What’s both simple and easy is five-star hotels, but they’re not always an option, for obvious reasons.
As a budget solution to travel, home exchange has its own set of pros and cons. This post will go through some reasons why home exchange rocks and why it also, at the same time, sucks.
What is home exchange?
Have you ever seen the movie The Holiday?
In the movie, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet list their homes online and agree to swap homes for the summer. In Kate’s London home, Cameron meets Jude Law and they subsequently fall in love. Meanwhile, in L.A., Kate gets together with Cameron’s friend, Jack Black.
(If you haven’t seen the movie, sorry for the spoilers. But seriously, it’s a romantic comedy — you know how it ends.)
Well, home exchange is basically like that (except with no guarantee of romantic hook-ups): you let a stranger stay at your home for free and, in exchange, you get to stay at that stranger’s home for free.
The New York Times says you could save about $5,000 by doing a home exchange and forgoing hotels and rental cars.
I can neither confirm nor deny that figure because I haven’t tried home exchange myself.
That’s why Alte Cocker is here to share some of her experiences. Alte Cocker will be doing her 55th home exchange this November, so she definitely knows a thing or two about it. (Apparently “Alte Cocker” is Yiddish for “old fart”. Yes, she’s got a lot of sass — you’ll see.)
Check out her home exchange reviews for the top websites to help you get started!
First question of this interview: your first home exchange was in 1990. How did you do it without the Internet?
In the days before the Internet, home exchange involved catalogs. You’d do mass mailings and see who responded. When the catalogs arrived, my life would stop as I pored over the listings and sent out mailings. A large phone bill in October was usually part of the deal.
Which home swapping websites do you use now?
The newer websites tend to have a lot of inexperienced members. I especially really dislike Homeexchange.com. It’s heavy on US listings, which makes it very difficult for anyone from the US to get a deal in Europe. Like many other home exchange sites, it also leaves the impression that all you need to do is ask and that penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park in NYC will be yours. It’s not so simple.
Many experienced exchangers who have tried Homeexchange.com leave because the people on the site don’t respond to messages. There’s a suspicion that the site leaves old listings up, which could account for the lack of responses. (This did happen to me and I had to insist that they remove mine from the database.)
On recommendations of friends, I recently enrolled in HomeForExchange.com as a third home exchange service. I took a 3-year membership as the price was reasonable. I’ll see what happens and probably eventually cut back to two services when I see how it works out.
There are many home exchange services that hide their statistics or do not have enough listings. Any home exchange site with fewer than 5,000 members is, in my opinion, a waste of time.
I also have a deep suspicion of any home exchange service promoting itself as a “luxury” site. No home exchange service inspects the properties, so what is “luxury”? I will tell you: a bunch of nonsense and a way to charge you more.
What kind of travel style suits home exchange?
A successful home exchanger must be open to go anywhere and not just be fixated on New York City, London or Paris. Anywhere can be interesting if you have not been there.
Most exchangers are on a budget and that’s why they do this. Very wealthy people who can stay at the Ritz or rent an expensive villa exactly where they want to go are probably not going to be exchanging.
Home exchange works best for short-term travel. Travelers will not find one property for a long-term home exchange. You need to do a series of home exchanges for that. (Take a look at this post on my website.)
If I’m looking for something longer than three or four weeks, I’ll do more than one home exchange back-to-back. I’ve done this in Australia with three home exchanges and one exchange of hospitality recently. In Europe, I generally try to do two home exchanges back-to-back. I’ll sandwich in a hotel stay in between if I need to. Flexibility is the key.
Beyond joining a website or two and putting up a good profile, what should a novice home swapper do? What are your three best tips?
1. Be proactive.
Don’t sit back and expect everyone to write to you. Write to a lot of people.
2. Be honest.
Don’t write to people if you’re not sure you’d take their home. The home exchange world is small and you won’t make friends by emailing 200 people and, when someone accepts, not responding.
In my view, if you have emailed them, you accept. If a “better” offer comes in later, too bad. You have accepted. It should be the end. You shouldn’t run around “jumping” offers. Remember that someone can do that to you as well.
And please consult your finances for the prices of airfares before accepting. Don’t accept and then decide, several months down the road, that you can’t afford the trip. It isn’t honest or fair to your exchange partner.
