How to Live in This House for Free (for a Week)

Yes, to stay in this house, you are going to have to be OK with people you have never met sleeping in your bed. There are other hurdles when it comes to house swapping: Am I going to like the other person’s house? Will this interloper steal our dining-room chairs? But the biggest one is probably mental: Someone is going to be mouth-breathing on your pillows all night long. But we say let it go. You stay in hotels, don’t you? And if you can get with the notion of the house swap, a world of possibilities opens up. You can afford to go to places you’d never have considered. And maybe most importantly, house swapping lets you travel while living like a local, which is just a million times cooler and more fun than the room-service life.

"A lot of Canadian homes sit unused in the winter because people leave, but there are a ton of other people who are dying to go there."

But we acknowledge that there are risks. And to minimize those risks, you’re going to need to do some prep work. Lock up your valuables (laptops, jewelry, anything that vibrates). Buy a nice set of Ikea sheets for people to mouth-breathe on, and earmark them for home exchangers only. And you’ll want to do exchanges exclusively through reputable sites, like homeexchange.com, lovehomeswap.com, and homelink.org, which provide contracts and guidelines so you are safeguarded.

To get the most from your home exchange, you’ll want to do two things. One: Maximize your home’s potential. And two: Start dreaming about the place you want to go.

A place on the water in New Zealand

Step One: Show Off Your House’s Best Side.

Nothing makes a house more appealing than a personality. The whole point is that it’s not a hotel; it’s where someone lives. So play up your plants and your mismatched serving dishes. “I absolutely leave out pictures of my family,” says Jim Pickell, the president of Home Exchange. “Fresh flowers, personal items, all those things make it feel more of a home than just a generic AirBnb.”

To make your home as appealing as possible, you’re going to have to take pictures of it. It’s actually worth it to spring for a professional photographer (Professional Photographers of Canada is a great resource). But whether you do that or not, take the time to make your house look its best. Make the beds, turn on all the lights, put a bottle of wine and two glasses on the patio table—you’re not being manipulative; you’re putting your best foot forward.

And the more you can put out there, the better. Make a video of your home if you can. Show all the bedrooms. Walk around the yard. You want people to feel like they know you and your home.

Which is to say if you’re agoraphobic, this isn’t the right thing for you. You need to be a character in the story of your house.

Step Two: Take Advantage of the Town You Live In.

You might think that if you live in a place that’s kind of obscure, you’re a house-swap loser. But you’re wrong. Remember that people look for house swaps differently than they do hotels. They get inspired by what’s available, and they travel to places they’ve never heard of. Someone might say, “Let’s go spend a week in Nelson, BC—that place looks cool.” That goes doubly for cities. The people who home swap may prefer to stay in Brooklyn rather than the tourist explosion that is the Meatpacking District of Manhattan.

Which isn’t to say all real estate is created equal. “New York City, Paris, London, and Amsterdam are the biggest markets because people will always pass through these hubs,” says Pickell. “But our fastest growing category is weekend exchanges—and people want a weekend away anywhere. We have people in really odd places who have done 20, 30 exchanges. Ultimately, there is no one magic destination.”

And remember that the very reason you want to vacate your life for a little while may be the reason people want to stay in your house. “Canada is one of our fastest growing markets, Montreal and Vancouver in particular,” says Pickell. “A lot of Canadian homes sit unused in the winter because people leave, but there are a ton of other people who are dying to go there. Canada has the best back-country skiing in the world.”

Step Three: Do What It Takes to Get Great Reviews on Your House.

We’re living in a peer-review society, in case you didn’t notice the last time your Uber driver gave you a rating. But the reviews on house-swap sites are more crucial than most. You don’t have the reassurance of the Hilton Corporation behind you. All you have is the knowledge that 50 people have stayed there, and none of them were disappointed or maimed with hammers in their sleep.

One way to get great reviews? “Make a welcome kit for your guests with coffee, crackers, a bottle of wine, menus from nearby restaurants, and a map of the area,” says Pickell.

Another way to make your swappers happy is not to make them feel like they’re invading your space. Give them room for their things so it can feel like their home, if only for a few nights. “Clear out a closet or a dresser, leave contact numbers for the gardener, the plumber, and the pool guy, and if you have a housekeeper, keep the service running while you’re away so the guests don’t have to remember to put the coffee mugs back on the correct shelf,” says Pickell.

Think of everything from the practical (a note on how the remote controls work) to the decadent. “One of our clients stocked her refrigerator with local food and left notes on each thing explaining where to get it,” says Pickell. “People love that stuff—it makes them want to return.”

It’s also smart to ask your neighbors to swing by and say hi or invite the guests over for a barbecue—that has the double advantage of making your guests feel like locals and making sure your neighbors can keep a light eye on what’s going on at your place.

Live like a local in Berlin

Step Four: Get Inspired to Go Somewhere. But Don’t Be a Stickler About Where That Is.

If you simply must go to Seychelles the second week of October, your odds of winning the house-swap lottery are small. Rethink your parameters. Give yourself options. Make an anti-bucket list—a list of places you know you don’t want to go. Suddenly, the whole world opens up.

Now narrow it down by asking yourself what you do want. If it’s Provence and there are no actual Provence options, remember that there are Provences in other countries. Like Umbria, in Italy. Or Napa. Have a sense of adventure—it’s what house swapping is all about.

And for the record, don’t go in August if you can help it. Competition is fierce, and expectations are high. Most people book in January for an August vacation.

Step Five: Know What a Red Flag Looks Like.

Say you’ve found your dream home. Great. We’re happy for you. But hang on a second. Why are there no pictures of the backyard? And come to think of it, where are all the windows? “It’s incredibly important to overcommunicate,” says Pickell. “Skype or FaceTime so you can see the house in real time with the exchanger. Questions to ask are: Have you exchanged before? What’s unique about your home? Is there a car included in the exchange, and if so, can my 19-year-old drive it and how many miles can we put on it? Both parties need to be incredibly clear about exactly what is and what isn’t included.”

Reputable home-exchange companies will have you sign a detailed contract outlining everything from the time of arrival to what to do in case things are damaged.

And lastly, depend on the knowledge of others. A first-time house exchanger shouldn’t be paired with another first-time house exchanger—there’s too much etiquette that can go wrong. “As a newbie, you’ll have a better experience exchanging with a veteran,” says Pickell. “And that’s how you’ll learn the ropes.”

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"MY UNDERGRADUATE ADVISER TOLD ME I SHOULD JUST FORGET ABOUT THE WHOLE WRITING THING. ‘YOU SHOULD FIND A GOOD MAN AND GET MARRIED,’ HE TOLD ME."

Margaret Atwood

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