Have you ever heard of home exchange? Wondered who in the world does this? Or if it could be right for you? I am going to walk you through our first home exchange experience (January 2016) in the hopes that it helps you find the answers to these questions. Ever since I watched the movie The Holiday, which I still watch every Christmas Eve, I have wanted to do a home exchange. To me, it seems like the most brilliant travel idea ever. This is where my optimistic side shines its brightest, because seriously, what could go wrong?! Here is what you need to know.
1. You need to have a basic level of trust in humanity
If you are the type of person that thinks people are always out to get you or have a trick up their sleeves, then home exchange is probably not right for you. You need to honestly evaluate yourself here. Some people are just more naturally trusting than others. Are you? If you are not, stick to hotels and rentals! When you do a home exchange, both sides will need to be honest, trustworthy, responsible and flexible. You will need to have the attitude that your partner is all of those things, just like you, and any problems can be resolved with some good planning and communication.
I am naturally a trusting person; my husband, well, not so much. I have read it is very common to have one person in the family be much more optimistic about home exchange than the other. I asked my husband for years to consider doing a home exchange and the idea was always met with complete indifference, at best. Finally, I started doing a lot of reading about the process and talking to him about all the things that could go wrong. I was actually having doubts about my travel dreams and voicing it to him. For him, this was much more reassuring than me saying to him "don't worry, it will be fine." He needed to worry and he needed to know that I was seriously thinking about the potential problems if he was really going to consider doing this. Much to my surprise, once I started talking about the problems, he started helping me think about how we would avoid them or what we would do should we run into one of them. All of the sudden, I had a partner in figuring this out and I knew we were going to move forward, hooray!
I have linked to most of the articles that I read when we were in the "vaguely considering it" phase of the process. My biggest take away from everything that I read is that you need to Skype with your potential exchange partner before committing to an exchange and then several times after you both feel confident that you are going to go ahead with the exchange. I also decided that the most likely problem that we would run into would revolve around someone's house not being as clean as the other would like it to be, either before or after the exchange. I made it a priority to agree that we would have professional cleaning scheduled before, during and after the exchange at BOTH houses.
2. Sign up on a home exchange website
If you have decided to attempt an exchange, you will need to pick a place to find exchange partners and to profile your home. Homeexchange.com and Homelink.org are the oldest and biggest places to do this. We went with Homelink because they offer a USA only membership that was only about $40. I figured I was willing to part with that money even if we never did an exchange just to have the chance of making it happen.
This Huffington Post article helped guide me, but I think it is a personal choice.
3. Start small
Our version of "starting small" was staying within the U.S. and within driving distance so that plane tickets did not have to be bought and we could both back out if communication starting breaking down. We also did not want to exchange cars on our first exchange. We exchanged for a month for medical reasons, but going for a short time period could be another way to start small as well. How bad can things get in a few days, right?
4. Manage expectations, on both sides
The most important thing is to be completely upfront and honest about your house, neighborhood and town. Lay out the good, bad and ugly in your profile or when you first start emailing with someone. The last thing you want is for someone to be disappointed when they walk into your home for the first time. Our biggest priority was my husband's work space as he was going to be working the entire month there. We had to ask detailed questions about connectivity and the desk etc. They ended up having to get a desk for us and an extra mattress for the children, but we figured that all out ahead of time. I made sure they knew that our pool is not enclosed since they had a three year old. I also made sure that they understood that we live in the burbs where cars are not optional. They were coming from an urban neighborhood, so this felt like an important point to me.
The next thing to remember is that home exchange involves cooking, cleaning and respect for property - you are not at a hotel! Just a few examples will explain what I mean. My kids were only allowed to eat AT THE TABLE while we were in the other home and we actually requested the same of them in our home. They had an antique player piano in their home and they mentioned that it had sentimental value, so I immediately made a "no touching the piano ever" rule for the kids. I am crazy about paw prints on our carpet so I gently reminded them a few different times that I keep towels by the doors to wipe dog paws every time the dogs go in/out. It's not really that any of these one things would have been a deal breaker, it was more that bringing them up ahead of time let us get to know each other. It gave each of us a sense of the other and helped us figure out if we were really going to move forward with them.
It may sound silly, but Skype as much as you can. I can tell you that by our second conversation on Skype, watching the other family hold their baby and answer their toddler's questions while trying to talk with us, we honestly felt like we knew them. The trust comes more quickly than you might think. Even my husband was completely done vetting them by the end of the second Skype call.
All of this communication does take time and effort though. You not only need to schedule time when you can all sit down together, but you also need to have an idea of what you what to say.
5. Listen to your instincts
If you get a weird feeling from an email or a Skype call, follow your gut. That is exactly what the emails and phone calls are for; you need to go into the exchange with a really good feeling about your partners. Politely discontinue discussions and find someone else, you can always find another exchange partner. By the end of our exchange, I felt so disappointed that we didn't get to meet our exchange partners in person because they felt like friends. We are now thinking that we somehow met kindred spirits on our first exchange and we will need to be prepared to not get along so well with the next family. We do plan to find out though!
6. Plan, plan and plan.....before the exchange
Our exchange agreement was typed and verbally agreed upon a month or so before the exchange. Here is what we covered in our agreement.
The discussion of the utility bills was by far the most difficult to figure out. We have a pool and hot tub and we were very worried that people would leave the heater running for days on end and we would be stuck with the bill. Like I said, after I talked to them twice, I wasn't actually worried about this anymore but it seemed prudent to still have a plan in place. Ultimately, we decided that we would each find our bill for the same time period the previous year and pay our own utilities as long as the bill while we were gone was within 120% of the bill from last year. This was the best we could come up with and it worked out fine. No one was going around leaving doors unlocked and hot tubs running all night, but we felt better knowing what we would do if they were.
The other thing we were worried about was damages. If something big like the AC broke at their house while we were there 1) would they fix it quickly? and 2) would they blame us for it? We decided that we would take pictures or a quick video of the house when we arrived to record the condition of the home when we got there, kind of like how you do for a car rental. We didn't actually do this when we got there because we trusted them pretty well by that point, but we could have.
Does this sound detailed and high maintenance? Maybe it was. This is what worked for our exchange; I imagine each exchange is slightly different. The point is that we managed to find a way to make it work that we were both happy with and the whole process ensured us that we were working with like-minded people because we were scary similar when it came down to the details.
So what did actually go wrong, you ask? In a word, NOTHING. It was an amazing experience! But we did run into some snafoos, just nothing that we weren't able to work out quickly.
Their house was clean and comfortable and I think they felt the same about ours. The neighborhood was amazing and just as they had described. We came back to our home after a month, and it had been well loved and cared for while we were away. We also came home with some new friends in St. Louis that we would welcome in our home any time!