3. Be flexible.
I’ve had people reject my house because they’d have to drive 4.5 miles and park at the Metro in DC. They’d prefer a house where the Metro is across the street.
You want the perfect location? Do you want to home exchange or do you want nothing? Most people do not live next to Metro. You might have to drive or walk a few blocks.
I cannot emphasize this enough: people who get too picky end up empty-handed.
Any horror stories related to a home exchange gone bad?
I have a lot of stories.
The worst story occurred in a place called Scheidig in Bavaria (which I now call “Scheissdig”).
The people had a filthy house with a car that basically did not run. They were, looking back on it, just too elderly and addled to be home exchanging. I had to wash every dish before using it.
And the car? From a conversation with the garage, I found out they knew it was a wreck, but refused to either repair or replace it because they didn’t want to pay for it.
When I came home, there were feces all over my two main bathrooms. Disgusting.
And, during the summer of 2013, I had a home in Toulouse, France, that was totally unsuitable for exchange.
The people were misers. They set the hot water heater so low that it was constantly turning off and I had almost no hot water. When I went to the basement to reset the hot water heater, I found they had taken the light bulb out of the socket to save money — very dangerous in an old stone basement (and nutty).
The house had a lot of other problems, including a repulsive smell in the water, indicative of sewer problems. When I opened the fridge, the handle fell off the fridge. The drawers in the kitchen were full of utensils, but they were all greasy.
When the people returned, I met them. They murmured something about air conditioning (Toulouse is an inferno in the summer). I didn’t really expect air conditioning, but no fan? They said they all slept outside in the summer in the garden due to the heat.
I would, of course, never recommend their house.
A warning, however, on giving people’s homes a bad reference: they will trash you back. I go into every home exchange hoping for a clean house. That’s all I want, but I don’t always get it.
With all the bad experiences you’ve had, why are you still doing it, year after year? What keeps you coming back?
I’m a person of modest means who could not do the trips I do without home exchange. Even with the problems, I don’t know any other method of vacationing that would allow me to go as far for the relatively small amounts of money I spend. So it is a compromise.
When I get a “bad” house, I just roll with the punches and do as best as I can. I go into each exchange hoping for the best, but prepared to adjust. What to do: get the hell out of the house and go sightseeing. Go and see things you never could see without home exchange.
I tell people, when they get a bad house, that there are plenty of bad hotels too. I certainly have stayed at some of them. You need to overlook the stuff you don’t like and get on with it.
You’ve had your place trashed before, so what makes you feel safe about leaving your house to strangers?
I really have only had a trashed house twice. There were the dirty Germans and then there were some French people in 1993 who used the excuse of my cleaning woman to avoid doing any cleaning — I came home to a dried bag of peas dumped all over the kitchen.
Other than that, I look at the post-exchange cleaning as just a cost of this way of travel. Sometimes I need to do it, sometimes I don’t. So I clean up for a couple of days; how much money did I save?
Since it seems the reviews can’t be trusted (people unwilling to leave bad reviews for fear of retaliation), how do you screen potential exchangers?
There is no effective way to do it, short of knowing someone in the town to go over and have a look at the house. Even the websites claiming they deal only in “luxury” properties don’t screen the listings.
Home exchange is based on trust. You try to establish it in emails. By the time you exchange, you have developed a relationship with your exchangers and you cross your fingers. Until you walk in the door of your home exchange, you won’t really know.
If you’re not willing to take the risk, the best thing is to choose another method of travel, but it will cost you a lot more.
If you rent a place, by the way, what is the guarantee that it will be clean? Haven’t you ever had a dirty vacation home? I have stories about that, too, before my home exchange days — and it cost more.
(End of Interview)
Thanks, Alte Cocker, for your insights!
To learn more about home exchange, read this post: Home Exchange 101: A Five-Minute Introduction to Free Accommodation.
Images: 1. (Free Licence); 2. Amazon ; 3. Alte Cocker; 4. Rob Boudon (CC BY 2.0 License); 5. Eduardo (CC BY-SA 2.0 License); 6. Patrik Jones (CC BY 2.0 License); 7. likeablerodent (CC BY-SA 2.0 License) ; 8. Alte Cocker.