Long before Airbnb, savvy travellers had already discovered a way to vacation in other peoples' homes. But while home exchanges (also called house swaps) are virtually free, you have to put in the hours to find the right fit. For fans, though, it's time well spent.
"Among the many online exchange agencies out there, some don't charge for listings and others require annual memberships, with fees averaging $130," says Sandra Pearson (homeexchanging.wordpress.com), veteran swapper and author of Home Exchanging: Your Guide to Enjoying Free Vacation Accommodations.
Pearson suggests joining several agencies to increase the chances of a good match – popular sites include homelink.ca, lovehomeswap.com and homeexchange.com – and making your home as attractive as possible to potential swappers.
"Treat your listing like an advertising campaign. There's strong competition in popular destinations so you need to stand out. Include good photos of rooms and features beneficial to travellers – bright, uncluttered homes always look best," she says.
Before uploading, check how far your home insurance covers guests. Also, make any important caveats clear in your listing, from no smoking to no pets. Once your profile is live, you'll be deploying the most important tool in the process: communication.
"Ask questions of anything that's unclear or omitted in other people's listings. And confirm you'll have sole access – if there's a pool, for example, ensure it's fully available to you," says Pearson, adding that parking, transit, air conditioning and neighbourhood type are also common discussions.
"Ensure you're satisfied with all the answers, and if a home doesn't feel right or won't accommodate your needs, keep looking until you find one that does."
Once you're happily matched, you'll need to spruce up your pad. "Aside from cleaning, remove clutter and personal items and provide counter, closet and dresser space. Aim to provide the conveniences of a hotel: restaurant menus, attraction brochures, transit maps – anything your guests will find useful."
Leave your on-the-road contact details, plus the number of a nearby friend or relative who can help your guests in an emergency. Don't forget to communicate clear instructions about gaining access or locating keys.
If this all seems like hard work, Tofino-based exchanger Maureen Fraser says the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
"When you're in someone else's home, you're immediately more connected to that country. You're staying in a neighbourhood and experiencing what daily living is like in that part of the world."
This immersion makes for memorable stays. "My first exchange was a 500-year-old Tuscany farmhouse. We explored hilltop towns, watched the grape harvest and shopped in markets," says Fraser, recalling additional culturally rich swaps in a Mexican lakefront hacienda and a Mediterranean-view French apartment.
She agrees that exhaustive dialogue is critical to finding the right match. "E-mail exchanges give you some idea of their personality and help you plan how detailed your guest instructions need to be," she says, adding she prefers those with a track record of exchanging.
"It usually means they'll have everything organized on their end: directions, maps, wine for your first night and coffee and bread for your first morning."
Trust, Fraser says, is the topic most non-swappers quiz her on. "People are worried by the thought of strangers in their home and afraid of having possessions stolen or damaged. But I find exchangers treat the other person's home with the same care they expect will be given to theirs. I've had nothing but positive experiences in my 22 exchanges."
For Pearson, this leap of faith is key. "The secret to successful exchanging is everyone being honest and respectful. Hosts need to accurately describe their home and prepare for their guests. And guests should treat the home like it's their own. When these values are followed, it's rewarding for all."
OUR READERS WRITE
- 1. Signed document with all the details. 2. Don’t settle for still images – ask for a Skype/video call to see the house. @StanleyParkFan
- Ask yourself if you are suited to home exchanges. Do you mind strangers using your stuff? If your wife’s grandmother’s antique furniture is broken (happened to us), can you shrug it off, have it repaired, and be happy that the expense was a minuscule fraction of the cost of hotel and car rental? If your vehicle is totalled (again, happened to us), can you cheerfully collect the cheque from the insurance company, head over to the dealership, and replace the vehicle? If not, maybe you shouldn’t get into this. Stan Combs
- Location, location, location – Google map first. @JaneMundy
- My husband and I have been members of Intervac (Intervac.ca) for three years. We have had exchanges in Canmore, Groningen in the Netherlands, Ottawa and this summer, Portland, Ore. We live in Edmonton and had some doubts whether anyone would want to exchange, but there are always reasons – family, friends, weddings, the Fringe, the International Marathon finals. We have a potential exchange for next winter with a Brazilian family who contacted us wanting to experience a Canadian winter! Alison Faid
- You have all the comforts of home, only different and exciting. You can cook local foods, so you eat out less and cut costs. Having a home base to come back to after a day of travel is truly wonderful. Theresa Soper
- The other key figure is someone you can rely on when you are gone – a relative, a neighbour, or someone the exchanger can call for assistance when the need arises. Have someone on hand when they arrive. In a couple of our exchanges, for example, the hosts arranged for neighbours to pick us up at the airport. Now that’s the kind of welcome that creates an instant feeling of hospitality. Alan Cogan
- Start planning a home exchange well in advance of dates wanted and be as open as you can on destinations you will consider. @HomeExchangeUK
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