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Home Exchange 101: Answers to all of your questions

by Ashley
Published: Last Updated on 5 comments 1K views 31 minutes read

What is home exchange? Will I like swapping my house? You sleep in other people’s beds? And other burning questions you have about home exchange.

We started home exchanging in 2016, and since then have received countless questions about how it works. 

You let total strangers stay in your home? Isn’t it creepy to sleep in someone else’s bed? How do you know they won’t go through your stuff? What happens if someone damages your house or leaves it dirty? What if they steal something? Why would you want to swap homes with someone you dont know?

We’re still relatively new to the world of home exchange. Many members of this thriving community have been swapping home for decades! We just love the concept and have had such great experiences with the exchanges we’ve done, that we know that home exchange will be part of our travel practices for a long time! 

Since we love home exchange so much, we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned and answer some of the most common questions that we receive. 

Let us know if you have other questions that we should add to the list to answer! 

Fellow home exchangers, feel free to chime in! What questions have your friends and family asked you? 

Table of contents

What is home exchange?

Home exchange or home swap is the practice of staying in someone else’s domicile while they stay in yours. A house swap may also include an auto exchange and pet or plant care.

When did home exchange first begin?

The very first home exchange program was created in the 1950s by European teachers looking for budget travel opportunities during their summer breaks. In the early days, exchangers published ads in paper catalogs and contact was made by phone or mail. I can’t even imagine trying to find and arrange an exchange by snail mail but that’s how the pioneers did it! 

Where do you find home exchanges now? 

While there are several home exchange sites out there, the one we use, HomeExchange.com, was created in 1992. We’ve had such a great experience with HomeExchange.com that we haven’t used any of the others firsthand, but there is something for everyone!

Other sites include PeopleLikeUs.world (founded 2018), HomeLoveSwap.com (founded 2009), HomeLink.com (founded in 1950s), SwitchHomes.net (founded in 2016 by the brains behind HomeLink), ThirdHome.com (founded in 2010), .

In 2006, the Nancy Meyers movie The Holiday, starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as two single women looking to forget the horrid men in their lives by exchanging homes during the holidays, came out and created new buzz about the site the characters used: HomeExchange.com 

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this movie is the reason Justin and I even learned about home exchanging in the first place. I may have made him watch The Holiday before pitching the idea. And no, not just because I love Jude Law as Mr. Napkin Head.

What appeals to you about home exchange? 

My two favorite things about home exchange are: saving money and experiencing a place as a local. 

Home exchange allows us to find free accommodations and stretch our travel budget. Having a free place to stay allows us to splurge on nice dinners or fun activities, and worry less about going over budget. 

We have always tried to find ways to live like locals, not just taking photos of the big tourist attractions but getting a sense for the day-to-day existence of the people who live there. 

So at the end of the day, home exchange gives us a more authentic experience while also saving money. Win, win! 

Eating dinner with the adult children of our exchange partners. They took us to Simonis, a locals favorite, for dinner.
Eating dinner with the adult children of our exchange partners. They took us to Simonis, a locals favorite, for dinner.

How does home exchange work? 

While every home swapping site has its own quirks and specific approach to exchanging, most of them follow the same basic model: you pay a nominal membership fee to join the network, you create a listing for your home and set up a calendar of availability, and then you’re free to start contacting other members to find and arrange an exchange. 

Exchanges usually fall into one of the following categories:

A simultaneous reciprocal exchange: 

You stay in their house while they simultaneously stay in yours. This is our preferred mode of exchanging. 

A non-simultaneous reciprocal exchange: 

You stay in their house and they stay in your house, but at different times. This works best for people with second homes or if your primary residence is available due to other forms of travel. 

A non-reciprocal / points exchange: 

You use points or credits to stay in their home when they are not there, or people stay in your home while you’re not there in exchange for points/credits. (HomeExchange.com uses the GuestPoints system.)

A hospitality exchange: 

You host your exchange partner in your home while you are there, and vice versa. This is ideal if you have a large home with extra space or if you just really love meeting new people. It’s no different than hosting visiting friends or family.

What is included in a home exchange? Do you exchange a car? 

Every exchange is different because every exchange is a new agreement between two different parties. You will discuss specifics as you plan the exchange. We have included our car as part of an exchange with no issues, since car insurance follows the car, not the driver. We have also cared for plants and asked partners to care for our cats. 

Typically, home exchangers provide as much information to their guests as possible. You want to help make your partners comfortable so they feel at home. It’s common for exchangers to leave a “house manual” for guests. This could be a binder, book, or online document containing info about the house, emergency contacts, and useful info about the neighborhood and area. 

In our home booklet, we include: trash pickup, breaker box details, neighbor contact info, cat feeding and care details, who to contact for various emergencies, where to find the toolbox and extra towels, what’s off limits in which rooms, how to use our TV and AV receiver, tips and reminders, and details about all of the best local spots. 

People also often leave grocery store loyalty cards, library cards, or public transit passes. Hosts sometimes leave welcome gifts like a bottle of local wine or or gift cards to local eateries.

Using the tram in the Hague as part. of our home exchange experience
Got our tram cards #likealocal

How do you choose a home exchange? Do you pick a destination first or let the destination pick you?

It depends! We have done both. We have chosen a destination first and sought out an exchange in that locale. We have also accepted an exchange in a destination that we didn’t choose because the opportunity seemed great. 

The more flexible you can be with your home exchange plans, the better. It’s easier to find an exchange when you have not chosen specific dates or a specific location. You can have a general idea of where you want to look or when you go, but keep an open mind. Sometimes you might surprise yourself

For example, we love Chicago and want to visit often, so we sought out an exchange in the city. It went so well that we exchanged with that person again this summer. Both times, we knew we wanted to visit between the months of May – August, but did not have a more specific time frame. This flexibility made it easier to find a partner and come to an agreement about dates. So when requesting an exchange, try to be somewhat flexible about when you travel.

On the flip side, as a recipient of exchange requests, it can help to be flexible about where you travel. Our exchanges in den Haag, Nueva Vallarta, and Cape Canaveral all came about because those people reached out to us with an offer. We would not have necessarily chosen any of those destinations on our own. But we had a GREAT time! In fact, I fell in love with the Hague and consider it one of my favorite cities, which I was not expecting.

Enjoying the view at a home exchange in Nueva Vallarta
We would not have necessarily chosen to visit Nueva Vallarta had it not been for Home exchange. And it was such an amazing trip!

What types of people would enjoy home exchange?

People who will enjoy home exchange are adventurous, generally trusting of people, and open minded. Travelers seeking authentic local experiences or those who crave the comforts of home while away may be drawn to the home exchange way of traveling.

Home exchange is ideal for those who live in desired destinations. Home exchange will appeal to those who want to connect with people on a personal level, save money while traveling, and experience the world in a new way.

The ideal home exchanger treats any home like their own, and enjoys hosting others in their home. If you’ve ever listed your primary home on AirBNB, you should certainly check out home exchange. 

If you own a second home or a rental property, you could consider using it for home exchange. Many home exchangers have two listings. Multiple listings give them an even wider array of choices and more opportunities to host and earn guest points.

Who are home exchangers? Are home exchangers just a bunch of weirdos?

We have found that a large portion of the home exchange community are retirees who are no longer beholden to school or work schedules, or remote workers who have the flexibility to work from wherever they choose. 

But that doesn’t mean that if you don’t work from home or if you have kids who must follow a strict school schedule that you can’t exchange: remember that home exchange was started by teachers! 

We have met so many types of people through HomeExchange.com. Government employees, photographers, innkeepers, database engineers, stage managers, sailers, artists, software developers, law enforcement… home exchange is not limited to any one type of person. You don’t have to have a certain type of job or have unlimited PTO in order to do home exchange. 

Can I do a home exchange if I rent? 

I am not going to dish out legal advice. But according to HomeExchange.com: Unless your lease specifically states that you can not exchange your accommodation, then you are good to go. There is no financial exchange with a home exchange, so it can not be considered a sublet. Therefore you do not need to notify the homeowner.

Will I like home exchange?

Some people will not like home exchange, and that’s okay! Some people do not live in an appealing location that would generate much interest from fellow exchangers. Others may not like the idea of sharing their living space with people they dont know very well. 

Home exchange may not be for you if your home is full of irreplaceable or extremely valuable items (though there are sites dedicated to luxury home exchange if you want to ensure that you swap with like-minded travelers). 

Home exchange may not be for you if you want every trip to be a vacation where you are catered to and waited upon. Consider that with home exchange, you wont have access to hotel-like amenities. 

Snuggling with a cat during a home exchange
When a home exchange comes with a cat, we love the chance to get snuggles since we miss our fur babies.

How can you let strangers stay in your house?

A major aspect of home exchanging is trust. We would never exchange with someone we didn’t feel comfortable with. 

Swapping your home is not the same as AirBNB, it is not transactional in the same faceless way. Someone can’t just book our house without our consent. 

In many ways, home exchange is like online dating: Conversation is required, whether through text-based messaging, phone, or video chat. We exchange several messages back and forth with potential swap partners to establish interest and a general plan. Then we meet virtually to get to know one another better and hammer out the details. 

In the luckiest of cases, we get to meet our partners in person. By the time that we arrive in one another’s homes, we are no longer strangers.

How do you trust people? Don’t you worry about them going through your stuff?

We operate by the golden rule and do unto others as we hope they would do unto us. We treat their homes with care and attention, and respect their privacy, and trust that they will do the same for us. 

Trust can be a big hurdle for many people. There are many things you can do to protect your prized possessions: 

Get a fireproof safe to store valuables and important documents. Put things you don’t want anyone to touch in a room or closet that you keep locked. Pack away belongings in your garage, attic, storage unit or ask a family member to store them for the duration of the exchange. Talk honestly with your exchange partners. Establish boundaries and guidelines for areas that are off-limits. 

As a real world example, one of our exchange partners left dozens of sticky notes around the house labeling off-limits items/areas. She asked that we respect the privacy of certain closets, and let us know which items in the cabinets were fair game. Similarly, we always leave clear instructions in our home manual. We are clear about what someone can use without needing to replace (such as toiletries, basic pantry items, beer) and which items they can use if they replenish before they leave (anything in our liquor cabinet). 

