WHAT WE OFFERED: Amsterdam apartment (level 5)
How’s this for a cheap holiday with the kids – a week in a smart London apartment on the Thames, then a cottage in the Lake District for a few days? Next meet up with a group of friends for a week in an 18th century French chateau, and finally stay in a renovated country house in Umbria, Italy. Perhaps on the way home you could stop off in Thailand and recuperate in a villa with gardener and cook/housekeeper.
I said ‘a cheap holiday’, so your accommodation budget for the family is $65. That’s not per person per night; we’re talking $65 for the whole trip. It can be done, thanks to home exchange websites. The five star options above are real homes, and their owners are looking for Australians to swap houses with.
Maybe we could do that, we thought a few years ago. We have a comfortable, albeit unglamorous place in suburban Sydney, a share in a simple holiday cottage on the Mornington Peninsula and a small apartment in Amsterdam. There might be some interest in one of them.
We found a home exchange website boasting over 11,000 properties world-wide. $65 buys 18 months membership, which allows you to list your home and contact other members. Browsing for non-members is free.
So we joined up, wiped down the benchtops, took flattering real estate photos and wrote glowing notes about ‘vibrant multicultural Sydney’, ‘Victoria’s best golf and wineries’ and ‘stroll or bike to cosy Amsterdam cafes’.
Soon we were getting more email about home exchange than about viagra. We were offered swaps in Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, California, Spain and the French Alps. If we weren’t interested we simply pressed “Delete”, but we replied politely to the possibles, spent hours trawling the website to drool over apartments in Manhattan and Rome, and made up a shortlist. .
We eventually agreed on exchanging with a family in Paris and people with a holiday apartment in Northern Ireland. Paris was a no-brainer, but we would never have considered visiting County Down until Janet and Ken pointed out the cheap flights to their hometown Belfast.
WHAT WE GOT: Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland Poco Redondo, Portugal
Increasingly chatty emails settled mutually agreeable dates, and everyone promised to ‘look after your home as if it were our own’. Some months later we arrived in Paris to swap keys with Pierre and Evelyn and learn the workings of les lumieres et la cuisine moderne. Their car was packed ready to drive to Amsterdam so after a quick café au lait we bid them adieu.
We loved their charming apartment near Montmartre avec le creaking parquet and le balcony francais. We could shop at local markets and cook for ourselves, and since the cost of living was much the same as at home, we didn’t feel driven to rush to every museum to get our money’s worth. We took books to the park some afternoons, and there was money over in our budget for the occasional chic restaurant.
At the end of the week we left a merci beaucoup note, and backed out the door in our socks so as not to scuff the floor polish. We arrived home to find that the Parisians must have done the same. Our apartment had never been so clean.
The famed Irish hospitality kicked in when we arrived in Belfast. Janet met us at the airport and drove us out through Erin’s green fields to their immaculate waterfront apartment with a spectacular view of the Mountains of Mourne. We somewhat shamefacedly handed over tram tickets to ease their passage to our place and were pleased we’d left them a welcoming bottle of wine on the kitchen table.
Once again, all went swimmingly. They enjoyed riding our bikes round Amsterdam and we had a great time in a beautiful quiet backwater we may never have discovered otherwise.
These were simultaneous exchanges, but we’ve since organised non-simultaneous ones. Guests from Italy and Portugal have stayed in our Sydney house while we happened to be away, and we were able to accommodate golfing enthusiasts from Nova Scotia on the Mornington Peninsula. We plan to visit their places at some future date to cash in our brownie points.
So far we’ve come across no thieves or pigs. On the contrary, people we’ve exchanged with have gone out of their way to be perfect hosts and guests and we’ve tried to do likewise. Any accidental breakage has been followed by a note offering to pay damages, and we’ve always said, ‘Forget it’. We’ve met people we hope to visit again.
Yes, we’re lucky with what we can offer. Most visitors want a place that’s convenient and centrally located and that we have. As long as it’s clean and has beds and running water, people aren’t too concerned with a house’s glamour.
Naturally flash apartments near the Sydney CBD with spectacular harbour views are in demand with overseas visitors. But you may well find exchangers who want to be close to relatives in Penrith or Gosford, in a relaxed family home where they don’t have to worry too much about the odd peanut butter handprint on the sofa.
Some listings suggest car exchange as well, though we’ve hesitated to take these up, fearing complications in case of accidents. People may ask you to water plants, or feed a cat or walk a dog, but most also have a neighbour who can look after the animals if you’d prefer not to.
We leave all the services connected and trust people not to run up substantially greater bills than we would. In return, they do the same for us, though we generally try to use our mobiles rather than their phones and so do they.
You can specify non-smokers, no children or seniors only if you think oldies are going to be better behaved.
The website we have used successfully is www.homeforexchange.com. They’re offering a free 40day no obligation trial membership at the moment, if you’re referred by a member. If you’d like to try it out, leave me your email address in the comments box below, and I’ll refer you and email you a voucher for the free trial.
There are numerous other house swap sites (untried by your correspondent), including:
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney