Is Home Exchange right for you?

Chapter 2

July 17, 2014

Home exchange is not for everybody, though it is a good fit for adventurous Rotarians.  You and your family need to be trusting and trustworthy.   You need to be comfortable with having a family you have just gotten to know in your home, using your possessions, and possibly driving your car.  You need to trust them because if they have not described their home accurately or prepared carefully you may have an unpleasant experience.  This is an advantage of trading your home with a Rotarian—they are likely to be reliable.   However, many of us have traded our homes with non-Rotarians and found them to be equally trustworthy.

You need to understand that in the process of finding and negotiating a home exchange you may be frustrated by the actions or inactions of others.  Most of the families that participate in home exchange are outstanding.   Dealing with them reaffirms your faith in human nature.  They will go out of their way to take care of you.  More than once we have proposed an exchange with a family that was not going to be able to exchange with us, yet wanted to be helpful.  One family offered their hospitality, while another offered us the use of their urban apartment.  Yes, one of these families was Rotarian.  A review of the literature and surveys shows that this type of generosity is common.

This is what we would expect from Rotarians.  On the other hand there are non-Rotarian families that are busy and/or come from cultures or families with different ideas of politeness and normal behavior.  An aggravating fact is that some non-Rotarians who participate in home exchange will not respond to an initial e-mail or will break off contact without an explanation.  Most of these are not bad people, they simply are busy, distracted, or are embarrassed to tell you that they won’t exchange with you and/or are in negotiations with a more promising opportunity.

We have encountered these folks when searching for a non-Rotarian home exchange.  But once an exchange has been arranged all twenty of the families we have traded with have been great.  There are a few bad actors in home exchange, but usually if you do your research and communicate enough with them it becomes apparent that they or their home should be avoided.  You are unlikely to have this problem if you trade only with Rotarians.

The members of your family need to communicate well with each other.  Usually one family member is more sold on home exchange than the other.   You may not share the same destination preferences as your spouse.  Involving her/him in the process is helpful though one member of the family usually handles the search and negotiations for a home exchange.

If you are going to participate in a home exchange you need to be honest and ethical, in short a Rotarian that believes in the Four Way Test.  The entire home exchange system relies on trust and any dishonesty or even exaggeration is unacceptable.   When you trade with folks in another country you are creating you own international exchange and friendship program.  Your behavior and actions will reflect on you and your country.   It is no coincidence that the home exchange system is popular and successful in those countries with high ethical standards.

You need to be patient and hard working.  Finding a home exchange and preparing for it takes time.  If you have a great property in a lovely location finding a home exchange may be quick and easy.  If you have a less desirable offer and are inflexible regarding dates and/or destinations you may contact every member of the Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship without finding an exchange.  If you are dealing with non-Rotarians you need to accept that a few of the people you contact may be inconsistent or non-communicative in replying or negotiating with you.  If you have a great offer you may take lots of time answering e-mails of interest from potential home exchange partners.  The process of building trust and confirming that your home exchange partners are reliable takes time.  You can choose to save time by forgoing certain steps but the end result may be no exchange offers or unpleasant surprises.

When you travel to another home you need to be flexible.  The place may not be as you imagined even though it was accurately described by the owner.  The weather may turn out to be lousy.  Unexpected problems may occur.  We had a wonderful exchange once in the Brecon Beacons National Park of Wales.  We were looking forward to hiking and cycling the many beautiful trails in the region.  One day after our arrival foot and mouth disease was discovered in our village and every trail was closed to prevent the disease from spreading.   This interfered with our vacation plans but we still had a great time.

There may be minor problems, especially if you are exchanging in another country.  You need to handle these with grace, tact, and patience.  The folks you trade with may also encounter problems and you need a support network in place back home to take care of them.  If they call for help you must quickly find a solution.

