House Swapping: Stay for Free Anywhere in the World

A few years ago our friends spent a month in Tahiti, one of French Polynesia’s paradise islands. When they showed us photos of the house they stayed in, my wife and I were speechless.

They live in Ingleside Heights in San Francisco in a lovely three-bedroom, two-bathroom home of roughly 2,000 square feet. The house in Tahiti was 2,800 square feet of beachfront opulence. It came with two maids, a cook, and a gardener, a 130-foot infinity swimming pool, and a one-year-old convertible Jeep Cherokee.

But what shocked us was the price—it was free!

House swapping or home exchanges have been around for a while. Nowadays there are several websites offering the service, where you meet like-minded people and agree to swap your home for theirs, sometimes even your car.

There is a small fee to access home-exchange services—the average is $9.95 a month—but your savings on a typical exchange can add up to thousands of dollars.

For me, though, savings aren’t the only reason to consider an exchange. What I really like about the idea is the comfort of staying in a home rather than an impersonal hotel, and experiencing an area as a local and not a tourist.

Of course, I had my concerns and lots of questions for our friends. It turned out that the couple taking our friends’ home in Ingleside Heights was in San Francisco on business. It just so happened that the husband’s company was near Ingleside Heights. They hated hotels and wanted the comfort of their own home. As they were staying for a month, a home exchange was a great option.

I wondered if it was safe. Now, after several swaps of my own, I know it is. The exchange company we’ve used happily has been in business for 19 years. After tens of thousands of exchanges, it has never had a report of theft, vandalism, or of someone getting to their exchange home and finding a vacant lot.

Don’t be worried about having a stranger in your house, either. Think of home exchanges as “Internet dating” for your home. Before you actually go on a date with someone you meet on the Internet, you exchange emails, maybe talk on the phone a few times, and swap some recent photographs. By the time you agree to meet, the person isn’t really a stranger. You wouldn’t go on a date if you didn’t feel a connection, and it’s the same for a home exchange.

Our first exchange was with a couple from Cambridge, England. Trish is a doctor and Rick, her husband, is retired. We wanted to stay in Cambridge for three weeks over Christmas and they were keen to come to Sydney, Australia, where we lived at the time.

But when it came to swapping, they were delayed in Europe. However, because they had agreed to swap, they were happy for us to take their house in Cambridge and do a non-simultaneous exchange. They gave us their house and would take ours whenever we took our next vacation.

It was easy to work out the details, and they were lovely. When the time came we met them in Cambridge and had dinner. When dinner ended they handed their house and car keys over to us, wished us luck, and off they went. Clearly they had done this before.

The house was amazing, and as it was December they had even put up a Christmas tree for us and left a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Two years later we’re still friends.

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