Is Home Swapping Due for a Comeback?

With Airbnb no longer the value play that it was 10 years ago, the original peer-to-peer home-rental model is seeing a resurgence

December 14, 2021 6:00 am
Is Home Swapping Due for a Comeback?
jakkapant turasen/Gabriel Serrano

In the 2006 romantic comedy The Holiday, Iris and Amanda (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, respectively) find themselves lovelorn in advance of the holidays and in need of a quick change of scenery. Thanks to an online home-swapping service, Iris winds up in Los Angeles by way of the English countryside, and Amanda in Surrey via Southern California.

Over the last 15 years, the film has established a foothold in the pantheon of feel-good holiday must-sees, but it’s also evolved into a bit of a relic. That’s because it’s the only film in recent history to center around the idea of home swapping, a then new approach to travel accommodations that involved vacationing in your house-sitter’s home while they did the same. Despite the fact that I was just 15 years old and living with my parents, it was the first time I’d seen anything like it, and I was enthralled by the idea of trading homes with an anonymous internet surfer from a foreign land.

Two years later, in 2008, Airbnb launched and my teenage dream came true: I would no longer need my parents’ consent to pimp out their house in exchange for a cross-country jaunt to some exotic stranger’s home, because now that was something I could simply pay for. It quickly emerged as the preferred method of home-sharing, transforming the landscape forever. The rest was history.

But they say history always repeats itself, and according to a representative for Love Home Swap — the award-winning home-swapping site that features thousands of homes in more than 110 countries globally — the platform has seen a nearly 300% increase in bookings since the start of the pandemic. Similarly, HomeExchange, one of the very first organized online home-swap services, has seen a year over year increase in exchanges by American members since 2017, lending weight to the theory that home swapping is on the verge of a major comeback. It’s even having a moment on TikTok, where one user jokingly posted a video showcasing her apartment set to the The Holiday‘s theme music and immediately began receiving serious inquiries about the possibility of an exchange.

The benefits of home-swapping

The most obvious explanation for this resurgence is that home-swapping is an effective way to offset the continually increasing costs associated with traveling in a post-pandemic world.

“The resurgence is likely because home swapping is more cost effective than traditional accommodations, given that one year of Love Home Swap membership is lower than what one might pay for a night in a hotel,” the representative says. In fact, Love Home Swap members who vacation more than four times a year reportedly save, on average, $3,500 on accommodations through home swapping.

So is it something you should be considering? The people who have done it say, unequivocally, yes. San Diego resident Jerri Hatch is 67 years old, and the day she retired from her job in medical sales six years ago was the day she signed up for HomeExchange. By her estimate, she’s participated in somewhere between 30 and 40 home swaps since. The benefits, she says, are twofold.

“First of all, if I had to pay for these houses, or for a hotel, I would only be able to take two trips a year. But [with HomeExchange] I can take as many trips as I can afford airfare or gas for my car,” Hatch says.

“The second thing for me is that when I was working and I traveled so much and I stayed in so many hotels. I was a Gold Flyer, I was a Gold Marriott member … and I hate hotels,” she adds. “I like to go on vacation and I like to have a whole house with a yard and a pool and a kitchen. I travel with my pets a lot of times, too. So those are the two main things about HomeExchange: I stay in much better accommodations and it’s free.”

A house in Avignon, France, on HomeExchange

While she acknowledges that the idea of having what is effectively a stranger stay in your home may cause feelings of trepidation for most, Hatch believes the very nature of home swapping breeds a certain level of trust and reciprocal respect. “My thought has always been they’re in my home … but I’m in their home, too,” she says.

But it’s also true that, in most cases, there’s a lot of back and forth between both parties leading up to the actual swap — emails, phone calls, sometimes Facetimes — so when the time finally comes, they tend to feel like less of a stranger, and more like a friend.

“My last trip before COVID was to Antarctica, on an expedition ship. I’m not a cruise person at all. I knew that and I still went alone because I knew that I would meet like-minded people on the trip — people that cared about the environment, people that wanted to see this resource that might be disappearing,” Hatch says. “It’s the same with home exchange.”

It’s a godsend where mass tourism is involved, too. While some exchangers have multiple properties, most are offering up their primary residence, meaning you’re more likely to find a stay in an unfrequented and potentially tourist-free area. Such was the case for Hatch when she received a request from Uxmal, Mexico, located on the Yucatán Peninsula. While Chichén Itzá draws roughly two million visitors annually, nearby Uxmal boasts its own set of lesser-known ruins, to which Hatch had unexpectedly scored front row seats. Traveling to destinations that probably wouldn’t have occurred to her otherwise has become a routine offshoot of home exchanging, and one of Hatch’s favorite parts of the whole arrangement.

You’ve got options

Christine Taylor and her husband Jerry, both retired, live in Arvada, Colorado. They got into home swapping back in 2012 (their first exchange was to Yamba, Australia). Two years later, after they rescued their golden retriever, their needs changed and they left HomeExchange for Trusted Housesitters. Trusted Housesitters differs slightly in that it connects pet owners and pet sitters worldwide. In exchange for pet care, the sitter gets a free place to stay. All of this to say: Christine is no stranger to having others in her home while she’s away, and her advice to first-time exchangers is uncomplicated.

“Remember, each party is exchanging their property and this in itself generates respect — no one can ‘buy’ time to use your property,” Christine says. “We recommend you always have a video call to get acquainted and determine if this potential guest is a good fit for your property and if the property you are considering will meet your needs.”

“You always have the final say. If you don’t want to provide the exchange request, you don’t have to. Just be sure to set your expectations appropriately so there are no misunderstandings,” she adds.

In 2020, Christine and her husband rejoined HomeExchange, though — due to the pandemic — it took them a while to book a trip. This January, they’ll finally enjoy the fruits of their new membership — this time in Roatan, Honduras. The decision to exchange, she says, is one of the best they’ve made to date, and they have no plans of stopping any time soon.


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