How we swap our house in Rathfarnham with other families to holiday in dream homes around the world
Back in 2011, Brian Leahy and his wife Daniela hit that stage in life where they had young kids and a new home, so sacrifices had to be made.
One thing they really didn't want to give up was their much-needed annual holiday. A colleague of Brian's was always talking about house swaps - trading your home here in Ireland temporarily for someone else's home abroad. So taking their friend's cue, the Leahys signed up to the website HomeExchange.com to see if they would get any interest in their house in Castleconnell, Co Limerick.
"This way you can really live the champagne lifestyle for lemonade money," laughs Brian. "Our first introduction was a fisherman's cottage on an island off Brittany and it was just marvellous."
The Leahys have swapped every summer since then and have holidayed in Florence, Antwerp, Gerona, Costa Brava and France. They have their exchange booked for this summer, and are watching flights like hawks to get the best deal.
So what do they look for when they're searching for a home from home? "Our big thing is to exchange with families who have kids around the same ages as ours," says Brian. "It was great when they were babies that you didn't have to lug every single thing over with you. We were also able to swap buggies, cots, high chairs and toys. That was a big attraction."
Some of us might find it hard to believe that people would want to stay in our modest Irish homes, but Brian says they get between 30 and 40 enquires a year for their house in Castleconnell. And that's the big advantage if you're Irish - Ireland is an A1 choice holiday destination worldwide.
The family have never yet had a bad experience but many people would be wary about handing their house keys over to people they've never met.
"Some people are surprised that we don't fret about leaving the house to strangers, so if you're that kind of person, maybe it wouldn't be for you because you wouldn't relax," says Brian. But there's also another side to this deal which is a plus for home security. "We actually like the idea of not leaving the house empty for two weeks."
Finding the right fit takes a lot of searching and coordinating, but the Leahys aren't fazed by that side of it. It's getting the house ready for swappers that they find the hardest. "My wife would definitely say the cleaning up is the one downside," says Brian. "We clear out space in the wardrobes but we leave out the kids' toys, wellies and bikes for the other family to use. When we're leaving at the other end, one of us will take the kids out for a couple of hours, while the other gives the place a deep clean."
It's not all sun and sand when it comes to swapping either. Brian and Daniela enjoyed a few days in Dublin last year when they arranged an exchange to Dun Laoghaire at the time of the 1916 commemorations. "My wife's parents were over from Germany so they really enjoyed all of the events and parades, and the family from Dun Laoghaire was delighted to get out of Dublin and get away from the crowds."
Mary Walsh from Rathfarnham in Dublin has been house-swapping for about 10 years. When her children were small she hated staying in the sorts of basic tiny apartments that typical holiday packages offer.
"When you go to someone's house and they have kids, they have all of the things your kids could want and it really feels like a home from home," says Mary. "One of our first experiences was in Sacramento in California and they had their own pool so we could have a swim in the morning, go about and see the sights, and come back to the pool. The kids loved it."
Many of us wouldn't think of Rathfarnham when it comes to holidays, but Mary says the amount of enquiries she gets is amazing. "I would get about five or six a week, and some of them are fantastic places. From Christmas on, things really heat up and you get a lot of offers coming in."
It is a way to make holidays more affordable, and an opportunity to visit places you would never think of visiting.
Mary adds: "I look at it and I wonder why everybody doesn't do it and some people can't believe that I would take the risk of having strangers in my house. But the person I'm swapping with is taking the exact same risk. These days you can have a lot of communication with people before you go. With the internet and Skype, you nearly know the people you're swapping with. We have been shown around people's houses over Skype. You can Google map the address and see the road, you can literally walk around the house and show people each room."
Mary, her husband Brian and their two children have become more adventurous with their swaps as the kids got older. "Last year we really wanted to go to Australia. We went on a six-week holiday. We did a two-week house swap in Sydney, then we went to Queensland, and did nearly two weeks in a great apartment right on the beach in Surfers Paradise, then we did a couple of hotels and Airbnb, so out of the six weeks, we had accommodation for four weeks, which hugely brought down the price of the holiday, while also staying in really good-quality accommodation."
There are many house-swapping sites, but Mary said they stayed with HomeExchange.com because there are a lot of American members and the family enjoys trips to the US. "You could join 10 sites if you liked," says Mary, "but we've never needed to because we've always managed to get what we want."
With the children growing up, Mary feels she needs to up the ante when it comes to destinations. "My son was five and my daughter was seven when we started. We've had amazing holidays that we wouldn't have been able to do without house swapping. It's easy to just keep going to Spain and France every year when the kids are young. This way, even if you did go to Spain, you're in a residential area and see a different side to the country or city. Our kids now are 16 and 18 so we're under pressure to keep holidays interesting. We're hoping to do Hawaii next year."
Tips from homelink.ie
Here are some things to keep in mind when starting out on the house-swapping road:
* Consider which countries you wish to visit and be proactive by making contact with as many members as possible in the country that interests you. This may mean sending out at least 10 offers each day. It may sound a lot but from experience this is the minimum required. The site always advises members not to sit back and wait for others to contact them;
*When making contact with other exchangers, it is best if you can avoid confining yourself to a particular area of a country. Widen the search and that will make finding a suitable exchange a lot easier. For example, look at places within 10-20km driving distance of the desired destination;
* In general, members are advised to include on their listing, several countries of interest to them and keep an open mind to offers they may receive from countries other than those on their list;
* Upload lots of good-quality photos of the inside and outside of the home and ensure each room looks its best. Include photos of the area, especially local attractions;
* When contacting other members, it is important to supply plenty of details about the family, their home and the surrounding area;
* If members have a holiday home, this is a real bonus as exchangers can use it at a time that suits them and therefore they can engage in a non-simultaneous exchange;
* Check with your car insurance company well before offering to exchange cars. Insurance companies need to know who will be driving the member's car and for what period. Most companies are happy to add the exchanger to the policy for a small handling fee. Some may not charge anything;
* When you find a suitable exchange, fill in the Exchange Agreement form before booking any flights. Leave nothing to chance. Agree everything in advance including things such as leaving a meal for each other, ensuring the cars are left full of fuel at either end of the exchange etc;
* Leave a clean and tidy home for the exchange partner and the makings of a welcome meal along with some wine and beers. Leave a spare set of keys with a neighbour in case of emergency;
* If either party accidentally breaks an item in the other's home, agree beforehand that it will either be replaced immediately or enough cash will be left to cover the damaged article.
Tips from homelink.ie