Home Exchange Vacations: Why Pay to Stay When You Can Swap Houses?


Summer is around the corner, but vacation budgets for many families are tight. But a bit of belt-tightening doesn't have to mean giving up your dream vacation if you're able to escape the costs of a hotel and car rental. Now could be the time to take a leap of faith and try a home exchange or swap.

The practice dates back more 50 years, but its popularity has grown rapidly since the start of the Great Recession. For example, the largest exchange site, HomeExchange.com, has grown to 42,000 members so far this year -- up from 20,000 in 2008, when the markets began their descent and the economy cratered.

That growth should come as no surprise. A family of four visiting Paris can spend roughly $5,000 for a single hotel room with double beds over a two-week period. In a home exchange, that cost drops to zero. Then there's the $500 to $600 it would cost to rent a car for that period -- another expense that could be eliminated if both parties are willing to loan each other their vehicles. According to Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com, approximately 20% of all home exchanges also include a car exchange.

But swapping homes or apartments isn't for everyone, cautions Joe Murray, director of KnowYourTrade.com, a home exchange review and information site. Would-be travelers need to ask themselves how comfortable they'd be knowing a stranger is in their home, even though they would be staying at that person's residence. Someone who's likely to fret constantly that a visitor might be going through their underwear drawer or breaking into their locked file cabinets will have a hard time feeling relaxed on their vacation, he says.

Some home exchange information sites like Camago even offer a quiz people can take to see if their attitude toward traveling would be a good fit for a home-exchange arrangement.

Those initial concerns, however, may be eased as the parties exchange emails and phone calls with information about their respective homes, neighborhoods, local sites and friends and neighbors who would be available to ask questions, notes Kushins.

Here are some tips on how to jump into exchanging homes or apartments with total strangers in other countries or other states when embarking on a vacation, and how to avoid potential pitfalls, according to home exchange experts.

Getting Started

  • Decide whether you plan to travel to a specific foreign country, or whether most of your traveling will be done within the U.S. over next 12 months. Home exchange sites tend to offer one-year subscriptions, with some sites specifically focusing on certain countries while others offer a smorgasbord. Major cities like New York, San Francisco, Paris and London are popular destinations: Folks living in such places will have a relatively easy time finding potential exchange partners elsewhere. The French, followed by Americans, are active home exchangers, says Murray.

  • Once determining whether your travel will be to a specific country or whether you'll be taking a more varied approach, sign up for a home exchange site subscription. With more than 60 home exchange sites to select from, travelers may find it useful to read online review and information publications like KnowYourTrade, Camago and Home Exchange University. KnowYourTrade, for example, offers ways to sort the various home exchange Web sites based on countries of interest. Ideally, you should sign up for an exchange site with at least 100 members. That will make the odds of finding a mutually acceptable exchange higher.

  • After registering on a home exchange site, create a descriptive profile of your residence designed to attract prospective exchange partners. Murray advises would-be home exchangers to take at least a dozen flattering photographs of the interior and exterior of the residence, surrounding neighborhood and local points of interest. Then, post these photos, along with information about the home or apartment and its location, to the exchange site.

  • Be prepared to allow about three months between the time you post your residence online and the time you might secure a mutually acceptable swap. It will take some time to find someone who wants to travel to your city during the same period that you wish to travel to theirs. Both Kushins and Murray encourage folks who are new to home exchanges to take the time to get to know their exchange partner via emails and phone calls so they will be comfortable making the swap.

  • When people inquire about the possibility of doing an exchange with you, you're under no obligation to agree if the timing isn't right, conditions aren't to your liking, you get a bad vibe about the person, or for any other reason. Most declines are due to issues with scheduling a mutually acceptable time to swap, so home exchange experts advise you to be flexible. Throw out a general range of dates when you wish to travel, for example, a two-week period in either June or July. The potential exchange partner may come back with a couple of options, from which you you can both narrow it down. Murray notes most home exchangers are looking for two-week swaps.

  • Two issues that frequently come up during discussions about possible home exchanges are cars and pets, says Kushins. He notes that often, an agreement is signed by both parties that outlines the amount that swapped cars can be driven, and who pays for any damage to a car. In addition to cars, roughly 20 to 30% of potential exchanges involve a pet owner. Some swappers may request that your pet be boarded. Others may indicate they are willing to assume some pet sitting duties.

Preparing the Nest

Once a deal is struck, it's time to prepare your home.

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Consider creating a guest guidebook that includes need-to-know things about the house such as where the circuit breakers are located, when the garbage is picked up, an emergency contact sheet from local hospitals, and neighbors' phone numbers, as well as locations of nearby transportation routes and points of interest.

Immediately prior to the guests' arrival, tidy up, change the bed sheets and set out clean towels, advises home exchange experts. They also note it's considered good etiquette to also have a few things available for your guests to eat and drink when they arrive, as they obviously won't yet be familiar with the locations of the local markets.

In making arrangements to exchange house keys, one smart idea is to leave them with neighbors. That serves a dual purpose: It gets your guests the keys safely and also introduces them to your neighbors -- potential friendly resources of local information.

Pitfalls to Avoid

No one making an honest home swap arrangement will ever ask for a monetary deposit to hold the home or apartment you are seeking as an exchange, warns Murray. Over the last several years, a scam has popped up in which folks posing as swappers ask for a "refundable deposit." These exchanges are designed to be free, so no money should ever change hands.

Common sense also calls for putting your valuable items like jewelry and financial documents in secure places that can be locked, such as a safety deposit box, before you swap homes Murray says.

While cancellations rarely occur by an exchange partner, they're not unheard of due to illness or death in the family, notes Murray. And unlike a hotel room which can usually be booked at the last minute, finding an exchange on short notice is difficult. You may want to explore travelers insurance.

One issue that's unlikely to be a problem is homeowners and car insurance, say home exchange experts. That's because exchange partners are essentially like any other guests staying at your home, or any friends who borrow your car.

"An insurance agent would rather have someone staying in your vacant home because it deters burglars," says Murray. "And with car insurance, it's usually valid because it's insuring the car, not the person who is driving it."