In one of my previous articles, I wrote about our experience with buying a house in Berlin, Germany. After we financed a mortgage loan and made most of the finishing touches to the house to make it habitable and comfortable, we needed a vacation (and felt like it was long overdue). However, all the extra expenses left us with no reserves: we invested all our savings into the house.
An “Aha!” moment came when my husband remembered that he had a coworker who used some website to find places to stay, offering his apartment in exchange. This scheme worked so well that he became a repeat customer of that service, purchasing a subscription and using it on a regular basis. He boasted that it was saving him a huge amount of money.
So, wouldn’t it be a good idea for us to also get some return on our investment?
I asked for the name of the website, and my husband sent me a link to LoveHomeSwap.com (which was recently merged with a similar service, HomeExchange.com). The site looked simple enough: one had to register a house or an apartment and start looking for swaps. The swap is exactly what it sounds like — your family stays in someone else’s house. Their family stays in yours. It’s as simple as that. Except that, of course, there’s this whole negotiation process, and the rules to keep to, and the types of swaps to pick from. But let’s begin at the beginning.
Registering a house
The initial step after registering is to create a listing describing your place. You list the number of rooms, beds, the types of beds, and the amenities like whether or not you have a washing machine, a dryer, a dishwasher, a garden, an AC, a bath, etc etc. You describe the location, and of course, you upload the photos of your place. Then, you can post it on the website.
There is also an additional verification process, consisting of uploading your ID and the documents that support your claim that you indeed live in this place. On the website, they suggest that you enclose utility bills like the electricity bill, stating your name and address and not older than a year. Since Germany has a system of registering all residents at their address (Anmeldung), this is what I used instead.
You might be loath to share this kind of personal information, but then again, it’s some consolation that the other side is also doing this. This is basically an answer to a very common question: how does one protect oneself from fraud? Well, this is how. This sort of multi-factor verification helps at least partially make sure that the people are indeed who they say they are, and live where they say they live.
Different kinds of swaps
There are actually different kinds of swaps one can make: reciprocal and non-reciprocal. First is the one I described above: family A is staying at family B’s place, and vice versa. The second option is a little more complicated: family A stays in family B’s place, but family B does not.
- Where do they stay? That’s a great question! There are two options: it might be their secondary home (a holiday home, summer/winter lodge, or just something they acquired as an investment), or they might go on a “normal” vacation — visiting relatives, staying at the hotel, Airbnb, whatever.
- What do they get in return, then? Why should family B let family A into their place, if they are not staying in family A’s? The answer to this, they get the guest points.
There is also a hospitality exchange when host A doesn’t move out (for example, when you want to provide just part of your house, say a spare bedroom, for a swap). This is possible, too, but the bedroom in question needs to have a separate listing on the website, as a room. It can also bring in guest points if non-reciprocal, but it can be reciprocal, too, if host B is also providing a similar space in return.
Guest points and why one might need them
The points system is actually not hugely relevant to us, since our house is a primary residence, aka the only one and we have nowhere else to stay. (We might still think about the points exchange though, if we were to go to the hotel on some other occasion.) But basically, the main facts about the points are:
- Guest points get assigned to each place automatically, based on the location, the number of rooms and beds, and amenities.
- A homeowner has some leeway in how to adjust the points: they can add some guest points to the automatic value, but no more than 30.
The guest points are calculated per night, so if someone stays in your place for 5 nights and your place is “priced” at, say, 200 guest points, you will get 1000 points for this stay. What to do with them after? Why, spend on a home swap where you will be the one staying in someone’s house without providing yours!
I started my search in June, aware that it was very late for Europe because we were aiming for a vacation in August. Generally, one should book everything half a year before the planned date, or better still, a whole year. Then you will get much better prices, and flights, and the probability of hotels and rentals being available will of course also be much higher. But we were too busy, too tired, and too broke for that, and now we had less than two months to find something. So I decided that beggars cannot be choosers, and therefore, we should go light on the filters.
Because of that, my search was very basic. What we could not compromise on was the number of bedrooms, since we wanted our child to sleep in a separate one. Other than that, I only wanted two things:
- Close to the sea. Any sea would do, the cold European seas included;
- It should either be within driving distance, or the flights for all would not break our budget.
That left us with several places in Europe (because the cross-Atlantic flights were definitely too expensive). Among those, I selected five candidates, choosing only the places that already had reviews on the website (only site members that had swapped with the place could leave reviews).
- Mediterranean villa in Valencia, Spain;
- Artistic home in Mallorca (it was called so because it had a very quaint and interesting interior);
- House close to the beach in Dunkirk, France;
- Family home near Barcelona’s beach;
- Luxury Villa in Mykonos, Greece.
I created a spreadsheet in Google Sheets, where I listed the following points for each place:
- House name (the name of the listing on the website);
- Link to the listing;
- The number of bedrooms;
- Country and city;
- Time by car (how long would a drive be);
- Cost by plane per person and for our family together, the roundtrip;
- Time by plane (how long would a flight be and how many stops);
- What to do (what’s interesting about the place and its location and what was there to pass the time — sights, attractions, activities);
- Notes (my personal impressions and what I gathered from the reviews on the homes from the website).
I wrote nice messages to the owners, praising their homes, describing our family in the most favorable light, and proposing the dates we wanted (preferably weeks 2 and 3 in August 2023). I also made sure to state that we were flexible as to the dates because I thought that would increase our chances, and because people are not hotels, they usually can’t accommodate you at your will, so they appreciate you giving them some room to adjust. I didn’t hold out for the last place, though, because there was a note I put in for it.
They probably won’t accept; it’s a luxury villa way out of our league.
Well, ‘nuff said right? But I thought, whatever, why not at least try. It didn’t work out and I got a negative response, of course. I was hoping that at least some of the other responses would be more favorable, but they also refused, one after another, and frankly, I didn’t blame them. Since I don’t love Berlin, I am not sure what can attract people to spend time in it, especially in a place that’s not even in Berlin itself, but on the outskirts. We have a good transport connection and we are also close to Potsdam where a lot of beautiful palaces and parks are, but we’re not directly in the thick of things.
However, in the end, I got a hit.
Thank you for your proposal. We would like to discover your place but we have a swap with another family from the 31st of July to the 8th of August, so we were thinking if it would be possible to go directly to your house after this swap, for example from the 8th to the 22nd . The only problem would be that we could not be there for checking our home before your arrival but I could see with a friend or my husband’s mum to come and check it for us. Would it be OK for you?
*** and ***
This was a home in Dunkirk, France, and the family seemed to be experienced in swapping homes because they were prepared to go directly from one swap to another. I knew nothing about Dunkirk, except what I got from the namesake movie. Basically, I knew that a lot of people died on that beach. Not the best recommendation, if you ask me.
But it was the only place that said yes, and after talking with my husband, we agreed to the exchange. After the initial back-and-forth via the website, I exchanged phone numbers with the hostess and we continued being in touch via WhatsApp, to have a quicker way of communication. It’s not what the website recommends, because this way they can’t moderate your messages and they claim that you’re less protected that way. You probably are, but it’s still faster and easier to use something that your partner in the exchange is definitely checking often and that you can also use for a voice call if needed.
The HomeExchange website has a lot of information about preparing for an exchange as a host. What we were interested in were several questions:
Where do we put our stuff?
- The recommendation is to clear the space a bit and leave some hangers and drawers empty for your guests so that they can settle in comfortably. You don’t need to remove or hide all your things.
- My husband, however, was really paranoid about this rule, so he swiped our home, putting everything that we didn’t immediately need into the garbage bin (or at least in the closet). I got rid of all the unused toiletries, cosmetics, and personal items that hadn’t been used for some time; others were either needed for the journey or also went into the closet. We had two wardrobes in our bedroom and squeezed all the clothing that we weren’t taking with us into one, leaving the other completely empty. All personal items were swept from the tables and shelves; the guest rooms' wardrobes were emptied, too.
- I thought my husband was too extreme, but when we arrived at the house, we saw that the owners did a very similar thing. They didn’t empty the wardrobes, though — only some shelves, but they hid everything personal behind closed cupboard doors or drawn closet curtains. They also did a complete swipe of the bathrooms, leaving just shampoo, soap, and shower gel outside and putting everything else into cupboards. The message was obviously “that other stuff is off limits”, and of course, we respected that.
How do we explain house rules to the guests?
- There’s a welcome booklet that you need to write. This needs to contain information about the house location, transportation options, how to check in and check out, and other practicalities. That’s how the website describes it:
Think about the information your guests will need immediately. Each house or apartment has its own specificities: WIFI code, water heater, air conditioning, heating, swimming pool, or waste sorting… All this doesn’t seem too complicated for you but your guests will be more than happy to learn how it works as soon as they arrive. It is always useful to create a usage sheet or a video for “high tech” equipment (television, video games, etc.) and household appliances (washing machine, tumble dryer, dishwasher).
