WHAT IS HOME EXCHANGING?
Jill and Henry Warner have participated in six home exchanges to date. What exactly is a “home exchange”? We literally trade our home with some other party for a relatively short duration like a week or two. Of the six exchanges we have done so far, five have been simultaneous. This means that the trading party occupied our house while we stayed in theirs. We have done one non-simultaneous exchange, which is facilitated by having a second home or elsewhere to be during the exchange.
What are the pros and cons of home exchanging? Well, for starters, your accommodations are pretty much free. Free in the sense of not having to pay a daily or weekly rate to visit some distant location. However, you still have to get there, buy food and generally rent a car, depending on your destination and/or the willingness to also exchange vehicles.
Some parties think nothing of exchanging vehicles. We tried it once, but have convinced ourselves that it is better to just rent a car. The single time that we did a car exchange, it was with a family in the UK. As it turned out, our car was unquestionably nicer than theirs and theirs had no air conditioning. It never occurred to us to worry about A/C while traveling to England (isn’t it always cool and damp there?), but it just so happened that we were there during a record-setting heat wave. Plus, in our mind, exchanging vehicles is a higher risk proposition than exchanging a house.
Speaking of risk, isn’t it pretty risky to allow strangers to stay in your home? I suppose it could be if they are truly strangers, so the key in my mind is to make sure that some level of a relationship has been established beforehand. Every exchange we have done included many rounds of emailing back and forth and telephone calls as well.
To start with, it helps to remind yourself that the exchange is a two-way street. Yes, there are “strangers” staying in your house. But the exact same thing is happening at their house – there are “strangers” staying there too!
We belong to a popular home exchange website that has tens of thousands worldwide members. Each member can post multiple pictures of their home, neighborhood and nearby attractions, plus provide detailed text descriptions. Sort of like a dating website.
Since I am retired and Jill is within a year of retirement, we tend to limit our home exchanges at this point to people in a similar situation. Since we don’t have children living at home anymore, our home is not a “kid oriented” house, e.g., no bunk beds, playrooms, swing-set in the yard, etc. This may sound a bit harsh or unwelcoming, but it is just a reality of the stage in life that we are at. Therefore, in our minds, we further minimize risk of damage or abuse by targeting our exchanges to be with another couple who is retired or near retirement.
We also lock certain rooms and closets in which we keep personal papers, tax records, etc. and where we store items that we don’t want to risk damage by guests (nicer china, guitars, paintings of value). We also lock our wine cellar, so as to not tempt anyone. Otherwise, we leave the house as-is. I did talk to our insurance agent before we started home exchanging and he assured me that our homeowner coverage (also the auto policy) was not impacted by doing a home exchange, as the home-exchangers were guests and not paying rent. So that added a bit more peace of mind.
What has our experience been to date? In a word – fabulous! We are “hooked” on the concept of home exchanging and we plan to make it a baseline method of traveling once Jill retires at the end of the year. To date, the only known damage we have suffered is that a soap dish was chipped by one of our guests – who did notify us of this, by the way. On our side of the exchange, we broke a dinner plate during one exchange. Luckily, we were able to find the exact plate pattern on the internet, so we ordered a replacement plate that arrived after we had departed. We communicated what had happened to the other party and our little mishap became a non-event. So bottom-line, I think it is reasonable to expect this level of risk. Of course, if there is anything to be particularly worried about, the prudent thing to do would be to safeguard it before your guests arrive.
OUR HOME EXCHANGES
The very first home exchange we did was with a family of four in France. The husband was a professor at the Sarbonne University in Paris. The wife had attended college in the US and they were looking for a three-week exchange to introduce their two elementary school children to the US. Not only did they own a new apartment in Paris, but their family also owned a very old stone house (built in the 1700′s) in a tiny village in the Périgord region (about 5 hours SW of Paris by car). They let us use both properties and it could not have been a more wonderful experience.
Our daughters traveled with us, as well as my sister and her husband. We explored Paris to our hearts content, then visited the historically rich Dordogne River valley of the Périgord. History was first recorded here with the cave art found in several caves of the region that have been discovered in modern times. For fans of medieval history, there is seemingly a castle on every bend of the Dordogne River. The region was in the heart of the territory where the 100 years war was fought between France and England from 1337 to 1453.
The next home exchange we did was for two weeks with a family from southern England. This is the trip where we exchanged cars. During our visit, England was experiencing record heat and the car had no A/C. Not only do the English drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but the cars there naturally have the controls mirror-image reversed from those in the US. The driver sits on the far right and shifts with the left hand. The gear shift pattern is also reversed, of course. For the most part I did OK while driving in England, except for the occasional lapses on a country road where I absentmindedly drifted into the right-hand lane, only to snap to attention with an oncoming car rushing at me! Nevertheless, we saw wonderful sights in London, Oxford, Wales, Bath, Stonehenge and numerous small, quaint villages.
A couple of years ago our daughter Christina was graduating from Stanford, so we decided to do a week-long home exchange to Palo Alto, CA prior to the graduation. We used the time to visit with Chris, explore the area and to help her vacate her dorm and four years of accumulated possessions. Stanford has a beautiful campus and anyone fortunate enough to attend college there will undoubtedly be blessed with a lifelong memory of a fabulous place to attend university.
By doing a home exchange rather than just flying in and out for the ceremony, we were able to get familiar with Palo Alto, go for some bike rides, walk the famous Stanford Loop several times and thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
Last year we did a one week home exchange with a retired couple from Mystic, CT. Mystic is relatively close to Boston, where Lindsay is living and quite close to Niantic, CT where Jill’s parents live. By staying in Mystic we were able to experience some great late-summer weather on the Long Island Sound and visit with our East coast-based family members. Mystic is a quaint, old-time New England town with an active waterfront. We were fortunate to be there during the annual Mystic Arts and Crafts fair, which draws visitors from all over New England. And of course, who can visit Mystic without trying the world famous Mystic pizza?
This year we did another one-week home exchange to the Napa area of California. Lindsay had a week-long break from medical school and Chris was about to start her new job, so all four of us, plus Lindsay’s fiancé Mark, decided to rendezvous in Napa for a week of togetherness. We had a wonderful time! We visited wineries, hiked along the ocean, went jogging, ate out and explored the Napa area. As it was springtime, the vineyards were coming to life and it was a magical time to be winery-hopping. Lindsay is a medical student at Boston University and Mark is getting his Ph.D at MIT. We were fortunate that their breaks aligned for this trip.
Later in the summer we did our sixth home exchange to Monterey, CA. We stayed in a beach-side home that could not have been more than 50 feet from the water. At night we left our window open and were lulled to sleep by the waves pounding the beach. This area of California is sparsely populated as the Monterey Dunes are surrounded by artichoke fields. Jill and I had a delightful time walking the beach, exploring Carmel and other little towns and eating lots of fresh vegetables. Fresh artichokes were being sold at the local fruit and vegetable stands for as little one dollar per dozen.