Who wouldn’t want to spend a week or two in a country house in France, or a swank apartment in Florence, or even a cool studio in Bushwick? Especially when all you have to pay for is the airfare. The catch? The owners of those homes will sleep in your bed and eat on your plates while you’re using theirs. You may not have the amenities you have become used to. You may have to talk to people you don’t know.
How all that feels may tell you more about yourself than you think.
House swapping is definitely a trend in tourism. Websites are popping up all over, offering everything from financial savings to romance. (“Think of us as online dating for home swapping,” says Ben Wosskow, managing editor of lovehomeswap.com.) But do bear in mind the advice offered by those who have done the swap, and enjoyed it: Do not do this if you are a germophobe or likely to flip out if the internet is shaky or if you need the comfort of… well, comfort.
“I always tell people that if they typically check into hotels and start complaining, and asking to upgrade, this is not for you,” says Marilyn Bethany, who has been swapping her house in upstate New York for apartments, mostly in Brooklyn, for years.
Dan Flynn, who has swapped a New York apartment for homes in Europe at least eight times, seconds that thought: “We are very loosey-goosey,” he says. “My wife found a scorpion in a bed the first night at one place, which might have sent others home. And if you don’t want people touching your stuff, don’t do this.”
While it may force you to wonder how truly open, tolerant, and curious you are as a traveler, there is little doubt that interest in home swapping is growing. Besides lovehomeswap, there is now Kidandco.com (more family-oriented) and itravex.com. Those, and others, are basically playing catch up with the pre-eminent service called HomeExchange.com. It remains the one where most folks try out the concept of staying in someone else’s home while they take over yours.
Many point to The Holiday, the rom-com starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, as originally sparking interest in this idea. (No, Jude Law does not come with most offers.) I spoke with a variety of swappers and the large majority have had positive experiences. “We basically spent a decade hitting every corner of France,” says Flynn. “We’ve never had one bad experience,” adds Bethany. She and her husband have discovered Dumbo and, currently, Ditmas Park, where they are enjoying a 15-room mansion while the owners are picking up their children in camp. “Who knew Brooklyn had a neighborhood filled with Edith Wharton-type houses?” she said excitedly. The other family looks forward to Marilyn’s forested getaway near the town of Hudson, New York.
With HomeExchange, potential swappers sign up with an annual fee (about $150) and then are basically on their own. They describe their own property, with photos, and then wait for the response. The most desired places in this country are, not surprisingly, New York, California, and Florida. “We were staying in a four-bedroom farm house in France in exchange for our small apartment in New York,” marvels Flynn.
Ideally, the swaps can happen simultaneously, but the truth is, most do not. (A “balloon” agreement allows the flipping owners to pick their convenient times.) Owners communicate with each other on all the details, and then they have to decide what to do with the time when someone else is living in their home.
And that is where swappers discover they are not always thrilled. Veronica and Martin (who did not want their last names used) swapped their New York townhouse for a place in Tuscany this summer, and, at this point, claim they wouldn’t do it again. They felt the town was not as “charming” as advertised, but mostly it was the pain on the other end, as in their own address. “Our daughter hated the idea of someone being in her room and having to find somewhere else to go for two weeks,” says Veronica. “Not to mention knowing her hairbrush and other items had been used.”
“I remember my parents having issues with getting people to take care of our house,” says Anne-Fleur Andrie, a startup exec in Boston, whose family swapped numerous times. “Especially with regards to cleaning. My mom made a point of not leaving the footprint of a large family, but that vision was not always shared with everyone.”
“There are always learning moments and occasional annoyances,” agrees Kaylie Lewell, a New Zealander living in this country now. “I had one issue with getting the keys too late, which made me anxious. So now I make sure we have phone numbers, emails, and alternate contacts.” She took a place in Copenhagen when the owners were gone, and she visited Morocco when they visited her place.
Yes, we are talking travel habits here, but we are also talking about places where we live, raise our children, possibly were raised ourselves. So it is understandable that swappers may have conflicted feelings. “Our homes often reflect aspects of our personality, like neatness, sociability, warmth,” says New York psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller. “So while swapping home can be fun, it can also reveal those characteristics we take for granted. For example, homes with cozy, small rooms often suit people who enjoy their privacy and quiet hobbies, like reading by a fireplace, small gatherings, intimate conversation. If you're used to living in an open space with big rooms and windows, that cozy house can feel claustrophobic. We also set up our homes to fit our unique needs. A coffee table strewn with magazines, books and games can feel inviting to one person, but to another it feels like clutter.”
Clearly, this is not the travel choice of the one-percenters, who will probably be more satisfied renting that villa, getting the top suite in a Four Seasons, or hopping a yacht without having to share anything with anyone. And they may, let’s face it, be more comfortable around others who feel the same way. For those on a budget, however, swapping is usually a way to save money. Kidandco.com promises “a family-friendly way” to save an average $2,500 for a seven-night stay.
Michael Rubin, who with his wife, swapped for a house in Puglia recently, is not convinced the financials always even out. While their house was being filled with a family of seven, they took a driving trip through Maine. “Between paying for nice places to stay and a rental car, I am not sure we can call it a deal,” he says.
Mostly, it is about what kind of traveler you are: do you prefer a private guide for a day filled with the kind of laborious details guides have clearly memorized? Or are you eager to experience how others live? Teens may hate the idea of strangers sleeping in their beds, but many later recall these experiences as idyllic and say they encouraged a love of immersive travel. “My parents swapped a lot and it was mostly great for us as kids,” says Andrie. “Hotels can be so sterile and this felt like an authentic way to discover another culture, without huge budgetary constraints.”
Michael Rubin says his wife and daughter came home feeling like their home had been “invaded,” and while he concedes he would only do it simultaneously, “I would absolutely do it again, and we’d probably end up doing it better.” Adds Dan Flynn: “In the end, it’s just different staying in a home for a few weeks and getting familiar with the locals, the old couple who run the coffee place in the village.”