Author: Margaret Foley

Home Exchange

As my husband, daughter and I cruised along Amsterdam’s canals in a small metal boat with an outboard motor, my daughter pointed to the street above where someone was taking our picture.

“They probably think we’re an Amsterdam family,” she said.  

We laughed because she was probably right.  After all, we looked like all the other locals in their own boats, enjoying the evening and watching out for the big tourist cruise boats, so we could stay out of their way.

We had access to the small boat because we were staying in someone’s home as part of our very first home exchange, and use of the boat was included. Since that first home exchange to Amsterdam in 2009, my family has often traveled using home exchanges. 

A home exchange provides access to two things travelers often want: insight into daily life and a local contact that can provide you with on-the-ground information targeted to your travel interests. It is a great opportunity to not only live like a local but to do so in a home that is actually lived in and not set up as a vacation rental or as a place that caters strictly to tourists.  While learning about and dealing with the idiosyncrasies of local home life, you also begin to understand just how much of your daily life back home is culturally determined.

“A home exchange provides access to two things travelers often want: insight into daily life and a local contact that can provide you with on-the-ground information targeted to your travel interests.”

I had never heard of home exchanging until 2008, when I overheard someone make a random remark about it, mainly that it was something her family would never do. Immediately intrigued, I began doing research.  I have always loved to travel, and my husband, daughter, and I go on at least one long trip and several shorter trips each year. Initially, I wrongly assumed that home exchange destinations were limited, but as I investigated, I discovered that, while North America and Europe constitute a large portion of the listings, there were many homes available all over the world. Almost anyplace I could think of that we wanted to go — and that list includes South America, Australia, and parts of Asia we haven’t been to yet — there was the potential for a home exchange.

This is the perfect opportunity for long-term travelers as well. It provides the opportunity to slow down for a while and really dig into the culture you’re visiting, and it can be a great way to stretch out the budget.

What site to use

While there are several home exchanges websites, we chose to list our home on Home Exchange and HomeLink, which seemed to have the easiest interfaces and most homes, although the bulk of our exchanges have come through Home Exchange. To sign up, you pay a fee, which runs about $120 annually, and create a profile for your family, home, and neighborhood. To make your listing more appealing, you can add pictures and links as well as a list of places you’d like to exchange to and your approximate travel dates.

Since that first exchange in 2009, we have done eight more and will embark on our tenth exchange this summer when we exchange our home in Oregon for a home in Spain.

Pros and cons

Of course, not everything about a home exchange works out perfectly, but that’s to be expected when you travel this way.  On an exchange in Hawaii, we stayed in beautiful, remote house on the Big Island near its black sand beaches. The house looked out over a field of lava rock interspersed with pineapple plants, but we were in a tropical climate, and it was spring.  The homeowner’s instructions stated that we needed to immediately clean up after we ate, but we missed a spot on the counter, and after spending the day at Volcanoes National Park, we returned to spend the next couple hours battling ants. Another time, the homeowners who had stayed in our house while we were out of town during Christmas in exchange for a stay in their house during spring break called to tell us that they had unexpectedly sold their house and that it would close before our scheduled visit. To make up for that, the family gave us the amount of money it would cost to rent a place in their area, so we could make our own arrangements and still have a vacation without paying for a place to stay.

One of our most unusual exchange experiences was in a cabin in Central Oregon. The owners told us that they never locked their door and that when we arrived, we should open the door, greet their dog, and make ourselves at home.  We didn’t really think that they never locked their doors, but after we arrived, it became evident that was the case. There was not a key anywhere in the house, and when we examined the front door, we discovered it had no lock. When we left five days later, we just carefully closed the door behind us as we had done every time we left the house.

The benefits of using a home exchange are many

We began home exchanging as a way to save money on travel and have more space than a hotel room, but we soon discovered that the rewards extended far beyond the saved money.  Arranging an exchange puts you in immediate contact with someone who can help you plan what you want to do.  

For example, while arranging our exchange to Amsterdam, the homeowners and I provided each other with information on activities we thought our respective children would enjoy. I found places for their son to take his BMX bike, and they suggested our then nine-year-old daughter would enjoy a day trip to Efteling, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks.

Recently, we did a home exchange in San Diego’s Mission Beach area, and the homeowner told us that one of his favorite breakfast places would be celebrating its 33rd birthday while we were there, and that we could get a full breakfast at 1979 prices.  For local knowledge on where to get groceries, eat, and go shopping and sightseeing, there is nothing like a list of possibilities tailored to you by someone who lives there.

“We began home exchanging as a way to save money on travel and have more space than a hotel room, but we soon discovered that the rewards extended far beyond the saved money.”

We have had a wonderful time on all our trips, and home exchanging has provided an extra dimension that allows us to see aspects of daily life and to know what it’s like to live in one of those homes you walk by. If it hadn’t been for the box of hagelslag, or chocolate sprinkles, in the kitchen, we never would have known that people in the Netherlands often put them on buttered bread. We have gotten design ideas for our home by seeing how other people place their furniture, artwork, and accessories around a room.  We have mastered the art of metric cooking, walked dogs, talked to neighbors, repaired bicycles, and learned to operate several styles of locks, dishwashers, laundry machines, and coffee makers.

Because each home is so different, the homes and what they offer become part of the memories. The five-story canal house and its staircase that you continually ran up and down, and once, even slipped down. The house where you were given use of a kayak that allowed you to explore quiet rivers overhung with greenery and strewn with plants, and the 1920s cottage with its small beautiful garden all become part of your traveler’s tales.

Home exchange tips

Here are some tips we’ve learned from our home exchanging experiences:

  1. Don’t worry that your home isn’t “nice” enough.  Even if you think your home is full of flaws, it’s probably not. Nobody will expect your home to be perfect. Think about the great things your home has to offer. For example, does it have a large yard for kids to play? Even if it’s not in what you consider to be a prime destination, think about what’s around your home. Maybe it’s a great spot to base a regional vacation.
  2. Be proactive about getting an exchange but also be open to destinations. If you have a specific destination in mind, send out requests to people who live there rather than waiting for them to contact you. But, don’t discard requests from people asking if you’re interested in their home. Two of our best home exchange trips happened this way. We spent a week in a wonderful area of Seattle that we didn’t know existed and spent a long weekend in a prime outdoor destination where we could hike and mountain bike right out the front door.
  3. Make sure the home exchange agreement covers everything you need it to. Most home exchange sites have sample documents that you can use to write an exchange agreement, and you should feel free to modify them to meet your needs. For example, if there are areas or items in your home that will be off-limits, or if you are exchanging cars and don’t want the family’s teens driving yours, put that in the agreement. We recently completed exchange documents with a family who added a section on what we would do if one party ended up not being able to fulfill its part of the exchange, a section we plan to include in all our future agreements.
  4. By the time the exchange happens, you and your exchange partner are no longer complete strangers. Arranging a home exchange is a back-and-forth process that involves several emails and the occasional phone call. While the initial email comes from a stranger, by the time the details are worked out, you know enough about your exchange partners to feel comfortable having them stay in our home.
  5. Home exchanging frees up funds. Because you save money on accommodations, home exchanging can stretch your travel budget. For example, you can take an additional trip with the saved money or extend a vacation. When we go to Spain this summer, we are tacking on a trip to England. If you are trying to save money in general, trying a home exchange means you don’t have to forego vacations completely.
  6. Staying in a home often provides you with “extras” that you can’t get in a hotel or vacation rental. Home exchanges often include the use of bicycles, outdoor gear, beach chairs, and other equipment that will allow you to get out and experience all the destination has to offer.

To read more about alternative ways to save money while traveling, check out the following articles: