It may not be as glossy as the Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz film, The Holiday and you may not end up falling in love with the locals, aka Jude Law, but home exchange, or home swapping, is no new concept. It first found its feet in the early 70s, when teachers with matching school holidays often participated in such swaps.
Back then you selected your preferred locations from a catalogue and letters had to be exchanged over several months. But with the internet speeding up the process and offering instant access to searches worldwide, there’s been a surge in popularity. Within minutes of logging on to one of the many home exchange platforms, you can access the profiles of thousands of people willing to open their doors to you, from as far afield as Sydney, Manhattan, Paris and Hong Kong.
The cost-effective popularity of this type of travel is causing home exchange sites to multiply, with the Guardian newspaper’s now well-established programme, and even Mumsnet introducing a service for members.
The concept itself is simple. You exchange homes with another willing person or family, anywhere in the world at a mutually convenient time, and gain access to all the facilities and benefits of each other’s abode for no cost.
It’s not as random as it sounds. Homeowners generally register online with a home swap agency, where they list their details and photos of their home. Members can then get in touch with each other, arrange dates and exchange information about their properties and locations.
“There has been huge growth in interest in this type of holiday,” says Lois Sealey of Home Base Holidays, which covers over 70 countries and has around 7,000 members. “Partly because the internet has made international communication easier,” she adds. “And also because many people are looking to save money.” The numbers say it all. Research by new site Lovehomeswap.com found that over 3.2million Brits are planning a home swap this year; that’s twice as many as last year with ‘low cost’ being the main reason. Indeed the site claims home swapping can save as much as £2,000 a holiday.
Lois says home exchange suits all types of travellers, from families to empty nesters and singles. “You tend to match up with people who have similar interests and lifestyles. Families prefer to stay in the homes of other families because they’re already geared up for children. It also means they don’t have to take so much stuff with them.”
When arranging a home swap, each party organises and pays for their own travel and other expenses. In addition, people often agree to swap cars and other facilities, such as boats and beach furniture, which saves a fortune, or may agree to look after pets.
Do your research
Julie Osborne, of global firm Home Exchange, which has 41,000 members in 144 countries, takes part in home swaps herself and says she has stayed in some outstanding properties over the years. She says it’s very easy to match yourself up with a swap partner but that you need to do your homework to make sure both the house and location will suit you.
“Ask a lot of questions and make sure you are absolutely clear about what you want and what you’re offering, so there are no disappointments or misunderstandings on either side,” she advises. “You also need to be a bit flexible and have a more laid back approach to travel. Many people find the unpredictable nature of such a holiday makes it more fun.”
The bigger agencies, such as Home Exchange, Homelink and Home Base Holidays (which also runs sites for third parties, such as the Guardian) are well established and have thousands of members who pay to be listed and have access to all other listings. Members can then search for homes in locations they want to visit and match up via the agents’ sites before moving onto contacting each other directly via email, Skype and telephone.
Using an agency should help make any arrangements between you and another homeowner more secure, as there is an annual fee, which tends to ensure a level of commitment. Home Exchange charges from £71.40 per annum, while Home Base Holidays’ annual fee is £29. You can also check up on members by looking at their references and history in previous home swaps.
“The only time we were ever worried about a home exchange was our first experience of it,” says Ewan Hastings, from Roslin, Scotland, who has done 41 swaps since 2003. “But within minutes of arriving, we found everything as described and were totally relaxed.”
The Hastings took an interest in home exchange after seeing the Channel 4 TV show Home Swap. “I wasn’t keen at first but my wife convinced me to give it a try,” he says. “And we’ve holidayed this way ever since.”
He and his wife, Laura, both 44, find it a cheap and friendly way to travel with their two teenage children. As well as holidaying all over the UK and Europe, they have been to New Zealand and the US.
“Our village is popular with visitors because it’s near Edinburgh and is the location of Roslin church, which featured in the Da Vinci Code,” says Ewan. “Our house is a nice, comfortable family home with everything you need, and I think other families definitely appreciate that.”
Ewan adds you shouldn’t always expect to get like-for-like: many homes can come with pools, hot tubs or acres of land but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it if you don’t have these perks. “No one expects everyone’s home to be identical, as long as it’s clean and comfortable,” he advises.
The Hastings have never had any problems but Ewan says swapping probably won’t suit people who worry a lot, as you have to accept other people will inhabit your space. “You should remember, people aren’t there to snoop on you, but to have a good holiday, just as you are when you’re in their home.”
What to look out for
Nevertheless, home swap blogs, such as Home Exchange Guru, do carry stories of negative experiences. These mainly seem to include properties, vehicles or facilities being misrepresented, undisclosed damage,
sub-standard cleanliness and locations that may not be as attractive or safe as the owners have made out.
John Mensinger, from California, who writes the blog Home Exchange Guru, says you need to do your research to check a property or location is suitable for you. “Things do occasionally go wrong but you can minimise the chance of a problem by carefully evaluating exchange offers as well as the families involved,” he says. “In our 13 exchanges we only had one major problem when my daughter accidentally erased a computer hard drive, which, the owner hadn’t backed up. I paid to have it restored.”
John suggests always looking carefully at detailed maps, overhead photos and using Google Streetview to evaluate a property first.
If you’re not certain whether home exchange is for you, Ewan Hastings suggests starting with a weekend in the UK, rather than a long-haul trip. “Home swapping happens in the UK as well as overseas, and our first few trips were in Britain, so we weren’t too far from home if anything should go wrong.”
