How House Swapping Works


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Let's s­ay airline prices go on sale. You're checking out the deals, and you see there's a cheap flight to Sofia, Bulgaria. You don't know much about Sofia -- or the whole country of Bulgaria,­ for that matter. But the deal's so good that you pull up some information on the area. Turns out there's a ski resort near Sofia, and since you're a skier, you're getting more and more interested in taking advantage of this flight deal. But then your research on hotel prices puts the brakes on your plan. No matter how cheap the flight is, there's no way you can afford the accommodations.

It's not uncommon for the cost of a hotel or resort to put an end to a travel dream. That's why house swapping has become a popular way to save a buck -- or a lot of bucks -- on travel. Who's to say whether you could find someone in Bulgaria's ski region to swap houses with you? But if you could, your stay would cost you virtually nothing. In fact, the average traveler saves $1,500 (USD) for each week that he or she participates in a house swap as opposed to renting accommodations [source: Russo].

The practice of house swapping began in the mid-1950s, and has gradually grown in popularity over the last several decades. The Internet has only made it easier to house swap. It's estimated that approximately 20 percent of travelers have swapped houses while on vacation [source: Miles].

­Despite its financial appeal, house swapping isn't for everyone. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of strangers living in your home while you're away, then house swapping is not for you. If this makes you feel any more secure, the majority of house swappers are working professionals, homeowners, and 40 percent of them have swapped houses in the past [source: Russo].

Another factor that may limit your ability to swap houses is your location. People who live in popular tourist destinations have the most success with house swapping. Homes in New York, beach communities and Europe are popular swap locations. If you don't live in one of these areas, you may still have a successful swap; it just might take you longer to find a swap partner. Often, people who have moved away from an area return to visit family, and house swapping is a fun way for them to enjoy their stay without imposing on family or staying in a hotel.

Types of House Swaps

­If house swapping seems like something you would like to do, there are some things you ­need to know before you get started. There are three basic types of house swaps: traditi­onal exchanges, non-simultaneous exchanges and hospitality exchanges. It's important to communicate with your trading partner so that you both know exactly what to expect.

With traditional exchanges, each trading partner schedules trips for the same time. The homeowners may never even meet each other, and no money changes hands. Although one set of accommodations may be higher quality than the other, this has no effect on the swap.

In a non-simultaneous swap, one or both homeowners have more than one residence. It's not necessary for the homeowners to coordinate their vacations. Instead, each trading partner visits the location when it's most convenient.

Hospitality exchanges are vacations where one trading partner visits the other partner and both stay in the home at the same time. Hospitality exchanges work well if both homes are large enough to accommodate the trading partners and schedules are difficult to align. Some people prefer hospitality exchanges because a stranger is not left in the home unattended, while others dislike hospitality exchanges because they feel like they must act as a tour guide for the visitor.

Generally, when people talk about house swaps, they mean the traditional exchange, where the two partners swap at the same time and for the same length of time. A typical house swap may last anywhere from one to four weeks. You will probably be given use of the homeowner's car, and your trading partner will undoubtedly expect the same. Sometimes trading partners work out arrangements for pet and plant care also. Simply ask them -- most trading partners are agreeable to feeding, watering and taking in the mail.

House Swapping Basics

You won't have housekeeping to make your bed, but if your house swap includes a washer, you can wash your clothes.
You won't have housekeeping to make your bed, but if your house swap includes a washer, you can wash your clothes.
Andrew Olney/Getty Images

The c­oncept of house swapping can be intimidating. Not only are you a guest in a stranger's home, but you have a stranger staying in your home as well. Some people are bothered more by the former, while others are bothered more by the latter. Either way, if you know what to expect, it will increase your comfort level.

Before you leave your home, leave directions to the closest grocery store on the counter. Make sure to leave keys to the house, car and any recreational vehicles in a place that's easy to spot. If any of your doors, appliances or vehicles have a "trick" that you've grown accustomed to over the years, make sure you explain that trick to your trading partner.

If you're friendly with your neighbors or you have family that lives in the area, you may ask them to stop by and introduce themselves. They can add a great deal to your trading partner's experience by providing some local flavor. Feel free to jot down a list of restaurants, bars or must-see attractions that the average tourist in your town might not know about. Finally, include information on any worthwhile day trips that your visitors may be interested in.

Can you guarantee that your trading partners will be as thoughtful? No, but it doesn't hurt to ask if they might give you some insider information on the area where they live. Most house swappers have the same curiosity and attraction for out-of-the-ordinary experiences, so it's unlikely that they'll think your request is out of line.

