My Life as a Swapper

Would you ever lend your home to complete strangers while you’re away? What if they lent you their Paris pad in return? A trip into the realm of foreign exchange

Illustration by Serge Bloch

The last two summers in Provence still feel like a dream. The old stone mill house was airy and cool, with six large bedrooms and a huge kitchen shaded by plane trees. In the morning I’d bicycle to the weekly marché for peaches, or maybe apricots to barbecue with the duck breasts we’d bought in the village. In the afternoon I’d lie among the lavender fields or doze by the pool, amazed that it was all mine for about $100 and a bit of blind faith.

For the past decade my wife and I have been swapping houses, turning over our Silver Lake three-bedrooms-with-pool to total strangers while we set up camp in their homes far away. We’ve stayed in country estates (in England and France), waterfront vacation homes (Salt Spring Island, Canada, and County Kerry, Ireland), and city apartments (Paris, Padua, and New York). Because we aren’t paying for hotel rooms, we can book longer holidays for about the cost of remaining at home. We save more by trading vehicles.

“You lend them your car?” some people ask when I tell them about our summer routine. “They sleep in your bed?” Swapping is not for them. But for my wife and me and many of our friends, it’s been life changing: Suddenly we can really travel. We’ve tapped into a worldwide network of people who want to visit L.A. The process of finding the perfect trading partner is simple: You pay $100 or so to list your home with an exchange service, study the photo listings, and send e-mails to prospective partners to negotiate a deal.

As with online dating, the camera sometimes lies. We swapped for a manor house near Wimbledon that proved to be almost all facade, like a movie set. I was so smitten by the exterior shots of a bougainvillea-bedecked country home near Aix-en-Provence that I didn’t notice how dreary and dark the kitchen and bedrooms were. The house in a Basque village was so charming that I failed to learn it was surrounded by dairy farms and the perpetual smell of cow.

Other times, though, the camera obscures delightful details. The pictures of the Padua pad failed to highlight the statue-studded piazza out front and the enormous garden in back. The listings for the stone rectory near Salisbury and the house in Provence didn’t mention the streams burbling through their yards.

Even when the property has turned out to be less than ideal, there have been compensations. The Wimbledon facade came with a new Mercedes. The cramped Amsterdam apartment included a rooftop garden and a slender motorboat that we took canal cruising at sunset. A two-bedroom Paris pied-à-terre was tiny—one of the bedrooms was the living room, too—but it was in the Marais, two blocks from the Place des Vosges. Since our swappers usually provided us with introductions to friends and neighbors, we were able to get tips on the best restaurants, farm stands, shops, and hiking trails.

Of course we have experienced the occasional mishap. On one French exchange, the swimming pool blossomed with lime Jell-O algae. On another I almost murdered our exchange partners’ car by filling it with diesel. The experiences tested my linguistic limits and the patience of Provençal pool boys and Basque car mechanics. Periodically it’s been our house that has taken the beating. Once we came home to find the varnish stripped from a kitchen cabinet. (Someone had been overzealous with ant spray.) Another time an armchair was tattooed with permanent markers. (We received an apology, and some cash, from the artist’s parents.) One August we returned to discover a parade of skunks begging at the back door. (A French couple had been feeding them cat food. “My wife love the little stunks,” the husband’s note read.) Last year our bamboo kitchen floor was decorated with a dark brown crop circle. (The perpetrator never fessed up, but forensics suggested someone had dropped a hot frying pan.) The floor cost $500 to repair, the cabinet about $100. But $600 for more than a decade of exchanging still seems like a pretty good deal.

We’ve already begun our search for a summer 2011 exchange. Since September we’ve received queries from families in France, England, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Because we have a daughter studying near Auckland, we’re sending e-mails to people in Australia and New Zealand. We’re looking for something entirely new. Unless, of course, the people with the Provençal mill house decide to come to L.A. again.       

Learn the Tricks of the Trade

Plan Early 
Summer swaps are the most popular, so people start putting out feelers 10 to 12 months in advance. Be forewarned, though: Partners sometimes drop out at the last minute.

Shop Around
Look for experienced exchangers. Request references, and follow up. Swapping sites like HomeLink (our favorite, with 13,000 properties in 78 countries), HomeExchange, and HomeForExchange do not bond or guarantee.

Work It
Take good, well-lit photos for your listing. Tidy up, and include flowers and candles. Boast about geography. Being just 45 minutes from Disneyland or Malibu may not be a big deal to you, but it is to someone from London or Rome.

Help Them
Assemble a guide covering local restaurants, shops, museums, and galleries as well as tips on how to run the appliances. Be sure to provide contact information for neighbors, friends, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics, and arrange for a professional handyman to be on call in case of emergencies.

Hide Away
Use your garage, attic, or walk-in closet to lock up the things you don’t want mishandled—or taken. That includes favorite art pieces, the good china, and most, if not all, clothing.

Charles Fleming is the author of Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles.