Smart Consumer: Three weeks in Barcelona for free? The joy of house swapping!
Home exchange is a cheap and innovative way of going on holidays, says John Hearne
Two years ago, my wife and our three children went to the South of France for three weeks. We stayed in a charming five-bedroom villa with its own private swimming pool. As part of the deal, we were met at the airport in Marseille and driven the 30 odd miles down the coast to the villa itself, which was on the outskirts of Aix en Provence. We also got the use of two cars while we were there.
Total cost of this extravaganza? Nothing. Not a red cent.
Home exchanges are a wonderfully subversive idea. You bypass the monetary economy completely and revert to the kind of barter system that existed in the Stone Age. You like my house, I like yours, so let's just swap. Had we actually had to shell out for the package detailed above, I'd still be paying it off.
Steph Smyth is another home exchange aficionado. From Clarinbridge in south Galway, she says that her family had never really been into package holidays, while the holiday rental alternative can be very expensive.
"So we thought we'd check out home exchange," she says, "and it's just been working really well for us. Since the recession has bitten, it's working all the better. To be honest, we wouldn't be taking a holiday this year if it wasn't for home exchange."
Last year, Smyth, her husband and two children spent three weeks in a large house with a garden in the middle of Barcelona. "We swapped cars as well so it just cost us the price of flights. For €700, we had three weeks in a European city, which is pretty amazing.
"This year, we're heading to the south of France for two weeks, to a place just outside Monpellier, about 6km from the beach. Again, it's only costing us the price of the flights, which comes to €430."
Home exchange has never been more popular. There are now more than six major home exchange sites, with combined property listings of close to 100,000. Membership prices too have become a lot more competitive in recent years.
Homelink.ie, with 13,500 members, charges €100 for a year, or €120 to include up to 20 photos in your profile.
Intervac.ie charges €84 for one year and €150 for two. Frank Kelly at Intervac says that while they have over 30,000 listings, only about 8,000 are active in any one year.
Homeexchange.com offers the choice of a three-month membership for €35.85 or €95.40 for the full year. It advertises 41,000 listings.
Homeforexchange.com, with just over 15,100 listings, offers the cheapest alternative: One year for €45, two for €68 or three for €84.
While there are significant variations in style and layout, and in the interactive features on these sites, all offer essentially the same thing: the facility to contact and arrange house swaps with like-minded people.
Marie Murphy at Homelink says that she's seen a 5pc increase in membership numbers this year, but she's not putting it down to the recession. "I think home exchange appeals to a particular kind of person," she says, "and it just doesn't appeal to the others, it doesn't matter how well off or how broke they are."
Ans Lammers at Homeforexchange.com agrees. "Home exchange will always be a niche in the holiday business. If your first reaction is thinking about the possible negative consequences of home exchange, don't do it. It's not your thing."
For Steph Smyth, however, linking up with complete strangers is part of the attraction. Sure, you don't know if your exchange partner has put as much effort into preparing their house for you as you have for them. Maybe when you get there, the five- bedroom townhouse with a view of the cathedral will turn out to be a two-bed flat with a view of the cemetery.
"You don't know 'til you get there," says Steph, "but you assume they will have made the effort. It's the leap of faith thing; I like that aspect of it, I find that it has restored my faith in humanity a bit."
Steph's experience, which tallies with my own, is that exchange partners try to outdo each other in general niceness. On our last exchange -- to Ostend in Belgium -- our fellow exchangers left little welcome packs for our children. We were kicking ourselves that we hadn't done the same for theirs.
The secret to making it work with kids is to match ages. When we started out, our focus was very much on where we wanted to go. But we quickly learned that everybody's experience is substantially improved by coming home in the evening to a house full of unfamiliar toys.
Home exchange companies also report a substantial increase in retirees getting in on the act. Marie Murphy at Homelink points out that they've got the freedom to really immerse themselves in the experience. "We've got older members who are going off and doing two and three-month exchanges."
Trust is, of course, central to the relationship. We've always resisted the temptation to hide our most precious possessions, or designate one room out of bounds and lock the door. Nor have we ever found a locked door. You don't go snooping around and you trust that they won't either.
The biggest problem -- and Steph Smyth agrees on this one too -- is the amount of work you have to put into getting the house ready before you go. Trying to get a car full of kids off on holiday is hard enough. Trying to do it while also leaving your house in pristine condition is quite another.
"I think having to clean the house is the thing that turns most people off," she says, "but it's not that bad and I think it actually makes you stay on top of it. A month in advance, you have it in the back of your mind that someone's coming in a few weeks' time, so you tidy up a bit more as you go along."
She points out too that home exchanging tends to take DIY jobs off the long-finger, which is a good thing as long as you're not the one up the ladder cleaning out the gutters ...
And you don't have to go mad cleaning. "On our first swap, we almost felt like the house had to look like a holiday home. We were storing stuff down in mum's house to get rid of clutter. Then we said, hang on, if we're going to do this every time, it's not going to be a runner. And you realise there's no need. It's someone's home, and that's the thing that's lovely about it."
Home exchanging gives you an entirely different perspective on your holiday destination. You'll be in a residential area, not on the tourist strip. Your home exchange partner always leaves you with loads of information about what to do and where to go. This café is great, check out this restaurant, the kids will love this park ... Nobody is trying to put a positive spin on something that isn't worth the effort.
But one of the best parts of the process is all the virtual holidaymaking you get to do beforehand. There's a real sense of excitement every time you check your inbox. "We've had offers from places you'd dream of," says Smyth, "apartments in the heart of Florence, and long weekends in the middle of Paris.
"There's heaps of choice."