Home-exchange programs dramatically cut travel costs and often make excursions more enjoyable. Program members agree to trade homes for days, weeks or longer, saving the cost of lodging and cutting down on restaurant bills. Cars are exchanged in about half of home exchanges, eliminating vehicle rental costs as well.
You can participate in a home exchange even if your home is not in or near a popular vacation destination—you’ll just have to exchange homes with others whose homes are in less popular areas. My hometown of Modesto, California, is not popular enough for me to find a great home in a great neighborhood in London or Paris, but we could find a modest home in a less popular neighborhood in those cities. Or we can trade our home for a wonderful home in a lesser known area such as the British midlands.
The easiest way to exchange a home is through an agency that specializes in this. There are now dozens of home-exchange agencies. The yearly membership fees allow you to list your home, look at other listings and contact fellow members to propose an exchange. The largest agencies tend to be the best by virtue of their size alone—more members mean more potential trade partners.
HomeExchange.com is the largest agency, with more than 40,000 members. It is particularly strong in the US, which is great if you travel domestically, but it increases your competition for trades when you travel internationally. $120/year.
HomeForExchange.com has more 14,000 members. It’s strong in France, Australia and the US, and its membership fee is relatively low. $59/year.
HomeLink (www.HomeLink.org) is one of the oldest agencies and has about 13,000 members. It has regional affiliates with English-speaking employees in many foreign countries, so members often have a local contact if problems develop during a home exchange. HomeLink International is particularly strong in Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the US. $119/year.
Home Base Holidays (www.HomeBase-Hols.com) is not as large as the agencies listed above, with just 2,300 members, but it is very strong in the UK and a reasonable choice for Americans hoping to travel there. £29/year (approximately $45).
Once you join an agency, follow its instructions to list your home on its Web site. These sites let members upload numerous photos of their homes, but the first photo usually is the most important—that’s the photo that will be displayed when other members browse listings. It doesn’t have to be a picture of the front of your house. If your home is on a beach or has a pool, consider making that your first picture.
If you do not live in a city that’s popular with vacationers, include in your description of the property the names of all cities and vacation destinations within a few hours’ drive of your home so that your listing pops up when other members search those keywords.
Example: The listing for my home in Modesto notes that we are two hours from San Francisco and Yosemite. Next, use the Web site’s search tools to locate program members who have homes in places you wish to visit and who have expressed an interest in visiting your region (or who say they will travel anywhere). Typically, it is best for families with kids to trade with other families with kids. Their homes will be set up for children, with toys, video games and fewer breakable items.
MAKING A TRADE
When you find a potential trade partner, send an e-mail asking if he/she would be interested in exchanging with you. Explain when and for how long you would like to trade and where your home is located. If your home is in a desirable region, you’ll probably find a partner quickly. If it’s in an ordinary region, send out 10 to 20 e-mails at a time and see who responds.
Warning: If you’re trying to arrange a trip during your kids’ summer vacation, start sending out e-mails 10 to 12 months in advance. Families with school-age kids often select vacation exchange partners very early.
Home exchangers typically coordinate travel dates so that they are in each other’s homes at the same time. Travel dates do not have to match up when second homes are being exchanged.
Communicate with potential trade partners at least two or three times by e-mail or phone before finalizing the agreement. Ask any questions you can think of about the home and neighborhood. These interactions won’t just help you decide if the home is right for you—they also can give you a feel for the home’s owner. If someone is not friendly and responsive, this might not be someone you want to trust with your home.
Two questions I particularly like…
Can we meet prior to the exchange? Most home exchangers don’t do this, but I’ve found a face-to-face meeting builds trust on both sides. The meeting could be a quick hello at an airport or one family could travel a day before the other and share a home briefly. You also could try to set up a video chat using Skype or Apple’s Facetime.
Could you arrange introductions with a few of your friends or neighbors so that I have local contacts? Not only is it nice to know people in the places you visit—this also makes you a part of the home owner’s social circle, and that increases the odds that he will treat your home with respect.
REDUCING THE RISKS
Those new to home exchange sometimes fear that they will accidentally invite burglars into their homes. I’ve never heard of that happening with a home exchange—there are much easier ways for burglars to access homes.
There is some risk that guests accidentally will damage your home, so confirm with your home owner’s insurance provider that damage would be covered. Make it clear to the insurer that these are nonpaying guests.
Trading cars adds to the financial risk of home exchange. Confirm with your auto insurance provider that both you and your guest would be covered if your guest has an accident. Also confirm that your exchange partner has sufficient insurance to protect you if you crash his car.
One often overlooked risk in home exchange is that differing expectations will lead to dissatisfaction with the trade. Topics worth raising with potential trade partners include…
Cleaning. Different people have different opinions about what constitutes “clean.” Discuss the level of cleanliness expected. Suggest that each of you brings in your own local cleaning company or maid service at the end of the trade if this seems like a potential point of contention.
Food. Can home exchangers consume the food and liquor they find in the home? Lean toward answering yes—sharing one’s food sets a friendly tone for the exchange.
Phones and computers. Are guests allowed to use these as much as they please? Within certain limits? Not at all? In a long-term exchange, will guests pay their own utility bills?
Helpful: Put together a user’s manual for your home, explaining how to use anything that isn’t obvious…how to contact you, your friends and local service people in an emergency…and offering insider guidance on the area, such as recommended restaurants or strategies for avoiding rush-hour traffic. This will help your guests enjoy their visit, and it will help them get to know you a little better, in written form, increasing the odds that they will consider you a friend and treat your property with respect.