Home exchange or house swap holidays are a great way to enjoy a cheap and convenient vacation. They are available through hundreds of websites that have thousands of happy customers. For the uninitiated, however, house swapping with strangers arranged over the internet might bring worries about thefts, damage, insurance, even squatters! However, most house exchange companies will tell you (probably quite truthfully) that any such problems are extremely rare. This is because anyone who joins a house exchange scheme should in theory be like-minded as they are offering their properties to strangers as well.
Choosing the right website/company
This is not usually a problem as the workings of house swap holidays are fairly straightforward thus reducing the chances of encountering an inefficient business. You can reduce the risk by opting for an established company which has a large number of listings but you shouldn’t ignore smaller operations which might suit your needs better. A larger company will not offer you any more legal or contractual cover (as explained below). Some house exchange sites indicate how many successful swaps members have undertaken and this could give some extra peace of mind if your swappers were experienced (and therefore there were no previous problems with them).
Legal issues regarding problems
Ultimately all house exchange companies whether they have thousands of listings or whether they just started up yesterday, will get you to sign some kind of agreement to their ‘Terms & Conditions’ or acceptance of liability. Some companies have contracts for you to sign when you engage in a house exchange but a lawyer will tell you that they are just a promise of good-will rather than any legally binding document. This acceptance of liability should not put you off as again, you are dealing with people in the same position as you who should be very unlikely to cause problems. In the worst case scenario you would be able to take legal action against the individuals that caused the problem (but not the house exchange business).
Most house exchange systems, whether involving a direct swap or ‘non-simultaneous’ exchanges, do not earn the owner of a property any money for having people stay in their house. This reduces insurance problems immediately and prevents further problems with subletting and income tax etc. As the people staying in your home are invited guests then your Contents Policy should cover you for accidental breakages, losses and other damage. Of course you should check your policy carefully in case there is an issue with those people not being known to you. A house exchange network with just your extended friends does avoid this risk.
House guest’s standards
Not very serious but probably the most common problem with house exchange holidays is miscommunication and misunderstandings about laundry, replacing food and cleaning etc. Despite this article doing its best to put your mind at rest claiming that all house swappers are of the same mind as you, we of course all have different standards and habits! This risk of problems can easily be managed by establishing clear communication and understanding, prior to any house exchange situation. Most companies will have good guide sheets and checklists for you to complete and leave for your guests.
Paying your money but not being able to swap
Companies work with different systems (see my Ezine article “House Exchange Holidays – A Beginner’s Basic Guide”) but there is a risk that you could pay your joining fee and then not be able to arrange a suitable holiday. If the site runs a direct swap system then holidays are difficult to coordinate with your perfect dates and destinations etc. However, if there is just a one-off joining fee then you could view this as a long-term investment that doesn’t cost you anything extra until you manage to arrange that cheap holiday. Check the property listings before joining if that is possible as this might give you some indication of how successful you might be in arranging your desired vacation. Some house exchange websites use a non-simultaneous exchange where you choose from a database of properties and book to stay in one when it is available. This is easier to coordinate and organize as there is no direct swap involved, but it means that you have to be confident in your ability to offer an empty property at a certain time, irrespective of whether you manage to arrange your exchange holiday during the same period or not. This typically suits people offering a second home or holiday property that is empty. If you can be flexible and don’t have specific and urgent holiday requirements then most companies have something to offer you. You don’t have much to lose by joining up and you can even become a member of multiple websites to improve your chances of success.
Last minute problems as you set off!
A remote risk is having set up a house exchange which involves flights, amongst other arrangements, and for there to be an unexpected problem beyond the control of the respective party. No guarantees can be given by anyone involved beforehand but again remember that everyone in the scheme is in the same position as you and would hopefully do everything possible to resolve the issue. Good travel insurance will provide a financial safety net. Also a non-simultaneous scheme does reduce this risk as the properties are more likely to be second homes which are empty rather than a full-time family home.
The risks are real but serious problems are very unlikely and these are similar to problems you might encounter if you booked a more conventional holiday or even if you stayed at home!
The rewards of house swap holidays of course, far out-weigh the risks outlined above i.e. extremely low-cost vacations, the comforts and facilities of a home, a more authentic experience of a location etc.