A home for a home: Swapping personal space
Expatica Germany’s editor details how she came to be a regular ‘home-exchanger.’
Whenever I tell anyone that I exchange my Berlin apartment for another in some amazing part of the world, the first reactions are usually, "Do people really do that?" or "Have you seen the movie, Holiday, the one where Cameron Diaz ends up with Jude Law?"
People also usually worry: "Oh my, is it safe?" or "Don’t you feel funny letting people you have never met use your apartment, invade your personal space?"
Maybe I am just not a worrier by nature. And once I discovered the websites advertising exchanges available, my doubts were overcome: I was often up to the wee hours of the morning searching the world, enthralled by the possibilities: Should I go to South Africa? How about the Seychelles? Hong Kong? Iceland?
While it might seem weird, home-exchanges have become an increasingly common phenomenon. Now a veteran of exchanges with seven swaps under my belt and many more lined up, I would like to offer my up my experiences.
First of all, the advantages: You get a free place to stay while on vacation, on business or visiting family and friends. But this is really the least of it. The homes are often in interesting neighborhoods that you as a tourist might not discover - real neighborhoods with everyday life going on, places with bakeries and grocery stores and local hangouts - just like at home.
Also, I personally find it fascinating to see how other people live, what art they choose for their walls, what colors adorn their homes, their books and musical tastes. And since I usually bring my work with me, I need an Internet connection, a coffee maker and the other cozy trappings of home - and I can live without remembering to put up the ‘Do not disturb’ sign.
Another thing is that home swapping sometimes pushes one to make that yearned for trip: I always wanted to go to Israel but somehow never got around to arranging it. An offer from two Israelis last year pushed me to book the flight.
Best of all, these exchanges come with personal connections: The host usually leaves tips of great things to do (I would have never found this particular café by a waterfall in Oslo on my own) or personal gestures (one American even left me Pop Tarts because he knew I missed them and a Catalan couple left me a traditional Easter cake they baked), emergency numbers if you need help and best of all, invitations from their friends and family.
During a three-week exchange with a young couple in Tel Aviv, one highlight of my trip was an invitation to ‘Mom’s’ house for Rosh Hashanah festivities. I met wonderful people, got to ask questions and had a great time. Mom even asked me for my number. When I wondered out loud why, she answered that she wanted to check up on me during my stay. And she did.
As for downsides, they are unexpected: the biggie is the new and critical eyes you will view your apartment with. All of a sudden, doors you never thought about wiping are getting clean, counters and tiles looked at critically. It’s a lot of work. I clean even more thoroughly for my guests than I would for myself not to mention buying new sheets, upgrading furniture and so on.
When paying for a hotel, you don’t have to make a map or list of tips, worry something might break and you aren’t there to fix it (it happened to my Israeli guests - the heater in my apartment broke) or make key arrangements. And you don’t have to clean up after yourself.
Also, invariably, accidents do happen - a candleholder broke in my apartment, a showerhead all of a sudden started leaking. Still, none were a big deal. And every time I returned home, my apartment was spotless - and had a nice thank you note.
And I must say that not one time during any exchange so far has anything ever been stolen, taken advantage of (such as the phone) or mistreated.
As for the range of places, well, that varies too. I loved my adopted apartment in Oslo - I didn’t want to leave. My Moroccan 'riad' or palace was an oasis of tranquility and color and the Greek island hideaway on top of a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean was magic. The others were okay, clean and adequate, if not exactly to my taste: one was too cluttered and the other very dark. But you have to keep in mind the locations and people that you are dealing with: if you are exchanging with university students in New York, it is highly unlikely they are going to live in the lap of luxury. On the other hand, if you have a nice but modest apartment and you are exchanging for a palace in Morocco or a huge villa in Tuscany (or an island in Indonesia with 10 servants), you need to be honest with your exchange partners. The key is communication - and of course, get pictures.
So little time…
Exchanging homes isn’t for everyone - especially if you are stressed out or particularly picky or inflexible. I will say that I had a much richer experience everywhere I have exchanged (Israel, Norway, New York, Greece, Barcelona and Morocco so far). In fact, I felt part of the fabric of those places, something I wouldn’t have experienced if I had to walk by a reception desk every time I went in or out.
And these days, since I created my own profile on an exchange site instead of just answering posts, my email inbox has a fun new dimension to it: I never know what offer is going to be waiting for me. So far in the past month, I have been invited to Rome, Barcelona, Florida, Chicago, New York, Paris and even Guadeloupe. It is hard to say no. Oh so little time…
But remember, while an amazing experience might be waiting, Jude Law most likely isn’t.
Getting started: There are a number of free websites such as www.bienvenuealamaison.org/index.php?language=en as well as Craigslist (under home swap) through which you can arrange an exchange. There are also paid websites such as www.homeexchange.com which offer a bit higher class of exchanges although not always.
When writing people to offer an exchange, make sure you tell them something about yourself, what dates you are considering and anything that is non-negotiable for the trip: For example, one man I was considering exchanging with told me after I began looking for airline tickets, that he had to have a car in the swap - I don’t have a car in Berlin.
After you have decided on a swap, make a list of things that are priorities or necessities for you. Mine are Internet access, a landline, a TV and usually a balcony. I also usually tell people I don’t like clutter and I need two free drawers. Have a telephone conversation with your exchange partners and tell them your needs and listen to theirs. It is a good way of building trust and feeling more at ease about the deal. Be honest about what is and what is not useable (for me, everything edible is, clothes are obviously not).
It’s a good idea to make a map of the neighborhood with grocery stores, post offices and other important places marked as well as your top tips for restaurants, bars, favorite places for your guests. I also leave guidebooks and local events listings of my city and a guide to my apartment - how to use the washing machine, how to turn down the heating, particular quirks of my place.
Give your guests emergency numbers of friends in the neighborhood and get someone to greet them to give them the key if you can - regardless, make definite key arrangements (getting and returning) in advance. And it is a good idea to give a friend an extra set just in case.
Be sure to leave the your place the way you would expect to get it: Vacuum those rugs, put clean sheets and towels on and clean, clean, clean. One place I exchanged with definitely did not vacuum the carpets - and I noticed.
Also, I am pretty trustful so I leave my extra laptop, phone and cell phone for my guests’ use. I do not leave my jewelry.
Finally, exchanges let you provide that personal touch. I often feel like I am really hosting people, that I have a stake in the enjoyment of their trip although I might not even get to meet them. So I often provide extras: a few concert tickets, a gym pass for the week, a local specialty or a voucher for an overnight trip nearby.
During the exchange: It is a good idea to keep in touch regularly to make sure everything is okay. Be respectful of each other’s property and privacy: you wouldn’t want some one going through your personal files and papers, would you? And leave the place as you found it: if you have broken something, leave a note and offer to pay.
Don’t forget to get that feedback afterward, about where they went, what they saw, how they experienced life in your city. I find that particularly fun and I also use it to add to my tip guide.
-- Jabeen Bhatti
Copyright Expatica 2008
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