Home exchange can open door to wide world of holiday experiences
House swaps are retaining their appeal, but do homework before taking plunge
Colette and Geoff Hall’s holiday home in Donegal: “Maybe it’s because it’s a traditional Irish cottage; people abroad are looking for something that looks Irish,” says Colette Hall, who has been overwhelmed with home exchange inquiries for the property
Summer is just around the corner and, with it, thoughts of a much-needed holiday. But if your purse strings are still constrained – or if you just feel like something a bit different this year – you may still have time to plan a holiday with a difference.
While Airbnb may be the name on most people’s lips when it comes to spending a holiday in someone else’s home – or having someone stay in yours – it’s not the only option.
Home exchanges have been fulfilling the needs of holidaymakers for decades now, and their appeal doesn’t seem to be diminishing. Given the ease with which you can now check out other people’s homes thanks to the internet, it’s still on the agenda for many.
But if this is something you have long considered but never actually dared to do, what might you need to know before you make that leap?
Finding an exchange
Web portals offering home exchanges now abound, and options include www.homelink.ie; www.lovehomeswap. com; www.intervac-homeexchange.com; and www.homeexchange.com, to name but four.
Marie Murphy and her husband Paul, who live in north county Dublin, have been working with Home Link since 1984, and she says there has been “a constant flow of people” interested in exchange.
“When people do it once, they get the bug and they do it again. It’s the comfort of a home from home, with all the facilities if you have small children,” she says.
The internet has made the process a lot more user-friendly, with easy-to-search photographs making it simple to pick places that interest you the most, and quickly start a conversation. “Before this we had books we used to send out, and people had to write to each other and then wait to hear back,” says Murphy.
Looking for an exchange through a website can offer an element of protection.
HomeExchange, for example, which says it has facilitated about one million property swaps and has a community of about 65,000 members, offers verification and moderation of phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts for added safety. It also has a secure messaging system, as well as local support teams to whom you can turn to in the event of a crisis.
Making a match
However, making that match will take some time and perseverance.
“Getting the couple or family that wants to come at the time that suits you is probably the hardest,” notes Murphy.
Pinpointing a location is also a surefire way to being disappointed, and you may be better off targeting an entire country rather than a particular location to ensure success.
Deri Flood first experienced home exchanges as a child, as her parents were fans of the concept. But it wasn’t until last summer that she took the plunge with her own family, swapping her south Dublin home first for a holiday home on the Costa Brava in Spain, and then in Nantes in France.
“One thing we found is that the majority of houses available for swap are in places not by the seaside, such as in cities. So you might have someone living in Rome who wants to escape for the month of August,” says Flood, adding that while her kids may be quick to find houses in Hawaii, the most practical way to start your search is to find someone who’s looking to come to Ireland.
Indeed having flexibility on when you can exchange may help you attract a greater number of options.
Next up for Colette and Geoff Hall, for example, is a visit to Carcassonne, in southwest France. She’s exchanging with a family who also have houses in both Vietnam and Australia, and they split their time between the three.
This means that when Hall and her family are in Carcassonne, the owners will be in Vietnam, and won’t visit Donegal, where the Halls have their own holiday home – a traditional Irish cottage – until September.
“If you have a holiday home it doesn’t have to be simultaneous,” she says.
And while it’s easy to get carried away looking at potential swaps online, if you’re dreaming of swapping your suburban semi-d for a villa in the sun, you might just strike it lucky. “Last year we swapped with a family with a villa in Provence with a swimming pool. We thought it was fantastic,” says Hall.
Don’t forget your own home
Remember that you have to show your home in its best light too, if you want to attract people who are interested.
When you’re looking for an exchange, you are in effect “selling” your home, so you need to present it as best as you can.
“Put things away and then take photographs,” Murphy advises.
And remember, in this digital, social media world, it can be difficult to get away with it if you stretch the truth too much.
After all, most of the aforementioned websites allow people to post reviews on your home page, so keep your hyperbole in check to make sure people aren’t disappointed.
Preparing for the visit is also work, with guests expecting empty wardrobes for their use and quality linen on the beds.
“It is an additional effort,” says Flood. “You have to clear the house and clean it up. It is a bit more work”.
And thoughts of what you’ve left behind can linger when you head off on your holiday.
“When we went to the Spanish house, it was absolutely immaculate. It was decked out like a hotel and everything was new. We were kind of worried about getting our place like that,” recalls Flood.
With a budget of €2,000, you might be lucky to get a week in the sun somewhere in Europe for four: with home exchanges, however, such a sum might get a family to the US if you get lucky with flights and swap your car as well.
