Home, sweet home swap: why parachuting into someone else's life is a surprisingly cheap and cultural holiday
'How do you trust people?" the man in my local tyre repair centre asked me. I had just popped in to settle a bill for a burst tyre that a French man had accidentally inflicted on my car the week before. In fact, he and his whole family had been using not only my motor, but my house over a two-week period. In the meantime, our family was in his house in Brittany doing the same.
His question made me think: How can you truly be comfortable allowing other people stay in your home... when you are not there? How can you really have such trust in a situation like a home exchange?
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I suppose that the answer is that it's not for everyone. For most people, the notion of handing over your house keys to some foreigner is no basis for a holiday. For me, however, there's no better way to really see a place, and to connect with it and its people on an intimate level.
Oh, and to have a really great holiday.
The first major plus is the cost. Transport is the only real cost involved in a home exchange - that and the membership fee of your chosen house-swap organisation (on average, about €100/year). If you swap your car, you may have to pay a very small supplement.
The second important benefit is that rather than taking a "risk" with a total stranger, you actually gain a friend. Our first house exchange was with a retired couple from northern Italy, for example. They were dying to come and stay in our cut-stone house in West Cork while we were drooling over pictures of their summer apartment on the beach in Albissola-la-Marina on the Italian Riviera. Our three boys were small at the time, so a bucket-and-spade holiday in Bella Italia seemed like just the ticket.
The months and weeks leading up to the exchange involved lots of questions and answers and exchanging photos and information by email. For Nino and Rita, it was a well-trodden path - they had already been doing it for 10 years. But we were worried about the state of our house. We worried that it was too small for them. We worried that there would be nothing to do for them once they got here. We worried about the weather and felt certain that our Italian visitors would get two weeks of torrential rain where they wouldn't even be able to see the great scenery, which was the only thing we had going for us. Essentially, we worried that it wasn't a fair swap.
A certain amount of panic at our end manifested itself in frantic cleaning, repainting, tidying and repairing. We tried to ascertain precise expectations in terms of what we should put away and leave out (the rule of thumb is that you lock away rare or valuable items, or things you don't want your guests to see, and leave everything else as it is - home exchanges involve mutual respect, and insurance should cover any accidents or mishaps). In our state of confusion, we ended up putting away all the food in the kitchen - including back-up tins of peas and beans.
We also cleared out the fridge. That must have been quite a surprise for Nino and Rita, because we found they had done the complete opposite for us.
When we arrived at the airport in Genoa, we immediately recognised Nino's face in the crowd. Meeting him for the first time felt like meeting an old friend. I sat up front with him on the drive to Albissola, skirting the lush mountains and cutting through long tunnels, chatting animatedly in a mixture of his basic English and my pidgin Italian. The sea sparkled so brightly that it dazzled.
At the flat, we met Rita and sat at the table, tucking into a sumptuous lunch involving a dizzying array of Ligurian produce. The ciabatta, the olives, the pesto, the aqua frizzante, the vino… it all tasted fantastic. Then they showed us around their kitchen. The cupboards were full and so was their cellar/wine cupboard.
"All this is for you," Nino said with a wave of his hand. I nodded my head approvingly while in my mind, I flew back to our kitchen in Ireland and ran from cupboard to cupboard trying to find something to eat in them. We had left them a bottle of wine and some home-made bread on the table, but that was it. Such situations can be part of the adjustment process but you have a friendly agreement here - not a business arrangement - so you always find a way around them. That holiday turned out to be one of the most memorable and wonderful we've ever had. Reading the letter that our Italian friends had left for us upon our return, they were even more moved by their wonderful experience in Ireland and they loved our home.
Since then, we've been to France, Spain and Holland and back to Italy. Each time, we've made friends and each time, we've had a brilliant holiday - sometimes (as in the case of Holland) in places that we wouldn't have even considered beforehand. One of the best features about the home exchange holiday is that you are parachuted into someone else's life. You're using their stuff in their home, essentially. When you have young children, that's particularly useful as you have all the bits and pieces that you might otherwise be tempted to bring with you at additional cost. You can also get introduced to their friends and/or relatives, and you get an experience that leaves you with the feeling of having truly been to a place, and not just some gated apartment complex or hotel or even campsite, where you're always set apart to a degree from the local populace.
There are inconveniences. One of the big ones is the clean-up beforehand. The advisable approach is to prepare your home as you would if there were an important guest coming. There is a stress factor in this which will invariably involve one spouse repeatedly encouraging the other to get certain repair/replacement/repainting jobs done well in time for the exchange.
However, all this hassle is counterbalanced by the fact that once you leave your house to depart on your holiday, the stress completely dissipates into thin air. Then, when you come back home all deflated because the holidays are over, you return to a house that is perfectly clean and tidy and up-to-date with repair jobs. You've not had to worry about break-ins or burst pipes while you were away, and you know that the cat was fed, the bins left out and the plants were watered.
As for the Frenchman who burst the tyre on my car? When he rang me to explain his little accident, I could easily have insisted that he pay for the new tyre. I didn't, because I wanted him to have a nice time in Ireland. That's how friends tend to treat one another.
Besides, I had picked up a speeding ticket while I was driving his car in Brittany and when it came around to paying it, he had no hesitation in looking after it.
What to pack
Aside from membership fees, you'll need to cover travel expenses and obvious day-to-day expenses like food and petrol. Bring a small gift, hand-delivered by you from Ireland, to leave for your host. The simple gesture - even a box of Irish chocolates or beer - goes a long way.
Where to start...
First up, you'll need to join a home exchange organisation. Annual membership gives you access to an online database. Offers will come in for your house, but you also need to go on the offensive and contact people with whom you'd like to swap. Most organisations allow non-members to browse before committing, so have a look to see which format suits you best.
We always used Intervac (intervac-homeexchange.com). It's the original home exchange site, founded in 1953, and the one claiming to have the highest number of active members. Annual membership of €84 (or €150 for two years) gives you access to its 30,000 members worldwide. It also offers a 20-day free trial period.
Home Exchange (homeexchange.com) is the largest American organisation. Going since 1992, it claims to have over 65,000 members (though not counted in the same manner, according to Intervac). Its annual fee is €130.
Love Home Swap (lovehomeswap.com) is a British organisation with a points-based scheme allowing non-simultaneous exchange. It offers monthly membership rates starting at €17/month, and a 20-day free trial period.
Behomm (behomm.com) is exclusively for "creatives and design lovers". It's a club you join by invitation or by approval of the founders after applying. Founded in Barcelona in 2013, annual membership costs €190.