We asked my husband’s colleague, the one who already was experienced in this, to share his booklet and wrote ours based on his example. Ours got to be ten pages long, which I think is probably overdoing it, but I tend to write long articles, too. The family that was to host us had a booklet of just four pages, and it is probably what one should aim for.
If you have specific house rules, that’s the place for them, too. For example, we have kitchen counters made of natural wood and they easily stain, so we were asking the guests to please use the coasters that we bought for the purpose, and wipe any spills as soon as possible. You might have other pet peeves, or perhaps plants to water, or a cat to feed at certain times.
I also put a garbage collection schedule on the fridge.
What do we need to provide?
- Put fresh bed linens on the beds and leave enough clean towels to last the guest's family, preferably while they are staying. If the place has a washer/dryer, they of course can do a wash themselves, but they should have at least one change of everything at check-in.
What to do with the food in the fridge?
This is what the website recommendation has to say:
In the kitchen, we recommend throwing away perishable food and leaving enough food for your guests to make their first meal (milk, eggs, bread, butter, coffee, and tea, for example). Add a little note saying “help yourselves” so they know it’s for them.
How do we organize the key exchange?
The website proposes several ways to do that, namely:
- Wait for your guest/host to arrive and exchange keys in person.
- Ask a neighbor or a person you trust to welcome your guest and give them the keys.
- Hide the keys in a secret safe place.
- Send the keys via mail.
- Set the digital key lock and send the code via email to your exchange partner.
We intended to drive off before our guest family arrived because it was a long drive and we needed a head start. So what we did was buy a key safe on Amazon, the one with a combination lock.
We left one house key in it and locked the other keys we left inside the house, on the table, with the explanatory note of what’s from where. The other family chose another path; the one key that was to unlock their house came to us in a simple snail mail. So, weirdly enough, we never met each other.
Our way to Dunkirk
On August 7, 2023, we left home and drove away. Driving from Berlin to Dunkirk takes about 9 hours, and we had a pandemic-born toddler unused to long-distance travel, so we decided to split the journey into two parts. Therefore, we were making an overnight stop approximately half-way. It added to our expenses, but we decided that in the end, it was worth it.
So after making an overnight stop in the Phantasia Land in Brühl, Germany (a place that deserves its own post), we were rolling into Dunkirk on the following day.
Frankly, I was having great misgivings. What did we know about this family? On the website, they wrote that they were both teachers and had two teenage kids. They sent us a key to their house. What if the key didn’t fit? We were a day off from our own place, all prepared for a vacation. What if there was no such house in existence and it was all a sick joke? What if the house existed but was a hellhole and not at all like the description?
Finally, we drove into the street and parked across the house. We left the car and went to open the door. The house key fit; we were in! We grabbed the other key, the one for the automatic garage door, from the table in the dining room, just as the hosts said we should. We drove into the garage and parked. And then, we went to explore our new holiday home.
The first thought I had about the house was — man, it’s huge and way more cool than ours. Like ours, it was a townhouse, high and rather narrow, but while ours was a new building, this one was obviously an old one, but professionally restored, rebuilt, and redesigned. It was also much wider than ours and had a bigger garden, completely private because it was separated from the neighbors by high brick walls, covered by creeping vines and ivy. The kitchen made me stare in awe. It had a huge glass sunroof, right over the big kitchen island, containing a modern cooking range and an even more modern kitchen hood that wasn’t hanging from the ceiling, but instead hidden into the island and sliding up on button press. How I wanted such a kitchen! We only had an L-shaped kitchen corner — with no chance at all to fit in a walk-around island, which I craved as long as I can remember.
The floors in the kitchen were tiled, cool, and nice to the feet. The other half of the kitchen, to the right, was larger than our whole kitchen corner at home.
The house had four full-sized bedrooms, a serviceable home office/movie theater in the built-up loft under the roof, and a passageway room which probably served as the second home office, adjacent to the master bedroom.
There were two bathrooms with full-size baths, both also equipped with shower cabins. It was obvious that a designer worked on them because while minimalistic, they were far from standard-looking.
One thing that was weird for us us that the toilets were separate. I got used to bathrooms that had a toilet inside, too, so that was a bit uncomfortable, but not much. Perhaps because the pipes in the old house were difficult to restructure, or rather it was a cultural issue because as I read later, having separate toilets is common in France.
But the highlight of the house, apart from the kitchen I swooned over, was the living room. The kitchen went into the dining room, and the dining room went into the living room. There were no doors anywhere and the walls were mostly removed, so the whole floor seemed huge and impressive. The wooden floors in the living/dining room seemed old and restored. We later found out that they creaked mercilessly, but that probably was the price of keeping some parts of the house vintage.
