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Stay in the Best Homes Worldwide for Free: 5 Tips to Arrange Your Perfect Home Exchange

Note: The terms home swap and home exchange are interchangeable, and I use both in this post to avoid repeating the same word all the time.

What is a Home Swap or Home Exchange?  

Simply put, home exchanges occur when people swap their homes. Home swaps enable both parties to stay in their counterpart’s home for a pre-arranged period, usually for free.  

Home exchanges are not limited to homes. Most home swappers also exchange cars. Some even plan for outside cleaning and gardening service (usually, both parties pay for their house cleaner or gardener during their vacation).  

Swaps do not have to be simultaneous. Many people (especially if they have two or more homes) let home exchangers stay in their vacation home for permission to remain in the other exchanger’s house later.  

Most home exchanges last for less than a month. However, I have heard of people arranging a home exchange for as long as a couple of years. 

Since I suppose many Fifty-Plus Nomads will be interested in a longer-term exchange. In that case, I suggest that you investigate home exchange listing services – like Teachers’ Home Swap and Senior Home Exchange Service geared toward populations that are more likely to be able to engage in more extended exchanges.  

Home Swap Listing Services   

Usually, home exchanges are arranged through listing services that provide detailed information about people interested in exchanges. The listings typically feature:  

  • Contact info (name, address, phone, e-mail)  
  • Location (nearest big city, distance from city, nearby attractions)  
  • The number of guests the home can accommodate.  
  • Home and neighborhood features (appliances, internet, phone access, access to golf clubs, etc.)  
  • Transportation (will cars be exchanged, how accessible is public transportation) 
  • Exchange requirements (available dates, places you want to exchange, number of previous exchanges, photos, smoking permitted in-house)  

To belong to these listing services costs between $35 and $125 a year.  

The home exchange listing services can be open or closed. Open organizations charge you to list your home. Closed organizations need you to become a member before you can view the listings. Any visitor can access your listing for free without becoming a member (visitors may need to sign up for the service, however). 

Both closed and open listing services may allow visitors to see parts of a listing (excluding contact information). Closed services will only provide contact information if you become a member. Some open listing services will require visitors to tell the service they are interested in contacting a particular listing. Once the service receives the request, they will send the contact person a message that the visitor is interested in getting in touch.    

Most of the homes listed by all services are in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Occasionally, you may find some homes in Latin America (Mexico and Brazil), Africa (mainly South Africa), and Asia. However, arranging a hospitality exchange (or a homestay) may be easier than a home exchange in these parts of the globe.  

You may even want to consider a small, closed listing service if you go somewhere immensely popular like Paris or London. Some larger clubs have hundreds (sometimes thousands) of listings in these areas, and a smaller club with fewer listings may save you the time and trouble of culling through the mountains of listings.  

Choosing among the numerous home exchange listing services can be a chore, and many people decide to join several organizations. Frankly, it is hard to distinguish between companies. However, if you research, you will find distinct advantages and disadvantages to all programs. 

Here is a summary of some of the benefits and drawbacks of home exchange listing services that I have researched:  

  • The Big Three: IntervacHome Link, and HomeExchange.comHome Link and Intervac maintain that they are the largest listing services. They all feature many listings outside the USA (mainly Europe and Australia) and list swappers.  
  • More minor home exchange listing services:  Numerous smaller home exchange listing services exist like People Like Us. Typically, you will get more personal attention from these services than the big three, but you will have fewer choices.  

Most home swap listing services also list a few hospitality exchanges, homestay, and student exchange possibilities. The home swap listing services may be an excellent way to arrange these exchanges informally. However, traditional exchange programs offer more screening and will help you find the best experience for you.  

Home Exchange Safety  

Whenever I have suggested that anyone consider home exchanges, they immediately express concern about the safety of their home during the exchange. However, your home is SAFER during a home exchange than any other type of vacation. Let us look at the facts:  

  • As Diane and Joe Stevens, veteran home exchangers, note, no one will rob you during an exchange because:    

“You are not exchanging with…complete strangers as you have gotten to know them a bit before the exchange takes place. It would be rather circuitous for a thief to think:” know what I will do,

I will join this exchange club for a certain number of dollars per year, then I will give these folks I am going to rob my name, address and let them stay in my own house for a week or two or three, then I will rob them and when they get back home and find that everything is gone …. they’ll never expect it was me’. I mean, you are going to be in their house while they are in yours. Theft just isn’t going to happen.”  

  • The other party will ensure that your home is safe while you are away. Their mere presence in your home will help keep thieves away that prey on vacant homes. In addition, the partners will keep a keen eye on your place because they:
    • Want you to show the same respect for their possessions and home.  
    • Don’t want to be responsible for damage to your belongings; and  
    • They need to maintain a good reputation to enjoy future home exchanges.

Arranging a Home Exchange  

After reading the descriptions of the home exchange listing services, potential exchangers contact each other and discuss their expectations and conditions.  