Essentially there is a trade-off with home exchange.  On the positive side you get the use of a home which can provide great economic benefits and happiness.  On the negative side it takes a lot of work and there will be problems, though usually small ones.  You have to anticipate that the benefits will outweigh any inconvenience.

You need to have a sense of adventure, especially if exchanging with other countries.     An exchange in a country where they don’t speak your language adds an exciting element of mystery, intrigue, and confusion.

Risk

You need to have a certain willingness to accept risk to enjoy home exchange.  Any travel or vacation involves risk.  The hotel you booked may give you a room with a view of the dumpster.  The rental car may break down in the middle of nowhere.   The family from hell may be your neighbors at a vacation resort.  An advantage of home exchange is that you reduce many normal travel risks to one large but manageable source of uncertainty: is the family you are trading with honorable and trustworthy.   I think the answer is yes as regards 99% to 100% of Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship members.  Most non-Rotarians that home exchange are good folks.   One can argue that your house is safer with another family in it as opposed to being empty while you take a vacation.

Here is an assessment of risk and how to manage it in a home exchange.

Your guests could get in an accident with your car.  Depending upon the insurance laws in your country you could be liable.  Make sure the car is well insured, in good condition, and that the folks you are trading with are insured while driving it.  Make sure they have a valid driver’s license.  The corollary of this issue is to be sure you are insured while driving their car.  Another way to manage this risk is to not trade cars at all.

It is unlikely that anything important in your house will be damaged or go missing.   It is good practice (even if you don’t exchange) to be sure your home and its contents are well insured and cataloged and documented.  You may be more comfortable having items of exceptional value stored elsewhere during an exchange.

A low probability risk is that your home exchange might be cancelled at the last minute due to a disaster such as a death in the family or because your partners are jerks.   This is unlikely with a Rotarian family and occurs rarely with non-Rotarian home exchange.  In this case you might have the unpleasant choice of losing money on your non refundable airline tickets or spending what you normally would on a traditional vacation.   One way to handle this is with travel insurance.  Alternatively, if you are lucky you may be able to find another exchange in the same area at the last moment.   We lost an exchange at the last minute because our male partner was in an automobile accident.  We were able to change the tickets to another exchange at a later date.

There are lots of little things that can and will go wrong.  The car might break down, the toilet tank might crack, the obsolete computer will expire, the microwave may die, the car air conditioning will fail, the Internet service is knocked out by lightning (it won’t be easily fixed),  and water will run down the stairway from the shower.   All of these things have happened to us (thankfully not on the same exchange).  Our attitude is that the small problems are inherent to home exchange and are more than cancelled out by the benefits.

A home exchange may turn out to be negative because the family you are trading with is inconsiderate.  This is rare with all exchanges and should never happen if you are trading with a fellow Rotarian. Maybe their home wasn’t prepared properly or you return home to find piles of dirty towels and sheets.  Perhaps their place was a dump or in a dangerous or ugly neighborhood.   You can avoid these sorts of problems by communicating frequently and often with the other family and by verifying the location of their neighborhood and by viewing many photos of their home.   These communication and research issues are discussed in the topic How to find a Home Exchange.

You can and should minimize these risks through the screening and negotiation process.  When you are through with negotiations and have agreed to an exchange you should have confidence, respect, and friendship with your home exchange partners.   If you exchange with the right family serious problems should be rare.

Specific Disadvantages of Home Exchange

As a vacation a home exchange is similar to renting an apartment or home.  You are in one place.  You have traded the variety and mobility of going from one hotel to another for having a fixed base.

You have a responsibility to manage the home you are in.  Plants need to be watered, the garden may need attention (though often garden care is prearranged by your hosts), and pets may need to be fed.  You may have to pick up the mail and answer the phone.  This takes time.

My wife points out that a home exchange is not an ideal vacation for her.  She still has to cook and clean.   When I graciously invite friends to visit us at our home exchange place she has the pleasure of entertaining in a strange house and cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen.

