SEVEN YEARS AGO, Melissa Andersen quit her corporate job in California to start a business organizing yoga retreats around the world. Pretty quickly, Ms. Andersen, now 34, realized she needed an affordable way to find accommodations and signed up for Love Home Swap, a London-based service that expedites house swaps for a small annual fee, listing places that she and her mother own in Palm Cove, Fla., and Porsgrunn, Norway. Surprisingly, she said, quite a few people were up for the switcheroo. She admits she was “a bit hesitant at the beginning—was it a set up? Would people kidnap me?” So far, she’s had no bad experiences and she was able to namaste—ransom free—in host homes in Spain, Cyprus and France (Cannes and Paris). “Now all of my free time is spent negotiating swaps and fantasizing about places to go,” said Ms. Andersen, who travels up to six months a year for her company, Passport to the Heart. “You always connect with the owner ahead of time and get a feel for them via email or phone call, so you both feel safe about each other,” she added.
Home swapping has a lively past: HomeExchange, for example, has been around since 1992 (long before Airbnb’s 2008 launch) and was the sappy pretext of the 2006 romantic comedy “The Holiday,” in which Cameron Diaz swaps her Los Angeles mansion for Kate Winslet’s quaint English cottage, and both find love in the new locales. In the past five years, home exchange has gained traction in the U.S. as—thanks to the success of Airbnb and VRBO—more vacationing Americans have discovered that staying in a home versus a hotel can yield more comfort and space to sprawl.
Most home swappers aren’t aching for love, lured by the fantasy of having Jude Law knock on their borrowed front door: They just want to save money while on the road. Active retirees and families are the two groups most liable to undertake a trade, according to Love Home Swap managing director Ben Wosskow. “Fifty-six percent of our members are families; 42% are aged 55-plus,” he said. “The boomer generation is an asset-rich, creature-comfort group who likes the home-for-home exchange.” For an annual membership fee of around $180, travelers can sidestep the hefty accommodation costs they‘d normally budget for. Plus, they have more and more homes to choose from. Just this week, HomeExchange relaunched its website, incorporating the offerings from the seven smaller companies it’s acquired since 2014. Now the site lists 400,000 swappable homes in 187 countries.
Still, for every tempting reason to schedule a first-time exchange, there’s a worry that nags at the neophyte, like “How much Marie-Kondo-type cleaning will I have to do to my house?” Graphic artist Cindy Elia, a HomeExchange member in Oakland, Calif., said the prep work does take time: “Our cleaning guy comes, and I spend hours putting stuff away for safeguarding or clearing space in the closet and a drawer or two for those visiting.” The household drudgery doesn’t necessarily let up on the other side. During a winter home swap in Lake Tahoe, Calif., the Elia family went two days without power during a freak snowstorm. “I had to shovel the sidewalk!” said Ms. Elia, who chalked it up to Stuff Happens. For those Mama and Papa Bears who might not mind a little housekeeping but cringe at visions of Goldilocks sleeping in their beds, see “A Scaredy-Cat Guide to Home Swap Vacations,” below.
Browsing what’s available on different sites may convert the hesitant. Perhaps you’d like to explore the Balearic Islands and chill in a two-story modernist home with a pool on Mallorca via HomeExchange. How about ushering your extended family to Big Sky, Mont., hunkering down in a 7-bedroom home and spending a week skiing and wolf tracking in Yellowstone? “I was a hero,” said Bob Thye, a 55-year-old executive based in Newtown Square, Penn., who booked that 20,000-square-foot Montana retreat through Thirdhome, a luxury property and travel club based in Brentwood, Tenn., founded by real-estate developer Wade Shealy in 2010.
Then there are by-invitation-only groups like Behomm, launched in 2013 by two graphic designers, “connecting like-minded people with a similar fondness for tasteful things,” said co-founders Agusti Juste and Eva Calduch via email. Longtime Behomm member Shelley Hill, an artist in her mid-60s in Girona, Catalonia, has been to Lisbon and Amsterdam, the Seychelles and Japan, yet one of her fondest memories was made in London. “One day I just stayed home. Staying in a beautiful house gives you a whole other experience. People go to efforts to make it nice—you never go to a place where someone hasn’t done the dishes,” said Ms. Hill.
So exactly how does it work? The original idea was simple: Two hosts do a reciprocal swap, literally switching houses for an agreed-upon period. Members discover each other through a company’s online profiles, which detail information about the home and its owners, and compile reviews from previous travelers. “Spending time on your profile, describing your house and everything you can do in the area gives others a real sense of the experience they’ll get,” said Brice Janney, a divorced father of three teenagers, longtime Thirdhome user and recent investor in it.
But reciprocal swaps are often tricky in terms of timing and the question of whether each party is particularly keen to travel to their fellow swapper’s location. So companies devised a flexible plan allowing members to accrue points (or keys) by hosting, then spending those earned points to travel whenever and wherever they want. Members use calendars on their profile pages to indicate when their house will be available, so others can search the site and see what’s free in a specific locale for a desired time period. Companies assign point values to your home based on size and location; they also often gift points (100 and up) to new members to encourage them to start booking.
