Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Real Cost of a Home Exchange

Have you been intrigued by a home exchange? A home exchange is a direct exchange of housing, where you stay in somebody else's home for free while they stay in yours for free. No money changes hands. It could save you thousands of dollars while letting you experience your destination more like a local.

Go to the home exchange sites, and you'll be instantly dreaming of your vacation in beautiful homes around the world. The homes look really, really good. There are mansions and penthouses as well as cottages and chalets. It seems there is always a beautiful one in the best location and I couldn't help but imagine I'd be staying in all of them for free.

I mean I really couldn't help it- I signed up and paid the fee. The way the sites work, you can browse for free, but when you want to actually communicate with an owner, you have to signup and pay an annual fee (typically $100 - $300+).

I convinced myself it makes a lot of sense for our family. We already booked a free trip to Europe with points, but we don't yet have accommodations. The two places we plan to visit in Europe are Stockholm and the Swiss Alps, neither of which are inexpensive. Also, we hadn't traveled to Europe since becoming parents, and so were unaware that most European hotels don't offer a single room for 4 people. The whole trip would be very expensive without a home exchange, but could be done inexpensively with one. So, after convincing my family that our house was ready for it (by agreeing to tackle a few neglected projects), I paid the site fee and we tagged a few possible exchange homes we liked.

I soon started contacting the owners, and that's when I realized how expensive this process would be. One couple appreciated my offer, but the home wasn't available when I wanted to visit. Another family told me their kids would be back in school when I suggested dates for an exchange. And those were the ones that replied - many didn't bother. Although other exchangers were also contacting us with their own offers, they were for places like Colorado or California, and would be no help to our already booked trip to Europe.

Browsing the website, I might have thought the probability of a successful exchange was 1 in 10, or maybe a little lower. I figured that our chances were above average considering we're offering a nice house in a nice neighborhood in a city that gets a decent amount of tourism. But 10 offers easily went by without a single acceptance, and I began to realize it's much, much lower.

I changed my contact letter, figuring it wasn't personal enough or maybe not witty enough. Still no takers, and I was well past 20. I ran out of homes in the top tourist locations, so expanded my search into neighborhoods that require a quick subway ride to get downtown. Still no takers.

This was getting expensive - not in terms of money, but in time. Making each contact can take at least 10 minutes, as it takes a while to find a situation that's right for you. And this was in addition to the hours I spent tackling neglected house projects, taking pictures of our house, and writing up marketing comments so our home would be appealing to other exchangers on the site.

It takes time for each contact because some homes look phenomenal, but you quickly realize you're wasting people's time trying to exchange a stunning 5BR/4BA penthouse with 360-degree views and a rooftop pool in a top tourist location for a 3BR/1BA house on a quiet residential street in your little city. In some cases when the match felt about right, I would read closer and see they only want to exchange for beach destinations (we don't live near a beach). Or perhaps the listing says the home accommodates 4 people, but my idea of "accommodate" is very different from theirs (which involves pulling couches together).

Housing choice aside, the biggest factor by far in negotiating a successful exchange is timing. The more flexible you are with your dates, the more likely it will work. Because we already bought our tickets, we are not very flexible on dates.

Another huge factor is being flexible on location. The first offer we received for Stockholm was slightly beyond the last subway stop outside the city. Although the timing actually worked and we were getting desperate, we decided that location was more important than saving money, and so we declined. Shortly after, we received an offer from Copenhagen, and thought seriously about changing our destination by adding a short connection on a cheap European carrier. However, Copenhagen wasn't Stockholm, and we weren't going to let a home exchange site change our vacation on us.

I persevered through all those challenges, and eventually, it did pan out. Still nothing for the Swiss Alps, but we will soon have an exchange with a very nice family from Stockholm. They have already been incredibly helpful, and so I have no doubt we will enjoy the city like locals. It will also likely save us over a thousand dollars. But at 244 contacts sent, my hourly wage is only slightly better than a fast food worker's.

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