Yeah, but what if they break something?

I suppose property is always a risk with home exchange. But is it any riskier than hosting a big party? Or having a dozen of kids running around? Or a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people? 

Our home is the gathering place for our friend group and family. I can guarantee you that our friends have broken more of our stuff over the years than any home exchange partners could. Our own child cost us more money in destroyed property than any guest. At the tender age of 9 months, he somehow managed to throw a tiny toy car at the right angle and velocity to annihilate our 75” TV. 

True story: The worst damage we’ve experienced while home exchanging was from a family of five who stayed in our home for three weeks one summer. They made blueberry pie and stained one of our wooden spoons, so they bought us a new one. And one of their children accidentally broke an end table. This did not concern us because it was on its last leg. We had also already bought a replacement that was still in its box in the garage. That’s the worst thing that’s happened. The

How do you arrange a home exchange?

Arranging a home exchange takes time, communication, and patience. Remember that finding a home exchange partner is not the same as renting an AirBNB or VRBO. You can not simply find a house and book it. 

So what do you do to find and arrange an exchange? Read my top tips below for finding and arranging a home exchange.

How to home exchange: Computer monitors showing documents to help plan multiple home exchanges
Some basic project management skills can come in handy when planning multiple back to back home exchanges

Start by browsing destinations of interest to you. 

Use the site’s filters to search for accommodations that will fit your traveling group and preferences. So take your time, read their profiles in detail, and draft a compelling introduction!

For example, we prefer exchanging with fellow cat lovers so that we know our three fur babies will be cared for while we’re gone. We also like exchanging with other parents since a kid-friendly house is an important criteria for us.

Send a few messages to potential exchange partners. 

Introduce yourself, explain your interest and propose an offer. The more flexible you can be, the better your chances. 

For example, we often receive requests for very specific dates that don’t align with our calendar availability. Due to folks’ inflexibility, we have to reject most of the proposals we get. 

Be patient and message more people. 

Don’t despair if it takes a while to find a potential match; patience and fortitude, as my grandmother would say

You may have to message dozens of people until you find someone interested in your offer. You may also receive dozens of requests before you accept an offer. Think of finding a home exchange partner like online dating: you have to talk to a lot of people before you click with someone special.

Once you find a match, meet and start hammering out the details. 

Communicate as much as possible with your exchange partners. Establish that trust with open channels from the beginning. Video chat as soon as you can to begin arranging the exchange. 

Discuss dates, expectations, and what’s included. It is essential that both parties are explicit in their expectations ahead of time. 

For example, will you be exchanging your cars? Will you each pay for a professional cleaner beforehand? Will you need to tend to plants or pets during the exchange? Will you leave food for each other in the fridge? How will you swap keys? Should your guests wash the sheets before they leave or just toss them in the washer? 

You’ll discuss all of those kinds of details with your exchange partners as you plan. 

Finalize the exchange. 

Use the site to finalize and complete the exchange. The dates will be marked off on your calendar. Then you’ll book your flights and confirm with your partners. Before long, you’ll be ready for a grand adventure!

Let me give you a real world example of how we are arranging one of our exchanges this year:

When we started arranging an upcoming exchange in Montreal, we had no specific dates in mind. I messaged dozens of families in the Montreal area, expressing interest in summer dates for any duration between 1-3 weeks. After 20+ messages, I found a family in Verdun, a cute neighborhood just outside the city, eager to visit Nashville. They gave us their limitations based on school schedules; we came to a tentative agreement for two weeks at the beginning of August. When we later met on Zoom to get to know each other. After that, we finalized the dates, and planned to coordinate booking flights in the Spring. 

What advice would you give someone wanting to try home exchange?

We were lucky enough to have an office mate in our Toronto home exchange.

Does the idea of saving money while seeing the world appeal to you? Are you not scared by the thought of strangers staying in your home while you stay in theirs? Then check out some of the home exchange sites and pick one to join! 

We are of course biased towards HomeExchange.com since we’ve been members for so long. But there are others you can try. 

Use our referral link and we can both earn GuestPoints!

If the site you join has any sort of community group, join it and start reading the threads! The community group is a great way to ask questions, collect feedback, brainstorm ideas, and connect with folks that you might not have otherwise found simply by browsing the site. Since joining the Home Exchanges in English group on Facebook, a community reserved exclusively for active HomeExchange.com members, I have connected with so many cool, like-minded people from around the world and have enjoyed participating in spirited discussions. One particular thread about the use of top sheets was eye-opening as I had no idea so many people vehemently hate using them! 🤣 

We are always happy to answer specific questions, so feel free to leave a comment! 

The simplest advice we have is this: Go in with an open heart and an open mind. Even though the process might feel a little weird at first, it’s worth it. Open your home to others, and open up a world of possibility for yourself. Just take the plunge! You wont regret it!

Still not convinced? Don’t take our word for it! 

Judy and her family have completed over 100 exchanges. Mary has been exchanging for over 20 years. And our Dutch friends have done over 30 exchanges since 2010!


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