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Beat Hotel Costs with a Home Exchange!

by Kate Stout

"Traditional, beamed cottage dating from 1750 in quiet village location on the edge of town." Does this sound like a good spot for an idyllic English vacation? You can stay at places like this, or in a London flat, by exchanging homes with an English family. Home exchanges can be for just a week, or much longer. A home exchange is a great way to save some money, and experience England in a more personal way.

In a home exchange, families swap their houses and may also swap cars. The experience of staying in an English family's home is different from staying in a hotel. Walking to the local pub, shopping in an old market, or even going to a supermarket that has very different foods than those at home, are all part of the experience. "I did my first home exchange last summer", said Tom Gravius, of Andover, Massachusetts, who spent three weeks in England last summer. "We spent three weeks in a house by a canal. It was nice to walk to the pub."

Home exchange brings big savings. Hotel rooms are one-third to one-half of the average travel budget. A simple bed and breakfast in London can be £80 per night, or over $150. For a two-week vacation, that's over $2000. By home-exchanging, that cost is zero. There are hidden savings, too. By eating more meals at home, food costs are less. By exchanging cars, there's no rental fee. Home exchange gives you more space. On average, English homes are smaller in scale than American homes, but there'll be much more space than a hotel room.

Home Exchange Basics

To exchange homes, you'll identify an exchange family who has a house in an area of interest and work out details - when to exchange, and for how long. It may take a few tries to find a good match. People worry that no one will want their house. It's true that living near a popular tourist location, on the beach, or in a major city, is an advantage. But many people want to see more of the USA, or have friends and family located to visit in your area. You don't need to have a fancy home -- people are looking for a clean, comfortable place to stay. You may stay in an old house, or in a newer, suburban home.

Another common worry is whether your belongings will be taken and your house trashed. According to sites dedicated to home exchange, there have been almost no examples of this happening. There may be a small accident, such as a broken bowl, or a spill, but in general, home exchanges go quite smoothly. The best prevention is to make sure you have a sense of trust in your home exchange family.

Finding a Home

There many web sites for home exchange. See the resources at the end of this article for details. Some sites are free, but many web sites charge a small fee, running from $25 to $100. To assess whether to join a particular exchange site, do some searches to see if the site has houses of interest. While it may seem odd to pay a fee to arrange something free, the fee is small compared to one night's lodging.

When joining an exchange site, create a listing that describes your house, and what you want. This is a marketing opportunity. Remember that someone needs to be interested in your house. Most sites let you post pictures. Do it! A picture of your cute bungalow is more appealing than a description. Give details about your house -- how many bedrooms, baths, and how many people can stay there. Mention nearby attractions and activities. Be upbeat, but honest.

Search the site and identify houses that interest you. Send e-mails to people you'd like to swap with, and be sure to include information about your house. With any luck you'll soon be getting e-mails from people who want to swap.

Assessing an Exchange

Now that there are some possible exchanges, take a look at whether a home exchange will work. Here are some basic questions:

  • Where in England is the house?
  • Does the house have what you need and want?
  • Will the dates work?
  • Is the exchange family trustworthy?

Use online mapping tools to find out where the house is located. Get an English driving atlas -- it makes it easy to see what the distances are. Are there activities nearby that interest you? Is the house on a major road, or in the countryside? If in the city, what's the public transportation like? Keep your mind open in the early stages -- you may get a swap proposal for an area you haven't considered. Research what's nearby before rejecting it.

Ask the homeowner detailed questions about the bedrooms and sleeping arrangements, making sure they meet your needs. Don't assume people have things you have, such as a TV or a dishwasher. Ask! A charming cottage may have a small kitchen, and no room for a dishwasher. Exchanging pictures is a great way to learn more. Find out how far it is to a grocery store and restaurants.

The hardest decision is this -- are you comfortable with the other homeowners? This is a judgment call, and depends on what's important to you. If they have four young kids, and you have an all white decorating scheme, this may not be the right swap. If they want you to care for three dogs and a bunny, this may not seem like much of a vacation to you.

Finalize Details

Once you have found someone to do an exchange with, work out details. Discuss expectations about the mundane things -- who pays for phone bills, can the pool be used. If you are swapping cars, be clear about this part of the exchange, too. You may want to ask where they plan to travel with the car, or permit only certain drivers to use it, especially if there are very young or elderly drivers involved.

Check with your insurer to see if there are any insurance issues with the home exchange. Insurance varies by area, so do this as early as you can, to resolve any issues. If the swap is less than a month long, there are few insurance issues, but you must check.

Write a list of all your joint decisions, to make sure that everyone is clear. This isn't a legal document, just a reminder of what you've said. For example, list the dates when you are exchanging, that you'll feed the goldfish, and pay for any long distance calls.

Ready, Set, Swap

Time to exchange! To get ready, put away anything valuable or private, including financial or legal records. Empty out closets and drawers so your visitors have a place to put their things. Leave maps and tourist brochures for your area, with directions to a grocery store and restaurants. Write instructions on how to use the appliances and TV, or leave the manuals. As you'll soon discover, English appliances work differently. Also leave the names and phone numbers for some friends who can help if your visitors have any questions.

Home exchange is a fun and inexpensive way to learn about a country. "I'm not sure what was the best part of the exchange", said Tom Gravius. "The morning walks along the canal seeing the swans and moorhens were great, but I also enjoyed my day out with our host family's parents, who showed us a beautiful local village. And I loved driving around the roundabouts. It made me feel alive." If you enter into home exchange with a spirit of adventure, you'll enjoy a vacation that's unlike any you've ever had before.

More Information:

These sites do not screen the people or information posted on these sites. You must determine if you are willing to do an exchange. (Note: The number of homes listed at each site is as of the time of writing; numbers may have changed since then.)

Home Based Holidays
Based in England, there is a lot of useful information on this site, and it has a strong focus on English listings. Fees: 29 per year, 39 per two years. English homes currently listed: over 500.

The giant of the home exchange world. They have sponsored home exchanges since 1955. Fees: $69 per year. English homes currently listed: over 3000.

Exchange Homes
Fees: $30 per year. English homes currently listed: over 100.

Craig's List
Craig's List is non-profit site that includes home exchanges. It is organized by location. To increase your chances of arranging a swap, you should post an ad for your house both in the city nearest to you, and the city near where you want to go. Fees: Free

Special Interest Exchanges

Seniors Home Exchange
For those over 50. Fees: $79 per three years, or $100 lifetime. English homes currently listed: 81

Sabbatical Homes
Specializes in long term exchanges for sabbaticals. Fees: $25 for an academic $45 nonacademic. Post a "seeking exchange" free. Also requests that you donate if you make a match. English homes currently listed: 12.

Mapping Tools

Click on Maps, and you can select United Kingdom to get addresses. This site gives driving directions, which is a useful way to estimate distances to places of interest.

UK-specific site, which also offers aerial views.

Kate Stout writes about history and travel, and has visited England many times. She did her first home exchange in 2004 and is looking forward to her next exchange.
Article © 2006 Kate Stout


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