A Guide To Home Exchange

Posted on: 30 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Home exchanging is on the increase, thanks to the credit crunch. Swapper Mike Davies offers his tips on the new travel essential.

http://owl-group-staging.s3.amazonaws.com/upload_datas/33384/landscape_large.png?1359638523You’ve been tracking them for some time. You know where they live, how old they are, what they do. You know when their home will be empty and for how long they’ll be away. And then, soon after they’ve left, you make your move.

You turn the key, switch off the alarm and have a long look around. You check out the CDs, the bookshelves, the artwork. You eat off their plates, sleep in their linen. Within a day or two, you’re even adopting their lifestyle: going to their favourite restaurants, using their bikes, driving their car. You might even annexe their friends.

It sounds like a sequel to Single White Female, but there’s a crucial difference: your “victim” has been offered the chance to do precisely the same thing in your home. And there’s not just trust, but enormous goodwill, on both sides of the bargain.

House-swapping was once considered something of an oddity, along with cycling to work and composting vegetable waste. Suddenly, it is fashionable. Gumtree.com, a listings website, reported last week that more than 13,000 families have registered to exchange their homes — up 61% on a year ago.

Whether because of the credit crunch or just because of the realisation that there are cheaper — and better — ways to get to know a place than staying in a hotel, more and more people are at it. And more and more organisations are being set up to cater for their needs.

But what is it actually like? Over the past five years, we have exchanged our three-bedroom end-of-terrace house in unglamorous Harlesden, northwest London, for a palatial maison de maître in Brittany, a modernist villa in achingly fashionable Antwerp and a cosy cottage in Somerset.

We’ve spent high summer on the Adriatic and deep midwinter in snowbound Vienna. Most recently, we stayed in a four-bedroom apartment near the Eiffel Tower that came with scooters for the children, Sonia Rykiel sheets (divine, since you ask) and an oven so state-of-the-art, it had three settings for brioche.

Based on a hotel stay costing £100 a night for a family of four, our 10 exchanges have saved us £10,000. But it’s not just about money. By swapping homes, we’ve gained an insight into the lives of others — and also come to look at our home in a new light.

The first stage in any swap is preparing photos for uploading to the internet. You’re effectively acting as your own agent, putting yourself in a global shop window, which makes you look afresh at all those little flaws that you have grown used to, but would be ashamed to show a visitor.

As my wife, Clare, would no doubt agree, I’ve always had an, er, easy-going approach to home maintenance. Call me a DDIYer — as in “don’t”. Exchanging has brought out my (well) hidden house pride.

It began with our first swap, in a village near Ghent, Belgium, in 2004. For months after we’d moved to Harlesden, cardboard removal boxes crammed full of toys had lurked balefully, unused, in the children’s room. Suddenly they were gone, replaced by brightly coloured plastic tubs, labelled with almost obsessive precision.

Chipped mugs and unmatched cutlery were banished; Egyptian cotton sheets arrived in the bedroom; shelving units sprouted in the kitchen and front room. Ikea morphed into Habitat; CDs and records were neatly filed away.

I progressed from flatpack assembly to fixing the lock on the front door and rehanging the doors on a corner kitchen unit to replace the hinges that didn’t match. (It’s amazing the difference a looming Eurostar departure time can make to your chiselling skills.)

Thanks to exchanging, our house is neater, and tidier, too. After one early-morning rush too many, we’ve learnt to allow a good week for the deep cleaning, and to keep things pristine for as long as possible afterwards.

The process can be laborious, but it brings its own reward: swappers generally leave things as they find them, so when you arrive back after your holiday, you’ll find your home in pristine, dust-free condition.

In some cases, says Lois Sealey, who runs Home Base Holidays, you’ll find it looks better: “Partners will fix things like leaky taps.” The prospect of an exchange can also spur homeowners to carry out big renovation projects they have long been putting off, she says.

In our case, this meant levelling our mouldy old shed, replacing it with a lean-to at the front of the house and a playhouse in the garden. Ideal for Rosa, 9, and Ella, 7, but also a draw for any family with young children; and with the cost the equivalent of a fortnight’s home exchange, not difficult to justify.

The children’s bikes are no longer in the hall, and the lean-to is perfect for storing sacks full of clutter that need to be hidden just before an exchange. (Well, nobody’s perfect...)

A desire to maximise our home’s exchange potential even influenced our decision to convert the loft this summer: extra bed space means a wider range of families with whom to swap.

So, with no accommodation costs, an insider’s view of your holiday destination and a happier home, the question is, why doesn’t everyone exchange? For starters, there’s the issue of trust: if you invite a stranger to live in your own home, how do you know they won’t trash the TV and steal the family silver?

