If you read Ten Reasons you should try Home Swapping you will undoubtedly have questions. I get asked a lot of questions about the home exchanges that we do from people who are either curious or genuinely very keen, and so I thought I’d do a Home Exchange FAQ to help answer some of them.
1. Do people get to look in your underwear drawer?
The first question always relates to underwear. And I would say yes, they do- or rather they could. But also bear in mind that you can look in their underwear drawer too, should you so choose. Frankly I have never felt the need to snoop into other people’s houses beyond opening every kitchen cupboard to find out where they keep their strainer. Most people leave a clearly identified space in closets, cupboards and drawers for you to use during your stay, as the point is that it should be a home-from-home. I confess that we rarely use them and just live out of suitcases but it’s nice to have the hanging space should I need it. If you are really bothered about the possibility of people snooping through your smalls, you could always box them up and put them away.
2. What about your personal possessions? Don’t you worry about things getting stolen?
Personal possessions that you would rather not leave out can be put away: boxed in the loft, or in a cupboard that you ask your exchangees not to use. Valuables can be similarly stored if you are worried about them. But bear in mind that if something goes missing or is damaged, you know who was in your house. I suppose because we have young children, we don’t have expensive or luxury items so we’re not too concerned if something gets broken, and we’ve never had anything stolen.
It’s crucial that you do have a conversation with your insurance company if you are exchanging, as some insurers do not cover exchanges at all. Ours does not “cover theft other than by forcible entry”. A former insurer reduced our premiums because our house was occupied when we were away.
3. Who pays the bills?
Generally speaking you pay the bills in the house that you usually reside in. People often make agreements about phone usage or internet if it is dial-up or chargeable, but we certainly have never paid any Utilities bills in a home that isn’t our own.
4. How do you find people to exchange with?
We use websites- currently HomeLink and HomeExchange– for which we pay a fee. This allows us full access to all the listings on the site, as well as allowing us to have more than one listing. It also means that if we encounter a significant issue with a home exchange, we can contact the company directly to help us out. We communicate with potential exchangees through the site messenger services so we don’t have to give out our personal email unless we want to, and also arrange Exchange Contracts using the on-site tools.
Most sites have easy-to-navigate search tools to help you look by date, location or a combination, and you can filter search results to include things like car exchange (see question 8) or any specific requirements you have (disabled access, smoking, no pets etc.) All listings have been written by the home owner. These vary massively: some have stacks of information relating to the house and the area, as well as photographs of both the owners (useful if you are meeting them somewhere to give them a key!) and the house in which they live.
Listings also usually mention when they joined the site, how many exchanges they have done and what their response rate is to emails. There’s a fair chance if you come across someone with no images, very sparse information and a 0% response rate that you should pass them over as it would be futile to get in touch. It is important to reply to all emails, and the sites that we have used make it easy with a “No thank you” button which sends an automatic but polite rejection on your behalf.
5. Who would want to visit my home- it’s nothing special.
I would stress to you that this is not at all the case. My Sister-in-Law said the very same thing to me a couple of years ago, but they have had some really fabulous exchanges. When she looked into her local area, and the places that people might like to visit, she realised that she lived close enough to one of the most amazing classical music festivals in the world, and when she finished writing her profile, she said that it made her want to stay in her house! Your house always has something to offer: one exchange we did was because our home was near to a brand new grandchild. Another put our exchangees in easy reach of an ailing family member.
This also applies if you think you can’t exchange because your bathroom is a bit tired, or you don’t have a garden or garage or four bedrooms. Just as with homes, exchanging groups come in all shapes and sizes. You don’t need to have a fancy house- the chances are if your house is that swanky you wouldn’t consider exchanging anyway.
6. We have a large family/young children. Who would swap with us?
Again, if you have a house where someone wants to be, they will exchange with you. We have exchanged with families with four children more than once, three generations of another family, and people with very young children. We have found over time that it is less likely that retired people will exchange with those families with young children. We mostly end up exchanging with people with children: their houses are better set up for children, and they are probably slightly less precious about their belongings.
7. We rent. Can we exchange?
You would have to ask your landlord about that. But it is theoretically possible.
8. What about my car?
Cars can be exchanged or not; it’s entirely up to you. We have found that with long-haul exchanges it has been easier to exchange cars too, but we have an Automatic car which helps when exchanging with people from America and Canada where Automatics are more common. You do need to check with your insurer that this is a possibility, and you generally have to provide them with dates and information about the driving history of the people you are exchanging with. Leave a letter to go in the car giving permission for them to drive it, as well as copies of all insurance paperwork and necessary contact information.
An exchangee did once take our wing mirror off going through a width-restriction, and was very quick to contact his nearest garage and get the car repaired at his expense before he even let us know about it. If you damage the car do let the owner know.