One of our friends who tried home exchange and loved it has not been able to do it again because his wife objects to the cleaning and preparation involved.  It is not her idea of a relaxing vacation.

Much time can be spent in finding and negotiating a home exchange.  I enjoy this but you may have a life.  You also need to prepare a written set of instructions on your home; this is work to create but once it is on the computer it is easy to update.  Preparing your home can be a hassle but you can take pride in the fact that it is clean and well organized, perhaps for the first time in years.

You should plan on meeting the family you are exchanging with, definitely before and possibly at the end of the exchange.  This takes time but is interesting.  As Rotarians we believe in Fellowship.  Getting used to their home and garden and the neighborhood takes time.  At the end of the exchange we always plan on at least half a day of cleaning and frantic attempts to put the house in the same condition it was when we arrived.   Some of our hosts had a maid arranged for this and we were delighted to pay for this convenient service.

Second Homes

Many folks offer second homes for an exchange.  If you are nervous about someone’s using your primary residence and your car you may be less nervous about their using your vacation home, condo or time share.  (Be sure your condo or time-share regulations allow for you to exchange.)

Another advantage of a second home is that the exchange does not need to be simultaneous.  You might even be nearby to help the exchange family with their vacation.

Your Exchange Offer and Expectations

The advantages of home exchange include the use of a home and usually a car in an interesting location.  There may be cultural and friendship benefits as well.  However, you will only be able to realize these advantages if you can find a suitable exchange.  You need to evaluate the strength of your offer and your expectations to see if they are reasonable.  In other words, given your home and its location, will you be able to find an exchange where you want to go during the time you want to take your vacation?  This issue is discussed briefly below.   You should think about this, but if you like the home exchange concept it is probably easier to try arranging for your ideal exchange as opposed to trying to figure out beforehand if it will be possible or not.

What do Other Families Look for in an Exchange Home?

Most folks, including Rotarians, want to trade with people with a similar family situation.  Most members of the Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship are couples without children at home.  Some, like us are crazy enough to trade with families that have young children.

The location of your home is the single most important criteria.  Certain countries, regions, and cities are more popular and/or better known than others.   North and South Dakota have many beautiful places but are not well known around the world.  An exchange home offer in San Francisco, California on the other hand, will attract much interest. Most home exchangers look for well known, desirable, and safe destinations.  If your place is in an obscure but otherwise attractive location you can promote it by the quality of your home exchange listing and by e-mailing potential home exchange partners.   Home exchangers are sufficiently adventurous that some will consider going anywhere.

The next criterion is the home’s immediate environment.  A home on the ocean or a lake is better than being next to the sewage treatment works.   Fashionable neighborhoods with good transit links are a plus.

The third important criterion is the size, attractiveness, and features of the home itself.  A luxurious home and/or a home with a swimming pool are usually more desirable than a basic two bedroom apartment.  On the other hand there is a home exchange expert who prefers the two bedroom apartment because she doesn’t want to worry about keeping a larger property clean.  An attractive car is a plus, especially if potential partners will be touring the region.

Finally the quality of the family makes a difference.   This is a basic requirement but it can also tip the scales in certain situations.   Some, but not all, potential exchange partners will give you extra credit if you and your family members are friendly, intelligent, charming, efficient, responsive, and well organized.  Fellow Rotarians will give you extra credit for being in Rotary.  They will choose your home because of your family.

If in Doubt, Try It

If you think home exchange would fit your family but are unsure that your home would attract exchange offers from places you want to go, you should go ahead and try it.  The current cost to join the Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship is 45 UK pounds a year.  If you don’t get an exchange the first year we will give you a second year free (you have to have photos in your listing and must have contacted at least five members to take advantage of this guarantee.)    This is a small amount to give home exchange a trial run for a twenty-four-month period.

Enough reading!  Sign me up now for the Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship!

Take me to the next topic, Should you join the Rotarian Home Exchange Fellowship?