Most people exchange gifts during the holiday season.
A few years back, Gerri Detweiler and her family took that tradition a step further by exchanging kitchens, bedrooms and other like amenities.
Detweiler, who lives in Sarasota, Florida, and serves as director of consumer education for Credit.com, planned to visit family in Missouri for Christmas. Rather than dropping a significant chunk of money on hotel accommodations, she used HomeExchange.com to swap homes with a family who lived in the area.
“They came to Sarasota in the middle of winter and we stayed in this big, beautiful house near my family,” she says. “It really cut the cost of our trip dramatically.”
Home swapping can be a viable option for people who enjoy travel but not the exorbitant hotel bills that can accompany a trip — particularly during the pricey holiday season. But, however cost effective, it’s essential to know some of the essential dos and don’ts so that a home exchange doesn’t morph into an inexpensive but regrettable headache.
While many may be unfamiliar with the specifics of home swapping, the practice has been around for decades. In its basic form, the idea is simple: you essentially exchange living accommodations with someone else, usually a primary home. You stay in your swap partner’s home and they, in turn, plant themselves in your digs.
The most obvious advantage is cost. According to Hotels.com’s 2014 hotel price index, the average cost for one night in a domestic hotel was $131. Additionally, Americans traveling outside of the country could expect to cough up an average of $174 per night. Multiply that by the length of a trip or vacation — bearing in mind that “averages” can belie actual costs — and the expense of finding a place to sleep can become a budget buster for many looking to get away.
While home exchanges eliminate most of the lodging costs, swap participants can expect to pick up other associated costs — transportation, food, entertainment and other expenses. Nor is a home exchange completely free of other charges. Unless someone tries to do it on their own (generally not a good idea — see below for features of home swapping services), they’re likely going to pay for a home exchange’s services (HomeLink offers a one-year membership deal for $89 for domestic and international homes, with a $39-a-year plan for homes located exclusively in the United States).
Membership allows you to connect with other homeowners to explore destinations, availability and other issues. Homelink encourages its participants to get to know the people with whom they’re considering a swap.
“We’ve had a lot of friendships forged within our exchange partners,” says co-owner Katie Costabel. “Sometimes, people swapping homes overlap a day so they can get to meet and spend time with each other.”
Another plus is the system’s inherent flexibility. Although many swap partners agree to occupy each other’s homes during the same timeframe, “non-simultaneous exchanges” allow exchange partners to stay in a vacation home or secondary residence while the owner remains in his or her primary home. Home swappers can also agree to other exchanges, such as each other’s cars.
Additionally, home swapping can immerse visitors in a local community to a degree that may not be possible from a more removed hotel environment. “You really have a more cultural experience,” says John Mensinger, founder of Homeexchangeguru.com and a veteran of more than 20 home swaps. “You’re learning about the way other people live. It adds a cultural component.”
Not for everyone
Home swapping isn’t necessarily flaw-free. Mensinger recalls a swap in France where the air conditioning died in the car they were using in the heart of Provence’s summer swelter. On another trip, the home’s toilet tank cracked and started leaking. “We turned off the water supply and used the other toilet,” he says “Fortunately, it was near the end of our stay.”
Those sorts of missteps aren’t the only reason that home swapping, however cost-effective, is by no means one size fits all. For one thing, there are some people for whom the thought of sleeping in someone else’s bed is not worth the cheapest of price tags — or, for that matter, the notion of someone else rummaging through their refrigerator when they’re not around.
As Costabel acknowledges, the arrangement is based on trust and a sense of reciprocity.
“It’s a really black and white situation,” says Costabel. “Either you’re open to the situation or you’re not.”
Additionally, home swapping adds an extra — and often time consuming — element to travel planning. For instance, for international exchanges, Costabel recommends beginning the process at least six months prior to the actual planned trip. By contrast, domestic travel may mandate a bit less proactivity (although, if the notion of a home swap for the upcoming holidays appeals, Costabel suggests starting immediately.)
Lastly, think twice about home swapping if the idea of travel implies an utterly flawless experience. Although home swapping sites try to minimize unpleasant surprises as much as possible — participants generally have to describe homes, neighborhoods and other factors in brutally honest detail — there’s always the chance that certain expectations may be unmet. As Detweiler puts it: “I always tell people that ours is a lived-in house. They shouldn’t expect hotel-like quality.”
Tips for swapping success
If home swapping seems attractive, it pays to become acquainted with a few basic rules of thumb. For starters, use a reputable home swapping service. Not only do they offer a database of homes from which to choose, but they’ll have procedures and mechanisms in place to ensure accurate information about homes, availability and other important considerations.
Be as thorough as possible on both ends of the process. Offer an honest and comprehensive overview of your home, including nearby amenities, attractions and other features. Don’t sugarcoat idiosyncrasies, such as that unnerving rattle the dishwasher makes or that there’s a sewage treatment plant a few hundred yards down the road (as happened with one of Mensinger’s swaps, although the prevailing winds made the facility a moot point).
Be just as complete when investigating other properties. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t be shy about voicing them: “The key is forthright and honest communications,” says Costabel. Online tools such as Google Maps and Street Walk let you get a view of the surrounding area.
It’s also a good idea to make clear what’s strictly off-limits in your home. For instance, if there’s a home office on the premises, make sure your swap partners aren’t offended if you choose to lock that up while you’re away. If a car is involved in the swap, many ask exchange partners to limit their driving to a certain amount of mileage or trip length. (For their part, HomeLink also encourages members to make certain that all drivers involved in the swap are adequately insured.)
Finally, don’t be discouraged if you happen to live in an area that’s not known as a vacation destination or doesn’t offer some sort of appealing attraction. As Costabel points out, some foreigners may be intrigued to spend time in a place off more beaten paths: “They want to see what ‘real Americans’ are all about.”
And, above all, be ready to go with the flow. The biggest aggravation on one of Mensinger’s recent exchanges: “They didn’t have a microwave oven.”