JILL Turton considers the benefits of having foreign holidays by swapping houses.
Imagine a family you’ve never met before living in your home while you’re away. Imagine them sleeping in your beds, cooking in your kitchen, driving your car. Then imagine staying in their five-bedroom, five-bathroom Alpine chalet with hot tub, picture windows and heart-stopping views of Mont Blanc.
This is the kind of thing that can happen when you go in for a home-exchange holiday. Three years ago, we swapped our seaside cottage in Staithes for a summer break in a luxurious French ski chalet. It was our first house exchange, and it was so successful we’ve been doing it ever since.
We’ve stayed in a canal-side loft in Amsterdam, a Lake District mill conversion and a trendy London townhouse. We’ve taken my mother-in-law for a weekend break in Cambridge and we’ve spent a week at the Edinburgh Festival staying in lovely Morningside. And all for free.
If you’ve got the nerve for it, it’s a seductively cheap way to holiday in interesting places. The necessary state of mind involves being relaxed about total strangers staying in your house. It means being prepared to do a bit of cleaning and clearing up for your guests. Most of all, it means being open-minded about where you might stay.
You won’t find many Mediterranean villas with a pool available in the school holidays, not when they can be let for £2,000 a week. But there are scores of city options and Scandinavian summer houses available. A ski chalet in August wouldn’t be our normal holiday destination but when the offer of this fabulous house dropped through our in-box and we checked out the photographs, we thought, why not?
The chalet belongs to an English couple who let it commercially in the ski season (with an £800 per-person price tag).
For us, free accommodation in France meant we could afford to take our daughter and two of her friends. And we were all knocked out by it. Five ensuite bedrooms with balcony, crisp white bed linen and piles of towels, food and wine in the fridge, high-spec TV and sound system in every room, hot tub and, best of all, those 360-degree mountain views.
Happily, too, a ski resort in summer turned out to be the perfect location for energetic young teenagers: as well as bike hire, ice skating, swimming pool and white water rafting, they were even prepared to contemplate a walk when uphill was by ski lift and downhill a stroll through flower-filled meadows.
So how does home-exchange work? You sign up with one of a number of online home exchange websites. We chose Homelink (www.homelink.org) because it covers 76 countries, 13,000 homes and though it wasn’t the cheapest (£115 per year) we liked the houses and the site was blissfully easy to use.
Once signed up, we wrote a description of our home and the area, photographed it inside and out and Homelink put it up on their site.
As with internet dating, everyone naturally shows their best side but brazen deception is counter-productive. We pulled out of one swapping for a glorious isolated beach location in Australia when Google Earth belatedly revealed it was surrounded by a caravan park.
In the end, it’s all down to trust, which, remarkably, seems to work. After all, people are less likely to trash your house if you are staying in theirs. In fact, both parties invariably leave premises tidier and cleaner than they found them.
We’ve had a few mishaps. There was the frenzied mopping up of a wine spillage (not saying where). Emotionally worse was the tragedy of the Scottish goldfish. Despite following its feeding instructions to the letter, we found Nemo on the last morning floating belly-up in its bowl. Worse, this very ex-goldfish belonged to the young daughter of the house.
We debated replacing it with a matching one but this was Sunday in Edinburgh. Honesty prevailed and we phoned the owners in our house. “Actually, we’ve broken a champagne glass”, came the reply, “so shall we call it quits?”
The delicious and dangerously addictive part of home-exchange is browsing the houses in which you might stay. Hours can slip by nosing around Tuscan villas or cool Berlin apartments, a houseboat in Amsterdam or a French farmhouse with a pool. And while you are browsing, other “Homelinkers” are sending you invitations.
We’ve been offered homes everywhere from Australia’s Byron Bay to a cool waterside property on Vancouver Island, a Sienna apartment and a remote boathouse on the Lofoten islands. Indeed, we get far more offers than we can ever take up but it’s nice to be asked.
To find the place you want though takes a bit of commitment. You need to co-ordinate place, date, time and size so you may have to send off 20 offers to get one in return that ticks all those boxes.
We’ve made offers to families who had never heard or thought of Staithes and went for it and, similarly, we’ve ended up in places we’d never imagined. That’s the open-minded bit.
It does help to have something distinctively English to offer. We shamelessly push the ye olde smuggler fishing village angle of Staithes to attract Australians or Americans.
From home or abroad, suddenly someone will have a family reunion or wedding near you and want to swap with a tempting trade-up.
Our most recent near-miss was for a clapboard beach house on Long Island, in the Hamptons. And we have time banked for a non-simultaneous stay in a luxury home in Mendicino, in upstate California.
One especially successful exchange was for a spacious loft above the Prinsengracht canal, in central Amsterdam, home to two professional artists and their two boys.
Before we stayed, we exchanged lots of emails with information about our lives, our families, our jobs, our neighbourhood, where to shop, where to eat and idiosyncrasies about our respective houses.
By the time we travelled we were nearly best friends. We never met but we borrowed each others’ bikes, their son fixed our TV and we have a standing agreement to do it again.
In fact, touch wood, it’s never gone wrong. Yet. You can lock up whatever you don’t want anyone to see but we don’t bother. There are few thrills to be found from rifling through our bank statements or sock drawers.
The mutual interest of trust does seem to work. We so enjoyed the Edinburgh Festival last year that rather than pay the city’s extortionate hotel prices, we decided, with some trepidation, to ask the goldfish family if they were up for another swap. They were. Even better, they haven’t replaced the fish.