House Swapping: FAQs

I know I promised the next post would be about the best websites for swapping, but before we get into the nitty gritty of logistics, I realized there are still a lot of questions about swapping itself I haven’t answered. While I’ve listed the pros and cons of home exchange, there’s more to consider before you start planning a swap.

Does a Home Exchange cost anything? In my previous post I talked about the cost savings of doing a swap instead of a normal vacation. The exchange process itself can be free, or it can cost up to a few hundred dollars. It depends on whether you use a free website or one that charges a fee to belong to it. Some of the websites that charge offer some services for the fee, but most don’t really offer anything above and beyond the free websites. So why do they do it? It ensures that the people listed on the site have some skin in the game and are serious about swapping. Sometimes these sites will also do background checks on its members. This gives some swappers piece of mind.

Being cheap, I have only used the free sites. I haven’t worried about someone trying to pull a long con, because it’s a lot of work for no monetary gain. Money doesn’t exchange hands, you’re exchanging houses. Plus, your exchange partner has to buy an expensive plane ticket to get to your house.   The biggest risk is that your partner will cancel after you’ve already bought a ticket. This does happen, but as you are arranging details in the months before you leave, you can tell if someone is flaky or not pretty quickly. Don’t do a last minute swap or buy a ticket before all the details are worked out, and you should be fine. Do buy travel insurance, though. Our New Zealand swap fell through because our partner contracted terminal cancer. He was very apologetic and even tried to figure out if maybe we could stay with some friends. We were still several months out so were able to make other arrangements. Sometimes something beyond your control will happen, but paying $200 to a website wouldn’t have helped in that case.

Do you have to have a house, or can you live in an apartment? What if you are renting? You certainly do not have to have a house. You also don’t have to exchange house for house or apartment for apartment. We have a four bedroom house and have happily exchanged it for one bedroom apartments more than once. You just have to have a partner who is willing to exchange what they live in for what you live in. Mostly it’s about getting to the location you want.

If you rent your home, that doesn’t mean you can’t swap it, either. It is best to check with your landlord to make sure it is okay, but we have swapped with more than one person who did not own their apartment.

Can you swap if you have a roommate or pets? This is another situation that you can work out with your swapping partners. We have had both roommates and cats. Sometimes having a roommate still in the house, especially a hospitable one, can be wonderful. They can be extremely helpful to your swapping partner as they navigate both your house and a new country. However, some people want the house to themselves, and our roommates have had flexible enough schedules that they either went traveling with us or went traveling elsewhere while our swapping partners were in the house. Other times we’ve seen a break between roommates as a great time to go swapping.

As for our cats, sometimes your partner wants or needs to do a pet exchange as well. We came close with our Aussies partners. They had a dog, and for awhile we had decided to just watch each other’s pets. Then they got rid of their dog, so we decided to have our parents watch the cat, but it can go either way. It’s just another logistic to work out.

What if I live in the middle of nowhere? Is anyone really going to want to swap with me? You’d be surprised. We live in Durham, NC. While I love the city, and it’s a great city to live in, it’s not exactly a tourist destination. It is becoming something of a foodie destination, but still, it’s more of a weekend trip, not someplace you’d like to spend a month or more. I regularly turn down requests to swap from the UK, Australia, Argentina, Spain, you name it. Why? Most people just want to get to the United States, and we offer a car, and they know they can explore from Durham. Our house is actually a pretty good swap because we are centrally located on the East Coast. In one hard day of driving they could be in New York City or Disney World. We’re just four hours from Washington, D.C., two hours from the Atlantic Ocean beaches, four hours from the Blue Ridge mountains—you get the idea.

Plus, you never know what motivates people. One of our swaps happened because they wanted to go somewhere in the US, and the teenage son really wanted it to be North Carolina because his favorite professional wrestler was from North Carolina. Likewise, we have taken swaps in Nuevo Portil, Spain, Vetheuil, France, and Hervey Bay, Australia. What, you’ve never heard of these places? Yeah, people who live in those countries haven’t heard of those places. They are all very small cities or maybe not even a hamlet, but they got us in the vicinity of where we wanted to go, and the car we swapped got us the rest of the way. What’s even more surprising is we adored our little no name towns. We wouldn’t ever have picked them on purpose. We didn’t know they existed! Vetheuil was so charming it made your teeth hurt, and we get honest to goodness homesick for Nuevo Portil.

What kinds of exchanges are there? The most common kind is a simultaneous exchange. That means that you are in their house at the same time they are in yours. There are also non-simultaneous exchanges, though. This can occur if one or both of you have more than one house. Our, it has happened a couple of times where the person we were swapping with went and stayed with a partner at their place of residence. It can also happen if you are taking a multi-stop trip where part of the time you are staying in hotels and part of it you are swapping. So our Aussies wanted to stay longer in the US than we wanted to stay in Australia. Plus, our NZ swap had fallen through. So, while the Aussies were still in our house, we left their house earlier and spent a month touring NZ and staying at hostels. You can also do an exchange of hospitality. In this instance, you agree to host your swapping partner as a guest and then they host you as a guest. Obviously, it has it’s pros and cons, but sometimes this arrangement can work well.  You can also arrange your exchanges so they are back to back.  This can be a little tricky, but this means you can visit more than one place in the same trip.  For example, when we went to Europe, we had back to back swaps in Italy, Spain, and France allowing us to visit not only those three countries, but a couple quick trips into Portugal and one day trip to Morocco.

What about insurance, and who pays for what? There are several kinds to think about here, so I’ll try to address each one.

Home: You keep paying your home owners insurance and they pay theirs. If anything happens to your stuff while you are gone, it should be covered just fine. However, most home owner’s insurance policies will not cover any property of your swapping partner’s that might get damaged or stolen while they are staying in your home. Because of this, your partner should look into travel insurance or even renter’s insurance while they are here (depends on how long and what the travel insurance covers) if they want to make sure their stuff is covered in your house. You should do likewise to insure your belongings in their house.

Health: Again, everybody keeps paying their own policies, but it’s worth it to look into travel health policies. Not only is it highly likely that your insurance won’t cover anything out of country, but most other countries have socialized medicine. That means it’s free or very cheap to the countries’ residents but you’ll have to pay full price. Travel health policies are separate from travel insurance. There are some very affordable ones and very worth it. We’ve had to use it before, and it saved us thousands of dollars.

Car: If you are swapping cars, this will come into play. Again, both parties should just keep paying for their respective policies. However, you do need to inform your insurance carrier that other people will be driving your car. Usually the insurance companies need a bit more information and maybe a copy of a driver’s license. You’ll likely be asked for the same thing, and it varies by country what you have to provide. Rarely do you have to pay extra, but sometimes there is a fee to add drivers to your policy. You will also have to get an international drivers license. This is basically just a document that translates your current driver’s license into multiple languages. I’ll explain more details on that in an upcoming post.

Travel: You’ll be offered it when you buy your plane tickets, and you can buy more robust policies as well. At least get it on your tickets. Some credit cards automatically give you some travel insurance when you book cars, hotel rooms, etc. Either way, look into policies and get at least some basic coverage for your large purchases. I’m not the kind of person who believes in extended warranties and other various things that just gobble up your money. As stated many times, I’m cheap. However, I’ve traveled enough to know things just go wrong . One thing I’m a big believer in is insurance. You don’t necessarily have to get the gold-plated version, but get something.

Those are the questions I get most often, but if you have others, add them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them. In the next few posts, I’ll try to address the steps in planning a swap.

House Swapping 101: Is a Home Exchange Right for You?

Two facts about me: I love to travel, and I am so cheap you’d think I lived through the Depression. International travel is expensive enough, you would think these two facets of my personality would cancel each other out, and I’d never go anywhere. Not so. I am also stubborn, so my cheapness only spurs me on to creativity.

In my search for an affordable way to see the world, I discovered house swapping. The basic concept is you go live in someone else’s home while they come live in yours. The execution is a great deal more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. If you’d like to see it played out on screen, you can rent The Holiday with Jude Law and Kate Winslet. There’s a delightful scene involving napkins, but it’s not particularly informative about the process. I also can’t guarantee that you’ll fall in love with anyone while on vacation.

So How Does it Work?

Exchanges are facilitated via house swapping websites. There are many out there, and I’ll have a separate post on how to choose the best one for your needs. Listings are similar to classifieds. You upload pictures of your house and neighborhood and perhaps some nearby attractions. Like if you were listing your property for sale, you mention how many bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, and generally emphasize the positives. If you live in a city and are close to public transportation, let it be known. If you are fortunate enough to live near the beach, tell them that, too. In addition to information about your home, you’ll also provide information about where you’d like to travel. You can be as specific as you like stating “Only Barcelona, Spain,” or “We’re open; Make us an offer.”

Once you have active listing(s), you can start emailing properties in countries or cities that appeal to you. While this is most often used for international travel, you can do domestic swaps as well. This part of the process can take awhile. Depending on how flexible you are on destination and dates, it can take a lot of emails to find a swapping partner. When we went to Queensland, Australia, it only took one email because they found us. When we went to New Zealand, it took 200 emails.

Here's a partial listing for a home in Galway, Ireland from one of the largest swapping sites,

Here’s a partial listing for a home in Galway, Ireland from one of the largest swapping sites,

What’s the Benefit of Swapping?

The biggest benefit is cost savings. When traveling internationally, the items that are the most costly are plane tickets, lodging, transportation in country, and eating out. With house swapping, you eliminate the lodging cost and may greatly reduce the last two categories as well. At least half of our exchanges have also included a car exchange. We drove their car(s) while they drove ours. We both had to pay for fuel costs, but that was still considerably less than if we had to pay for rental cars or train passes. Having a home base instead of a hotel room also means access to a real kitchen. We still sampled the local cuisine from time to time, but we weren’t forced to eat out every meal. It was also fun cultural experience to shop and cook with the local ingredients.

The house we stayed at came complete with cooking magazines.  Aussies are nuts about meat pies and puff pastry is cheap and available in every grocery store.  I had loads of fun trying out this meat pie recipe, which was delicious.

The house we stayed at came complete with cooking magazines. Aussies are nuts about meat pies and puff pastry is cheap and available in every grocery store. I had loads of fun trying out this meat pie recipe, which was delicious.

You also get a much more realistic experience of the country. We have traveled where we stayed only in hotels or hostels interacting only with other foreign visitors and only visiting the major tourist destinations. With swapping, you stay in neighborhoods with the locals, shop with the locals, and stumble upon hidden treasures you never find in a guide book. Also, over the months of planning the swap, you get to know your swapping partner pretty well. They can also guide you to sites and experiences you wouldn’t otherwise know about.

Now this depends on your work schedule, but because swapping allows your money to stretch further, you also open up the possibility of longer stays. Often your swapping partner will want a longer stay, too. Only in the United States do we feel two weeks in an adequate vacation time. We have found people who will do less than a month, but expect most exchange partners to want at least three weeks. Our Australians wanted six months.

Perhaps you love going a hundred miles an hour all day sight-seeing and then want to go to the local clubs after. Maybe you like hotel rooms with maid service and the tiny shampoo bottles. I, however, am a homebody that likes peace and quiet after a long day exploring. I find one of the best parts of swapping is coming home to a home. I crawl into a bed that has become familiar, drink tea out of the same mug, and don’t hear any fellow tourists partying into the wee hours.

What Are the Drawbacks of Swapping?

First and foremost, they require a lot of planning. There are many details to work out between you and your exchange partner. Also, because you aren’t doing the normal tourist thing, you often have additional planning. You might be staying a little bit further away from the major sites because that’s where you found a swap, so that requires extra planning and research on how to get from where you are staying to where you want to go. Because you are doing your own cooking, you might be packing meals and taking time out for grocery shopping. You have to locate and navigate a grocery store. When you fly in, there’s no hotel shuttle picking you up, so you have to arrange a way to get to where your swap is. If you are staying longer than the normal visitor, there might be visas to look into. None of these are insurmountable, and I’ll be doing a post that helps you consider these extra details. Still, if you prefer the sort of vacation that is preplanned and prepackaged and all you have to do is show up, then swapping is not for you.

An excerpt from a blog post my husband did on how to get from the tiny town of Vetheuil to Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris using only public transportation and hauling 50 pounds of luggage.  This took him so much planning and research, he posted the entire process in the small hope it might be useful to someone.

An excerpt from a blog post my husband did on how to get from the tiny town of Vetheuil to Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris using only public transportation and hauling 50 pounds of luggage. This took him so much planning and research, he posted the entire process in the small hope it might be useful to someone.

If you are really particular about your possessions and privacy, the whole idea of this might freak you out. We have a cat who still has her claws, which dictates that it’s best if we don’t own nice things. When at any moment what you own could be shredded or have a hairball coughed up on it, you learn to hold things loosely. House swapping does have some built in protection, though. True, your exchange partner could be trashing your house, but they are also aware that at that very minute you could be trashing theirs. It tends to keep people polite.

That said, we usually put sensitive and hard to replace documents (birth certificate, SS Card, etc.) in a small box along with the one piece of nice jewelry I own, and give it to a trusted friend for safe keeping while we are gone. Not that I’ve ever suspected the people we would swap with would ever do anything with them, but it gives you piece of mind that those things are secure while you are gone. Likewise, we have come across locked closets, drawers, and even garages in our swaps that I suspect were serving a similar purpose.

The biggest drawback, though, is when things go wrong, you have to deal with it. On any trip, there’s a chance something unforeseen could happen, but usually if you are doing the normal tourist thing, there’s someone else to call to take care of it. For example, in Spain a gust of wind from the window knocked over a lamp and broke it. If we were in a hotel, we’d just call the front desk, explain, and be done. Because it was in someone’s home, we had to replace it. It turned out to be easy because we were shopping at the local stores, and I spied the same exact lamp.

Sometimes, though, the problem is not so easily solved. When we were driving in northern Queensland, we hit a kangaroo. They’re like deer up there, a pest that just runs into the road without warning. If we had been driving a rental car, the company would retrieved us, given us a new car, and our credit card offers us rental car insurance, so we wouldn’t even have had to pay for the damage. Instead, we had to locate a tow truck, get back to the nearest town, and pay for a hotel for three days while the insurance got worked out. Then we had to rent a car to drive back to our swap, pay the $500 deductible on the car insurance, and wait a month for the car to be fixed because it takes so long for parts to be shipped to Australia. In the meantime, we couldn’t drive anywhere without paying for another rental car. It still likely cost us less than renting a car for the four months we were there, but it was a lot to deal with.

Up Next: The best websites to look for exchanges