For the past two weeks, I’ve been sleeping in a stranger’s bed, cooking in her kitchen, and watching a colony of African penguins from her living room couch. I know what her children look like from photographs on her bookshelves, but other than a phone conversation in which she told me I shouldn’t let the penguins into the yard, Elle and I have never actually met. While my family has been living in her home in Boulders Beach, South Africa, she’s been exploring New York from my parents’ Manhattan apartment.
Elle’s family and mine are doing a house exchange through an organization called HomeLink International, www.homelink.org, a subscription service that helps vacationers arrange swaps with other travelers from all over the world. The idea is simple: after coordinating logistics over the Internet, we’re all saving money and benefiting from each other’s insider’s knowledge of our locations. And we have become friends in the process.
My parents and I have done nine home exchanges since joining HomeLink in 1981 and, while my memories of our first exchange are faint (I was only two), subsequent swaps have made a lasting impression. When I was four we stayed in Rouen, France. As my parents visited chateaux and museums, I became friends with the neighbors’ children, Magali and Nicolas. I didn’t speak French and they didn’t speak English but we still played together, developing a hybrid of the two languages so that we could communicate. Now, 21 years later, Magali is married, Nicolas has a kid, and we’re still in touch—I even stayed with Magali and her husband the last time I was in Paris.
If you’ve got strict dates that don’t coincide with school holidays or if you are rigid about location, home exchanging might not work for you. But with a bit of flexibility, the possibilities are limited only by your own initiative—the more people you contact, the higher the likelihood is that one will result in an exchange. Also, once you pay Homelink’s subscription fee and list your home, you may get offers from places you never even considered visiting. Such was the case with South Africa: sometime last May, my mother received an email from Elle offering the use of her cottage in Boulders for two weeks in November.
"Our listed home is a clapperboard cottage built at the turn of the century and used as a ration store during the Boer War," Elle’s initial email said. "Perched on a gentle slope with a mountain behind and all about the sea, it has three bedrooms, a sunny lounge and lovely dining room all opening onto a wraparound deck with views across the bay to the distant towns and mountain ranges beyond."
Her interest piqued, my mother responded to the message and several months later we were doing exactly what Elle described in her email: "quaffing wine on the deck, lazing on the beach, eating too much in local bistros, and exploring Cape Town in all its beauty and diversity."
When I tell people that my family does home exchanges, they usually have a lot of questions. The idea is tempting, they say, but how do you work out the logistics and, most importantly, how do you trust strangers with the keys to your home? HomeLink’s web site (www. swapnow.com) offers answers to the most frequently asked questions, but here is some basic information on home exchanges and how to make them as smooth and rewarding as possible:
• Home exchanges are based on trust. There is no guarantee that your guests won’t trash your house, but there is no reason that they would—after all, they’re trusting you with the keys to their home, too. In the past 40 years, HomeLink has never had a report of theft, and, as they point out on their web site, having someone stay in your home can actually be safer than leaving it unoccupied while you go on vacation.
• When you list your home, be as specific as possible in your description, including photographs if possible. Likewise, ask for photos from the people that you’re exchanging with so that you all have a clear picture of what you’re agreeing to.
• Cast your net wide. Homelink recommends sending out at least 20 query letters or emails when you’re trying to find a swap.
• Once you’ve found people to exchange with, agree upon guidelines for the exchange. HomeLink International offers a HomeLink Exchange Agreement form to work out logistics. In general, you should pay your usual home-related bills and work out special arrangements for extraneous costs like long distance telephone calls. If you are exchanging cars, make sure to contact your insurance agent to ask about coverage, since it varies from state to state.
• Before you depart, secure valuables, and label anything that you don’t want used while you’re away (like your grandmother’s fine china).
• Send your guests directions on how to get to your home from the airport, how to get your keys (we usually give them to a neighbor), and, if appropriate, how to disarm your security system.
• Clean your house thoroughly, clear space in your closets and drawers for your guests’ clothing, and leave out clean sheets, towels, and washcloths for them to use.
• Stock your refrigerator with "starter food" to tide your guests over till they have the energy to shop on their own.
• Leave a detailed note in an impossible-to-miss spot that includes: whom to contact in an emergency (include local emergency numbers); phone numbers for a suggested doctor, plumber, electrician, babysitter, dentist, helpful friends, and (if applicable) your building’s superintendent; directions to the nearest grocery store and post office; specific instructions for things like the mail, plant care, thermostat control, trash pickup, electrical appliances, and where guests should leave the keys when they depart; the fun stuff: your favorite restaurants, neighborhoods, or activities that they shouldn’t miss; candid reviews of popular tourist sites and off-the-beaten path suggestions that they could only get from a local. One of my favorite parts of a home exchange is that it can make you fall back in love with your hometown by reminding you of why it’s an enjoyable place to live.
With advance planning and a bit of flexibility, you’ve pretty much got the whole world to choose from—we’ve gotten offers for exchanges from people in the U. S., Poland, Germany, Brussels, France, Belgium, England, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Greece, to name a few. Depending upon how much you correspond with your exchangers and whether you actually meet, you might even find yourself with a new friend from abroad.