How to Swap Your House With a Stranger

Responses to readers' questions—and fears—about home exchanges

 

Our recent article about home exchanges—"Open Your Home to Strangers and See the World," in the April edition of Next—drew a flood of reader emails and questions. We asked Jim Gray, who wrote the article and swaps his condo in San Diego with people in other countries, to answer some of the most common questions.


How can I trust someone I don't know and who comes from a foreign country?

You get to know them as best you can. In the course of preparing for an exchange, we email back and forth about 20 times. We continue to email them during the exchange. Early on, we like to have a visual conversation on Skype. Sometimes we can meet in person. On the home-exchange websites, you can learn how many previous exchanges, if any, your prospective visitors have had.

Ask for references and call them. Most will have references in the U.S.

Also, we have a neighbor who helps us with our exchanges. She meets the people, lets them in, answers their questions during their stay, and collects the keys when they leave.

 

What about theft?

You should remove any valuables and any documents you consider private. Lock them in a closet or a bedroom or in a file cabinet.

During our 34 exchanges, we had only one incident of theft: An exchanger brought his 15-year-old grandson, who stole a camera, binoculars and a portable radio.

 

Will visitors damage our appliances?

Most exchangers have a manual explaining how to operate appliances, the heating and air conditioning, and the television. (Many exchangers from overseas don't have a garbage disposal, dryer or dishwasher.)

Typically, these manuals also explain where to park and find shopping, and offer maps, visitor guides and information about public transportation. Often doctors and/or dentists are recommended, as well.

 

What if there's a problem with, say, plumbing or air conditioning?

We have arrangements with a handyman, a plumber and a car mechanic to repair things in our absence. I pay them electronically through our bank. If something breaks down, the exchanger calls our neighbor, who gets in touch with the repair person.

 

What about your garden and plants?

It's normal to ask exchangers to water your plants. However, you should specify, in advance, the number of plants and the frequency of watering. On an exchange to Germany, my wife and I found a note, asking us to water 125 plants twice a week. We felt that was a bit excessive.

 

What if the exchangers make noise and disturb the neighbors?

Make the exchangers aware of any noise restrictions in your home or neighborhood. If your building or neighborhood has rules and regulations, leave a copy for them. We exchange primarily with older adults, and this has never been a problem.

 

What do we do to make room for exchangers?

You should have specific areas cleared in your closets and drawers and in the bathroom for their belongings.

 

Do you need special insurance if you have exchangers in your home?

I suggest you inform your insurance agent that you will be exchanging. We have a rider on our policy to cover renters, which we are told will cover exchangers.

 

What happens if our exchange partner has problems with our car or gets into an accident with it?

This, certainly, is a cause for concern. You should read your insurance policy and discuss this with your carrier. I also talked with our attorney about potential liability.

You should address damage to cars in your exchange agreement or in your emails with your exchange partner. I think that the exchanger should pay for any damage caused by his driving, and the owner should pay for maintenance problems such as a dead battery.

 

Where do I find detailed information about home exchanging?

Home-exchange websites provide extensive information. I recommend homelink.org/usa and homeexchange.com. You can access their websites at no charge and read their explanations, see their agreements and review their listings. Check out the listings in the cities that interest you. (To get contact information, you need to join the sites.)

 

I live in Madison, Wis. Would anyone want to exchange with me?

We heard from a number of people—in Pittsburgh; Elk Grove, Calif.; St. Louis; and Shreveport, La., among other towns—with the same question. These destinations aren't in the top tiers of the most-desired cities from a tourism standpoint, but there are probably many exchangers who want to go there.

About half of our exchange requests are from people who want to come to San Diego for reasons other than tourism. Many people have families who live in Southern California or children who are students in our colleges. Our exchange partner for Paris this month, for example, has a new granddaughter and comes here as often as possible. We have also had multimonth exchange requests from college professors who are here for one semester.

Go to the websites I mentioned above, find your city and see how many exchangers there are. Check to see how many are experienced exchangers, which is evidence that they have been successful finding exchanges. See how they market your city on their home page.

One reader, from Modesto, Calif., said he gets plenty of exchanges from people who want to explore Northern California.

***

And finally, the comment my wife, Carol, and I hear most often is: "I just don't think I could allow strangers in my home." That's certainly understandable—but think about what it means to "have strangers in your home." If you have vetted your guests to the best of your ability and shared instructions with them, it means that when you return from an exchange you will find that things have been moved around a little, especially in the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom. Your home will be cleaned, but not mopped. You will find a few unfamiliar hairs, and the outside will have been pretty much ignored. You should find a nice thank-you note and perhaps a little gift. That's it.

In my opinion, these problems, inconveniences and concerns are insignificant in comparison with the experience of spending a month in Rome or Hong Kong. It will all be worth it this month when Carol and I walk into our new exchange building in Paris and see a family waiting at the elevator—and the little girl in the stroller looks up at me and says, "Bonjour."

Mr. Gray is a retired business owner in Upland, Calif. He can be reached at next@wsj.com.

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