International Home Swaps

To Make an Omelet, Crack an Egg

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Home exchanges are an interesting, inexpensive, adventuresome way to travel abroad. But take an X-ray of the inside of someone’s brain when they’re first weighing the idea of a vacation home swap, and the flurry of anxious questions might look like this:

Hmm, if I delete hotel fees from my travel budget (and get a kitchen in the bargain, which shaves the costs of eating out), yes, I can travel on a shoestring. But at what cost a home swap? Should I or shouldn’t I trust a stranger in my home? What kinds of prep do I need to do to prepare my house – and do I throw the car in too? What kind of apartment in Paris or Berlin or Tuscany can I get – or is it a house? Which agencies are reliable, and what is the best time of year to do such a swap? Oh, and what about my cat?

What is a Home Exchange?
The basic idea of a home exchange is that two people in different locations (sometimes on different continents, sometimes in the same county) swap their homes. They might swap at exactly the same time, or not. They might swap a tiny Manhattan apartment for a sprawling Tuscan villa.

Swaps get organized in two stages. Like internet dating, the introductions are made online, and then there’s considerable dialogue between the parties. Nobody signs the agreement until they are comfortable, and have, in a sense, sniffed the other party out. More often than not, because both parties are swapping their homes or vacation houses, there’s an equal level of caution and optimism.

You can view listings online, and post a description and photos of your own home. (See below.)

What about Strangers in One’s Home?
As industry spokespeople point out, by the time someone actually uses your home, they won’t be a stranger. Chances are there will be email and Skype or telephone conversations about the kinds of small details that enable one person to discern another’s attitude. For instance, if the person whose home one wants to swap with seems to be overly anxious about security, parties or booze, that’s telling. If someone is so cavalier that they just assume that they can use your car, well, you’ve leaned something.

So while you may never meet your home exchange partner face-to-face, by the time a swap occurs, chances are the two parties are far from being strangers. A kind of intimacy can come of this relationship. More than one friendship has been born of this kind of mutually beneficial home swap.

Save Money, Live Like a Local
It’s hard to say how much money a home swap saves, but it can be considerable, from 50 to 75% of the cost of a holiday abroad.

For instance, it’s not unreasonable to spend $500 on airfare, plus, say, $250 a day on hotels and food for a five-day vacation in Paris or a comparably expensive city. Subtract the cost of the hotel, all breakfasts and a few dinners, and the savings is substantial. Plus, people who otherwise might have to bring their pets to a kennel or hire a dog walker or home sitter to feed the cat save a little extra on the home front.

Aside from the financial benefit, a swap offers the opportunity to get out of the hotel section of a city, and into a neighborhood – or to see a small town or part of the countryside that one would just never otherwise get to. Neighbors might drop by. Living in a residence, not a hotel room, means there are conveniences, like books and extra towels, snacks in the pantry and room to stretch out.

Ed Kushins, President of Home Exchange, one of the biggest home swap services in the US, with nearly 30,000 homes listed, says customer satisfaction is so high that sixty percent of people using Home Exchange customers are repeat swappers.

Practical Tips
  • When to book: Homes are listed daily. For international swaps, book three to five months ahead.
  • What if one’s home is small? It’s not size, but location, that has value in this market. Your cabin on Lake Michigan might appeal to a Parisian; your 350 square foot apartment in Manhattan might look like heaven to someone living in Tuscany. If you happen to live in a totally dull place, you might have to take extra care to show the advantages of your location.
  • What about cars and pets? Individuals work out these details as they see fit.
  • What about valuables? Put them away, check your home insurance policy, and ask the home exchange company if they have an insurance umbrella.

Where to Look
There are a few dozen home exchange companies, each offering different listings and on slightly different terms. Check Home Exchange, Homelink International, and the International Home Exchange Network.