fresh flowers and a bottle of wine as a welcome gift. She estimates that she and her family saved about $4,000 by doing a home swap instead of staying in a hotel.

However, house swapping does carry more risk than some other forms of travel. Most of the people interviewed for this article had almost universally positive things to say about their exchanging experience, but not everything has been sunshine and light.

Helen Hatton, for instance, was once contacted by a fellow member of a house exchange club who was interested in staying in her Toronto, Ontario, home. He boasted that his home in England was "close to all public transport," she says with a laugh. When she did a bit of digging, she found out that meant the house was very close to the runway of a local airport, and she quickly cut off negotiations.

Standards of cleanliness may also be less than advertised. Kate Wolfe, an investment advisor, was the veteran of three successful exchanges when she and her family swapped their home in North Vancouver, British Columbia, for a home in the south of France several years ago. The French house turned out to be dirty and in poor repair, with worn sheets and towels.

"It was worse than how college people would live," Wolfe says. The kitchen came equipped with camping style pots and pans, making cooking difficult. Although she let her home swapping organization know about the problem when she returned, she also blames herself for not asking for referrals from people who had previously swapped for the property. "I think because the previous three [exchanges] were so good, I didn't really do my due diligence." Despite this hitch, she is still a fan of swapping.

Differing housekeeping styles lead the pack when it comes to reasons for complaints at swap site Digsville, says site founder Helen Bergstein. That's one reason the site's listings include numerous details about members' expectations for cleanliness. "It's all just an attempt to keep the Oscars and Felixes from ever crossing paths," she says.

In most cases, however, swappers not only enjoy their accommodation but also develop long-lasting relationships with their exchange partners. Sometimes they end up swapping homes multiple times; in other cases, they end up taking trips together.

Many people who try home swapping once become passionate converts to the system. Despite her funny experience with the potential runway-side home swap, Hatton is a veteran of more than a dozen exchanges, in locations as diverse as New Zealand and Spain. She once spent three weeks in a 7,000-square-foot house in Santa Fe that came complete with a vintage Mercedes. But her voice is especially warm when she recalls a home swap in Amsterdam. "We would sit outside and have drinks in the evening on this tiny little front porch," she says. "It was magic."

Home Exchange Websites Reviewed

Intrigued? Ready to find out more? Here are a few home exchange sites to consider. (While I've noted countries in which sites have particular strengths, note that most sites have listings from dozens of countries around the world.)

1st Home Exchange

Website: www.1sthomeexchange.com
Based in: France and Quebec, Canada
Worth noting: Available in English and French. A button on the home page links to listings added in the last month.
Listing strengths: Over 17,000 listings in 130 countries, including more than 10,000 listings in Europe.
Owners Tony DiCaprio and his wife Anne Marie Babkine did their first exchange in 2000. Even though it didn't work out exactly as planned - they couldn't find a place in France within the timeframe when they wanted to travel, so they ended up going to Hawaii - but they fell in love with the concept. However, DiCaprio advises people considering their first swap to talk to friends who have tried swapping first before taking the plunge. "Very few people will hear about the concept and the next day they'll be online trying to find an exchange."

Digsville

Website: www.digsville.com
Based in
: New York
Worth noting: Founded in 2000. Previous swappers can post ratings of listed properties. Members can offer to host non-paying guests in their home (while they're in residence) rather than doing a full swap. Home page of website prominently displays newest listings. Guarantee: if you don't find a home within the term of your membership, they'll extend it by a year for free. Extensive search privileges for non-members.
Listing strengths: Listings in more than 55 countries, with over 450 properties in Europe; 60 per cent of the listings are in the U.S.
Digsville has seen a spike in short-term exchanges in 2009. "Three-day swaps are not uncommon at all," says site founder Helen Bergstein, who regularly swaps her own home - 90 miles north of New York City - for properties in Manhattan. However, the longer, traditional swaps are still more common, she says.

Exchange Homes

Website: www.exchangehomes.com
Based in: Texas
Worth noting: Extensive tips for swappers on the website. Members can sign up for e-mail alerts when new members join in their preferred destinations. Listings can include an unlimited number of photos.
Listing strengths: Listings in more than 60 countries. In Europe, particular strength in the UK.
Founded in 1986, this is one of the more established swapping organizations. It offers a range of services for members, including a toll-free help line, a bimonthly newsletter and information on insurance for swappers.

