The ultimate guide to house swapping

May 17, 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, we paused traveling to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Local and federal governments around the globe are now debating the appropriate levels of isolation and distancing. Before booking that next trip, we recommend you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions. TPG is continuing to publish deals, reviews and general travel news to inform and prepare you for that trip, whether it is next month or next year.

Have you ever fantasized about trading lives with someone from a far-flung land, handing over your house keys and spending your days drinking rosé from the balcony of an apartment in Le Marais?

Well, you’re not alone. House swap companies have hundreds of thousands of members all around the world, each looking to trade lives — if only for a week or two. Play your cards right and you could have a great vacation for a fraction of the price, without leaving your house empty while you’re away.

And though we cannot travel at the moment for the most part due to the coronavirus pandemic, house swapping could be a fun, safe yet unique way to holiday in the future, as you can social distance more effectively by avoiding crowded hotels and restaurants.

So if you’ve ever thought about a house swap holiday, here’s everything you need to know.

This lovely little place in Switzerland could be yours. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
This lovely little place in Switzerland could be yours. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

Choose the right company

There are plenty of different house swap companies to choose from, where you can browse potential homes, get in touch with other members and make all your arrangements. You’re far better off organizing a swap through a reputable company — while most properties aren’t vetted, it’s far more secure to go through a proper system.

All of these organizations charge a membership fee, and most have a free-trial period so you can suss out the kind of places that are available before you commit.

HomeExchange charges $150 a year and has over 400,000 listings in 187 countries around the world. (Fun fact: This is the actual site used in the famous house-swap movie “The Holiday” and yes, they do see a spike in site traffic and memberships every Christmas.)

Another option with over 400,000 members in over 186 countries is Holiday Swap. Swaps can be done for just $1.

A home from home in Mexico? (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
A home from home in Mexico? (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

Some only allow for traditional swaps. For example, you stay in each other’s homes at the same time. Others facilitate a nonreciprocal exchange — HomeExchange has a GuestPoints system for those who wish to travel at different times. In this case, the host gets points that they can use in the future at another property — they’ll just stay somewhere else while their guests are visiting.

Be realistic, be honest

If you own a wisteria-covered town house in London’s upmarket Notting Hill, you’ll likely have your pick of house swaps all around the world. But if you live in a dodgy studio in the suburbs, the owners of that beach house in Malibu probably won’t return your emails.

That said, there’s a plug for every socket. A lot of people are on the lookout for houses in quaint country villages, with just a pub and a church for entertainment. You might take your hometown for granted, but one man’s sleepy suburb is another’s dream getaway.

Read more: 9 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel

This stunning property could be yours to stay in in Avignon, France. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
This stunning property could be yours to stay in Avignon, France. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

It’s important to be brutally honest when describing your property, a fact that’s emphasized by Caroline Connolly, the owner of UK-based Home-Link.

“You should present your home in an informative and appealing way,” Connolly said. “Add plenty of information about your home, your neighborhood and include attractions that can be reached within a day trip. Sunny photos are really important to show off what you have to offer.”

Be flexible

Be flexible with your plans and you might discover a gorgeous little house in a place you’d never have dreamed of visiting otherwise, such as a converted chapel in England, or a treetop paradise in Colombia.

“One of the amazing things about home swapping is the serendipity of the travel experiences you find,” said Célia Pronto, managing director of Love Home Swap.

A gorgeous property in London up for a swap. (Photo courtesy of Love Home Swap)
A gorgeous property in London up for a swap. (Photo courtesy of Love Home Swap)

“Often our Love Home Swap members join the platform with a specific destination in mind, but end up booking swaps in amazing destinations they had never considered before,” Pronto said.

Send out lots of messages and see who takes a nibble.

Agree on all the facts beforehand

Once you’ve found your dream swap and got your dates sorted, it’s time to get in touch with the owners. There’s rarely a template for this, so the two owners can hash out all the details of their respective stays privately.

Will you ask someone to water the plants or feed the cat? Do you have to put the trash out on a certain day? Are you happy for someone to borrow your bikes? Do you need to wash the bedding before you leave or will you both get cleaners? Discuss all of these details long before you hop on a plane and everyone will be much happier in the long run.

Check your insurance

Most of the time, as no money is changing hands, your home insurance won’t be affected. But always check in advance just in case. If you’re going to be swapping cars, as some people choose to do, you’ll need to add their details to your policy.

You can swap homes in places as far away as South Africa. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
You can swap homes in places as far away as South Africa. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

Most house swap companies don’t offer any kind of protection (and it’s worth bearing in mind that properties are rarely vetted) but some, like HomeExchange, have a peace of mind guarantee, which includes coverage of up to $1 million in case of unexpected events, such as damage or nonconformity. Most sites allow for some form of feedback too, so you can see reviews from previous guests.

Be cool, guys

Your mom probably told you to always treat others as you wish to be treated. And that’s even more applicable when it comes to house swaps. Leave your guests a nice bottle of wine, stock the place with toilet paper and make a bit of space for them. You don’t need to empty your closets, but make a little room so people can hang up their clothes or unpack a little. You don’t want them to live out of a suitcase for a week.

Related: 7 far-flung and obscure spots to add to your bucket list

A place to yourself in Durham, U.K. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
A place to yourself in Durham, U.K. (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

Think about what you don’t want them to touch, too. Do you have a nice bottle of 16-year-old single malt that you’re saving for a special occasion? Lock that away, lest your guests mix it with coke during happy hour. And if you have anything lying around you wouldn’t want your granny to see, make sure it’s safely tucked behind a locked door.

Think clean

Obviously, you’ll want to give your house a good scrub before anyone arrives. That means the things you usually put off, too — tackle the dust bunnies under the bed, give the sofa a good vacuum and bleach the bathroom to within an inch of its life.

Some properties choose to reciprocally hire a professional cleaner for their respective homes before the other arrives, which is a nice guarantee that you’ll both be arriving at the same level of cleanliness. It might be something you want to do at the end of a stay, too.

Don’t forget to put out fresh cleaning supplies for your guests, like new sponges and cloths, clean tea towels and full bottles of washing up liquid and antibacterial spray. Make up the beds with clean, fresh bedding and leave plenty of towels.

Think about your home’s quirks

Do you have to give any houseguest a 10-minute list of instructions when they’re about to take a shower? Then get ready to write it all down. Think about any weird little quirks your house has and put them all in one handy document, preferably sending it on to your guests beforehand (a front door that sticks will be no fun after a long flight).

Fancy this sprawling property in Utah, U.S.? (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)
Fancy this sprawling property in Utah, U.S.? (Photo courtesy of HomeExchange)

Create a welcome document with everything they could possibly need. How to work the hot water, where to get the best pastries, how to turn the heating on — everything.

Bottom line

Embrace it. The joy of house swapping is that it’s nothing like the traditional hotel experience. You get to effectively step into another person’s shoes and live their life for a few days. You might be a bit nervous about handing over the keys to your place to strangers — and vice versa staying in a strange house — but follow this guide and you can unlock a whole new travel experience.

Featured photo courtesy of HomeExchange

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