Be a good guest in your trading partner's home. At the end of your trip, clean out the refrigerator, straighten up the house and generally leave everything the way you found it. If you break a dish or have some other minor accident, leave a note with some money or a replacement object. Of course, if there's a more serious accident, you should notify the homeowner immediately. If you enjoyed your stay, a bottle of wine or another nonperishable item is a thoughtful gift to leave behind.

House Swapping Networks

You can join a house swapping network for a small fee.
You can join a house swapping network for a small fee.
Frank Lukasseck/Getty Images

If you're lookin­g to house swap, where do you find reliable people to swap with? The Internet has made the business of house swapping much easier to navigate. There are a variety of Web sites that allow you to list your home and search other homes by location and preferred travel dates.

These sites typically charge a modest annual fee to list your home. Often, for less than $100, you can list your home with pictures and information, as well as search available homes across the country. There are many different home swap listing sites available. Some are huge and have listings of home all over the world. Others are smaller and specialize in particular locations. If you're feeling particularly lucky, you may even find the perfect housing swap on the free Internet marketplace, Craigslist.org.

No matter how you find your dream house-swapping home, the next step is always the same. Send an introductory e-mail to the homeowner, expressing your interest in their home, the dates that you're planning for your trip and, most importantly, information on your home. Include pictures, information about the community and tourist information for the time of year you're planning your trip. Feel free to approach more than one homeowner; casting a wide net increases your chances of making the perfect match.

House Swapping Security

House swapping may seem like the perfect solution for the high cost of vacation accommodations. But there have to be some drawbacks, right? Oddly enough, few people report any problems with house swapping partners. The problems that do arise are typically minor in nature and easily resolved -- well, at least according to representatives of two of the largest home swapping networks, Karl Costabel of HomeLink and Lori Home of Intervac. They cite differing expectations on the part of the swapping partners as the most common problem.

Varying definitions of cleanliness in housekeeping is the most common complaint. If you have a pet, it's important to mention it, even if you plan on boarding the pet away from the home. This will keep you from potentially ruining the vacation of someone who has allergies.

If you have homeowners or renters insurance and automobile insurance, any problems or accidents should be covered. Any accidents will be treated the same as if you had allowed a friend to stay in your home or drive your car.

Some people choose to write and sign a letter of agreement with their trading partners. This is not a legal contract, but it spells out the expectations of both parties. These letters get you thinking about situations you may not have otherwise considered and help you to determine how you'll deal with them if they arise. Some things to consider when drawing up a letter of agreement:

  • How telephone and Internet charges will be handled
  • Whether subletting is permitted, and the exact number of people allowed in the home
  • Acknowledgement that both parties are fully covered by homeowner or rental insurance, as well as automobile insurance
  • Whether either party will be responsible for picking up mail, caring for pets or other responsibilities
  • What the trading partners should do if something is damaged or breaks down

If you have valuables that you're concerned about being stolen or broken, send them to a friend's home while you're out of town. Many people simply place any sentimental items in one room and lock the door before their trip. This wouldn't stop a determined thief, but at least the items won't be broken.

Selecting a House Swapping Partner

­Because house swapping comes so cheap, it allows people to travel to parts of the world they cou­ldn't afford to visit if they stayed in other accommodations. But booking a house swapping partner is not the same as booking a hotel room. When you're making a house swap, it's important to trust your intuition. Multiple e-mails back and forth with a prospective trading partner will give you an idea about the person's personality and whether he or she is trustworthy and trusting.

If someone gives you explicit directions on how to care for the home, or repeatedly asks questions about the size and condition of your home, he or she may not be ready to give up control, which is necessary for a successful swap. As the relationship develops, if you get less comfortable with the idea of a swap, rather than more comfortable, that's another good sign that this is not the right swap partner for you. If you're still concerned but want to move forward with the swap, ask for and contact references. Previous house swappers, employers and family friends can all provide you with details about your trading partner. Someone who is willing to allow you in their home should have no problem providing this information.

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Sources

  • Alden, Sharyn. "House Swapping Helps You Travel Cheaply." The Boston Channel. July 2, 2008. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.thebostonchannel.com/money/16328191/detail.html
  • Brown, Patricia Leigh. "House Swapping, a Special Report." Trave­l+Leisure. April 2005. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/special-report-house-swapping .
  • Goddard, Joanna. "The Secrets to Happy House Swapping."Budget Travel. October 2008. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.budgettravel.com/bt-dyn/content/article/2008/09/01/AR2008090101507.html
  • Miles, Hubert. "Waterfront House Swapping to Lower Vacation Costs." (March, 1 2009).http://www.realestateproarticles.com
  • Russo, Francine. "House Swapping." Time. Nov. 8, 1999. (Feb. 13, 2009)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,992461,00.html

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