In the past seven years I’ve had 10 occasions to exchange my home with others. Home exchanges, in my opinion, are the logical extension of the “sharing is better than owning” philosophy. I’ve gotten to use 10 neat homes around the world and pay not a penny for the privilege of living there. And 10 counterparts have gotten the same deal in my home. Exchanging houses is indeed “better than owning.”
I live in California’s wine country, 65 miles from San Francisco. I’ve exchanged with families in Seattle; New York City (twice); upstate New York; France (Paris, Avignon, the Loire and the Pyrenees) and so on. I’ve just concluded arrangements for a July exchange in Copenhagen and hope to arrange two more exchanges for 2009. My experiences have been uniformly good.
The way I analyze it, house exchanges typically save money four ways:
1. House exchange = no hotel or rental cost;
2. Car exchange (common) = no rental car fees;
3. Access to a full kitchen = less need to rely on restaurants;
4. Cellphone exchange = no hassles with establishing a new phone or expensive overseas roaming charges.
House exchanges reduce the cost of vacations to essentially the transportation cost to get to the destination and admissions fees to museums, parks, etc.
I’ve found my exchange partners (or they’ve found me) because we jointly belong to one or more of the many exchange databases that have blossomed on the Internet. I’ve successfully used two of them, Intervac and HomeLink. There are many others — homeexchange.com, homeforhome.com, sabbaticalhomes.com — but I’ve not found an occasion to use them.*
The various services have different strengths. Each claims, one way or another, to be the biggest and the best, but it’s hard to find numbers to corroborate the claims. Arthur Frommer says HomeLink is the largest, followed by Intervac. Homeexchange.com claims 26,000 listings, but it seems thinner to me than either HomeLink or Intervac. Homeforhome has 500 listings in Spain, about 500 in other countries. The database engines vary enormously in their ease of use. Intervac seems to have about 1/3 of its members in the U.S., 1/3 in France, where I visit often, and 1/3 elsewhere. HomeLink seems to have more U.S. users (it claims the opposite) and more of them retired, like me, and hence more available to go during non-holiday periods.
Intervac and HomeLink work similarly (they began as one in 1953): you pay roughly $95-$120 annually to list your home and its attributes in the database (print catalogs are available, but cost extra). In turn you get to see and search others’ listings. Non-members can typically preview the database or a subset of it, but don’t get exchangers’ contact information. All show multiple pictures, if available. I pay careful attention to the interior photos, for they offer important information. My first exchange, for example, had horrible, uncomfortable furniture. Had I really paid attention to the photos I would have noticed that.
After joining members contact others directly via phone, mail or email. I’m an aggressive marketer: I’ll contact 15-20 members at a time, sometimes more if time is short. The services aren’t brokers, merely information providers. There is no additional fee paid to the service and most typically no money changes hands between exchangers.
Exchange arrangements can be whatever both parties agree to: a simultaneous exchange, or non-simultaneous, even a three-way exchange. I’m doing a non-simultaneous exchange in June, using a North Shore Chicago townhouse while the owners are at their vacation home. They’ll use my home in October when I’ll be on a road trip.
Exchangers typically prepare a book or document that lists important phone numbers, who to contact, what food and wine to eat, what not to use and so on. It’s important to have a local person who can check in your exchangers and act in your stead should a problem come up. All the services have suggestions and guidelines for first-time exchangers. The one at homeexchange.com is both typical and pretty good.
Obviously, it’s easiest to exchange if you live in a popular spot and have a beautiful well-furnished home or apartment. But there are all kinds of listings. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pay close attention to the photos and text and try to exchange like-for-like. I don’t try to exchange my home for a French chateau (though I did get a 16th-century farmhouse); and I am no longer enchanted by tiny run-down apartments in out-of-the-way locales.
In my experience, most people are fascinated with the notion of home exchanges and say they want to join in. But few end up doing so, even though willing exchange partners are plentiful. The problem seems to be a psychological hurdle: trusting strangers to take care of one’s home and belongings. This certainly does require a certain leap of faith, and it’s probably not for the anal and those not used to adaptation, but it’s worked for me.