If you've never done one, the idea of a house swap can be a bit intimidating. People are sometimes trepidatious about the idea of strangers staying in their home or about visiting another person's home sight unseen. When done right, though, home swaps are a great way to immerse yourself in a local community, build a network of international friends, and experience new places without worrying about the cost of hotels. If you're new to home exchanges, this summer might be the perfect time to give it a shot. Here are some tips to help get you started.
1. Go through an official home swap website. While I'm sure that there are a number of people on the up-and-up on Craigslist, it might be worth the additional sense of security to go through a company specifically designed for exchanges. Many of these sites have special guarantees, and one can assume that people using the site are more serious about fulfilling swaps. You may have to pay a membership fee, but often these are cheaper than a one-night stay in a hotel, and that strikes me as a small price to pay for peace of mind. Some popular sites are Digsville, Home Exchange, HomeLink International, and Intervac. There are also a number of place-specific and profession-specific swap sites out there, if you have something more particular in mind. Check out Only in America for swaps in North America, Aussie House Swap for stays in Australia and New Zealand, or Sabbatical Homes for academic exchanges.
2. Plan in advance. Setting up a house swap is a more intricate, time-intensive process than setting up a vacation rental. You are establishing a relationship with someone else, and you will need to communicate with some regularity in order to develop a rapport and establish trust.
3. Read reviews. A lot of home swappers are regulars, so they may have other people who have reviewed their spaces. Look at reviews carefully to help get a sense of whether it's an accurately described place. Also, feel free to ask for references from potential guests, and be prepared to provide them should they ask for the same from you. It may also be a good ideal to set up an informal written agreement outlining the terms of the exchange. In a swap, it's necessary to have a certain level of trust, but setting up some parameters can help each party feel more comfortable with the exchange.
4. Consider the type of people you're swapping with. Are they professionals? Do they have kids? Are they young? Is their lifestyle similar in some respects to yours? Thinking about these types of questions might help you choose people that you're comfortable with. It can also ensure that your visit will be more suitable for your lifestyle. (For instance, if you're a thirty-something single, you may not want to swap with someone who lives in a community for retirees.)
5. Be precise. In your listing and in your correspondence, be clear about what you are offering. Can visitors use your car? Can they bring their dog? Will they need to take care of your plants? The clearer that you are about the expectations that you have for each other, the better the home swap will be for both parties.
6. Be honest. While you want to play up the strong suits of your home, don't exaggerate or fib. You wouldn't want to show up at someone's home and have surprises waiting for you, so assume that your guests don't either. Take accurate photos and be sure to clue your visitors in to any idiosyncrasies that your place might have (it's on a noisy street, or it shares a patio with neighbors, etc.). On the flip side, to make sure that you're getting an honest depiction of the place you'll be staying, ask plenty of questions, and make sure that the lines of communication with your swapper are open.
7. Be open. Not everyone lives in New York or Paris, but it doesn't mean that they don't have a great place to swap. You might be that suburbanite wondering why someone from Tokyo would want your place (so much room!), or you might be that urban dweller who receives an email from a family in rural Wyoming wanting a swap. Obviously, you need to choose exchanges that suit your tastes, but keep your mind open about the possibilities of visiting new locales.
8. Prepare. Tell the neighbors in advance that you will have guests. If they see strangers coming and going, and you're not around, they might assume the worst. Also, if it's a concern for you, talk to your insurance agent and make sure that everything is properly covered under an exchange. Does your car insurance cover the guest driver? Can you pay your exchange company for a plan that will cover expenses in case the exchange falls through at the last minute? Along these lines, put any financial information or valuables in a place safe from prying eyes. If you don't have a safe, you can set up an "owner's closet" with a padlock.
9. Don't be too uptight. While it's natural to be a bit skittish about strangers coming to stay, and while it's smart to take precautions, ultimately, home swaps require a certain level of trust. It's okay to check in on your guests or to make some minor demands about plant-watering, etc., but don't pester them. This is their vacation, and just as you wouldn't want to be hounded on your vacation, neither do they. Similarly, remember that home exchanges are about hospitality, not about hotel-level amenities. You should be realistic with your expectations. Just as your home probably has some quirks, theirs might too, so don't get too hung up on things like sticky locks or a lumpy pillow.
10. Clean. Make sure that your home is clean and inviting for your guests before they arrive, and when you leave their home, make sure that you have treated their place with respect and have left it in good condition. Be sure to clean out the fridge, vacuum or sweep, take out the trash, and change the linens.
11. Think of your guests. Make sure that you have left clean towels, plenty of toilet paper, and adequate closet or drawer space so that your guests feel welcome. You might also consider leaving a small housewarming gift, like a bottle of wine or a local food product. Additionally, be sure to provide your guests with plenty of written information. They'll need to know emergency contact numbers, how to operate things around your house (like any complicated audio-visual equipment), and how to get around. If you think that you might home swap on a regular basis, invest the time to type up a short booklet about your home, the neighborhood, and the city for your guests. You'll only have to do it once, but tips about good local restaurants, shops, and sights will be exceedingly helpful to your guests.
(Images: Mark's Delightful (and Delicious!) West Village Home House Tour and Julie and Jesper's Musical Scandi-Canadian Nest)