Exchanging houses with strangers across the world might seem daunting, but if done properly, it makes for cheap, lively holidays. By Nicholas Spagnolletti.
Top of the swaps
‘You look fabulous,’ said the pink Post-it note on the wall mirror in a beautifully decorated one-bedroom apartment on the corner of 54th and Broadway. It was our first time in New York and we had this fantastically located apartment for a solid month, including Christmas and New Year. We’d never met the owners – not in the flesh at least – and the Post-it notes were our guide around their home. The charge for accommodation?
Like many, we got the idea from the most unoriginal of sources, the rom-com in which a freshly heartbroken Cameron Diaz seeks diversion and discovers a website that facilitates her swapping homes, and to some degree lives, with total stranger Kate Winslet. Post-movie Googling took my partner Edward to homeexchange.com with a banner announcing, ‘As seen in The Holiday!’ We were full of misgivings. Sure, it was tempting to have free accommodation in foreign lands but the whole idea seemed fraught with peril. What if they trashed our place? What if we trashed theirs?
But a seed had been planted and a few days later Edward announced he’d paid the $120 registration fee – which seems steep but has the reassuring effect of filtering out chancers – and so we needed to take pictures of our Sea Point flat, which has no parking and no view.
‘But the bathroom is from 1981,’ I protested.
‘Well, we must just be honest,’ said Edward.
It is honesty that makes home exchange so successful. Something about the intimacy of the transaction, with no money changing hands, brings out the best in strangers. After registering, you upload photos and fuss over the all-important profile with its many fields where you describe your home, neighbourhood, places you’d like to visit and, of course, yourselves. Then you make contact with potential matches and start receiving messages from others. When we started, it took about 10 or 15 conversations before Glen and Matt contacted us. They’re the sort of gay couple that rarely appear in a photograph with their tops on. They wanted beach, sun and the Mother City Queer Project. We were happy to trade a month of sweltering Cape Town for New York’s streets, theatre and snow.
Over a flurry of emails we discussed all the details of the hypothetical arrangement. Since the site only introduces you to one another and does not mediate the agreement, this part-negotiation, part-seduction process is vital and builds the rapport you need to trust each other for the exchange. Within a few weeks we’d booked our non-refundable airline tickets. We were still fairly nervous when we set off on the adventure but needn’t have been: everything went swimmingly and we – and they – had a glorious time.
Home exchange works whether you live in a tiny bachelor or a large mansion because it’s about finding a match at a similar enough level that the arrangement feels fair and appealing to both parties. Having a desirable location and being flexible with time are the two key elements that increase your chances of a successful swap. Being able to work remotely has worked in our favour because it’s meant we’ve been able to accept tempting offers from those with more rigid leave calendars.
We’ve now done four home exchanges, and each one has been free of the nightmares people fear. Sure, there were small mishaps. In Bologna, a side mirror spontaneously dropped off the car of its own accord. The poor Americans managed to burst two of our tyres. In Berlin, we were certain we’d lost a cat and were overjoyed when it appeared after two days of worry. But these are all part of the normal wear and tear of everyday life. There was no vandalism, fraud or arson. By contrast, our travel horror stories have all been in cases where money changed hands – that filthy B&B in Edinburgh, or the extortionist shoebox in King’s Cross. With home exchange, whether you find a mirror family or people who have made radically different choices to you, you’ll experience both privacy and comfort on the one hand and expert local guidance on the other. You’ll come home feeling like you’ve lived abroad.
How to plan and do the exchange
1. Pick a house-swapping service
There are many but homeexchange.com is the largest site and affords the best chance of finding a match globally. Locally, houseswap.co.za focuses on exchanges within South Africa, as well as international swaps.
2. Plan ahead
Plan six months to a year ahead: exchanges can happen at shorter notice but this is rare.
3. Prepare your profile
Take photos that reflect what your home is really like. Put a little effort into them but don’t go all Top Billing.
4. Don’t be afraid to decline
Be courteous and politely decline if you know you’re not interested in an offer.
5. Take out insurance
Especially if you’re exchanging cars, make sure you’ve taken out comprehensive insurance.
6. Get it on paper
Some people feel more comfortable with a written agreement – a template on the site can help with this.
7. Agree on bill payments
Clarify what expenses you’ll be covering and what will be for their account. Usually each party covers their own utility bills as normal, provided they’re within the range of reasonable usage. If there are any extraordinary bills such as a high phone bill or traffic fine then politely inform the other side and arrange a way for them to pay. Leave a cash contingency for any minor unforeseen expenses.
8. Provide detailed instructions
Make detailed instructions about how your house works and take care to recommend interesting things to do that they wouldn’t necessarily get from a guidebook.
9. Lock up valuables
If there are possessions you don’t want them to touch or see, lock them away.
10. Ease them in
Get a friend to collect them from the airport and show them into your house.
11. Keep in touch
During the exchange make occasional contact but don’t be overbearing.
Nicholas and Edward have had four Exchange holidays. Here’s what they saved…
- One month in New York in 2008 @ $200 per night = R48 000
- Two weeks in Northern California in 2009 @ $90 per night =R12000
- Two weeks in Berlin in 2011 @ €70 per night = R10 290
- Six weeks in Bologna in 2014 @ €100 per night = R63 000