Home Exchange: Have House, Will Travel

by Julie Gibbons on April 6, 2010

For some people, the very idea of inviting complete strangers to stay in their home invokes absolute horror, but for the house swap community it’s a low-cost ticket to travelling the world. Attracted to a long hot summer without peak season accommodation prices, we set out on our first house swap in the summer of 2008 and haven’t looked back. Seven swaps in and we’re hooked – with up to six months of the year assigned to the activity.

Home exchange is basically like online dating – for houses. You upload your profile to a choice of home exchange websites, and promote its best features. Basics such as bedrooms and bathrooms are dealt with, of course, but you will also be acting a little like a tourist board for your area, describing local areas of interest and must visit attractions. The aim is to make your house sound attractive enough to appeal to visitors from your preferred destination. In addition to choosing your destination country, you will also get the chance to indicate deal breakers such as; children/no children; pool/no pool; internet/no internet and so on.

And in just the same way as you might meet your perfect match through a dating site, there will be a perfect house swap for you. We’ve been surprised and delighted with each of our house swap destinations – all of which have been a mystery to us beforehand. One of the most exciting benefits has been to visit locations we’ve never heard of, and would never have considered for a more traditional vacation. Spending the summer under blue skies and a hot sun with a foreign language as a soundtrack can’t be recommended highly enough. To combine that with our work and the family’s education – we’re living the dream, oh, yes we are!

Our very first house swap in 2008, was in the mountains of Catalonia, about 30 minutes west of Dali’s birthplace, Figueres:

We arrived to our location and saw this romantic building

Uninhabitable, we were glad this old house in the garden was not to be our home, and instead, we were staying in this altogether more modern bungalow

It was nestled in the mountains in a beautiful location

Nearby breathtaking mountainside villages such as Els Hostalets d’en Bas

And an hour away from this beach

We’d made the trip to Barcelona city centre before, and when Ruaridh was only one, we spent a week on a very cheap package deal in the Costa Brava – but neither of those experiences could have prepared us for the Catlonian house swap. We were in the mountains – in a tiny village without even a bread shop. This was going to be all about getting in touch with a simpler life. Time here just slowed down – it was magical (and helped along by a power cut!)

We’d been on a very tight work deadline prior to leaving for this first swap, which we’d just made by the skin of our teeth – but we couldn’t rest on our laurels and needed to get straight onto the next part of the project. Only a few days in, on a particularly electric weekend, we lost power. And that was when it hit us. You don’t travel all the way to this beautiful highland village with free range cows, chiming their bells outside your door and expect to keep up a frantic pace. So, prevented from working online due to the power cut, we chilled out – and looked around us. We took lungfuls of fresh mountain air. We played rounders, football and badminton in the vast garden at our disposal. We burnt pizza in the BBQ oven. We read lots of books, and we danced and played limbo in the tiny living room at night. We laughed a lot – and we relaxed.

Our second home exchange found us crossing the Dordogne north to the Mayenne region of France and the small village of Chemaze:

Where we played in the fountains

Challenged the locals to Ping Pong

Resisted chocolate temptation extraordinaire

Visited the most amazing museum

And went bike riding almost every day – braving thunderous storms

Travelling so far north was delayed a little with some visits to friends in Bordeaux and a detour to visit the folks we’d be swapping with on our 4th swap, so we were very ready to get online and connected again. Fortunately, the house was fully equipped with an office for two, and a hard wire to the Broadband for each of us. Better still, the village was abundant with children on holiday, and all ready to play with Ruaridh – the exotic visitor from Scotland. This northern village was on the outskirts of the attractive town of Chateau Gontier, and the theme for this swap was work and play.

The location was actually so similar to our home set up that we vowed not to do this type of swap again – and instead look for something different – but what we took was far more important than that, we discovered how we would like to live when we were at home in the UK. Not a bad result!

Montauban, 30 mins north of Toulouse was the location of our third home exchange in 2008:

A beautiful town on the River Tarn

In a 50′s town house

Where we relaxed in the pool

Spent a lot of time in the medieval town centre (cake, coffee, tea, more cake …)

Enjoyed an abundance of art – even in the countryside

And made lots of new friends with whom we went kayaking

A town-centre location, this swap took place during the month of August and because Montauban is not known as a tourist centre, it was so empty we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves! Having access to deliciously cold dipping pool in this urban garden was a great touch, in the high summer heat – and we made use of it almost every day the sun was beating down. We also took advantage of the multiplex cinema (in French) on the outskirts of the town; the numerous cafes and bars in the town centre; and drank in the breath-taking scenery of the Aveyron, whilst kayaking with some great new friends the day before we left.

We loved Montauban and the families we met there so much that we went back to stay with them in 2009, where Ruaridh went to school. Just one of the long-lasting friendships we’ve made during our adventures – where the people have become so much part of the learning and growing experience.

Our fourth house swap in 2008 was on the Atlantic coast, just south of La Rochelle in an area famous for its mussels and oyster farms

Where we stayed in a 2 hundred year old restored Charentaise farmhouse

On the edge of a nature reserve

Where we fooled about in the hot tub

Raided the vegetable garden for fresh, juicy, ripe produce

All near the ancient village of St Sornin, famous for its church

Where we rounded off the trip by getting married

The wedding itself was organised almost in its entirety by our swap host couple – even so far as providing the witnesses!

We rediscovered our love of the coast during the month or more we spent in this wonderful farmhouse. During September, most of the holiday makers have packed up and headed home, and so our greatest pleasure was the ability to enjoy the wild, ruggish land in peace. To visit the coast was only a 20 minute drive from the tiny hamlet nestled in glorious woodland in which we stayed for the duration. And to cycle to the small village of St Sornin amongst the blackening sunflower fields, on the tiniest of roads built upon the reclaimed marshland was as romantic as it sounds. The locals would probably not be so happy to hear of their village described as such, but to us there was the definite feel of the wartime France. Without any of the horror, distrust and other associations, but with all the romance.

Our hosts went beyond the call of duty and we were introduced to many fine people, both locals and ex pats, and the ease with which we find ourselves being married made the experience absolutely unforgettable! This year we hope to return for a visit, as one of the swaps this time around is only an hour and a half inland. Yes, the world is a big place, and there’s plenty of other locations for us to visit as we did last year, but these locations and the house swappers we have met along the way are so very special and have made such an impact on our lives, that we cannot help but return, share stories and enjoy the good life.

We’re just about organised for our third season of swaps – 12 weeks of sun, sea and people and experiences we hop we’ll never forget… You’ve still got time to arrange yours! We can gift  you a voucher for trial membership of one of our favourite sites. Just leave a comment at the bottom of the article and I’ll get it organised for you.

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Kevin Armson May 24, 2010 at 9:41 am

Dear Julie,

I have just stumbled across your website and i found it a very interesting read. I too think the home swap is an excellent idea and due to this i have decided to set up my own home swap website called http://www.chilledlifehomeswaps.com.

i would really like to chat with you about how you go about finding your swapping partners and whether you would know of anyone who would be interested in actually going on my website? I have quite a mission to build up the community and properties and if you could help then i would be so appreciative.

Hopefully you get this message and i look forward to hearing from you soon!

All the best,

Kevin

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Julie Gibbons May 25, 2010 at 10:37 am

Thanks for getting in touch, Kevin. You sure do have a great deal of work ahead to build up your community :) Good luck with it. A chilled life must be many folks’ idea of an ideal.

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