By Suzanne Bopp
The home-exchange concept isn't new, but its popularity is rising, thanks to the difficult economy and the proliferation of online sites that connect potential travelers. From a cost-savings standpoint, vacation swaps mean a free place to stay and access to a proper kitchen, so you don't have to eat out every night. But the value goes deeper than that. Home-exchangers also extol the benefits of living like a local in a foreign place, feeling more immersed in a different culture, and making new friends along the way.
So how do you ensure a successful home exchange? Basic preparations go a long way, says Helen Coyle Bergstein, founder of the decade-old Digsville Home Exchange Club. Bergstein shares her top tips, from detailed communication to tidying up the bathroom, with Fodor's.
1. Communicate Early and Often
Finding a suitable swap comes down to good communication. You'll want to feel comfortable about the place you'll be taking—and the people coming into yours while you're away. Be clear and honest about what you're looking for, and about what you're offering in return. If you’re allergic to pets, find out if any have been in the house; if you have children, ask if there's a stroller you can use (to save you from having to pack one). Email makes all of this very convenient, but Bergstein cautions, "don’t be afraid to pick up the phone either, especially if you’re about to buy airline tickets. Make sure everyone is on the same page."
2. Prepare Your Home for Guests
While your house certainly doesn’t have to be as pristine as a hotel room, your guests will appreciate having closet space and a dresser drawer or two in which to store their belongings. In the bathroom, put your personal items out of sight. As for the kitchen, most exchangers make their staples and condiments available to their guests, so be sure to restock in advance. "You don’t want to have to go out and buy olive oil," Bergstein says. Your guests shouldn't have to, either.
3. Make a List of Household Do's and Don'ts
Leave a cheat sheet to help your guests feel more confident about being in, and using, your space. Bergstein recommends covering items that can affect the house and its belongings, such as what can be put down the sink, whether shoes should be taken off, if smoking is allowed indoors, and how the fireplace works. She also suggests leaving out operating instructions for the television, washing machine, and Internet access.
4. Create a Guide to Your Neighborhood or Town
Help your visitors feel like locals: Collect menus from restaurants, provide details on the time and place of a nearby farmers’ market, where the local wine store is, and recommend any upcoming events like a concert in the park. "People love to do this," says Bergstein. "They become tour guides in their own town and get to show it from their own point of view."
5. Tell Your Neighbors
Let your neighbors know your home-exchange plans before you go. "The last thing you want is to have your neighbors look out the window and see a strange family coming in your house and getting into a situation where everyone is uncomfortable," says Bergstein. "And if the neighbors know, maybe they’ll come over and say hello." Bergstein reports having experienced this many times herself. "We've often been invited to parties, even a wedding once." Indeed, Bergstein says that one of the best side benefits of home exchanges is the lasting friendships created along the way.
Ready to Go? Try these Home Exchange Sites
You'll find dozens of home exchange sources online whose popularity is growing rapidly. The membership of HomeExchange.com, for example, has doubled in the last three years. Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there:
Digsville Home Exchange Club: Bergstein's decade-old home exchange site allows members to comment on the places they've stayed. Visit Digsville.com
HomeExchange.com: Offers more than 40,000 properties in 152 countries. Visit HomeExchange.com
Exclusive Exchanges: Arranges exchanges of upscale properties. Visit ExclusiveExchanges.com
Seniors Home Exchange: Intended for home-swappers over the age of 50. Visit SeniorsHomeExchange.com
Global Home Exchange: Lists properties available for a month or more. Visit 4HomeX.com
Photo Credits: Scott Cramer/iStockPhoto