But would you abuse someone else’s hospitality? And if not, why assume anyone else would? Admittedly, there is no built-in legal protection in home exchanging, but there is a strong sense of mutual responsibility, fostered by providing information about the house, as well as tips on what to see, where to eat and local shopping. Exchangers are encouraged to leave a first meal and a welcoming bottle of wine; the French seem particularly keen to show off the local produce.

The main home-exchange organisations say theft is rarely an issue; Sealey hasn’t had one complaint in the 24 years Home Base Holidays has been running. Caroline Connolly, business manager of HomeLink UK, Britain’s biggest swapping organisation (of which we are members) agrees.

“There’s a lot of communication, so you get a feel for who you’re swapping with,” she says. “If I thought you were going to walk off with the telly, I’d simply look elsewhere.” Insurers usually prefer a home to be occupied than to lie empty for a week or more.

What about breakages? Wilful damage is almost unheard of. At worst, says Brian Hayes, Great Britain organiser for Intervac, there’s the occasional instance of “teenagers making a mess” — but accidents do happen. At least, they do to me.

On that first Belgian exchange, I smashed a windowpane when parking a bike after sampling one too many of the country’s famous beers. That’s nothing compared to the people who left a rear window ajar while staying in Antwerp, thereby contributing to the death by strangulation of the family cat (at least, that’s the version I read in the guestbook).

The best policy is to own up and offer to pay for a replacement (slightly trickier with the cat). If you’re worried, agree in advance which rooms/drawers are off limits.

There’s one other common concern for would-be exchangers: is your house special enough to attract visitors from the kind of places you’d like to holiday in? Well, buffed and sheened as our Harlesden home might be, it’s hardly Belgravia; but we have good transport links nearby, and a small but pleasant garden. We’ve received roughly an offer a week since 2004 and had positive responses to several of our own approaches.

In general, people seem to like the local vibe: as a Danish family put it, “even the drunks at the top of your street were charming”.

Even if you’re not near a tourist hot spot, your home might be ideal for expats, distant relatives or Americans on the ancestral trail.

So what about the pitfalls? As the feline fatality in Antwerp suggests, pet care can be a problem: we’ve looked after cats, rabbits and chickens, all to the children’s delight, but have been asked in advance whether we minded. Not so one Canadian exchanger, who arrived in Ireland to find a dog in the partner’s home. He suffered from an allergy, so had to move out to a hotel.

And what if their place is posher than yours? Website listings give a good idea of what to expect, but there can be problems when an exchange property turns out to be a holiday home.

“Some people say they’d never exchange their main home for a holiday one, as it won’t be as well equipped or personal,” Sealey says. Hayes agrees: “We expect people to say upfront that it’s a holiday home, and get pretty cross if they don’t.”

We were caught out in Ravenna, the ancient Roman port on the Adriatic Sea: beautiful Byzantine mosaics, big beach, but a basic kitchen and no internet.

In the end, though, these are minor problems, and needn’t ruin your stay.

You can pick holes in any place if you try — while that cooker in Paris had endless patisserie permutations, I never found any oven gloves — but you’ll be having too much fun to bother. And when you return to the domestic idyll you’ve so carefully created for your guests, you’ll realise that there really is no place like your own home.

Fair Exchange

  • Start by registering with a home- exchange organisation. Then post details of your home, with photos, dates and ideal destinations, and wait for the offers to roll in — or approach fellow members to offer a swap.
  • Try these organisations: HomeLink UK: 01962 886882, www.homelink.org.uk; annual fee £115. Intervac: 0845 260 5776, www.intervac.co.uk; £50.Ukholidayswapshop: 01766 780740, www.ukholidayswapshop.co.uk; £15 until June 30, then £25. Home Base Holidays: 020 8886 8752, www.homebase-hols.com; £29. Exchange Holiday Homes: 01579 321402, www.exchangeholidayhomes.com; free to join, £67 per swap. For second-homers only.
  • Be honest about your area, and the distance to the city centre or attractions. A map is a great help. How do we tempt people to the erstwhile murder capital of north London? We call it a “vibrant multicultural area”, and point out the excellent transport links.
  • Tempted to tell porkies? Google Street View might expose them. And beware the wisdom of the London cabbie: one of our partners was told, “Harlesden? Don’t let your daughters out at night!”
  • Include photos of local attractions, as well as your home. Consider setting up a website to showcase your home. And don’t be afraid to ask for more pictures from a potential partner.
  • Make sure you have enough beds. If you’re swapping with a family, don’t assume that the children share rooms.
  • Inform home insurers of your plans the first time you swap. They’re usually only too pleased to have a property occupied. This goes double for car swaps.
  • Never smoke in the house without prior permission.
  • Agree on phone and internet usage. WiFi is a big draw.
  • Leave spare keys with a neighbour or friend.
  • Leave posh cleaning products at the front of your kitchen cupboard as an extra incentive.

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