House Exchange

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Barcelona street

An Interview: One woman’s experience exchanging houses for vacation

A couple summers ago I joined my sister for vacation in Barcelona, Spain on a home exchange vacation. It was the fourth time she had done such a vacation, but the first time I’d been with her.

Accommodations can be one of the more costly travel expenses. A home exchange is one way to eliminate that expense. You stay in a home at your vacation destination while the family it belongs to stays in your home and vacations in your area. Being able to do this hinges on finding a family in one of your desired destinations who wishes to vacation in your hometown at a mutually agreeable time. There are companies who facilitate finding each other. There is an annual membership fee, but no other accommodation cost.

I interviewed my sister about her experience.

Q: How did you get started doing house exchange vacations?

A: I worked with someone who had done exchanges in France and Switzerland. I thought it sounded like a neat idea.

Q: How did you select a company?

A: I used the company my friend used – Intervac. Intervac appears to be big in Europe. If you want to go other places, you may need to research other companies.

(Note: Two other well-known exchange companies are Home Link and Home Exchange.)

Q: What was your first exchange like?

A: My first exchange was in London, England in 2002. It was the only affordable way to go to England with three children. I signed up and waited for someone to contact me. He emailed me and we had some phone calls. A friend in London drove by the place and said it didn’t look too bad.

The people we exchanged with also had three children. My children stayed in their bedrooms. My daughter read the books in their daughter’s bedroom. The owner of the room my older son stayed in was a music lover like my son. My younger son had a room full of stuffed animals. The kids played soccer in the back yard.

My stepson, who was in his early twenties at the time, was travelling through Europe and planned to meet us in England. On our first day there, while the kids staked out their bedrooms and my husband was in the garage filling bicycle tires with air, my stepson walked up the driveway and casually said, “Hello Dad”.

Q: Tell me about your other exchanges.

A: The second exchange was a couple of years later. I wanted to go to France. I posted a request. I wanted to go to Paris, but that didn’t work out. With three children, we needed a house. I found an exchange in a village outside Strasbourg, near the German border. That family also had three children. They picked us up when we landed in Frankfurt. That evening, we had a big dinner with the neighbours. The next day they headed to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to stay in our house. This was their first exchange and they were a little apprehensive.

We exchanged vehicles as well as houses. From that base, we drove to Paris and to Italy, where we visited friends. The family we exchanged with drove to Tofino and Seattle.

The third time was in 2012. My twenty-five-year-old daughter and I went to Stockholm. And now Barcelona in 2013.

Farmhouse in France
France house exchange

Q: What do you do to check out potential exchanges?

A: I do a Google search to see if anything comes up on the owners. The Barcelona couple I exchanged with provided references from people they’d exchanged with in the past. This is becoming more common. Ultimately, it is a huge leap of faith. It is a big thing to trust someone to look after your house.

You can meet and talk to people now through Skype and Facetime, a huge difference from when I first exchanged.

Q: What have been the biggest issues you encountered?

A: You have to learn how to run appliances in Europe. Sometimes stuff is old and it’s certainly different. Sometimes things break. In England it was hard to turn on the gas stove and the pilot light went out. The owner’s brother came over and fixed it. One of the toilets broke. Fortunately, the house had three toilets.

Language barriers can be tricky when you run into problems. I always feel a bit of anxiety taking care of another person’s house. There is also a lot of work in preparing your house.

(Note: We also had a toilet issue in Barcelona when the tank on one of the two toilets cracked. We could not find the shut-off valve to stop the streaming water. A friend of the owner came over to help. He was a high-energy man who flew around the apartment, eager to help, but he had limited plumbing skills. He did find the shut-off valve, but in the process damaged another valve which left us without hot water. On the other hand, he was an interesting fellow with great restaurant and bar recommendations. Thank goodness Barcelona in August is hot and cold showers are sometimes welcome.)

Colour coded recycle bins
We had to learn the system for separating recycling into the colour-coded bins on the street corner.

Q: How do you prepare your home?

A: I clean, put stuff away, make space in drawers and closets, leave brochures and maps of the area, information on where to shop for groceries, how to run things (washing machine, dishwasher, stove), what to do in case of emergency, how to watch a movie on TV. I’ve left my library card.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise and most pleasant experience?

A: Meeting the people. I’ve met everyone I’ve exchanged with. The neighbours in France took us places. In Sweden, we spent a day with the parents of the couple I exchanged with.

On my first exchange, I cleaned my house, emptied my fridge and left the place like a hotel. When I got to the house in London, things were not as emptied as I had left my house. There was stuff in the fridge. And a big bouquet of flowers welcoming us to their house. I realized the experience is more than replacing a hotel. It is about sharing life.

