It was about this time last year that Brad and I resolved to spend a month in Paris–in someone else’s home. There are plenty of exchange agencies out there, but we’d heard good word-of-mouth about North Vancouver-based Homelink International, so we paid the $130 annual fee (don’t bristle: it’s less than one night’s accommodation in a hotel!) and spent an evening at the computer giving over our particulars and scoping out possible exchange locations. We sent out a handful of queries and then sat back and waited…and within five days had landed an elegant family-sized flat right in the trendy Marais district, two blocks from the Seine and 10 minutes by foot from Notre Dame. We spent a blissful July in France and this year we’ve already arranged a home exchange in Berlin.
Our enthusiasm for home exchange verges on the evangelical–we definitely want all our friends to see the light and join us on the path to budget-friendly travel that doesn’t involve the words “hostel” or “shared bath”–charming though those things might be when you’re 20. We’re starting to get a lot of calls from friends (or friends of friends) wanting to know more about our experience and looking for advice. So here they are, my top 10 tips for a successful home exchange:
Adjust your trust: The first question everyone always asks is, “Weren’t you worried about having a stranger in your house?” Yes, I was: for about five seconds. But think about it: is someone going to spend $130 bucks plus the cost of international airline tickets so they can rip you off? Not bloody likely. The people who go through the minor hassle of signing up with an exchange agency want what you want: an affordable vacation in an interesting part of the world. They’re not after your jewellery. Mutual trust is the bedrock of successful home exchange, so if you’re someone who doubts the essential goodness of humanity, you might want to book into a hotel instead.
Open the door to possibility: The French family that accepted our exchange offer last year had never even heard of Bowen Island when we approached them. It was never on their radar–but they were intrigued once we put it there. While it’s perfectly acceptable to zero in on a certain location for your exchange, I recommend that you leave your destination open when possible and let the world surprise you. Of course, it means you need to craft the description of your home and community with some care: you need to sell (but never over-sell) what your ‘hood has to offer. And don’t despair if you live in a little-known backwater: it could be someone’s idea of holiday heaven.
Remember your manners: Once you sign up with a home exchange agency, you are obliged to observe a few basic points of etiquette, the first and most important being: RSVP. It is exceedingly impolite to ignore an exchange request. I don’t know about the other agencies, but Homelink sends an alert advising that you have new mail, and also makes it easy to say no with a one-click “Thanks, but no thanks” button. And once you’ve committed to an exchange, it’s beyond rude to change your mind for a better offer. Sure, things can happen that necessitate a change of plans, but refer to point 1 and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone left you on the hook with $5,000 worth of airline tickets and nowhere to stay once you arrived. And just like your mom taught you, leave a note of thanks and even a small gesture like a bottle of wine at the end of your exchange.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: Talking helps build trust. Once you’ve started to dance with a potential home exchange partner, you will likely enjoy a steady stream of back-and-forth correspondence while you figure out whether your plans mesh. It’s during this uncommitted period that you really get a sense of the personalities involved. (We had one very strange correspondence with a person who we quickly determined we didn’t want to let anywhere near our lives, let alone our home.) Once you’ve committed to an exchange, you will likely share all sorts of contact info, including your personal e-dresses and cell phone numbers. Expect a flurry of communication–all those last-minute details–in the week or two leading up to the exchange.
Sign a contract: I don’t know about other agencies, but Homelink offers a handy on-line template for documenting your expectations and agreements about your home exchange. For example, since we have an excellent and inexpensive international long-distance plan, we agreed to let our French guests make long-distance calls on our home line to a maximum of $10, after which they would be required to reimburse us. Who knows if it would stand up in court, but it does help to clarify those messy details.
Write a book: This one is important. It’s time-consuming, but you only have to do it once: write the book about your home and community. Don’t take it for granted that your guests will know how to clean the lint trap on your ancient dryer or when to take the garbage can to the curb-side. We told our French guests where to find the trailhead to a favourite secret beach, where to buy organic vegetables, and who to call on for local advice; they told us how to save on transit costs by forgoing the tourist passes and buying a weekly Metro pass used by Parisian commuters. We both included local guidebooks, maps and tourism brochures in our “house books”. Keep the book on your computer so you can update it quickly for every exchange.
Clean to a higher standard: One man’s clean is another man’s clutter. Even if you’re not a natural neat-nik, you should become one for the few weeks before and during your home exchange. You don’t have to repaint your house or buy new furniture, but you do have to clean it to within an inch of its life: dust shelves and tables, wash floors, vacuum carpets, scrub sinks, toilets and tubs. (It’s also helpful to empty a drawer or two and make a little space in your bedroom closet for your guest’s clothes.) Make your house sparkle–and then make it clear to your guests that you’d like to find it exactly as you left it. Be specific about your expectations: we were asked to strip and remake the beds with fresh sheets before we left the Paris flat. We also swapped housekeeping services with our French family. If you have a housekeeper, consider asking them to continue during your time away; that way you’ll guarantee you’ll come home to a spic-and-span house.
Put your house in order: You know that funny burnt-rubber smell coming from the dryer these days? Or those rotten boards on the deck that threaten to collapse every time you use the barbecue? Now would be a good time to fix that stuff. You know you need to do it, and there’s nothing like a deadline–or the spectre of liability–to focus the mind.
Get insurance assurance: Talk to your insurance broker about your exchange plans. It shouldn’t be an issue given that most companies are happy to know that a house won’t be standing empty. If you’ve agreed to swap cars, your existing insurance should cover the guest driver, but check with your insurer. In our contract with our French family, we agreed that they would compensate us for the deductible and for any increase in our premiums if they had an accident. (They didn’t.) We also opted to pay a few extra dollars to Homelink for insurance that would cover us for expenses if our exchange fell through at the last minute and we had to pay for hotels and car rentals.
Park your expectations & pack your sense of humour: Essayist Pico Iyer says that when he travels he likes to read everything he can about his destination before he gets on the plane–and then to forget it all the minute he steps off. In my experience, the less you expect of your holiday the more satisfying it will be. Home exchange is particularly suited to the serendipitous traveller. Live like a local as much as you’re able, and you’re sure to stumble across surprises unknown to any guidebook.
Good luck and let me know your exchange experiences!