During your communications, you will need to take the following steps to set up a good exchange for both parties:  

  • Setting up an exchange  
    • Be prepared to take some time and effort to find the right exchange for you.  
    • Draft a message about your home and send it to several potential exchangers. Tell them about your location (including how close you are to major tourist attractions and your area’s central city) and time requirements (when and how long you want to exchange).  
    • Be persistent. Check for new listings periodically and send them your letter.   
    • Follow up on responses quickly. If it becomes hard to find a partner, try contacting a few listings in your destination who have indicated that they wanted to go somewhere other than your area.  
  • Once you think you are ready to enter an exchange 
    • Discuss your expectations regarding cleanliness. Most home exchange listing services report that difference in cleaning standards is their #1 issue. 
    • Be extremely specific. Ensure that the number of bedrooms and beds is adequate for the number of people involved in the exchange. Ensure both parties can drive the cars involved in the exchange (most vehicles outside of the US have manual transmissions). Find out if there are restrictions on the use of water and electricity. Clarify issues involving animals, computer use, smoking, paying for home and car repairs, telephone use, and any special apartment or condominium association rules. 
    • Check with your insurance provider about insuring your home and car during the exchange. Most insurance providers treat home exchanges as if you are letting a friend or relative use your vehicle. If something happens, you are covered. If your insurance carrier does not cover the exchange, contact your home exchange listing service for advice.  
  • Right before the exchange: 
    • Prepare a two- or three-page information sheet about the house, the local area, restaurants, etc. Include information about how to use the household appliances, passwords, codes, and areas off-limits in your home to the exchangers.  
    • Ensure you plan for emergency contacts, retrieving mail, newspapers, phone messages, and keys before and after the exchange.  
    • Arrange with friends, relatives, or neighbors to greet the guest and give them the keys. These hosts can also help resolve any maintenance or other problems. Interestingly, when my parents did an exchange in England almost 40 years, we never met the home exchangers, but your neighbor-host and the exchangers became friends.  

Most listing services cover many living arrangements, including apartments, condominiums, and boats. Some are highly luxurious (Joe and Diane Stevens once stayed in a mansion in Puerto Vallarta that would have been worth upwards of $10 million in California!) Others are more modest. Many potential exchangers worry that their home is inadequate for a home exchange, which should not deter you.  

The most critical factor in determining your success in the exchange is the location of your home. Someone in San Francisco or New York City will have no trouble finding people who want to exchange.  

On the other hand, if your home is off-the-beaten-tourist-track, you may need to “sell” it a little more aggressively than if it were in a more popular destination. It also helps to start planning your exchange long in advance and be flexible about the dates for the exchange to allow more time to find a partner. <Plus, it helps to choose other potential exchange partners in similarly ¨off-the-beaten-path¨ places. 

While you need to be honest about your location, you may get people interested by saying things like it is in a “typical American town” or that your neighbors are extremely friendly. In addition, take a closer look at your hometown; you may find several tourist attractions that you did not know about that will interest potential exchangers in coming to your area.  

My Family’s Experiences with Home Exchanges Worldwide

My family found home exchanges were fabulous ways to save money, know the areas, and feel at home in a community. We had fond memories of shopping in local stores and markets and cooking meals in an exotic setting.  

We swapped homes three times (Poissy, France, a mid-sized Parisian suburb, Kingston-upon-the-Thames, England, a fashionable London suburb, and Victoria, British Columbia). We had no problems though we did have some funny stories, including:  

  • When we came home from our swap in England, we discovered that a lot of small decorator items appeared to be missing; however, when we looked closer, we noted that the exchangers had placed these items on any ledge they could find to keep their seven-year-old son from accidentally breaking our stuff.  
  • On our exchange to Paris, our swap partners were a friendly but fastidious couple. When we arrived, they picked us up at the airport and took us to their penthouse apartment we would call home. For about an hour, the gentleman instructed us on how to take care of the place, including showing us several rickety, antique chairs. My mother, conscious of my father and my propensity to break wobbly chairs, put a string on every antique chair to keep us from accidentally sitting down. Though we only had a few pieces of furniture left to sit on, we loved the apartment’s view and size.  

After moving from my parents’ home 35 years ago, I have not participated in a home exchange. Until recently, I did not have a home to exchange. However, I plan to participate in a home swap again shortly.  

This is a photo of an antique-filled beautiful penthouse apartment when my family stayed in Poissy, France in 1990. The apartment was an excellent example of why home exchange give families the chance to stay in the best homes worldwide for free.
Our family was able to stay in this beautiful antique-filled penthouse apartment for free during your Home Exchange in Poissy, France in 1990.

Alternative to Home Swap Listing Services 

You do not have to use a paid home swap listing service. Some exchanges are arranged by putting an ad in a paper in the place you want to visit. In addition, some exchange listing services are free. I would recommend using a paid listing service, however, for several reasons:  

  • Your home is your largest investment. It seems “pound wise, penny foolish” not to pay $50 or so to learn more about the person you will trust with this investment. You will feel more comfortable trusting your home to someone willing to pay money to be part of a club.  
  • The paid listing services require quite a bit of information about their listings. This information allows you to weed out listings that are not right for you. Most ads do not give enough information for your potential exchanger to determine if you are the right match. Therefore, you may have to respond to many people before finding the right exchange partner. You will save time. 

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Want to Know More About Home Exchanges? 

Check out these posts from LoveHomeSwap, Howzz.com, and Smarter Travel.

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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