Stockholm apartment building
Apartment building in Stockholm, Sweden
Swedish living room
Living room of Swedish home exchange

Q: What advice do you have for others thinking about doing a house exchange?

A: In order to have a successful home exchange, you need to be prepared to deal with differences and be comfortable with someone staying in your home. Don’t expect all the same things in your exchange house that you have at yours. Customs are different.

Get your house ready. Clean. Leave closet and drawer space. Create an operating guide to your house. Have an emergency contact in place should issues arise. Leave passwords for wireless.

I have never had anything broken or damaged in my house. In the last exchange, the couple left the place cleaner than I had. But if you have something that really matters to you, pack it away to avoid any risk of damage.

House exchanges make sense if you plan on staying in one place. There is no point if you are travelling around.

Patio of our Barcelona home exchange

Q: In summary, what would you say are the pluses and minuses of a home exchange vacation?

A: There is a lot of work in a house exchange – work to arrange, prepare your house, determine how to exchange keys. You have to market your place so people will want to come without misrepresenting it. It’s a bit like Internet dating. I sent 15 emails to people in Stockholm and Copenhagen before finding someone interested.

On the plus side, you see more of the non-tourist side of a place – grocery stores, day-to-day life. Meeting the people has been a highlight.

Dinner in Barcelona
My sister and I having our first dinner in Barcelona
Barcelona apartment
My sister, Brenda, at the entrance to the Barcelona apartment building

Brenda Janke, an almost-retired civil servant, lives on Canada’s Vancouver Island. From that scenic base, she loves to explore the world. Her recent trips have seen her walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and discovering the delights of Vietnam and Cambodia. Next on her itinerary is a week in Paris. The wine, the cheese, the art and, of course, the scarves – make it one of her favourite cities in the world.

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  1. I have always been leery of the home exchange idea, but lately I have had a few acquaintances have great experiences. This was really so interesting to read! Sounds like it ‘s really been beneficial for your sister. All said and done, it seem there are more pros than cons!

    1. Jacquie, I think house exchanges aren’t for everyone, but I agree that given my sister’s experience, there are more pros than cons.

  2. Your post left me wishing we had a home to exchange! Looks like the biggest requirements are flexibility, patience and trust but this sounds like a great idea! We’ve availed ourselves of other “sharing” economies that focus on slow travel, local experiences and, of course, saving money like AirBnB and Housesitting but. when we find a home base again, exchanging homes sounds like a terrific and economical way to visit other cities. Anita

    1. Flexibility, trust and patience do seem to be important. It helps too if your home is in a location a lot of people would like to visit.

  3. We sublet our Philadelphia apartment for 4 months when my husband did a sabbatical in Hawaii last year. I imagine that getting the apartment ready for the sublet was similar to what it would be for a home exchange—a lot of work. I think I’d probably try an AirBnB or FlipKey experience before I try a home exchange. If you have the time, I do think it would probably be fun to live in an actual neighborhood and perhaps have the chance to meet the locals on a different basis. I also love sharing my city with others, so I’d probably enjoy that part of getting ready for our counterparts.

    1. Suzanne, my sister says there is work getting a house ready for a home exchange. There is a probably a little more involved in getting ready for a several month sublet than a 2-week vacation exchange, but I expect much of what needs to be done is similar. Once you’ve done it once, I think the next time would be simpler. You know what to do and you have the list of information ready for the people coming in. I haven’t used AirBnB or FlipKey yet, but am starting to look seriously at them for upcoming trips.

  4. This interview will address many of the issues people think of when contemplating this method. If we had a home to exchange, we might consider it, too. For now, Airbnb gives us the chance for a more authentic experience. I love that your sister has made new friends with the homeowners she’s exchanged with. These relationships can be so meaningful and enriching.

  5. Since I attach great value to the many items we have collected over the years from all over the world, I have always been reluctant to open our house to strangers and risk damage or loss to our belongings. On the other hand, the cost of accommodations when traveling can be very high and home exchange is a great way to handle that issue for some cost conscious travelers.

    1. Denis, letting someone stay in your home isn’t for everyone. You can always pack away collectibles, but if it means almost clearing out the house, that’s a bit much to deal with.

  6. I loved the comment “Sharing a life” – Although I love the idea of a home exchange, I don’t think I am the kind of person that is flexible enough to try it. I truly enjoyed reading about the experience. Thank you Donna and to your sister!

  7. What an interesting way to travel but I bet there are a lot of logistics. Coordinating the length and time of stay must take a lot of time and energy, but you sure get interesting experiences!

