The Nation



Trading homes for an affordable stay

Patrons dine on the sidewalk in front of Le Table de Claire restaurant, located on the ground floor of the home swap apartment recent visitors stayed in while in Paris.

Patrons dine on the sidewalk in front of Le Table de Claire restaurant, located on the ground floor of the home swap apartment recent visitors stayed in while in Paris.

Hannah, left, and Nancy MacDonald relax with their iPads in the living room of the home swap apartment in Paris.

Hannah, left, and Nancy MacDonald relax with their iPads in the living room of the home swap apartment in Paris.

An American couple enjoys the benefits of home-swapping for a dream vacation

Ah, Paris. The food. The art. The sights.

The hotel bill.

It was the little matter of finding a place to stay that kept an international vacation off our radar, especially in wake of a recession that had put a king-size crimp in our international travel plans. As we discussed a European getaway, we realised that a hotel stay for my wife, Nancy, our daughter, Hannah, and me would cost us as much as our airline tickets.

I had read about house exchanges, but Nancy was hesitant to let strangers into our home, despite my continuing campaign about the savings.

But the prospect of staying for free in a Paris apartment with a car at our disposal proved irresistible.

I began investigating the better-known house-swap websites before settling on, thanks to the advice of Marla Fisher, a friend who had used it to take her kids to such places as Escondido, Mexico, and Italy.

I signed up, paid the $119 annual membership and wrote a description of our Old Towne Orange home and neighbourhood, playing up Southern California’s attractions, celebrity connections and brand-name beaches. It sounded so good I wanted to visit.

Meanwhile, I trolled the HomeExchange website "favouriting" homes in places on our wish list.

After a month, I heard from Iris, who was hoping to come to Southern California for three weeks with her husband, Julien, and two young daughters before heading up to San Francisco for another home exchange. After a few messages, we set up a Skype video meeting.

We hashed out the details, discussed a car swap and gave each other virtual tours of our homes.

We quickly began to feel as though our families were already friends.

Three weeks in Paris sounded like a dream vacation. We estimated we would save $5,000 or more on accommodations and live like locals, affording us a more intimate view of the City of Light.

That weekend, I bought Iris and Julien’s preschool daughters matching car seats. Iris was thrilled. A few days later, Julien made us a Google map of their favourite places to eat and drink. I reciprocated. Our virtual bond grew stronger.

Soon after we touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport, our taxi dropped us off in front of the double green doors I knew so well from Google Street View. Iris greeted each of us with kisses on both cheeks, and I felt as though we were finally in Paris.

The contemporary two-storey apartment in the 11th arrondissement was big by Paris standards with three bedrooms, kitchen and living room.

Of course, our new home sprang surprises on us: The compact combo washer-dryer took five hours to complete the tiniest load of laundry and the digital stove worked only when a pot or pan was placed on a burner.

Minor problems, especially considering the ideal location of our apartment, which was just on the fringe of Paris' tourist areas. If we harboured any doubt, an overnight trip to London reminded us of how spacious our place was (and how claustrophobic a hotel room can be).

Using social media, we followed our swappers’ adventures. It was a bit surreal to see photos of someone else sitting on your front porch, but surprisingly reassuring to know they were enjoying our home as much as we were theirs.

Iris and Julien had a great time at our place. The kids attended a birthday party across the street. They made lemonade with fruit from our tree. The neighbours even came over for a party one night.

I’d hoped for a similar neighbourly reception, but we barely saw the neighbours. Our only real interaction was with a downstairs resident who knocked on the door one morning to tell us we were making too much noise. Fortunately, she left on holiday a few days later.

But it’s hard to complain about a three-week vacation in Paris. One moment stands out vividly: The three of us eating around the kitchen table, munching on bread, cheese and pastries from our local boulangerie, fromagerie and patisserie.

When we returned home, we found our house largely as we left it. A few things were out of place. A clothes hook had come off the wall, and a few cables had been switched around on the TV.

But I’m happy to make those trade-offs.

Would I do a home swap again? Yes. It took a lot of prep work to get our home ready for the exchange, but now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we know what to look for in a good match. We definitely lucked out with our first match.

Venice, here we come.


The organisation we used and a couple of others we considered:

_ Home Exchange, Started in 1992. 46,000 members. $119 per year.

_ HomeLink, Started in 1953. 13,000 members. $89 per year.

_ Intervac, Started in 1953. 30,000 members. $99 per year.


_ Trust is essential in any exchange. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, keep looking.

_ Communication is key. We exchanged more than 80 emails before, during and after our trip.

_ Photos are important. Their house looked as beautiful and well appointed in real life as it did in the photos.

_ Make life simple for your guests. Spell it all out, from the TV remote to the microwave oven to the tricky doorknob.

_ Make a plan. Figure out where you’ll leave the house keys and who can help in an emergency.

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