Trading places

The home exchange – not to be confused with housesitting – travel option, engages people of all ages, but is particularly well suited to retirees on moderate budgets with a yen to travel and a flexible schedule.

What’s more, older people rate highly with home exchange agencies because they are (usually) reliable, clean, tidy and don’t indulge in wild parties that upset the neighbours. There are even a couple of agencies that cater particularly to seniors. 

Beyond the obvious advantages of free accommodation and the comforts and conveniences of a private home, swapping your house or apartment with carefully matched peers can give you the chance to immerse yourself in another culture, at least for a while.

Some travellers who happily reduce accommodation costs by “sitting” other people’s homes are intimidated by the idea of exchanging their own.

In the comedy Swap! By actor/playwright Ian Ogilvy, an English couple find they have exchanged homes with a gangster, leading to hilarious complications.

Less dramatically, Brisbane couple Joe and Nell Lidgard arranged a house swap with people in Perth and were let down at the last minute.  Non-refundable air fares meant they still had to make the trip and were forced to pay for accommodation.

“It didn’t put us off the idea though,” says Joe. “Only next time we went through an established agency, which lowers the risk a bit.” 

Since then the Lidgards have enjoyed several successful house swaps and it’s encouraging to note that a quick on-line check shows that any negative experiences are far outweighed by the positive feedback from those who have home-swapped around the world.

Home exchange agencies have been around for at least 30 years and are proliferating to meet the demand.  They have attractive websites listing specialised home swap experiences such as golf, skiing, bushwalking, food and wine and a reasonable assurance that personal requirements will be met. 

Membership fees can appear high but are justified by the services provided.  Most are international with a couple of them focusing only on exchanges within Australia. 

Those interested in the house swap travel option are advised to visit these sites because, along with listings, they also have a lot of information about how it all works. 

While older people may make more reliable house-swappers (and sitters) they are also fussier, less resilient and often have health issues that limit their flexibility.  This is why it’s important to use an agency that can facilitate a good match. 

Unlike that other increasingly popular travel option, house sitting, pets are not so often part of the deal.  But they may be, and if you are over 65 with a bad back or heart trouble you don’t want to find yourself stuck out in the wilderness with six horses to exercise!  Transparency and honesty are an important factor in home exchange and you need to check your exchange partners very carefully before committing.  On the other hand, if you have a beloved pooch and they have a spoiled cat it should be a win-win situation all round.

As one veteran home exchanger recalls, “I did a swap in Valencia, Spain, for three months.  The house and location was everything they’d told me and more, but just before we arrived they had acquired a new, large and very boisterous dog that had to be walked every day. 

“It was a bit more responsibility than we’d bargained for…though in gratitude they left our own home in perfect condition and with wine and chocolates in the fridge.”

Insurance is an important consideration when letting strangers into your home, however well-vetted by a good agency they may be.

Most standard house and contents insurance offers no protection.

A spokesperson for large insurer AAMI says theft or damage – malicious or accidental – by guests in your home is not usually covered.  So it pays to check and if necessary adjust your premium for the period you are away. 

As house swaps usually involve vehicle swaps also, you also need to check your vehicle insurance cover – and theirs! With some vehicle insurers age limits apply.

Some home exchange agencies include insurance in the membership fee but this only reimburses air fare, accommodation and car rental costs should a cancellation occur.

Statistically, however, damage and theft are rare with home exchanges; the most likely problem is last minute cancellations by one of the participants. 

This is just one reason why it’s important to arrange home swaps through an agency with a good track record, which vets, verifies and rates its participants – and preferably offers a written contract. 

There are at least 70 from which to choose, most offering much the same service with new platforms evolving all the time. 

For example industry giant HomeExchange recently introduced its flexible “Balloon” option which extends the traditional one-on-one swap to a wider group of exchanges. 

It’s worth noting that house swapping does not need to be simultaneous: that is, you might agree to a non-simultaneous swap whereby you stay in your exchange partner’s home at a time that suits you and they stay in yours at another time which suits them – an arrangement that is of course easier with second or holiday homes.

And thanks to HomeExchange, I came to meet Brisbane’s Ainslie Waldron, doyenne of home exchange in southeast Queensland. 

She and her partner Mike have for many years now regularly swapped their second home on Macleay Island for accommodation in Australia and overseas, staying in everything from a Swiss mansion to a tiny but well-located apartment in Vienna.  They even managed to find a suitable swap in Iceland!

Ainslie is a semi-retired businesswoman and travel writer whose website and blog are full of information about house swapping and travel while her e-book Luxury Globetrotting on a Staycation Budget (Amazon) is essential reading for anyone contemplating  what Ainslie calls “staycation” travel.

Ainsley doesn’t bother with any extra insurance but says it’s important to establish a relationship with your swap partners, through Skype and email and other mutually suitable communication methods, before proceeding. 

And also read the reviews on the exchange agency websites.  She and Mike try, when possible, to exchange second homes as this offers more flexibility. 

“It’s been a great adventure,” Ainsley says, “And because of it we’ve made friends all over the world.”

HOUSE SWAP check list

If you select a good home exchange agency they will give you all the advice you need, but here is a list of essentials that anyone considering this holiday/lifestyle option needs to follow:

1. Plan ahead
Plan six months to a year ahead: exchanges can happen at shorter notice but this is rare.

2. Prepare your profile
Offer as much reassuring detail about yourself as possible; this helps bring about a better peer-to-peer “fit”. Take good photos that reflect what your home is really like but don’t exaggerate.  Be honest about your neighbourhood and its facilities.

3. Consider insurance
Especially to cover air fares and associated costs if there is a last minute cancellation. If exchanging cars, make sure you have comprehensive insurance.

4. Agree on bill payments
Clarify expenses you and you exchange partner will be covering. Usually each party covers their own utility bills within the range of reasonable usage. Make it clear upfront that extraordinary expenses incurred by the other partner in your home exchange, such as high phone bill or traffic fine, must be paid by them. If agreed between you both, leave a cash contingency for any minor unforeseen expenses.

5. Provide detailed instructions
Leave detailed instructions about how your house works and who to contact in case of emergency.

6. Lock up valuables
If there are possessions you don’t want your swappers to touch or see, lock them away.

7. Go the extra mile
If possible get a friend or relative to meet and greet your swappers and show them around the house. Leave a welcoming gift such as flowers, wine, fruit or chocolates.  Ask neighbours to drop in and welcome them.  Recommend favourite shops and eateries.

8. Keep in touch
During the exchange make occasional contact to reassure both sides that all is going well.