Our Experience with House Swapping

half the image is of a small blue house with an American flag on the front stoop, the other half a two story red house in the forest

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While awaiting the arrival of our third baby boy we’ve been renting a house in the beautiful Black Mountains of Western North Carolina.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an hour and a half away. The mountain city of Asheville is fifteen minutes east. These are the tallest mountains in the East, and their are plenty of trails to hike, lakes to swim, rivers to float, local brews to drink, independent restaurants to frequent and welcoming Southerners to meet. Even still, we’re nomadic by nature, and so as much as we’ve come to love this little mountain town, we’re desperate to seek out the new. Unlike living on the road in an RV though, this type of slow traveling has us paying rent, and the price tag on a rental house in a tourist town is considerably higher than what you’d pay at an RV park down the street. That’s where house swapping comes in to play: we have a house, someone else has a house, let’s trade for a week or so. Rent free living in a new location with all of the comforts of (somebody else’s) home. Not to mention that since you’re staying in someone’s actual house, in a real neighborhood, and not some hotel room tucked off of the freeway or stories above the downtown, you are literally living like a local while you’re there.

Prerequisites of a Good House Swapper

There is no doubt that house swapping is not for everyone. When telling some family members about the idea the typical and not unreasonable questions of how do you trust strangers to have access to your home inevitably came up. You must be a very trusting person, someone who sees that the majority of people in this country are honest, good folks who aren’t really out to hurt anyone else. It also helps that as far as physical possessions go, most of our “stuff” has been acquired via hand-me-downs and thrift stores, so any burglar attempting to rob our home would likely be severely disappointed.

Such was not the case with the people who’s house we were lucky enough to score though. Upon arriving at our home for a week they proved instantly to be people of incredible faith. Guitars and mandolins, flat panel televisions and bicycles in the garage were all left out for our perusal and use. It made me smile wide enough to lick my ears when I realized how wonderfully confident in the human race these people were, and the confidence in strangers they’d shown.

That said, there are also a few common decencies you should show, both with your own home and the one you’ll be borrowing. Before we left, we cleaned the house to the point of a luxury resort, wiping out all of the random grime in the windowsills and corners that would otherwise have been left to accumulate if we were the only ones living in our home. We stocked up on toilet paper, made a list of great things to do around the area, and double checked all lights and faucets and household apparatus were in working order.

Our fellow house swappers and I had emailed back and forth agreeing on what we would each do for one another: a very short list which basically consisted of having clean sheets on all of the beds and agreeing to strip the beds before we left.

Don’t drink all of someone’s beer and not replace it. Don’t leave trash in the garbage cans. Don’t treat the house like a hotel room or your college dorm, pretend you’re a guest at the White House and know that you should leave the place just as you found it.

Finding Fellow House Swappers

Now that we’ve covered the basics, lets talk about the single biggest reality: most people are not comfortable allowing strangers complete and unsupervised access to their home. There will be far fewer people out there willing to participate in a house swap than you might like, and the process of finding someone who both lives in a location you want to go and is willing to go through with this whole crazy scheme takes some time.

Quickly though, it should be noted that while you may not particularly see your location as a “dream vacation”, this doesn’t necessarily mean others won’t. Just because you don’t live in a traditional tourist town, that doesn’t mean others don’t want to visit where you live. Certainly, if you reside on a beautiful beach or a great city, you’ll get more leads, but people like to visit family or just try something new, and you might be in exactly the spot for that, for them.

Be Flexible

This is the most important aspect of house swapping. You need to be flexible both on where you want to go and when you want to go there. Craigslist has a specific section for house swaps, and we looked through existing ads in five different locations. It didn’t matter to us if we spent a week in Ithaca, NY or Charleston, SC, the Adirondacks or Nashville. We just wanted a change of scenery. We also noted that we were open to anytime in June, July or August. Summertime in the South can be a matchbox in a tire fire, so we—and particularly my pregnant baby mama—just wanted a little respite from the heat if possible.

Be open to multiple areas and try to keep as wide open a schedule as you can. If you have a specific location and/or timeframe in mind, you may get lucky and work something out, but you’ll need to work harder at finding someone in that area and start looking way earlier. Which leads us to…

Start Early

If you’d like to take a trip in June, start looking by at least March. We had about five inquiries from our various postings. In the end, only one of them worked out, and only a month before we were getting really restless. The first woman we contacted, in Charleston, South Carolina, was all gung ho at first, but quickly fizzled out. A second individual went nearly all the way but stopped just short of actually agreeing to make the swap. Two more people responded but then we never heard from them again.

Just as I was personally getting a little bored of spending time emailing people who often wouldn’t even do us the courtesy of even a “We’re no longer interested” type reply and about to give up, we were finally lucky enough to be contacted by two lovely women from Ithaca and everything just sort of fell into place.

If we’d have waited until June to start looking, we would have missed them and maybe had to wait until Autumn to take advantage of this spectacular opportunity.

Logistics

Once you’ve found someone willing to do the swap and arranged the time that works for both of you, there are a few simple logistics involved, namely, how to get access to one another’s homes. There are three scenarios that can play out depending on how comfortable you are with the whole situation and what works for both parties.

Meet in the Middle

Depending on whether or not everyone is driving, you might be able to arrange a meeting somewhere halfway down the road. This will give you a chance to meet one another and exchange keys, which will hopefully make even the most hesitant house swappers feel a little more at ease. Though, at this point, bailing out when you’ve both already traveled halfway and made all of the necessary plans for a vacation would be pretty weak on your part.

Both our own travel plans and our fellow swappers didn’t allow for meeting in the middle.

Leave a Key with a Neighbor

This is probably the best scenario for everyone. You leave a key with a trusted neighbor who can then give it to the people when they arrive at your home. This gives you neighbor a chance to see their faces and also prevents awkward “what are you doing here?” conversations when your guests are coming and going from your house.

Leave a Key under a Rock

We stashed a key away. They stashed a key away. Everyone trusted the other people. This is how we did it and while you understandably may not be comfortable enough with the whole idea to do it this way, it was the easiest way possible for us.

I have to admit though, until we actually arrived at the house, retrieved the key and got into the front door, part of me was thinking “Hmmm, so I wonder if this house will really be here.”

Example of a Great Ad

One of the most important parts of a successful house swap is to get people actually interested in your town and your home in particular. I tried a variety of ads on Craigslist, and this was the most successful one.

$1200 / 3br – Black Mountain, NC for Ithaca, NY (Black Mountain, NC)

Looking to spend June in the Ithaca / Trumansburg / Cayuga area, preferably on or near a lake/creek.

Looking to swap for our 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath brand new home in beautiful Black Mountain, NC, within minutes of hiking, boutique shops and restaurants. Black Mountain is a tourist destination for sure, a cute little mountain town full of interesting people and 15 minutes from Asheville, NC. Asheville is a super hip, progressive city, kind of like a really small Portland or Austin. It’s just another hour’s drive to the Smokey Mountains from there, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is everywhere in between. We’d love to swap for 1 or 2 weeks.

If anyone’s interested, please reply with a name and phone number & I’ll be glad to send pics of the house itself.

I found that keeping it simple, not being too “salesman”, and just describing the area worked best. While people want a great house for their vacation, of course, it’s the things to do outside of the house that are the real attraction on vacation. Be sure to include a few key points in your own post.

  1. What there is to do in your area. In our case, for example, people may not exactly think “Western North Carolina” when it comes time to book a vacation. We made sure they understood why they might want to consider the area without sounding too much like a tourism brochure.
  2. Describe where your home is in relation to the things to do in the area. How many minutes or miles away from how many great things to do?
  3. Relate the area to more well known destinations. In our case we wanted people to understand that it’s a progressive town that’s friendly to the liberal mindset. Those are the types of people we think would most enjoy their stay here, and so we tried to emphasize that.
  4. Make it clear how long you’re interested in swapping for and provide a clear “Next Step”. Ours was to send us your name and phone number. Having a phone number is the first step toward getting some real contact information from a person, that way you’re not dealing strictly with emails.

Resources

As mentioned before, we used Craigslist to find our house swap. The site has a section for every city and area it serves dedicated to house swaps. It’s free, as usual on Craigslist, and I would argue that this is the most likely way for you to find someone else willing to do this as CL is one of the largest, most used sites out there.end of article