From a beach apartment in Australia or studio flat in the centre of Sao Paulo to an 18th century farmhouse in Cornwall, the world’s your oyster. While it may seem too good to be true, people all over the world regularly enjoy escaping to places as diverse as Iceland, South Africa and Barcelona for just the cost of a flight.
They are all part of a home exchange network – a concept that was brought to the big screen in the 2006 film The Holiday where an English journalist, played by Kate Winslet, exchanges her pretty Surrey cottage for a Bel Air mansion owned by Cameron Diaz’s character – a successful movie trailer producer.
A home exchange is an arrangement between two parties to swap their main or holiday home for an agreed period of time, allowing them both to enjoy rent-free holiday accommodation.
Lois Sealey, who runs the home exchange agency Home Base Holidays, said this type of holiday has many advantages. These include having the space and convenience of a home where you can cook your own meals and have access to books, toys and other equipment left by the owners, as well as enjoying the experience of staying in a real neighbourhood rather than a touristy area. "You also have the security of knowing that your own house is occupied," she said. "And – if agreed with your exchange partner in advance – that your pets and plants are being cared for."
Ans Lammers, owner of the home exchange website www.HomeForExchange.com, added: "You can save roughly about 50 percent of your holiday budget as the costs for accommodation are reduced to zero. Especially in these days of recession and financial crisis, more and more people are looking for ways to afford a holiday in the country they would like to go to."
For a small annual fee—usually around €35—people can list their property with a home exchange agency and access the details of other members. Home exchanges are considered to be a private agreement between friends and in general there is no obligation to inform your mortgage or insurance company.
However, some home exchange companies offer the option of a contract and accommodation insurance to cover a possible cancellation by your exchange partner.
Despite this, home exchange is not something that suits everyone, being a system that relies entirely on trust. American chiropractor Tobias Goncharoff, who has done several exchanges from his home in Barcelona, said: "The level of trust is very high because you’re sharing each other’s spaces. You are in their home and they are in your home."
As well as offering to care for plants and pets, some exchange partners also agree to swap other property, reducing the costs of the holiday further. "People are extremely generous," said Goncharoff. "I have had people offering me their cars, boats, their vacation homes and so on. We tend to do the same. I offer my car and my sail boat if they are qualified."
The downsides are that unlike booking an apartment or hotel room, finding a suitable home exchange partner requires time, patience and an element of luck. Goncharoff, who was looking to trade his three-storey Barcelona flat for a home in Santa Cruz, California, for a two-week summer holiday, said it is easier to set up an exchange if you are flexible about your location and dates. "People who have a lot of good luck are those with second homes who don’t have to do simultaneous exchanges," he said.
Another downside is that you can’t be 100 percent certain of what you will find when you arrive at your exchange partner’s home. Armin Hupka, a property manager from Germany who uses his holiday home in Cambrils, Tarragona, for home exchanges, said: "We have found that the more information provided by either partner before the exchange, the better. People who are reluctant to provide addresses or photographs quite often have something to hide."
He and his wife Silke started using their holiday house for home exchanges about 15 years ago.
"We found that our holiday home was not earning its keep especially since at that time demanding management jobs stopped us from going often enough. To rent the apartment to complete strangers was no solution – what had worked for 30 years now tended to leave us with a near to destroyed apartment. We hoped that exchange partners, being owners themselves, would treat the property a little more carefully."
They have since travelled all over Europe, including Austria, Norway, Sweden and the UK, but have turned down offers from Australia and America because they like to travel with their dog Rasmus. Their accommodation has ranged from massive log cabins, terraced houses, small apartments and cottages to static caravans and even a touring caravan.
In general, their experience has been positive although they once found themselves in a house beside a railway line with trains every half an hour. "It was also quite dark with not a comfortable chair in sight," he said. "If you know up ahead, you can often remedy some minor difference in lifestyle, that might otherwise spoil your holiday. Like bringing your own toaster, carrying some reading lights or even some foldable easy chairs. On the other hand we have experienced amazing hospitality and have been by far more integrated into local life than one would ever be as a normal tourist. And of course our original intention – better use of the apartment without the wreckage - has more or less materialised."
In the same way that the Hupkas always look to exchange with people who are happy to have a pet in their home, so Carles Moreras, from Banyoles, aims to find families with children of the same age as his daughters, aged 10 and five. "By doing an exchange with a family with children, we are able to use their toys and also their bicycles," he said. "It is great for the children to arrive at a house and find it full of toys for them to play with, or films they haven’t seen or a PlayStation. Sometimes they don’t want to leave the house at all."
He and his wife Anna have done nine home exchanges over the past eight years, visiting the cities of Paris, Montreal, Stockholm, Edinburgh, Turku (in Finland), Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rennes and Montpellier. "There are a lot of advantages especially for a family with children who want a long holiday," said Moreras. "We can be in a country having the same life as the residents, living in non-touristy neighbourhoods, shopping in supermarkets and walking in local parks. And because we always go to people’s homes they have more character and are not as cold as apartments or rented houses."
For Moreras, the only downside is that before exchanging homes you have to make sure your own house is clean and tidy, with space in the cupboards for the exchange family to put their things. But, he admits, it is a small price to pay for a three-week holiday in a real home from home.
Tips for home exchangers:
- Always register with a reputable organisation.
- Provide as much detail about your home, family and town as possible and provide lots of photographs or have a personal website.
- Be flexible about your dates and destination.
- Find exchange partners in a similar situation to yourself and keep in touch with them from the moment you agree to swap houses.
- Provide practical information about your home and appliances.
- Agree in advance what to do about keys, used linen, bills etc.
- Ask neighbours or friends to be on hand to help out if necessary.
- Leave your house as you would hope to find your holiday home.