Home Exchanges: What You Need to Know

Travelers are finding they can save money and get a local perspective when they trade homes with someone else. Here's what to know before your first swap.

The owners of a home in Oslo, Norway, are looking for a U.S. vacation in a nonsmoking home with three or four bedrooms, preferably in a coastal locale. In return, you'll pack up your family and stay in their home with its indoor swimming pool, secret garden and a "stunning view" in an upscale area.

The ad is like many you'll find on home-swapping sites, where travelers trade homes with others for vacations. Advocates of the practice say home exchanges are all about saving money and getting a local experience, and it's a vacation practice that has been popular on some level since the 1950s.

Switching homes with someone gives you a home base in the area, and the space you receive is almost always much larger than the local hotel rooms, with the added benefit of more privacy and all the comforts of home. While vacation home rental companies like Airbnb and HomeAway largely overshadow the house-swap practice, repeat "swappers" say it's the savings and personal connections that attract them to the practice of trading homes for a vacation.

Before you start, however, read these FAQs for housing swaps to ease the challenges of your first exchange.

How long do typical home exchanges last?

Research and responses from popular exchange sites indicate most swaps last anywhere from one week to a month, although some users have even been known to use the sites for weekend trips. Most users start planning their exchanges far in advance to ensure the dates line up for both parties. 

How does a house exchange work, exactly? 

Similar to Airbnb and Homeaway type vacation rental websites, you can generally find home exchange properties around the world. What's different is that unlike such vacation rental sites, you will not be paying the owner to rent their home. There will, however, typically be a fee (often presented as a site membership fee) which you will pay to the company that facilitates the swap. 

Home exchanges can be either simultaneous—you swap houses at the same time—or nonsimultaneous, when one group stays at one point and the exchange partners come at a later or earlier date. For the social butterflies, there are hospitality exchanges in which each family takes a turn hosting the visiting exchange family.

What if I have never before exchanged homes?

If you've never done a home exchange before, you are in good company.

Home-swap site GuestToGuest spokesperson Lindsey Freeman said, "Two-thirds of exchanges include at least one member who has never done an exchange as a host, guest or both." On HomeExchange, another popular housing-swap service provider, a high percentage of members have already participated in an exchange, and CEO Ed Kushins said that experienced members—those who have completed four or more exchanges—are usually willing to show new exchange partners the ropes.

Is exchanging houses with a stranger safe?

With the trend of house swapping moving online, safety concerns can loom large for many potential exchangers. Websites that facilitate such exchanges make the process safer by asking exchange partners to provide references from previous swaps. Background checks can be common, and there is almost always a damages deposit held through the length of the exchange. Besides references, house swap site GuestToGuest has three optional security steps: user verification, security deposits and insurance offered by a third party. 

"The most effective safeguard is to ask for references," said HomeExchange's Kushins.

"You’re going to have emails, Skype and other communication before you close an exchange," added Kushins. “You’ll feel like it’s a friend that you’re waiting to invite into your home.” 

Who is a typical home exchanger?

We asked swapping sites about their core audiences. GuestToGuest's typical users are 35-45-year-olds traveling as a family. For HomeExchange, the age bracket skewed slightly older, with a peak in the 45-55 year age bracket. HomeExchange's Kushins said the 34-and-younger crowd makes up only about 6 percent.

According to Kushins, many new parents actually prefer a home exchange—specifically with a family that has similarly-aged children—to avoid bringing large items for a baby or toddler like cribs and high-chairs.

Generally, the defining characteristic of users is that they own their home, which might explain the age demographics of both sites, but even that is not always true. Renters can participate, although some landlord-tenant rental agreements specifically prohibit the tenant from engaging in the practice of subleasing your space.

Does a home exchange actually save money?

Travel (airfare or other transportation), lodging and dining expenses are the largest categories of vacation expenses, but home exchanges can cut back on those costs by eliminating the lodging cost and by allowing users to cook meals at home rather than eat out continuously. Again, the service isn't entirely free, but most membership fees pale in comparison to what nightly hotel rates would be, especially when you consider a week or longer vacation. 

What kind of experience is typical during a home exchange?

Though the anonymity of home exchange contracted online might make some uncomfortable, the experience is well worth any fret, and what often starts as an online message from a stranger ends up turning into personal connections and tips from locals.

“I exchanged with a woman in Canada,” said Theresa King, a HomeExchange member. “It worked great for me. She gave me ideas like ‘Oh, go to this bakery. They know me there,’ and it was the best. I also did the same for her while she was here. You’re going some place really great but you can share your experience as a local if you’re willing to share.”

What are some popular sites that facilitate house swaps?

Besides the aforementioned HomeExchange.com and GuestToGuest sites, other prominent home exchange providers include HomeLink, KnokLove Home Swap and Intervac.

Jamie Jackson
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