Similarly we once got a parking ticket and were unable to pay because we didn’t live in the country we received the ticket in. So we let the people we were exchanging with know, and left the right amount of money to cover payment of the fine.
9. What happens if there is a last minute disaster?
This is a really tricky one. Some of the standard exchange agreements contain a provision that if you cancel you must provide supporting evidence for the reason, and you can always report people to the website, but you should proceed on the basis that you would be left without worthwhile recourse. We’ve had an exchange cancel on us, fortunately before we’d booked our travel. It is gutting. But accidents, family emergencies and deaths are not something you have any control over. If you have enough time, you can try and find a replacement exchange. And we have had emails from the Head Office of our Exchange websites trying to find exchanges for people who have been left down at the last moment. People who have been exchanging for a while have a community spirit about these things and will do their best to help, partly I presume because they would hope someone would do the same for them if they found themselves in a similar position.
10. What happens to our pets?
Again, that depends on the terms of the agreement. We state in our listing that we have pets and ask if they are interested in looking after them, but also make it clear that we can make other arrangements if not. The dog will always go to kennels, but the chickens and guinea pig are relatively low effort, so often people are happy to look after them, particularly as the chickens provide eggs. I leave clear instructions about what to do, along with more than enough food and bedding, as well as contact numbers for friends/relatives that they can get in touch with if there is a problem of any kind. In our time we have cared for horses, sheep and many many chickens, as well as rabbits and both indoor-and-outdoor cats. If you were thinking of getting a pet, Home Exchange can be a good way of finding out if you really want one!
11. Does the exchange have to be simultaneous?
No. If you have a relative/friend/caravan that you can stay in whilst other people are in your home, or you have a second home, then non-simultaneous exchange is a real option. It allows exchangees to visit your home at a time that works for them whilst you can stay at theirs when it is convenient for you. This is helpful if you have to travel in school holidays for example, or are making a long-haul trip. We have even been on one non-simultaneous exchange whilst a different set of exchangees were in our home. We have also hosted people in our home whilst we were there, as house-guests. Lots of combinations are possible.
This also applies to the length of your exchange. Simultaneous exchanges are straightforward: you both stay the same length of time in each other’s homes. When you are making non-simultaneous plans, the length of exchange can vary. We’ve exchanged with teachers in the past. They get longer summer holidays and so they stayed in our home for a month, whilst we spent two weeks at theirs. Americans we exchanged with only came to the UK for ten days but gave us three weeks in their luxury Arizona house in return. We’re heading to New Zealand at Christmas and staying for five days in a home, whilst our exchangees spend ten days at ours next month. These exchangees are an example of how well exchanging can work: they are in Europe for a couple of months and, save for the odd day here and there, are hopping from one exchange to the next. That way they can see the world without spending a fortune on accommodation.
12. But how can you let strangers into your home?
They aren’t strangers. By the time they stay in our home we have spent a long time going back and forth by email and sometimes phone or Skype. Sometimes we meet them at an airport for a handover. Home Exchange websites are comparable to internet dating: you spend a while getting to know people, answering their questions and figuring out the details of your swap. And it is a quid pro quo arrangement; they will be taking care of your home whilst you take care of theirs. Of course you should take sensible precautions and carry out any checks where possible, and having a trusted neighbour or relative hand over the keys, for example, can give greater peace of mind.
13. Do you let the neighbours know what you’re doing?
We do let our neighbours know what we are doing, and who will be staying in our house whilst we are gone. This is a basic safety precaution but it also means that someone will look out for our guests, and our neighbours have always been quick to say that should our exchangees have any problems, they should knock on their door and ask for help.
We always provide a couple of numbers of people our exchangees can call in the event of a problem with the house- usually friends or family members- and those with keys to the house, particularly if we are several time zones away. It is sometimes helpful if a friend/neighbour/mum is willing to meet the exchangees and show them around, give them keys etc, but by no means essential.
14. Do you provide a goody basket or local info?
That’s the ideal, yes. I leave a file that is filled with leaflets and flyers from local and regional attractions that may be of interest. I include maps, train timetables and any takeaway leaflets that are relevant and deliver to our home. As we are near to London I also leave several A-Zs and Oyster cards (pre-pay card for use on London Transport, necessary as most forms of transport require prepay now) for their use. I leave this together with a list of any contact numbers they may need, along with the House Manual (which details all the things in the house they may need to know about such as TV remotes, laundry facilities and when to put the bins out), and a welcome note, together which a selection of local produce they may wish to enjoy or takeaway.
