The birds wake me up, their incessant morning chatter yanking me from a lovely dream. I roll over, and for the briefest of moments I think this isn’t my bed and then I remember where I am. My husband is next to me, but no this is not our bed. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I grab my phone, stumble down the steep, unfamiliar stairs. One of these days I’m going to fall down them, I’m sure of it. When I get to the kitchen, I make a cup of strong, black coffee. I sit down at the dining room table I did not buy, drinking a coffee brand I can’t pronounce, in a house built at the beginning of last century.
I am living in someone else’s house while they live in mine.
The concept of a home exchange might sound a tad bizarre. Instead of staying in a hotel or renting an apartment, you host guests in your home while they host you in theirs. It’s kind of like AirBNB without any monetary exchange.
Home exchange began in the 1950s as a way for Swiss and Dutch teachers to travel inexpensively. You placed an ad in a catalog of home exchangers, and coordinated everything through letter-writing or phone calls. In the 1990s, printed catalogs were replaced with websites, and today users join one of the many home exchange social networks, paying a yearly fee, where they set up a profile and can search through and message thousands of other members. Finding a free place to stay halfway around the world is as easy as sending an email.
Or dozens of emails, as is usually the case. When we first had this idea, to spend several weeks abroad, we had hoped to do so in Spain, and I messaged over 40 different couples or families, trying to find anyone in a beach town who’d want to come to Music City. Sadly, they all said no thanks, but then we started to receive inquiries. Requests from families in Iceland, people in Thailand, couples in the Netherlands. We had to say no to many based on timing alone. Unlike planning a usual trip, the length of the trip as well as the travel dates have to be agreed upon by both parties and we couldn’t make dates work with most of the exchange offers that came in.
But then we got a request from one particular couple in the Hague, Hans and Cora, who love country music and wanted to do a 4-week swap in the fall.
“How would you like to visit your motherland, Justin? Spend 4 weeks in the Netherlands?” We gave up the idea of finding a place in Spain and decided the Hague would be awesome since we knew a few people in the country and it would be fun to get in touch with Justin’s Dutch roots.
With some negotiation over dates (moving it up to end the of August), we agreed upon a start and end, and started researching ticket prices. We bought our tickets on the same day as a form of solidarity and commitment, sending each other videos over WhatsApp of our excited faces. We were committed to 4 weeks in a foreign country, and 4 weeks of a house swap with people we’d never met in person! What were we thinking?!
That was in November of 2015. The exchange was to begin near the end of August of 2016. From the research I’ve done and number of inquiries we’ve received, this appears to be common practice. Home exchanges are often arranged far in advance. We’ve received several inquiries for summer 2017 already, and we actually have two exchanges arranged for spring 2017: the second half of a non-simultaneous exchange in Mexico, and one week with a woman in Atlanta.
There are different types of exchanges, the most common being simultaneous (what we’re doing right now) and non-simultaneous (what we did half of in June). Simultaneous means you swap at the same time for the same amount of time. Non-simultaneous means you swap at different times, usually for the same amount of time, and often because one or more of the swap partners have a second home. For example, we swapped with a lovely Canadian couple who run a beautiful villa in Mexico that they can use for home exchanges. They needed our house for a week, so we stayed with my parents, and in exchange we have a free place to stay for a week-long vacation in Mexico next year!
Having stayed in several AirBNBs that were clearly someone’s full-time residence and not just a rental property, we’re used to the idea of temporarily living in someone else’s space. I always like looking at the books on their shelves, trying to gauge personality types by their tea and movie and liquor choices, the art on their walls, the magazines in the bathroom. Most of those experiences have only been a couple days long, though. We’d be moving into Hans and Cora’s house for a month!
The first days were tricky as we figured out how to use all of these unfamiliar devices – the shower, the washing machine, the coffee machine, the oven, the TV. It didn’t help that the labels are all in Dutch, but even if they had been in English, the machines are still unfamiliar. You still have to dig through cupboards to find where someone stores the trash bags or the cleaning spray, where they keep the vacuum cleaner and aluminum foil. You find yourself wondering why they have this there or why they don’t have that at all or what the heck that is. Then you wonder what THEY think about your home — do they find our light switches confusing, or our keyless door lock odd? Do they gawk at the size of our American fridge or our giant TV?
