House Swap Holidays

Your home is your greatest asset, and never has this adage been more true than when it comes to house-swapping holidays.

Imagine staying in a pied-a-terre in Paris, a cabin in Canada or an apartment in LA and not having to pay a cent for your accommodation. Sound too good to be true? Not if you’re one of the growing number of people discovering home exchanges: you stay for free in a stranger’s home, swapping cars (and even pets), while they stay in yours. 

The internet brought house-swapping into the world’s collective psyche, and even formed the plot for the 2006 movie The Holiday, starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, in which two women swap homes and, consequently, find love. US website HomeExchange.com, which featured in the film, says its number of subscribers has grown 100 per cent in the past two years, with 50,000 exchanges completed last year alone. 

Close to home, Aussie House Swap, which launched in 2003, caters mainly to the domestic market with more than 1000 houses, units, cottages, cabins, farmhouses and duplexes listed on its website. 

“The most obvious reason for an exchange is saving money and, with cheap internal airfares, it makes for a very affordable holiday,” says founded Nick Faud. “But beyond the savings, you get to experience a new location in a very different way. Instead of being boxed in an anonymous hotel, you get to truly experience your environment.” 

But what if you’re worried about coming home to find grandma’s heirloom Ming-dynasty vase smashed to smithereens? Faud advises that you simply put away anything that’s valuable – or embarrassing. 

“House-swapping works on an honour system,” he explains. “Although some people write up a contract, it generally works that if you break something or use anything in the house, you replace it. There are no bills – you’re using each other’s utilities and many people negotiate not to use the home phone. I our experience, people leave the house in even better shape that they find it.” 

But don’t take our word for it: meet six families who made home-swapping holidays work for them. 

It’s a Family Affair 

With growing young families, it was a home-exchange match made in heaven when, in October 2007, engineering project manager Mark Thomas, 35, and teacher Sarah Thomas, 37, and their two children, from Burleigh Heads, Queensland, swapped homes with web designer Joe Darling, 46, and barrister Jane Needham, 45, and their three kids, from the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. 

Sarah Thomas says: “We wanted to travel to Sydney to visit friends and family but it was no longer viable to cram the whole family into a guest room and the cost of renting an apartment and hiring a car where prohibitive, so house-swapping seemed a good option. Mark was initially reticent about the idea but, as we started communicating with the Darling-Needhams, our fears were allayed. 

“We flew into Sydney with minimal luggage and met them at the airport to hand over the house and car keys. 

“Staying in a family home meant there was everything we needed: cots, car seats, prams, books, toys, kid’s plastic crockery and cutlery, even a pack of nappies!

We saved money by cooking at home, which meant we could go on more family excursions, such as a visit to Taronga Zoo.

“An interesting aspect to the holiday was getting a glimpse into another family’s life and how they live, even though they’re not actually in the house.” 

Joe Darling says: “we’d tried a country weekend away but lugging all the baby paraphernalia we needed made it difficult, so we decided to try the house-swap idea. 

“We tried to match up with a family with a similar profile – that way, everything would be in a place when we arrived. The Thomases had similar requirements on their web page listing so we approached them via Aussie House Swap. Jane drew up a contract covering such things as indemnity and insurance, and we had a conference call to get to know them better. 

“When we arrived in Burleigh Heads, our children loved the built-in swimming pool and wall-to-wall toys. It was like the owners had shares in Fisher-Price! Logistically, it worked like a dream, as we were set for a family holiday down to beach towels, floaties and bucket and spades. It’s fascinating slipping into someone else’s life – I vividly remember sitting in Mark’s ‘dad’ chair, thinking he was probably doing the same thing in my house. 

Part of the Community 

Alan Cavenagh, 58, a consultant from Surry Hills in Sydney and his wife, Libby, 57, swapped homes with Beth, 65, and Tom Jackson, 70, retirees from Woodland, California. Both couples often invite their family and friends to stay with them during their home exchanges. 

Libby Cavenagh says: “Out first exchange was to London, England, in December 2006, for a fabulous family Christmas with all the trimmings. We stayed with our son and my brother and his family in a huge house in Willesden Green, On that trip, we had 10 weeks away with free accommodation, including a separate house-swap in Spain. We were hooked! 

“In January 2008, Beth approached us with an offer of a six-week swap, meaning we’d stay at their home in Woodland, a historic town with beautiful heritage buildings near Sacramento. 

“Although it was winter, one appealing aspect was the opportunity to go up to their weekender [included in the swap] in Lake Tahoe for a week to ski. We also stayed in San Francisco for three days in an amazing million-dollar apartment with 180-degree views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beth and Tom had swapped with the owner previously and he owed them a few days’ stay so they passed it on to us. 

“Being able to share the home we’ve nurtured and created is one of the joys of house-swapping, although when I tell some people bout it, their first reaction is that they’d be worried visitors might rummage through their possessions. 

However, my attitude is that I wouldn’t do it, so why would they? In our experience, people have treated our home with as much respect as we treat theirs.’

Beth Jackson says: “we’re house-swap veterans – we’ve visited Scotland, Munich, New Zealand and Australia, as well as doing exchanges all across the US. When we stayed at Libby and Alan’s apartment in Sydney for six weeks, my sister and her husband came out to visit for a week – we often invite friends and family to come for part of the stay. We love staying in one place and really getting to know an area. 

“We met the most interesting people in inner-Sydney. I signed up for a life-drawing class and the live model’s alter ego was Cindy Pastel, a famous drag queen who invited us to her show on Oxford Street. We never would have experienced something like that at home! 

“Staying in someone’s home really gives you sense of place. On one occasion, I was walking home when a tourist asked for directions, and I was delighted to be able to give them. I really felt like a local.” 

Lifetime Friends 

Iris and John Spittle, from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, swapped with Tom and Meralee Beckett, from Ontario, Canada, in 2001. After meeting at the end of the swap, they’ve become good friends, meeting up for home-swapping holidays around the world. 

Iris Spittle says: “When we registered our house in Hawke’s Bay, one of New Zealad’s major wine-growing areas, on honeexchange.com, we immediately started getting requests. Subsequently, we have exchanged homes in New Orleans, Spain, Australia and France. 

“Our first swao\p was with Tom and Meralee, who wanted to come to New Zealand for the summer to escape the Canadian winter. We’d always wanted to experience a Northern Hemisphere winter so it was a perfect match. After corresponding by email for six months, we felt we knew each other even before we left our homes, so there were no nerves. 

“They have a gorgeous apartment in Hamilton, about an hour outside of Toronto, and a beautiful cottage on the Lake of Bays, around 240 kilometres north of Toronto, where we played in a winter wonderland, dog-sledding, snow-biking and experiencing the extreme of the weather. It plummeted to -17oC – considered mild by Canadian standards. 

“During the stay, we got to know the extended Beckett family and a lot of their friends. Over the course of the six weeks we swapped houses, we were emailing Tom and Meralee and giving each other tips on things to do. They had a couple of days left in our house when we got home so we spent a few days together. It was like we were already dear old friends, even though we’d just met them! After they left, we stayed in close contact, and have since holidayed together in various destination around the world. They came to Spain to visit us; we took an Alaskan cruise and a road trip through the Rockies together; and ew went to Costa Rica to visitthrm.” 

Tom Beckett says: “We couldn’t believe anybody would actually want to come Canada mid-winter! However, we loved the look of the Spittles’ home and location, so we were delighted when they greed to exchange for six weeks. Six months’ worth of emails before the swap established what was the beginning of a friendship. From the moment we were met off the airplane by Iris and John’s son, Mark, we were made to feel so welcome by their family and friends. 

“When you go to a resort or a hotel, you see the geography and sights of the area but the closes you get to the community is sitting, drinking coffee, watching humanity drift by. However. Living in someone’s home gives you so much more than you could ever expect as a tourist. 

“We’ve had other swaps where we’ve just exchanged homes and car, but becoming friends with Iris and John meant we were plugging right into their lives. People would drop by with tips for the best wine, inviting us out for dinner and taking us to the best sunrise spot. What made it really special was we really did swap lives with Iris and John – their friends and family became our friends and family, and vica versa.”

Words by Lollie Barr - Published in Voyeur November 2008
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