When Karli Sherwinter and her family wanted a more immersive travel experience four years ago, they turned to house swapping.
“The hope was that we could be more integrated into a community,” she says. She wanted her family “to feel like we were living our life and moving the whole operation overseas.”
Veterans of three successful house swaps across Europe and the Middle East, Sherwinter says her family’s experiences couldn’t be replicated by staying in a hotel or an AirBnB property. “What we didn’t predict was that on the day we arrived, all the kids in the neighborhood were so excited about this idea that they all came over to our house. Our kids went running out there and within minutes they had friends. For that whole month, they played with these kids.”
So What Exactly Is House Swapping?
There are several types of swaps; we’ll focus here on a simultaneous exchange, in which two families trade houses at the same time and vacation in each other’s homes. You can find links to more information about other types of swaps below.
How Do You Get Started?
For McBain, it all started with a post on social media. Sherwinter met with friends who had swapped houses several times and discussed how they found interested families. Other people begin by signing up for an on-line home exchange program. There are 70-plus home exchange sites, including regional exchanges, so take your time and do some research.
What Makes House Swapping With Kids Special?
“I love eating out, but sometimes there is nothing better than a home-cooked dinner. Swapping means you get the use of a whole kitchen, enabling you to keep costs down and have that home from home experience,” McBain says. And “families can experience living in a variety of locations…for only the cost of getting there.” She also includes experiencing how another family lives and the security of someone staying in your home while you are gone among the benefits.
The use of an entire house (and yard) can also change how families travel. Rather than sitting in a hotel room, trying to move like a silent ninja while your baby sleeps, a house swap allows you the freedom to put her to bed and enjoy dinner in the garden. Older kids have access to toys and games already in the house. Lauren Weems has had several families use her California house. “The kids love the fort under the stairs, the kids surf room upstairs, all the toys in the yard, the parents love the beach BOB strollers and that it comes with stuff like a high chair and kids picnic table,” she says.
Beyond space and toys, the families themselves can be a great resource. Sherwinter, who lives in Colorado, leaves a manual for the families that come to her house, one that includes “specific things in Boulder-what fun places there are for kids and parks and recreation centers.” She also makes a point of letting her neighbors know a family will be arriving and has gone as far as introducing neighbors with similar interests to the visiting parents before they arrive.
But, My Kids Are Kind Of Messy…
Everyone’s kids are kind of messy, at least some of the time. A great benefit of house swapping with another family is that we all know this. “We were looking for toys and some level of not being afraid of kids messing up the house so much,” Sherwinter says. “Mutually assured destruction or contentment because they’re going to be in our space and we’re going to be in their space.”
While it doesn’t mean that you can throw cereal on the floor and head for the airport, knowing the other family has kids can relieve stress when preparing for a swap (or when you have to explain what your son accidentally spilled on the carpet during your stay). In general, McBain suggests making sure the house is clean and tidy both before you leave for your swap and before you head home. “Leave the property as your find it,” she says, and be sure to discuss your expectations in advance so both families arrive at a home they feel comfortable staying in.
Can We Swap Cars? And What About Pets?
In short, it depends. Sherwinter’s family has swapped cars multiple times, while in McBain’s group, car swapping is rare. “Cars can bring complications to the swap and there can be insurance issues. In the UK, most people have stick shifts and Americans generally drive automatics, so it is easier for them to hire from a local company,” she says.
Part of deciding if a particular house swap is right for your family is working out those details. If you are willing to swap cars or take care of the family’s pets as part of the exchange, let them know that. If you’re allergic to cats and they have three kittens, that’s good information as well. Discuss your needs and expectations before agreeing to the swap.
Do You Use A Contract?
Like a lot of the arrangements for house swapping, the decision to use a contract or not is based on the two families. McBain has never used a contract, just a verbal agreement. Sherwinter says they’ve been asked to sign a formal contract once, when the family wasn’t staying in their house at the same time. Instead, Sherwinter buys plane tickets at the same time as the other family, while they are on a Skype or What’sApp call. That way “you know for sure it’s happening. And that was sort of our contract.”
What Happens When You Get There?
Once you’ve agreed to a house swap the two families must decide how to swap keys. Keys can be passed through a neighbor or relative, mailed before traveling or placed in a safe location, McBain says. If you haven’t already, let your family and neighbors know you will be swapping, so nobody is surprised to see your house open or your car being driven by somebody other than you. Plan to leave emergency contact numbers, your own and a local contact, and information like the location of water shut off valves or breaker boxes. Like Sherwinter does, it’s helpful to leave any insider information about major attractions, traffic or public transportation and any recommendations you’ve discussed. Once you settle in, their house is your house for the duration of the vacation, and vice-versa. You get the benefits of living like a community member, without the mortgage or rental fees.
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Are You Sure It’s Safe?
Yes! Because you are exchanging homes, there is mutual trust involved. Some families choose to make one room or closet off-limits during the stay, or leave valuables with family or friends. Others leave everything out on the counters. Most home exchange sites offer identity verification, while smaller groups may use references or reviews of previous exchanges.
How Much Does It Cost?
Somewhere between nothing and less than paying for a vacation rental. McBain’s group is free for users and open to everyone, although she does note that it tends to attract home and world school families looking for longer exchanges. Sherwinter used Homeexchange.com and Lovehomeswap.com, both sites that charge a fee of $150-$200 per year. Knock.com, a home swapping site specifically for families, charges either a yearly membership fee or a $99 fee once you arrange your first swap. You can also purchase travel insurance for the exchange or look at policies offered on home exchange websites.
More House Swapping Resources
Large swapping sites have properties all over the world and more members might mean more success in finding a swap. Larger sites include: Guesttoguest.com, Homeexchange.com, Homelink.org and Lovehomeswap.com. If you are looking for groups or sites that specifically cater to families, try Knock.com, HSNeighbor.com and Worldschoolerexchange.com.
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Swooning over our backyard at our current #homeswap in BC, Canada 🇨🇦 Complete with 3 hammocks, hot tub, fireplace, gorgeous landscaping, BBQ, and bar seating! Not to mention the sandbox and play structure to keep the kids busy. We could just be happy to play in the backyard all week, but must explore this beautiful country. Tell us your favorite spots near Vancouver BC! Thanks @lovehomeswap
Overwhelmed with options? Sharetraveler.com reviews specific programs and gives detailed information, including a spreadsheet that breaks down fees, specialties, regions and the number of people registered for each site. Smartertravel.com explains other programs, including points-based systems, hosted visits and information about how to trade a second home. The HomeExchange.com blog can answer questions about swapping through a larger site.
Interested? Join The Almost Fearless Home Swapping Community!
In each issue of our print magazine we feature homes in our house swapping section. Imagine an entire world full of adventurous parents like you, swapping homes, tips on the best adventures and local highlights for families.
If you’d like to feature your house swap in the print version of Almost Fearless, please email high-resolution photos, an email address (we suggest you create a separate email just for this purpose) and a brief description of your home to firstname.lastname@example.org. While we try to fit everyone, the section is filled on a first come, first serve basis.