Ask Trip Coach: House Swapping

The definitive guide to finding the perfect home away from home—from building buzz around your listing to signing a contract (or not).

By Brad Tuttle, Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

Ask Trip Coach (Illustration by Chris Gash)

READERS' TOP QUESTIONS

How does house swapping actually work?
Think of it like an online dating service for vacationers: Home owners and renters connect through global agencies and list their properties along with desired swaps on websites. (Your two-bedroom in San Diego may not make your heart race, but it could be just what a villa owner in Tuscany is looking for.) The first step is to create an online profile on one of those sites, which will give you a privacy-protected e-mail address you can use to contact others. Successful swappers tend to have thorough descriptions of their properties, tons of photos, and detailed house rules (e.g., no smoking). Once your listing is up and running, you can browse properties online and get in touch with other members directly to set up trades. It's as simple as that.

So how do I select a website?
The first thing you'll want to decide is if you're willing to pay. If you want to go the free route, there's always craigslist.org, which has countless listings across 82 countries. Still, despite its abundance, it lacks something of real value: user-generated feedback. On the other side of the coin, the fee-based sites have TripAdvisor-type reviews with each listing, so you'll get an honest feel for properties and their owners. Among the paid sites, the only real difference is the number of houses they have. Home Exchange is the biggest in the market, with more than 36,000 listings in 131 countries (homeexchange.com, $10 monthly fee). A cheaper option is Digsville, which charges $45 a year for access to 3,000 houses in 56 countries (digsville.com). The oldest and most cosmopolitan of the major players is 57-year-old HomeLink International: 20 percent of its 13,000-plus properties are in the U.S. The rest ca be found in 78 countries, including four new additions this year in Kenya (homelink.org, $119 a year).

How can I safeguard myself in case something goes wrong?
Believe it or not, most swappers are so laid-back that they don't bother with formal paperwork or a contract. "The accumulated e-mails between parties are enough to show you have an agreement," says John Mensinger, who has swapped his Modesto, Calif., home a dozen times and blogs about it at homeexchangeguru.com. "And practically speaking, am I really going to a court in France or Sweden to sue a home-exchange partner?" The key to ensuring a smooth trade is to have an honest, in-depth dialogue before the exchange takes place (again, sort of like dating). E-mail is fine, but do at least some of this over the phone or, better yet, on Skype, where you'll actually see your potential swap partners—and the rooms they're sitting in.

Can I still swap if I'm a renter?
Generally speaking, yes. Most rental contracts have no rules against exchanges, and landlords tolerate it, just as they don't mind friends staying at your place for free, because no one profits off a swap.

Any tips for getting hits on my listing?
People trade for all sorts of reasons, not just for a vacation: They have a wedding in the area; family is nearby; they're scouting colleges. So it's best to play up more than just your property. "Swapping is usually less about the house than the destination," says Helen Coyle Bergstein, Digsville founder. She recommends devoting a large portion of your listing to the "fun attractions within an hour's drive: a beach, hiking trails, a baseball park, whatever."

How do I prep for a swap?
My rule of thumb is to rely on this acronym: NERVE. Inform your Neighbors that you're expecting company while you're out of town. Compile a list of Emergency phone numbers (plumber, electrician, locksmith). Confirm the Rules and expectations established on both sides of the swap. Secure your Valuables. Enjoy!

Lots of people include cars in swaps. Is that a good idea?
Why not? Most auto-insurance policies allow it, just as they cover your car if a friend is driving it. That said, be sure to call and confirm this with your agent. (Say a friend is borrowing your car; don't get into the confusing details about a home exchange.) Also, be sure to confirm that you'll be able to drive your counterpart's wheels; some countries mandate that foreigners get special insurance coverage. Finally, plan ahead: Mail your swap partner an extra set of car keys in advance; drive yourself to the airport, and arrange to text, e-mail, or call each other with details on where exactly you've parked. Then when you arrive at your destinations, you'll both have a car waiting for you!