How do you know if you'll be OK with a home swap? Costabel tells us, "It's a gut feeling. It does boil down to having someone you have never physically met in your home. To help minimize your concerns, consider that prior to the exchange there will be extensive discussion of the swap."
It's Not Exactly Free
Some home-exchange sites are free; most aren't. The majority of home-exchange programs—especially the more reputable ones—charge users a membership fee to list and search for homes and get in contact with members. International Vacation Home Exchange (IVHE), for example, charges an annual membership fee that starts at $159. A HomeLink membership starts at $39 for U.S. exchanges only. (This being one of the cheaper options, it's a good way to get your feet wet if you're just starting out.) And Intervac offers a monthly membership plan, with rates starting at $8.33 a month. Each company has various pricing structures and membership options, so spend a little time doing research to find the one that fits you best.
Be Clear About Your Expectations
One of the best ways to alleviate first-time home-swapping jitters is to get to know your exchange partners really well. Likewise, before you make the swap, consider all the necessary details that may arise during the process. Will you leave food for your guests? Will you hire a cleaning service? Do you expect your host to use a professional cleaning service? How will you arrange the key swap? According to Costabel, "We encourage members to iron out details in terms of everything, including linens and food (especially perishables). We have a beginner's guide to arranging a swap on HomeLink."
It's Not Just for Homeowners
Renters can participate in home exchanges too. And various forms of ownership, like co-ops or condos, work also, as long as you've cleared the exchange with the necessary parties. Check with your landlord or co-op board, or read your lease to see if you're permitted to rent your place out to strangers, which in most cases constitutes a temporary sublet.
Start Your Search Early
Naturally, a first-time home exchange isn't the most suitable option for a last-second getaway. Costabel advises that travelers start planning swaps "three to six months prior to the exchange for international travel, sometimes even up to nine months in advance. If there's a major event going on, you definitely want to start planning well in advance."
You Can Swap Cars, Too
When we asked Costabel if swappers could trade cars along with houses, she told us, "Most definitely. Whatever suits the exchange partners. Our members who live in major cities with extensive public transportation may not even have cars. But swapping cars, which provides cost savings to those who would otherwise need to rent a vehicle, is common in the home-exchange community."
Sir Barksalot Can Stay
According to Costabel, "We have many members who are pet owners. The details [regarding pet care] we leave up to our members. We encourage our members to provide information about pets to forewarn people with allergies. We recently had a member join HomeLink who has a ranch, and she has a goat and a couple donkeys. She has neighbors who would come to tend to the animals. If the exchange partner is up to it, more power to them."
You'll Need to Do Some Footwork
Different home-exchange sites have different vetting processes. Some use social media as a screening process: Love Home Swap, for example, offers a Facebook app that swappers can use to check out possible exchange partners on the social-networking site. Many others, like IVHE and HomeLink, rely on good ol'-fashioned references.
Costabel tells us, "We have home-exchange evaluation forms that we encourage our members to complete after every exchange, and we provide that information to members who request references. Members also often have their own stockpile of references from previous exchange partners."
Ultimately, you'll most likely have to do your own research to ensure that your partner is reliable and responsible. Check references, find them on Facebook, and ask your home-exchange company for more information about prospective swap partners.
Home Swapping Is Safe (We Knew You'd Ask)
Home swapping is by and large a safe way to arrange a stay. According to Costabel, "HomeLink is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. In all of the years we've been in business, there's never been a case of reported theft or vandalism. In the end, they're staying in your home and you're staying in theirs, so mutual trust is fundamental."
Costabel advises swappers to conceal valuables if they're especially worried about expensive or irreplaceable possessions: "Some members put valuables in a room and have that room off-limits. Or they leave valuables with friends and family."
Have you ever done a home swap? How did it go? Share your experiences in the comments.
There's More Than One Way to Do a Home Swap
The three main types of home exchanges are as follows: You can stay in your exchange-partner's home while they stay in yours (a "simultaneous exchange"). You can stay at a home-swapper's second home or vacation home (a "non-simultaneous exchange"). Or you can stay as a guest in a swapper's abode while they're also in the house (a "hospitality exchange"). Various home-exchange sites cater to different types of exchanges. IVHE, for example, focuses on vacation- or second-home swapping. So consider which kind of swap you're most interested in before buying a membership with a particular home-exchange company.
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