Love Home Swap currently lists a two bedroom in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood for 100 points a night, while a seven-bedroom villa with a swimming pool in Tuscany goes for 300 points a night. “The point system opens up a lot more doors and freedom,” said Ms. Andersen, who accrued enough points through hosting to wrangle homes that welcome big groups for her yoga retreats in Utah’s Zion and Kenya this year.
Sometimes friendships result. Ms. Elia said her family’s first swap in New York City in 2015 couldn’t have been a better matchup. “The family’s children had similar books and toys to ours, so our boys were thrilled.” The families stay in touch and hang out when they’re all in the same city at the same time. People warm to the idea of “free hospitality,” according to Emmanuel Arnaud, CEO of HomeExchange. “Staying in paid accommodations is increasingly perceived as cold and impersonal; home exchange allows travelers to feel welcomed as guests.” Love Home Swap’s Mr. Wosskow compares the service to online dating. “You don’t always know what you’re getting,” he said, “It often depends on what you put into it.”
RESIDENTIAL MATCHMAKERS / Four top home-swapping services
HomeExchange: The largest home-sharing company, it currently lists 400,000 homes in 187 countries. That many choices may seem overwhelming (and not all are picture-perfect), but trolling through them on a coffee break, you could easily winnow your options down—New Mexico? Australia? Zambia? Members can choose to pay on a per-night basis ($15/night for occasional travelers) or opt for the annual fee of $150, which comes with identity verification, property damage coverage, cancellation support and 24/7 emergency assistance. homexchange.com
Love Home Swap: Don’t let its goofy name fool you—Love Home Swap is in serious expansion mode. In 2017, the company was bought by RCI, part of Wyndham Destinations, and now offers 10,000 homes in 100 countries. Try a free two-week trial period; then choose from three pricing options. Our tip for the time-pressed? Go platinum ($180 a year) and a dedicated team helps you figure out swaps—maybe a yurt in the United Kingdom near a waterfall, or the Malibu “747 Wing House,” so famous it has its own Wikipedia page? lovehomeswap.com
Behomm: Catering to “creatives and design lovers,” the Barcelona-based Behomm requests high-resolution photos to register, and your digs best live up to Mies van der Rohe levels. Eyeball an architect-owned villa in Noto, Italy, with its super-neat kids’ rooms and sleek lap pool, and you’ll see how high the bar is set in its community of 3,000 homes in 60 countries, from Cambodia to Iceland. Behomm may seem snobbish, but it’s nicely priced: a 1-year trial costs around $108 ($217 thereafter) with no exchange fees. behomm.com
Thirdhome: The toniest of the bunch, it’s also the costliest, requiring members to own a luxury vacation home and pay an initiation fee of $2,500, plus annual tiered membership and booking costs. By opening their second home to other members, the owners accrue ”keys” (or points), which they can then use to stay at some 10,912 properties in 93 countries, including condos and villas overseen by ritzy hotel chains. thirdhome.com
A Scaredy-Cat Guide to Home Swap Vacations
4 common fears and how to address them
1. Who exactly will be sleeping in my bed?
“The biggest obstacle members encounter always comes before their first exchange,” said Eva Calduch, co-founder of the swapping service Behomm. “It’s an odd feeling to allow a stranger in their bed. But once they do it, exchanging becomes addictive.” One way to allay the jitters is to get to know your counterparts. Members email, Skype or do house walk-throughs via FaceTime, explaining everything. It’s best to use a company’s online secure messaging system so if issues arise, they’re more likely to be resolved quickly. Still wary? Ask how the company vets its members; most do some form of identity check; Thirdhome goes a bit further: “We verify identity, run background checks and vet the property itself,” said Zach Gates, Thirdhome’s director of client growth. Mr. Janney, a Thirdhome member, said the only problem he’s ever encountered was when another member brought a chihuahua to his vacation home in a dog-free community—possible grounds for non-renewal.
2. What if Aunt Lucy’s Ming vase gets broken?
As property owners, your own home insurance should provide coverage, said Mr. Gates; double-check with individual home insurers for clarification. Some companies provide extra protection with membership. HomeExchange, for example, covers property damages up to $1 million. If you’re worried about valuables, store them ahead of time in a room you can lock and designate as off-limits.
3. What if the place is a mess?
On vacation, our sense of place comes into play, says Frank Farley, professor of psychology at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “Some people go on vacation to leave behind housework; people with phobias about germs may be squeamish in another home.” So if you like daily maid service, home swapping may not be for you. Inspect the photos of your prospective abode to see if your idea of neatness lines up with theirs, and read the reviews. Weigh the efforts of preparing your own digs with the positives—financial and cultural—of swapping. “Home swapping teaches cooperation and reciprocation—experiencing what it’s like in another home and culture,” said Mr. Farley. Referrals can be a gauge: To join Behomm, another member must invite you. You’re initially vetted using the photos you submit. (Hint: Neatness and a predilection for Saarinen tables count).
4. One of you cancels. Now what?
Unless you’re in a reciprocal swap, cancellation shouldn’t be an issue. Still, HomeExchange and other services offer cancellation support—the company says they’ll arrange a replacement residence, if available—and provide 24/7 assistance in case of emergency.
Appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition as ‘Your Place or Mine?.’