How to Swap Homes to Save Money
Eliminate lodging costs by doing a home exchange when you travel.
If you will settle for nothing less than an apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris in May, then stick with short-term rental websites to plan your dream vacation. But if you’re open to traveling anywhere, anytime, you can save a lot of money with a home swap.
Home swaps, or exchanges, can be simultaneous, in which you trade residences with someone else at the same time. Or you can set up a non-simultaneous swap with someone’s second home (or primary home, when they’re away), and repay the favor at a later date. Some sites, including GuestToGuest and Love Home Swap, facilitate non-simultaneous exchanges through a “points” system.
Devoted swappers find the process less risky than renting your home for money. “People tend to feel a little more entitled about how they treat things when they’re paying for it,” says Dawn Royski, who blogs about home exchanges for www.sharetraveler.com and has completed about 15 swaps over the past couple of years. Instead of charging security deposits, swappers commonly establish trust by communicating via e-mail and phone, reading reviews, checking references and operating on the idea that they will take care of each other’s homes. Photos of a spotless home can be misleading, so ask your swapper for a Skype tour if you feel uncomfortable.
Many home-exchange websites charge a membership fee—typically about $100 per year. HomeLink and Intervac are two of the oldest and most reputable home-exchange websites. HomeExchange.com is one of the largest and most diverse. Newbies can start with a free site, or free trial, to get comfortable with the idea, though Royski notes that free sites tend to end up with a lot of inactive members. (See Royski’s list of more than 100 home-exchange companies.) Before joining a site, see how many listings it has in locations that interest you. Try a short swap in the U.S. before venturing abroad.
Organize a successful swap. Be flexible about your destination—especially if you live in a rural or suburban area that might not be so appealing to the owner of that Tuscan villa you’ve been eyeing. You’ll also have to plan well in advance. Lauren Kahn, who has been swapping homes since 1990 and blogs about her experiences, recommends negotiating between October and January for summer swaps in Europe, and a couple years out for swaps in Australia or New Zealand. Exchanges across shorter distances—especially where both parties can drive—can be arranged with less notice. She expects her swappers to have a firm time frame in mind and waits to buy her plane tickets until her exchange partners have bought theirs.
Some home-exchange sites are offering cancellation insurance, but if you’ve done your homework on your exchange partners, the risk of cancellation is fairly low. Think about the worst-case scenario before you opt for insurance: a change fee for your plane ticket? A few nights in a hotel? Or, if you buy comprehensive travel insurance, see which cancellation scenarios it would cover.
When you’ve made a swap and guests will be staying in your home, you won’t be governed by the rules that cover short-term rentals. But if you live in a condo or co-op, clear the swap with the board, and if you are a renter, tell your landlord. Your homeowners insurer might be more lenient in swapping situations than with a revolving door of short-term renters, says Spencer Houldin, of Ericson Insurance Advisors, in Washington Depot, Conn., but check to be sure. Generally, as long as you give your guests permission to drive your car, your auto insurance will cover them—but call your insurer to confirm.
To head off unpleasant incidents, prepare a binder for your guests with information on everything from how to operate your coffeemaker to the person to call in a plumbing emergency. Clarify whether you’re expected to water plants, look after pets or chip in for utility bills. Substitute cheap dishes so your guests don’t break fine china, and lock up valuables and private documents.