Remember, however, that if you use a web portal to find an exchange, a fee will apply.
HomeExchange for example, charges £100 (€135) a year for unlimited exchanges. For Hall, paying a fee offers an element of comfort. “People aren’t going to pay that much to go and ruin your house,” she says.
Registering your property with Home Link costs €120 for 13 months, but “you can do as many swaps as you like for that money”, she says.
Vetting an exchange
“The first one is always the hardest one; initially you’re not too sure about standards – is your standard good enough or the opposite, which can be almost worse,” notes Murphy.
However, vetting the people you’re doing an exchange with – before you swap – can make a lot of sense, whether you do it by Facetime, email or telephone.
Hall hasn’t met any of the people they’ve exchanged with face to face – except for one family, who overlapped by a day – but this has never been an issue.
“I think [communicating by] email seems to work okay,” she says.
Murphy advises you take a bit of time to iron out any potential issues, such as will you swap cars, and will you leave bikes behind, before you travel.
If you are swapping cars, it’s important to set out some guidelines at the start, such as what might happen in the event of an accident – will you pay the first €300 excess yourself for example – or if the car was to break down.
Your home-swapping provider may offer some help in this regard – Home Link for example, offers a car-exchange agreement form.
For Murphy, it helps if you can meet the people on the other end of the exchange at home before you go.
“It gives you a sense of security,” she says, adding that she’ll be heading off to San Diego with her family this year. The woman they’re exchanging with will arrive in Dublin the day before they go, so they’ll pick her up at the airport and she will stay with them the night before.
“She can give us a run down on her place then,” she says.
Things can go wrong For all the appeal of a home exchange, there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re putting your home – and maybe your car too – at risk. As such, it’s worth checking the terms of your home insurance – and that of your car, too, if appropriate – before you travel, to make sure there is cover in place.
Hall can’t recall a bad experience in her years of home exchange and is equanimous about the risks.
“If an accident happens, it happens,” she says, adding, “We haven’t had any bad experiences at all. Last year, one of the children left a felt pen on the bed and marked a duvet cover. But the mother left €100 because she felt so bad!”
Murphy is similarly upbeat about any potential downsides. The worst situation she can recall is when her family found themselves minding an old dog who was wont to get up and bark every morning at 6am.
But maybe swapping your home isn’t for you if you’re going to be anxious about the risks.
“If you’re nervous about letting people into your house, you’re not going to do it,” says Flood. Where home exchanges begins: Irish family overwhelmed with inquiries for their Donegal holiday home Colette and Geoff Hall were first drawn to home exchanges when their two children were closing in on their teenage years.
“With a boy and a girl getting a bit older, going to hotels was becoming quite expensive, as we would have had to book three hotel rooms,” Hall recalls.
So they decided to try a home exchange. Their first trip was to Strasbourg in north-eastern France, and it was a “fantastic exchange”, Hall recalls.
A love of home exchanges was thus born, and when the couple got their own holiday home in Donegal, the whole process became even easier to arrange.
“People have said in the past ‘how can you allow other strangers into your home’, but it doesn’t really bother me. It’s just stuff to me. I don’t have anything here I wouldn’t want people to see,” she says.
Subsequent visits saw the family travel to Orleans, where they got to visit the chateaux in the nearby Loire Valley, as well as a house in Paris, when the children were 12 and 14.
“It was great, as it was set up for children the same age, so they had the same sort of toys, the same interests. It’s a home from home for the children as well,” she says.
France has been the main target of the family’s search to date, and for Hall, the appeal is simple. “You get to see parts of France you may not normally think of going to,” she says. “The biggest advantage for us is that you’re living in a real place. It’s not really like being a tourist; you sort of feel like you’re living there and you immerse yourself in it. You learn what it’s like to be a French person”.
But exchanging also helps to keep holiday budgets in check.
“You don’t have accommodation costs and quite often we’ve also exchanged cars, which has been brilliant. You just leave your car at the airport, and pick up theirs at the other other side”.
At the start, the family was waiting for people who might want to exchange with them but, since then, Hall has been overwhelmed with inquiries for her Donegal property. So much so in fact that, the family has already enjoyed three holidays this year: to Brittany, Provence and London.
“Maybe it’s because it’s a traditional Irish cottage; people abroad are looking for something that looks Irish,” she says, noting that, since January, she has had over 50 inquiries from places like Hawaii, Bali, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, New York, as well as “lots” from France, Spain and Germany.