After a couple days, once you know what buttons do what and have giggled at the toilet pulley a few times, you settle into a routine. It doesn’t feel so strange to pull a string to flush the toilet or not have any ice for your drinks. You water the plants, as requested, and take the trash out, and go grocery shopping. You do laundry and use their towels and fall asleep easily on their super comfortable mattress. If it felt odd the first few days, by the end of the first week, it doesn’t feel weird at all.
But what if they go through your stuff? A lot of our friends expressed this concern, wrinkling their noses at the thought of strangers poking through their underwear drawers. And the thought certainly occurred to us! But frankly, we weren’t concerned about it. How do we know that none of you weirdos haven’t already gone through our stuff when you’ve come over just to hang out? 🙂 There’s nothing stopping anyone from digging through our bathroom cabinets or getting curious about our nightstand drawers, but we did remove any sensitive or intimate items that we wouldn’t want someone finding and put them in an undisclosed location.
A big part of home exchange is trust. Mutual trust. The key word is exchange. Yes, strangers are living in our home, and have access to my high school journals and our underwear drawers and Justin’s extensive liquor collection and my old hard drives full of who knows what. But we are also strangers living in their home. We must have some faith in one another as reasonable human beings to not invade one another’s privacy. Now, I have enjoyed looking at all of their photos hanging on the walls, and poking through some of the photo albums, and I’m sure they’re sick of looking at all the photos of our cats by now. But the photos and personal knickknacks around the house might be one of my favorite things about the whole exchange – it’s a reminder that this is not some impersonal, commercial rental property. This is someone’s home.
We had the grand pleasure of getting to meet our hosts in person before our exchange, which is not always possible, especially for shorter exchanges. Often, the exchange partners are traveling and arriving at their respective homes on the same day, only ever communicating through voice or text channels. We were able to arrive a couple days early to meet Hans and Cora the night before they jetted off for America. We knocked on their door and were greeted by Hans’ beaming face. “You’re real! You really exist!” he said, ushering us in with open arms. “And you look just like your photos. You with your hair, and you in your hat!” It was nice to put real faces with our names, to reassure all of us that we were in fact all real people.
Some people use home exchange strictly as a way to vacation; it certainly helps with the cost of big family trips, allowing families to take kids skiing or surfing or to a theme park for a fraction of the cost. These shorter exchanges tend to range from 3-14 days. But in the many hours I’ve spent scouring profiles, I’ve found a large contingent of remote workers or retirees looking for long-term exchanges, 3-6 weeks, or even longer. I spoke to one member, who exchanged with another family for a whole school year so their kids could go to school in another country!
As remote workers, my husband and I want to exploit the flexibility of the job as much as possible and participating in the home exchange community is an easy way to do so. When we had dinner with our hosts and their children, one of them expressed shock that we were not vacationing for the full extent of our stay. “Why would you come all the way here just to work?” We tried explaining what I talked about in this post, that we can’t take that much time off of work and that a longer trip gives us both exploring time and lets us continue earning money to pay for the exploration. Part of the joy of travel, for us, is living like locals, not just touristing about, and by working out of our home here in the Hague we get to do just that.
We’ve been enjoying working with the doors open and feeling that fresh, late summer breeze. We’ve overheard a few of the neighbors’ loud Dutch conversations and the music from a local songwriter festival. We love walking around the block to go to the grocery store, the pizza place, the bakery. We haven’t dared ride bikes yet, but we’ve got our tram cards loaded up with cash so we can get around town – and to other cities – easily. We don’t feel rushed to see it all in a few days and instead can soak up the essence of the city at our own pace, the way we do at home.
I hope that our exchange partners are loving Nashville as much as we’re loving the Hague, and that their exchange experience has been as positive as our has been so far. We look forward to meeting more people in this community, experiencing new places like the locals, and home swapping for years to come!
For more on home swapping:
Home Exchange 101: Answers to all of your questions: https://noplacelikeanywhere.com/travel-tips/save-money-travel-hacking/what-is-home-exchange-101/
Blog post by the president of HomeExchange.com: http://blog.homeexchange.com/blog/about-homeexchange-com/a-note-from-our-president-home-exchange-can-change-everything/
Article reviewing the 10 best home swapping sites:
The HomeExchange.com resource center: https://www.homeexchange.com/en/how-it-works/
If you’re interested in seeing our Home Exchange profile: