A few years ago I registered as an aspiring home-swapper on Homebase Holidays. Membership is approx thirty pounds a year. I chose this site because of its emphasis on properties in theUK. As an expat living in Amsterdam, home-exchange offered the ideal solution to the dilemma of staying with family during frequent visits to the UK.
Taking the plunge
Our flat in Amsterdam proved instantly popular and the emails started coming in. A couple from London suggested a week-long swap. Their apartment was ideally situated near London Bridge. Nursing first-timers’ butterflies we rolled our wheelie suitcases along Tooley Street towards our swap address. During our email correspondence our counterparts had asked us how we felt about Futon beds. I’d replied that they weren’t really our cup of tea, but that we could cope, so not to worry. The evening before we left we got a phone call informing us that our newfound friends had bought a new box spring double mattress! It had been on their to-do list and our forthcoming visit added that extra incentive to take action.
Cash over for extra holiday treats
As we neared our destination I joked to my other half, ‘Don’t worry we’ll find it easy enough. It’ll be the block of flats with an old mattress out front.’ Round the next corner we saw a Futon propped against some black bins. My fears were quickly assuaged though when our smiley host came out to greet us and took us into his perfectly furnished home. With some of the money we saved on accommodation I celebrated my birthday in Gordon Ramsay’s Gastro-pub; The Narrow. On our last evening we went to The Proms which had always been on my bucket list. It was heaven returning to a real home after a busy day’s sightseeing in a rare London heatwave.
Talking French to the Chinese
Next swap was a long weekend in Paris. This time we didn’t have a chance to meet our mutual swapper in advance. She had to leave early in the morning and we’d received instructions to pick up the key at her local greengrocer. I’d practised my school French, which proved to be useless. The Chinese shopkeeper didn’t understand a word of French (or my French at least.) After some gesticulation he went out back and presented us with the key to ‘our’ apartment. It was in Paris’ artistic Rive Gauche, nearby the beautiful Parc Montsouris, near where many well-heeled Parisians live. Great for people with champagne tastes on a beer budget! We really felt like locals popping to the shops to get our morning croissants.
The Good Life in Wales
But, the swap to top them all was on a smallholding on the Black Mountains in Wales. This time there was more involved as we also had to care for a flock of chickens, geese, two ducks, two horses and a grumpy cat! This’ll be a doddle I thought. I grew up on a farm and was looking forward to caring for animals again.
We drove into the yard and were immediately circled by a flock of friendly chickens. Meet Lenin, our host, Chris said as he gestured towards the magnificent cockerel. We had to duck our heads as we walked into the kitchen. Four hundred year-old stone walls and flagstone floors were still intact. A massive oak dining table and fireplace big enough for a boar on a spit conjured up images of Welsh Barons throwing gnawed chicken bones (sorry Lenin) to man-eating Lurchers as a bard strummed about some fair maiden on his Celtic harp.
‘Look, we’ve just got time to give you a tour, introduce you to the animals and then we’re off to the airport to catch our plane to Amsterdam.’ Our hosts strode purposefully ahead. They gave us a lightening tour of the house, fields and vegetable plot. We were instructed where to find chicken feed, where to look for eggs, had a crash course in herding petulant geese and chickens. We listened intently as we didn’t want any of our wards to be eaten by a fox. We waved them off with big smiles. The smiles faded as we looked at each other: What have we taken on was the unspoken thought between us.
The extra work on the farm, was more than compensated by fresh vegetables and the animals’ amusing antics. The neighbours were on standby which helped us feel a lot more secure. They were experienced with horses and helped us through a couple of tricky situations during the holiday. We were both gutted to have to leave. My husband really fell in love with the ‘Good Life’ and is still missing the chickens.
Trust your Instinct
We’ve received offers from afar afield as Los Angeles, New York, Adelaide, Barcelona, even the Costa Rican jungle! There are many home exchange sites on the internet. Get a taster and useful tips here: http://wikitravel.org/en/Home_exchange If you decide to give it a go remember that each exchange is unique. A relationship of trust should develop as you get to know your exchange partners through e-mail and phone calls. Most importantly of all, rely on your common sense and intuition. Be upfront with any concerns you may have. If the communication is proving difficult then perhaps the swap is not right for you. It’s much easier and painless to call a halt early on in negotiations.
Apart from the obvious financial benefits there’s the added bonus of getting to know neighbours and your chosen area as a local would. Researching your own area to make up an information pack for guests is a real eye-opener once you realise how much your neighbourhood has to offer. Home-exchange is an enjoyable adventure which does require a major investment of time and planning but the rewards, in my experience, make it 100% worthwhile.
An extended version of this article appeared originally in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/