We went out to the sea and found it to be just two blocks from the house, a five-minute walk, exactly as described on the website. The promenade was huge, very long, and adorned by old houses with intricately decorated facades. The beach was a wide strip of the finest white sand. The house was a little off the central part of the beach, so like we discovered later, it was almost never crowded.
Dunkirk is in the north of France, so it was cloudy when we arrived and the sea wasn’t exactly warm, but on the next day, the sun went out and things started looking optimistic. First days we only splashed in the shallows, but in a few days, it was warm enough to really swim and bathe. One should have watched the tides, though, because when the water was low, the walk to the water became really long! Luckily, the beach was a huge sandy shoal, so even with the water at its lowest point (I used the app called TideTimes to determine the tides), the bottom was still clean, with no algae or dirt in sight, and easily walkable. The sea just shifted farther off.
Even when the weather wasn’t perfect, we found things to do in and around town: visit the port museum and go on board an old ship, drive to Bruges and see places where the famous In Bruges movie was filmed, visit the Nausicaa aquarium in Boulogne…
In short, we were doing what people on vacation usually do: seeing the sights, eating good food, drinking wine, and watching our toddler splash in the sea and delve into the white sand, which proved to be almost impossible to get off the feet, from the hair and even the ears.
We also drove to see the white cliffs — Cap Blank-Netz and Cap Gris-Netz — near Calais.
After two weeks in the house of our French hosts, it was time to check out. On the day before we were to drive off, we started a big cleaning. We vacuumed everything, wiped the surfaces, washed the extra towels, and cleaned the bathrooms. We aimed to leave the house in exactly the same pristine state we found it in so that our hosts would not leave a bad review afterward. It took us the best part of the day and that day certainly wasn’t like a vacation!
Some hosts require you to pay a cleaning fee, and then you don’t need to clean, because a professional service will do it after you leave. The fee might be pretty significant, for example, 150–200 EUR for a larger house (4–5 bedrooms). This is always specified in the house description, however, so one knows it in advance. Among the houses on my shortlist, none of the hosts offered this service, except I think for that “luxury villa”. It’s an additional expense, of course, but for some people, it might be preferable to losing a day doing the cleanup. Then again, with a smaller place it wouldn’t be such a significant amount of work.
The next morning, we said goodbye to the cool house. We drove out of the garage, went inside once more, and left all the keys on the dining room table, as instructed. The hosts had their own keys, and they were to return later that day. We had a long drive to Berlin in front of us.
Advantages and drawbacks
So, how does home exchange compare to hotels or to renting an apartment on Airbnb? Well, there are some obvious things to keep in mind.
- (+) You are not paying any money, apart from (and not often) a cleaning fee;
- (+) Your travel is more sustainable since you’re not wasting all the resources that the hotel usually does (think how often they change the towels and sheets, all the one-time cosmetic products with plastic packaging, and all the wasted buffet food);
- (+) You can stay in a sizeable place like your own and not in a cramped hotel room;
- (+) The host might provide the bikes or child toys, which will make your packing lighter;
- (+/-) Long-term stay is more convenient because you have all the amenities and can cook yourself or wash your stuff. It might also be a drawback, of course, because it’s more work than just having your needs covered by someone else;
- (-) You have to do the cleanup afterward;
- (-) You might need to take care of someone else’s plants or pets;
- (-) You are trusting the strangers into your own place, and of course, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t be freaks or crazy people hell-bent on just destroying everything they see. (One of my colleagues was wondering how we decided to try the home swap, because his cousin who was renting a place sometimes got tenants with obvious mental health problems, and they literally smeared crap on the walls!) There’s no 100% guarantee, even though the website rules try to put safeguards in place to prevent this from happening.
What not to expect
Now, you might be sitting there and thinking “Oh my, I could afford that skiing trip to the Alps for just the price of the tickets”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. If you were to look for swaps in the tourist sites, they probably will only be available during the low season or will be quite far from the desired locations (ski lifts, famous sights), or otherwise inconvenient.
Because, well, if people have a place in the Alps, in a perfect location close to the ski lifts, why would they not use it themselves or monetize it during the high season? (Yeah, that’s what they thought either.)
However, such exchanges might let you discover places that aren’t on the map, but no less worthy. They might allow you to meet new people, walk the untraveled roads, and in general, explore something that is out of the common way.
And, let’s own it, they will help you save money.
That’s why we’ll be doing it again if we have a chance.