64: Trading Houses

64: Trading Houses

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


Trading Houses

You don’t have to be rich to travel well.

~Eugene Fodor

When I tell people that my husband and I are able to travel so much by trading houses with strangers, I usually get one of two reactions: “Wow! I want to try that!” or “Ew! You let people you don’t know sleep in your bed?” House trading is not for everyone; it takes a certain adventurous spirit, flexibility, and a bit of faith in humanity, but we’ve found that taking that leap of faith has been well worth it, both in expanding our travel options and opening us to new experiences.

My husband retired early, and I work part-time as a freelance editor. This gives us lots of time and flexibility but not a lot of funds. And while we have happily chosen free time over money, we do love to travel, and travel is usually expensive. Still, we’ve managed to take a lot of affordable trips, and the best way we’ve found to keep the cost down is by house trading.

House trading is not the same as Airbnb or renting out a room in someone’s home; house trading involves no exchange of money. We connect with people in cities we want to visit who are looking to visit our area — and then we trade! While there are businesses that facilitate house trading, such as Homeexchange.com, made popular by the 2006 film The Holiday, and HomeLink, which has been in operation since 1953, we’ve found all our trades through craigslist’s “housing swap” category or through friends of friends.

There are, of course, commonsense precautions you should take before handing over your house keys (and sometimes car keys) to virtual strangers, but we’ve had more than fifteen successful trades so far. After the initial contact through craigslist (we post an ad both in our area and in the area we want to visit, and we also browse those areas to look at other people’s ads), we exchange photos and e-mails with our potential trade partners. If both parties feel comfortable (a lot of it is just gut feelings for me), and we come up with dates that work for both, we’ll move on to a phone call or two to work out the details, such as how we’ll exchange keys.

We’ve found a whole range of trade partner styles — from the young couple who left the keys to their San Francisco apartment in their mailbox for us along with a note that said “Enjoy!” to the family who provided us with a three-ring binder full of information. I admit that I fall more into the “binder” category. Along with where to find things in the house, I include maps, tourist brochures, and menus from nearby restaurants. While it’s fun to stumble onto new places on your own, it is even more fun to have an “insider” tip about the little taco place around the corner or the pop-up ice cream vendor who shows up at the park on weekend afternoons.

With no money involved, house traders feel more like guests in each other’s homes. My husband and I are generally relaxed about people using our things, and we just assume our trade partners will treat our belongings as well as we’ll treat theirs. Staying in someone else’s home creates a certain intimacy. I always enjoy looking at our trade partners’ artwork and décor, the books on their bookshelves, and the pictures on the fridge. By the end of our visit, I feel as if I know these former strangers pretty well. We’ve been lucky enough to find some trade partners to do multiple trades with, and they have truly become new friends. On our very first trade, our trade partner welcomed us with a bottle of wine and a cheese platter in the fridge We’ve continued that gracious tradition with our own “guests.”

The best part of trading houses, besides the savings, is being able to experience a new city more like a resident than a tourist. Having a kitchen means we can do a lot of our own cooking, shopping at a local market for groceries. We often find a favorite coffee shop nearby, and it quickly becomes “ours” with repeat visits. We find that when we slow down and enjoy the new atmosphere, we begin to feel the unique rhythm of the city or town we’re visiting. We are happy to spend a lazy morning on the patio reading the paper, not feeling that we have to rush to see the major attractions.

Yes, house trading did begin with our desire to travel on the cheap, but it’s become so much more than just a way to save money. It’s thrown us smack dab in the middle of the true sharing economy, reinforced our faith in the goodness of people, let us get glimpses of places we might never have explored otherwise, and confirmed our decision to choose a lifestyle that values time over money. We all learned to share by the time we were in kindergarten, right? It’s not too late to rediscover that basic lesson on a whole new level.

~Marjorie Woodall


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