Lending your home in exchange for someone else’s is kind to your budget and offers a chance to act like a local
THE OFFERS pop into my inbox: come, stay in my villa in Tuscany. Bordeaux is beautiful in the spring, and our country house has a pool. Wouldn’t you like to come to Rio and use my place at the beach? Each one ignites its own little fantasy: drinking coffee in the garden of a French chateau from a big, chipped cup, so chic it doesn’t have to be perfect. Waving to George and Amal in their speedboat on Lake Como. Coming home at night to cocktails on the terrace of my cutting-edge London apartment.
And I can actually slip into at least some of them for a couple of weeks, at the small cost of lending my own home.
Over the past three years, my husband and I have traded our Manhattan brownstone for a light-filled canal house on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam; an apartment just steps from La Concha in San Sebastian, Spain; a rather generic ski condo in Utah; and, this past summer, an apartment in the Sodermalm neighbourhood of Stockholm and a houseboat in Copenhagen’s equivalent of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
We’ve saved money. Every night we spend in someone else’s home is a night of not paying for a hotel room, and that can add up to thousands of dollars over the course of a vacation. But more important has been the chance to experience a place like a local, learning which bakery has the great bread and which one is better for pain au chocolat, keeping an afternoon appointment with the gelato stand one block over, navigating by local landmarks (turn right at the Cut the Crap hair salon) to get back to ‘our house’.
Home swapping is a first cousin to using sharing economy disrupters like Uber and Airbnb, though in a straight-up exchange no money is changing hands. It remains a tiny part of the travelling world, as per Douglas Quinby, vice-president for research at PhoCusWright, a travel research firm, in part because of the structural obstacles to swapping homes. “You’ve got to find a home that’s available where you want to go, you’ve got to match and marry dates, you’ve got to match for an equitable home,” he says. And “you have to be somewhere that other people want to go.”
Before the Web, home exchangers looked at thumbnail photographs in printed catalogues, Ed Kushins, who founded HomeExchange.com, the service we use, in 1992, told me. Back then, if you wanted to swap, you would “have to write an actual letter and stick it in the mail and then wait for a reply”, he says. The company now has 55,000 members who each pay $9.95 a month to list their homes and who complete an estimated 120,000 exchanges a year, he says.
Other companies put their own twists on the exchange process: one called 3rd Home focuses on luxury second homes (it vets your house to make sure it’s up to snuff); Love Home Swap has a point system that members use to swap and also offers rentals; Home Link International says it’s the oldest exchange group, with the most members outside the United States.
People always ask, don’t you feel odd having strangers in your house? And the truth is, no. The exchange relationship is at once intimate and distant. You sleep in each other’s beds, use each other’s towels, borrow the lingonberry jam and, maybe, that fancy conditioner in the shower, but you don’t often meet. I frequently find myself scouring our hosts’ houses for clues as to who they are, reading the titles on the bookshelves, staring at the photos on the walls and pondering their design choices. It didn’t surprise me to learn that our Dutch host was a product designer with a piece in MoMA’s gift shop, based on the spare, white beauty of her living room. The two little girls in our Swedish hosts’ photographs must be teenagers by now, judging by the copies of Insurgent and Divergent on their shelves. And, surely, it meant something that at both of our exchanges this past summer, volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s creative-class bestseller, My Struggle, were on the shelves—my husband was racing through it, too.
So far we haven’t travelled to cities with long lists of tourist requirements dutifully to be checked off. Our experiences trend less towards forced march and more towards leisurely stroll.
On our first full day in Stockholm, for instance, we left the city for Artipelag, an arts centre on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, created by the founder of the Baby Bjorn baby carrier company. There, in a show devoted to art from the archipelago, we discovered the work of Prins Eugen, a member of the Swedish royal family who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was at the centre of the artistic foment there. The next day, back in Stockholm, we visited his house on Djurgarden, a lovely and quite modest place, where our stroll through his flower garden was punctuated by screams from the Fritt Fall ride at the nearby Tivoli Grona Lund amusement park.
Later, my husband and I took a boat to Drottningholm, the Swedish Royal palace, an enormous pile of a place with acres of formal gardens surrounding it. It was hard to imagine the modest watercolourist Prins Eugen in its gilded halls.
It was mid-August and everywhere we turned, someone was sitting in a slice of sun, soaking it up. We got into the habit of joining them. From afternoon into the lingering evening, the sidewalk cafes and outdoor beer halls were filled. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that every place was stocked with fleece blankets, an omen perhaps of the cold, dark days to come.
After a week in Stockholm we moved on to Copenhagen. Working out our back-to-back exchanges had taken an algebraic equation of home swapping, in which the Danish family stayed in our house in New York in February, while we were in the Utah ski condo, which belongs to a man who currently lives in Qatar. The Swedish family took over our place while we stayed in theirs (then they stayed the second week while we moved on to Denmark). The Danish family had another house they could stay in while we were on the boat. We still owe the owner of the Utah place a week at our house.
Home, this time, was a houseboat moored off Refshaleoen Island, once home to the Burmeister & Wain shipyard. Its giant industrial buildings are being repurposed as restaurants, clubs, concert spaces and even a paintball arena. We stopped in the last to see if my son could get in on a battle, but the manager told us they were completely booked with people celebrating their weddings. I don’t know what I expected of the Danes, but it wasn’t that.
Our location meant that there were no stores close by, no corner cafe to pop into in the morning. We compensated by loading up our rental bikes on the way home, ferrying exquisite pastries from Lagkagehuset bakery home in our backpacks. The ride itself was a treat, a long slide down Prinsessegade, past Christiana, the renegade squatter settlement, where the air was sweet with the smell of marijuana, followed by some swooping turns past old military buildings. Two red barns marked where we turned for the last quiet pedal to the boat. There the resident cat, Bulle, waited.
By the time we’d arrived in Copenhagen, it was the third week of August, and the Scandinavian summer was clearly coming to an end. The days were chilly, the nights chillier. One afternoon when the temperature hit the mid-60s, I told my son we had to go to Islands Brygge Harbour Bath, a floating pool in Copenhagen harbour that I had been longing to try. After changing on the deck, we headed to the high-dive, where he immediately launched himself from the top of the 5m platform. I followed from the lowest level. The water was heart-stoppingly cold and surprisingly salty. All the Danes swimming, I later noticed, had on wet suits.
If Stockholm had been beautiful but a little sedate, Copenhagen is clearly the Brooklyn of Scandinavia. My husband debated the merits of cold-brew coffee at a stand in the Torvehallerne food hall (the barista said he didn’t think cold-brew brought out the acidity enough and gave him a pour-over), and we ate lunch one afternoon at Copenhagen Street Food, where stands and trailers offered artisanal hot dogs, speciality tacos and small-batch ice creams. We spent an afternoon in the meatpacking district, which is starting to shade over into something else—a home to galleries, small manufacturers like Butchers & Bicycles (makers of a highly engineered cargo bike) and hip restaurants like Kodbyens Fiskebar, a white-tiled temple to fresh fish. After dinner there one night, we rode the very cool, very orange Cykelslangen bicycle skyway back towards home.
But part of the joy of home exchange is that it takes the edge off that travellers’ pressure to go out and do something. A 400-sq-ft hotel room with a mini-fridge and a coffeemaker starts to close in on me after a few days, and I start feeling desperate to escape. Staying in a house or an apartment—or even on a boat—gives you permission to relax. Rather than dining out every night, you can stay in and eat leftovers and watch Breaking Bad on TV with the cat at your feet. If that sounds like home, well, that’s the point.