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Why and How to Do a Home Exchange Vacation

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Curious about how a home exchange works? If you would like the comforts of home while traveling at almost no cost, then doing a home exchange may be for you. Whenever I tell people my family has done a few home exchange vacations, they exclaim interest in doing the same. Of course, many would-be exchangers have some trepidation about swapping residences with other travelers. My family has experienced varying levels of success with our home swaps. To ensure a successful experience, read these 13 helpful home exchange tips.

How a home exchange works
One of our past home exchange houses (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

1. Start with friends and family.

Exchanging with friends, family, or acquaintances can be less stressful than doing a home swap with a previously unknown family. This is also true if exchanging with friends of friends because your buddies can vouch for the exchangers in question. Plus, swapping homes on your own saves money over using a professional home exchange service.

As a first step, check with people you know about doing a home exchange. You may not know anyone who lives in your destination of choice, but your Uncle Bob might know someone who does. Send out an email to your contacts or do a Facebook update announcing your desire to do an exchange. In my experience, email works better than Facebook but you might want to do both to reach a larger group.

Home exchange pond view
Pond view at a home exchange house where my family stayed for a week (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

2. Craft an exchange email.

When crafting your home exchange email, be sure to include travel dates, desired locations, and anything enticing about your house and hometown. State any major requirements too. If you absolutely can't exchange with anyone who has stairs or who owns cats, say that. Don't include a grocery list of perfect vacation home desires. Keep it simple — two short paragraphs maximum. Offer to send photos and additional information to anyone who might be interested in learning more.

Of course, you should not only contact anyone who lives in your destination of choice but also include those who live in other locations. Be sure to ask recipients to forward the email to anyone they think might be interested in a home exchange.

Keep the number of email recipients to less than 20 to avoid getting lost in SPAM. You might also want to type email addresses into the BCC box to avoid an annoying “reply all” stream.

Little girl on tire swing
Swapping with a family similar to yours comes with perks…like a tire swing for the kids (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

3. Sign up for a home exchange website.

If your attempts to find a home exchange through your network are unfruitful, do not despair. You can always sign up as a member of an exchange site like HomeExchange.com. After enrolling, add a description of your home, apartment, or condominium plus some information about your neighborhood and town. You can also list destinations you are interested in visiting along with potential travel dates.

4. Peruse potential exchange homes.

The fun part is next: perusing potential matches. Narrow down your search by travel dates, destination, and/or exchangers interested in visiting your location. I get a kick out of taking a peek into the homes of others. I love imagining myself as the main character in the story of their lives for a brief period of time.

Trampoline at a home exchange house
My daughter and niece loved the trampoline at one of our home exchange houses (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

5. Narrow down choices.

If you find someone who looks like a good match, you will send a message through the site that includes a link to your home's profile. You should be courteous by replying to every inquiry you receive, even if only to say, “Sorry we can't exchange…good luck!”

Now comes the not-so-fun part: realizing how difficult it can be to get all of the vacation gods to smile down upon you so a fortuitous exchange can take place. It can be challenging to find vacationers 1) who are interested in your location, 2) who like your house, 3) who can exchange during the same timeframe as you, 4) whose location you like, and 5) whose house you like.

6. Have realistic expectations.

If you live in a popular vacation destination like San Diego, California, you will likely have an easier time finding an appropriate exchange than someone who hails from Boise, Idaho. But you never know. There may be someone residing in your ideal destination looking to come to your hometown to visit family, attend a wedding, or experience a new slice of the world. If you hail from a less popular destination, you may need to lower your expectations in terms of square footage or proximity to attractions so you can nab an exchange.

Backyard with barbecue and toys
My family's San Diego home backyard came stocked with built-in barbecue and outdoor toys for children (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

7. Paint a positive, but realistic picture of your home.

Play up the benefits of your home. Do you have a billiard table or a community pool? Is your home within walking distance of shops and restaurants? Might your rural home with nearby hiking trails be a wonderful retreat for a city dweller?

While you want to paint a positive picture of your home and location, do not exaggerate. You want to find someone who will appreciate what your house has to offer instead of drawing in a disgruntled temporary inhabitant of your home.

8. Get to know your home exchange family.

After you have signed up with HomeExchange.com and you have found a house that appears to be a good match, you will want to get to know your exchange family. Email back and forth with the owners asking and answering questions. After dates are agreed upon, set up a time to chat by phone or Skype. If the home exchange family seems put off by your questions, emails, or request for a phone meeting — perhaps this is not the right exchange for you. You should feel a sense of camaraderie and comfort with your home swappers.

Consider exchanging pets during your home exchange vacation
Our home exchange kitty for a week (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

9. Consider exchanging cars and pets.

During one of my family's home exchanges, we swapped cars and cats in addition to houses. This saved both families a considerable amount of cash on rental car fees and pet-sitting services. We considered exchanging dogs as well but decided scheduling our vacation days around doggy potty breaks might put a damper on our vacations.

10. Use a contract.

Since our first two home swaps were informal swaps with friends of family, we didn't bother to draw up a contract. When exchanging with a previously unknown family, or even with friends, it's a good idea to go the legal route. This is especially true if swapping cars and pets, too.

Spell out expectations and obligations within your home exchange contract. Examples include household rules (like no eating in the living room), maintenance expectations (such as watering plants and scooping the kitty litter box), and what either party will do if a household item is damaged (like pay for carpet cleaning in case of a spill). A sample contract is available on HomeExchange.com that you can modify as needed. Exchange signatures on the contract before your vacation via email, text, or traditional mail.

San Diego side yard
I shared this photo of our San Diego side yard with fountain and outdoor table in our HomeExchange.com profile (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

11. Hide expensive items.

Even if you've built a rapport with your exchangers, put away anything you don't want to risk being stolen, such as expensive jewelry. You'll also want to put away any fragile items you don't want to be broken. Put important documents and valuables in a hidden lockbox or store them with a trusted friend or relative until you return.

12. Expect a few glitches.

Lest you think a home exchange is nothing but cotton candy and carefree days, you should know this type of vacation is not without its downfalls. My family felt quite chummy with our last home exchangers. Living in someone else's home for a week gives a sense of intimacy and trust. We even drove each other's cars to the airport and swapped keys in person since our exchangers were boarding the very same plane that we disembarked. Our children ran around the gate giggling while the adults thanked one another and chatted about our vacation adventures.

A few days later, our new friends emailed to say that we had left behind a few items. They offered to ship them back. I asked them to delete the shipping costs from the check for the extra mileage they owed us when we agreed to let them drive our minivan over 200 miles to Los Angeles from San Diego and back. The response I received was surprisingly sour, alleging that we had not left their gas tank full enough. They insisted we owed them money instead. We wound up calling it even and all ended well. But this serves as a warning about how easily things could go astray in a home exchange situation. This was over a few bucks for mileage, gas, and shipping. What if someone had spilled red wine on a new couch, gotten into a fender bender, or worse?

A home exchange comes with perks...like this backyard lake and row boat!
Home exchanges come with perks…like this backyard lake and rowboat! (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

13. Exchange homes!

So, would I do it again? Absolutely. The extra room, better sleep, homey conveniences, and huge travel savings outweigh the risks of doing a home exchange for me. Just be sure to cover your bases before your home exchange. Get to know your exchange family in advance. Be explicit regarding expectations and consequences in your contract. Prepare your mind for glitches. And, perhaps most importantly, don't fight any battles that aren't really worth fighting. Sign up and start exchanging today with HomeExchange.com today!

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How to Do a Home Exchange

Save these home exchange tips.

Considering a home swap vacation? Be sure to save these home exchange tips for future reference. Just pin the image above to Pinterest. Go ahead and follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Would you ever consider swapping homes with other travelers? Do you have any questions about how a home exchange works? Let us know in the comments below!

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin, MBA, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the popular travel blog, TravelMamas.com. She is an expert in travel with kids and without. As the author of the book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents how to make the most of traveling with babies and children. Colleen loves sharing tips on hotels, cruises, spas, theme parks, and global lifestyle topics. When she is not traveling the world, she lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. Flyingkids says

    This sounds exciting! A must-try for families.:)

  2. Joyce Brewer says

    I think this is becoming more popular as families move and relocate. Great resources!

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