    1. Yes, my sister says she has spent a fair bit of time online and emailing to find a situation where logistics can be satisfactorily coordinated.

  8. This opens a new avenue for the kind of travel that gets you to really know a place. What is the maximum number of days. Can you do this for a month. That is probably the only length of time I would consider doing a home exchange, Because that is the real benefit. Getting to experience the way of life. Would be so expensive without a home exchange program!

    1. Carol, I am not sure about the length of days. I don’t know if the sites themselves have a limit. I suspect it is driven by who is looking for exchanges and what length of time they are looking for.

  9. Seems to me the best way to do a home exchange is by being your sister’s accessory! πŸ™‚ Loved your interview!

    I think it’s a terrific concept but would have a hare time “preparing my house.”

    1. Irene, I admit being my sister’s accessory was a pretty cool and easy way to do the exchange.

  10. The idea of a home exchange is something I would love to explore in the future, but Boise may not be the highest on the places people want to go list πŸ˜‰ My cousin lives across from the Bristol Speedway in Tennessee and she’s considered renting her house out for a week during that time and just going to say in a hotel because of how much she would get, but has yet to take the plunge. Some of her neighbors even make money by charging to let people park in their front yards when big races are going on.

    1. Jeri, I am in the same boat – I don’t think Winnipeg would have a lot of interest and arranging a house exchange might not be the easiest thing for me. I’ve heard of other people renting out their house when they live in areas with a big event.

  11. Hi Donna,

    As a house sitting traveler, you KNOW I love the concept of home exchange, too.
    My father first introduced me to the idea of home exchange when he tried it in the 90s. Because of limited internet usage at the time, he received a huge monthly catalog via snail mail that listed all the international possibilities. All correspondence also went via snail mail, so the process was mighty lengthy and cumbersome. He did 2 exchanges — London and Australia — and loved it.
    Internet home exchange sites of course streamline the process greatly!
    I also know it’s not for everyone, but to me there’s no better way to get with the locals, live in a neighborhood, and understand the culture of a place.
    Your trip to Barcelona looks so fun — and to travel with your sister — well it just doesn’t get any better!


    1. Josie, arranging a house exchange in pre-Internet days must have been lengthy, but it sounds as if it the process was still worth it. And, yes, the Barcelona trip was a lot of fun.

  12. I learned so much about house exchanging from your interview with your sister. I love her quote: “I realized the experience is more than replacing a hotel. It is about sharing life.”

  13. This is a FABULOUS article on home exchange! I loved this, “There was stuff in the fridge. And a big bouquet of flowers welcoming us to their house. I realized the experience is more than replacing a hotel. It is about sharing life.” Looks like Marilyn (comment just above mine) did too. πŸ™‚

    1. Carole, thanks. It is the difference from the hotel experience that I thinks makes a house exchange interesting.

    1. Sabrina, a house exchange is not for everyone, but it can work if you are comfortable with someone in your home and you live someone that is a popular tourist destination.

  14. You covered the topic of home exhcanges very well with this interview. i have heard of people doing home exchanges but I don’t own a home so I have’t tried it out. Seems like a great idea for people who do own a home.

    1. Nat, the home exchange experience can give one a bit more of a glimpse into the culture and way of life than a hotel experience. I think, though, that depends a bit on how one approaches the exchange.

  15. I did my first (and so far only) home exchange for 6 weeks in Spain! I was living in Boston at the time and the people I exchanged with have a very musically talented daughter who was coming to Berklee College of Music for a 6 week summer program. There were a lot of issues with their place on the Costa Brava as they had not really used it in two years but a lot of their relatives had so quite a few things didn’t work (including the internet). They were a lovely family that I am still in touch with but I learned that I would not want to exchange a home for a second home as they are rarely as well maintained. I also learned that if a place doesn’t have something (i.e. internet) and they tell you they will install it before you come that may not work out (for reasons beyond their control). I would do it again but it does require a lot of due diligence and work but can save you a fortune and result in some new friendships.

    1. Kay, you are right when you say it requires due diligence. I hadn’t considered that some people might use second homes for exchanges. I can understand how that might be trickier, especially if they don’t use it often.

  16. I’ve always been a bit wary of home exchanges – if you arrive somewhere that isn’t clean and tidy you start to wonder what they’re doing to your house! But it sounds as if your sister had good experiences and, as you say, it’s a great insight into the local culture.

    1. Karen, my sister said there were never any issues with the state of her house when she returned. It had been taken good care of. This is probably one of the areas where due diligence in checking into potential exchangees and following up on references may help.

  17. Very interesting. Not sure I’d be comfortable having someone else stay in my house. It sure sounds like your sister has had great experiences. Might be something to consider.