The Exchange gift is a varied thing. Sometimes we’ve received nothing and other times we’ve received enough gifts to require extra hand-luggage. Everyone has their own method. The gifts I have enjoyed most are locally produced foodstuffs, especially if chocolate or alcohol is involved. We also try to leave enough fresh food so that they have the makings of an evening meal, or enough to get them through the first 24 hours (especially if they are arriving on Sunday, when shops shut early in the UK.) This of course is not always possible- if you are following on from another exchange in a home for example of if the dates of arrival are different to your departure- but it’s easy to agree with your exchangees in advance by email.
I also have a visitors book which I leave open for visitors to add their comments, and hope that they would make suggestions to me by email for improving things if needed.
15. What happens if you break something, or something breaks at your house?
Things break all the time: the glass dropped on the floor, the lamp knocked over in error. Either do your best to replace or leave money to cover the damage. Let the owner know too, out of courtesy. If it’s a large value item you may need to come to some agreement. If it’s a mug without a handle chances are you both write it off.
16. How are you going to exchange keys?
You can arrange to have someone meet your exchangees on arrival, or have them pick up a key from next door. A tip we picked up from another exchange was to have a secure keybox- Masterlock or similar- the location of which and code you can give to your exchangees. That way when they arrive they just go find the key and get on with their day. It saves having to send sets in the post or meet at airports and so forth. But you agree this with your exchangee.
17. What about cleaning the house, and are there laundry facilities?
Laundry facilities are usually mentioned in the listing. If it’s a family home they should be available for your use, since the experience is a home-from-home, though we did once arrive to find that the owner had locked the door to the laundry & we had to use the laundrette the whole time which was frustrating. So do double check with your exchangee.
Regarding house-cleaning, leave the house as you find it is the rule of thumb. Leave your house clean and tidy , and smelling fresh, with beds made ready for the exchangees, fresh towels out etc. It can be hard when you are leaving at the crack of dawn for an intercontinental flight and have to change the beds, so agree things beforehand with your exchangees if that’s going to be a challenge. At the very least leave the beds stripped and ready to be made up, with the fresh linen out and waiting.
Likewise it’s polite to leave your homeward-bound exchangees with as little laundry to do as possible. Beds should be made, and all dirty linen that couldn’t be washed before departure left tidily in the agreed spot, or in the machine. Empty the fridge of out-of-date food. Leave the house spic and span with a thank you note and perhaps some flowers. Add flyers to their collection if you went somewhere they haven’t been. Leave spare local currency you are unlikely to use again, that sort of thing.
If you are in any doubt, discuss with the exchangees how you expect things to be left: if you are taking three days to come home you may not want damp laundry sitting in your machine all that time, for example. You may prefer for the dishwasher not to be left running when they go (leaving electrical appliances running when you are not in the house invalidates insurance policies in some countries.)
18. What do you do about food?
This is one of the benefits of Home Exchange in my opinion. If I were on a self-catering holiday I would have to spend money on random items like salt and pepper, foil and washing up liquid. With a Home Exchange, the experience is supposed to be home-from-home, so you use each other’s store-cupboards, pantries and laundry detergent. We generally ask people to replace something they have finished completely, and make it clear what is off limits in terms of wine-cellar, not that we have one, and other alcohol consumption. People are very welcome to use my baking cupboard, the contents of our freezer, whatever suits, as I know that I am able to do the same at their home.
And it’s handy as well because you come home to unexpected treats or things you have never tried before sitting in your fridge. I was once left an entire cheese that an exchangee had bought, tasted and didn’t like.
Again it is kindness to leave fresh milk and bread for people to come home to.
19. What technology is available?
Another thing made clear in the listing should be access to wifi, cable TV and so forth. We leave the wifi code and give people the option of using one of our laptops or PC in our absence, though most people have their own or bring iPads. We let them know how to work the satellite television and leave the remotes out where they are easy to find.
With our holiday home, we make it clear that there is neither a TV subscription, nor wifi. So long as people know what they are going to, they can plan a work-around. Problems only arise when you get somewhere and things are not as promised.
20. Are any part of the house/property off limits?
As previously mentioned, do make it clear if their are parts of the house you wish people not to use- your office, for example, or the au-pair’s bedroom, any cupboards, cellars or attics that you think people will try. If you have locked a door let them know so they don’t panic when they come to leave that they have lost a key.
We have quite a lot of outdoor space so I am careful to point out the boundaries. I am happy for people to use the children’s swings and trampolines and to walk in the woods, but always make it clear that it should be used with appropriate supervision, and that I cannot be held responsible for something that happens when I am not there. Whilst most of this is common sense, it’s worth writing down nonetheless.
Likewise, always mention if there are any specific local laws that people must be aware of when staying: if the shops are shut on Sundays or Public Holidays. Don’t assume people know your country.
I don’t doubt there are many more questions that you have, that I could have answered, so if you get to the bottom of this and can’t find the answer you are looking for, get in touch. I am happy to help!