In fact, it could be one of the best ways to secure a roof over your head during the Olympics this summer. Home Base Holidays says it has thousands of members living close to the Games’ venues, and with soaring hotel prices, a home swap could be your best bet.
Those who are worried about having strangers in their home can take steps to ensure they feel more at ease. Firstly, agents generally recommend following up references or you can also check someone’s professional profile with the firm they work for or via online sites, such as Linkedin. And get to know your swap partners, via email and the like.
You could also have a place to keep any personal or prized possessions shut away, possibly a locked cupboard or filing cabinet. Alternatively keep one room of the house unused or store things in the attic.
One thing to consider is household insurance, which is generally unaffected if you have friends, including exchange partners, to stay. Swappers claim it can help to have the house occupied while you are away. However, you may want to check with your insurance provider or take out an extension to your policy to cover accidental damage. And keep in mind you will need to pay extra to include any new name on your car insurance.
A more authentic experience
Though the agencies claim not to be directly responsible should members run into trouble, they will help in handling any complaints or problems if they can. Julie Osborne says Home Exchange has rarely received complaints and those they do get tend to be related to the standards of cleanliness or minor damage, rather than anything terrible.
“Most people understand that a house should be left clean and tidy for guests and that the property they’re borrowing must be left the same way,” she says.
Most ‘swappers’, as home exchangers tend to call themselves, say they have rarely had any issues. “People are using your home and personal items but you are also using theirs, so there’s an issue of shared trust and respect among you and your exchange partners,” explains Steve Austin, 65, from Cambridgeshire, who has been house swapping since 1982. “In 30 years we’ve only ever had one problem,” he says. “We found a blob of ketchup on the kitchen wall. It wasn’t exactly a disaster.”
Steve and his wife Brenda, 65, used to travel with their three children, who have now grown up, and had many family holidays, visiting almost every major city in the US and Australia. As retirees they’re still keen on home exchange and recently swapped their five-bedroom, riverside home with partners in Rio de Janeiro and Halong Bay in Vietnam. “You can save a lot of money by doing it but home exchange isn’t really about that for me,” says Steve. “It’s all about getting under the skin of a place. When you travel this way you live in a real community and meet local people. It’s a more authentic way to see a country.”
Many members report making lifelong friends with exchange partners and Home Base Holiday’s Sealey says many members have had a warm welcome from neighbours in the area they’re visiting. “Local families are great for recommending attractions and restaurants or inviting people round for dinner.” The Austins are still in regular contact with people they met through swapping over 20 years ago and have even holidayed with people they’ve come to know this way.
For families feeling the pinch, however, the most attractive aspect is the reduced cost of travelling this way. The savings on accommodation for a family of four can be huge, particularly if you use budget airlines.
Ewan Hastings is taking his family to Germany this summer for just over two weeks and all it’s costing is the flights, which are £480. “It means we have extra money to spend on things we really want to do, like eating out, visiting attractions and taking local trips.
“We’ve never regretted doing home exchange, I’d recommend it to anyone.
The Mallens, from Ireland and Hosfords from America, became exchange partners through Home Exchange.
Ger and Vivienne Mallen, from County Cork in Ireland. They have three children, Beth, 14, Viv, 13, and Matthew, 10.
What made you choose home exchange as a holiday option?
My brother-in-law had tried it and was very positive about home exchange.
Would you do it again?
Absolutely. When you exchange with a family, you have the benefit of all that local knowledge, the best places to go, where to eat, what to see. We’ve made very good friends from Home Exchange, for example, we had the great fortune to spend some time with the Hosford family from Georgia and we are still in good contact with them.
Where have you visited on home exchange holidays?
Mainly the USA: Sarasota, Florida; Canton, Georgia; New York; but also Lyon, France.
Paul and Barbara Hosford, live near Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA. They have two daughters, Grace, 13 and Lily, 11.
What made you choose Home Exchange as a holiday option?
I was on the internet looking for homes to rent for our holiday and came across the Home Exchange website. We saw the reference for the movie The Holiday and watching it kind of reinforced the idea that a vacation can be a much more rewarding experience if you go about it in the right way.
What budget did you have?
Our budget was set by the cost of airfare. We based our destination search on the best deals and, luckily, Ireland had pretty good rates that year. The rest of the cost: petrol, food and entertainment are about the same as if you stayed home. It’s a very economical way to see the world.
Would you do it again?
Definitely. It was the best holiday our family has taken. There’s a different kind of satisfaction from a home exchange, which you don’t get in a regular hotel-based holiday. It’s longer lasting and more enriching. We’re looking into several options this summer including Spain and Scotland.
Where have you visited on home exchange?
Seattle, USA; Cork, Ireland.
ESSENTIALS More info
Home Exchange Academy ebook. RRP: $3.16 (£2). (Amazon for Kindle).
The Home Exchange Guide ebook. RRP: £9.79. (Poyeen Publishing). www.poyeen.com
Home Exchange University: Online blog run by the same people behind Home Exchange Guru with lots of advice on home swapping and details of John Mensinger’s book on the subject: Guide to Trading Your Home. www.homeexchangeuniversity.com
Home Base Holidays: www.homebase-hols.com
Home Exchange: www.homeexchange.com
Home Exchange Guru: http://homeexchangeguru.com
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)