Global Home Exchange

Website: www.4homex.com
Based in: British Columbia, Canada
Worth noting: Members offer swaps of all lengths, from weekends to a year or more. Separate area of the website for sabbatical exchangers.
Listing strengths: Listings in more than 50 countries. Particularly strong in North America and France.
Launched in 1998 as a home exchange site for teachers, it expanded beyond that audience in 2000. However, the site still offers extensive information for teachers, including leads on switching jobs as well as houses. It also provides listings of bed & breakfasts and vacation rentals.

Green Theme International

Website: www.gti-home-exchange.com
Based in: Florida
Worth noting: Listings are offered in a range of languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and Dutch.
Listing strengths: Worldwide listings. In Europe, strengths include the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and France.
Founded in 1989, this site focuses on environmentally friendly travel. Members can search specifically for homes where local transit is good enough that they can get by without a car. Listings frequently mention the availability of bikes and eco-friendly features of the houses.

Home Base Holidays

Website: www.homebase-hols.com
Based in: United Kingdom
Worth noting: The website has lots of detailed tips for home swappers. Has reps in several countries to answer queries from members. Each listing shows the date the member joined or renewed, which can be useful in determining how "fresh" a listing is (members tend to be most open to arranging swaps shortly after they join or renew). More than 2500 members from 69 countries. The site also operates a home exchange service for Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Listing strengths: Wide selection of United Kingdom properties.
Canadian ex-pat Lois Sealey started the business in 1985 after realizing how handy it was to have her husband's relatives come to stay in their London home when Sealey and her husband went back to Canada to visit family.

Home Exchange

Website: www.homeexchange.com
Based in: California
Worth noting: Listings are provided in seven languages. Featured as the site the swappers used in The Holiday. Offers a guarantee - if you don't find a swap in the first year, your second year's membership is free.
Listing strengths: More than 28,000 listings, including more than 4,000 in France, more than 900 in the United Kingdom and more than 600 in Scandinavia.
The site offers several useful features, including a quick translation feature for listings posted in languages other than English, and a system that alerts you when new listings come up in your preferred destinations.

Home for Swaps

Website: www.homeforswaps.com
Based in: France
Worth noting: Has a French-language sister site, EchangeImmo.
Listing strengths: More than 1,000 listings in France.
A button on the home page links to a list of "last-minute" swaps, which can be useful for spontaneous travelers.

HomeLink International

Website: www.homelink.org
Based in: Belgium, with local offices in 22 countries
Worth noting: One of the oldest home exchange organizations. Founded in 1953 with a focus on teachers. Online listings in a dizzying array of languages, including Turkish and Japanese. Still prints huge annual directories of listings, for those who prefer to daydream offline.
Listing strengths: About 13,000 members worldwide.
Jack Graber, a director of HomeLink, has been with the organization since the mid-1980s. He emphasizes that HomeLink's wide network of reps around the world can be handy if a swapper runs into trouble during a trip. He also notes that home swapping doesn't appeal just to the budget conscious. "Many of our members are quite capable of staying in luxury hotels."

Intervac

Website: www.intervac.com
Based in: Representatives in 35 countries
Worth noting: Also founded in 1953. Maintains separate websites for many countries, including the U.S. and Canada. The main Intervac site is available in 15 languages. Each listing linked to a Google map of its location. Search function lets you search for "double exchanges" (two nearby households looking to switch with two nearby households in a different destination).
Listing strengths: Worldwide depth, with more than 20,000 listings in over 65 countries; 75 per cent of members are in Europe.
Whether due to the economy or to the growing focus on home swapping in the media, Richard Rysak, Intervac's Canadian representative, reports a 10 per cent surge in Canadian memberships in 2008–09. Worldwide, the company will soon be launching an improved search system that will allow more specific searches (by city instead of just by country, for instance).

Sabbatical Homes

Website: www.sabbaticalhomes.com
Based in: California
Worth noting: If you successfully make a swap, you're encouraged to send a voluntary donation to support the site in addition to the (relatively low) membership fee. Site also takes listings from people looking to housesit or rent a house.
Listing strengths: Swaps of two months or longer in college towns.
Founded in 2000, this service focuses on academics - professors, graduate and post-graduate students, primary and secondary school teachers, and independent scholars - looking for accommodation for longer than the typical holiday. Non-academics are welcome to use the service but pay higher fees.

Other Alternatives

Casa Casa: Hospitality exchange travel club. Join the club and stay at the homes of other members when you travel. In exchange, you host members at your home.

Travel Like a Local

Laura Byrne Paquet is a Canadian freelance journalist who writes frequently for magazines, newspapers and websites about ways to "travel like a local." That's also the topic of her blog, www.FacingTheStreet.com.

* Photos from Home Base Holidays, used with permission.

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