Imagine you’ve made a friendly online connection with a couple in their 40s who like to travel. Now imagine exchanging homes with them for a couple of weeks. What’s your reaction? Do you think, Oh great! I hope they’ll love our home the way we do! or Oh no. They might break the china or scuff the furniture. If you responded positively, joining an agency and swapping homes with others would probably be a good match for you.
Nowadays, abundant travel accommodation options like vacation rentals, farm stays, house sitting, and home exchanges allow you to stay in a larger space for less than it would cost to stay in a hotel — or for nothing. In the eight years since Barry and I started paying $150 per year to belong to HomeExchange, we’ve enjoyed house swaps in the United States, France, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Colombia.
Here are eight ways we’ve found to make our home exchanges a success.
1. Choose Simultaneous Or Non-Simultaneous
Basically, there are two types of home exchanges: simultaneous and non-simultaneous. If you’re in the fortunate situation of having more than one property, you can do either, but if not, you’ll need to exchange homes at the same time or make alternative plans. When we stayed at the home of a Czech family in Prague, for example, they left town on their summer vacation. In our case, Barry and I own a house in Mexico, which we list on a home exchange site, and rent an apartment in Eureka, California, which we don’t.
2. Spend Money To Save Money
You may need to be willing to spend some additional money on the home you list. In Eureka, our funky consignment furniture works well for us, because we’re not exactly House Beautiful types. Not so in our Mexico home, where we maintain a higher standard because other people stay in it. Plus, we have to allow for the added expense of replacing items more often when people are using them regularly.
3. Organize And Decide
Home exchange takes some preparation. You’ll need to decide how to handle such issues as:
- Access: How will guests get into your home? If you’re not there, you’ll either need a dependable person to provide the key, or a smart lock with a code. In several places where we stayed, the owners instructed us to pick up keys at nearby businesses. In Mexico, our property manager greets guests, gives them the keys, and picks them up from the airport when needed.
- Home Maintenance: Who will make sure the house is ready for guests? Our Mexican cleaner puts out fresh towels and leaves a welcoming bottle of wine on the kitchen table.
- Guest Information: We have a detailed guest book providing information about Wi-Fi, utilities, garbage and recycling, neighbors, the cleaning schedule, food stores, restaurants, and local transportation. It also lists contact and emergency numbers.
- Use Of Amenities: Will you allow guests to use your car, bicycles, etc.?
- Private Storage: If you have personal belongings, valuables, or foodstuffs in the house, you’ll need to put them away in a secure storage area.
4. Join An Agency
When we first decided to offer our house on a home exchange site, we joined a small agency, netting few offers. A year later we switched to a bigger organization, which led to invitations to London, the Bronx, Toulouse, Lyons, Melbourne, Quebec City, Seattle, and more. If you want to make home exchange a regular part of your life, it pays to join a larger agency.
5. Communicate And Offer Support
There’s much more to communication than just signing the agency’s agreement. We aren’t always able to meet our exchange partners in person, but we always connect by email, send the guest book out soon after they’ve confirmed, answer questions, and offer support. When the Czech family came to Mexico, for example, they traveled with another family, and we helped them find a hotel. Informal communication goes a long way toward building trust.
6. Be Proactive
You’ll probably increase your chances if you take the initiative and approach owners in the areas where you want to visit. For example, since Barry’s British family has a reunion in England every two years, we try to find a home exchange somewhere relatively close to enjoy before or after. The first time, we approached owners in Brittany, France, an easy ferry ride away. We received an offer from a couple in Fougères, a town we had never heard of. What a find! It had a 1,000-year-old castle, cobblestone streets, a medieval district, and tree-lined squares. We took our folding bikes and enjoyed delightful rides in the rolling countryside most mornings, stopping for an Aperol Spritz at a village bistro on the way back.
Two years later, we approached owners in southwestern Ireland. We ended up spending a week each in two different towns, cycling on the Dingle Peninsula and visiting the seventh-century monastery Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage site accessible only by boat and made famous in Star Wars.
7. Identify Your Goals
People use home exchanges for a variety of reasons, not just to take a vacation in a desired location. For example, we know a couple who did a home exchange in a town to attend the graduation ceremonies of their daughter. In our case, for a while I fantasized about moving to Portland, Oregon. Barry and I checked out the city’s listings and found a home within walking distance of downtown, Washington Park, Powell’s Books, and Trader Joe’s. My mission was achieved, though not quite in the way I expected. Much as I enjoyed our stay, two weeks in the city convinced me that Portland was not our future home.
8. Acknowledge Upsides And Downsides
I was very excited when a couple from Colombia invited us to stay at their home in Medellín, in the coffee-growing district. We had visited the country before and found the people exceptionally friendly. But when we arrived, I was disappointed to find that the condo was way out in the suburbs, nowhere near Medellín’s award-winning cable cars or metro.
My doubts soon faded. Every day we would hire an Uber or taxi driver to take us somewhere, and our rides became a highlight of the day. The drivers were eager to share their stories and tell us how much had improved since Medellín’s infamous drug cartel era. The area surrounding Medellín was beautiful, too, especially the tiny villages of Jericó and Jardín, islands of color in the lush coffee country.
Without planning on it, we ended up taking advantage of Medellín for some medical tourism. A few days after arriving, Barry developed a raging toothache. Our owner referred us to his dentist, who diagnosed a root canal. The procedure came to $200 (compared to the going rate in Eureka of $1,200). So not only was Medellín fun, but it was good for our finances.
When we travel, we stay in hotels and vacation rentals too, of course. But home exchanges feel more personal — sometimes very personal. As I write, an American family is staying in our home. When the couple wrote to us, they explained that “Mom” was pregnant and planned a water birth with the help of a Mexican midwife. Was that okay? After much discussion, Barry and I said yes. A week ago, a baby boy was born in an inflatable tub in the middle of our bedroom. We’re thrilled they chose our home for such an honor!
Such is the intimacy possible with a home exchange.