Special Report: House Swapping

Special Report: House Swapping

Marie Hennechart Amy and Jane in a cable car in San Francisco.
Marie Hennechart Amy and Jane in a cable car in San Francisco.
Introducing the thrilling—and affordable—world of trading houses

They have your keys. You have theirs. They shop at your supermarket. You fall in love with their pizza joint. You're essentially strangers, making yourselves at home in one another's bedrooms, kitchens, even cars. Introducing the thrilling—and affordable—world of trading houses. It's the insider way to show your kids how another culture lives and plays. Two families—one from the Bay Area, the other from London—met on an Internet swap site and changed places. Here, their true-life tales.

california goes to london


Had we not moved from Paranoiaville—New York City—to California five years ago, chances are we would never have considered a swap. But shortly after our arrival in Piedmont, next door to Berkeley and across the Bay from San Francisco, we began hearing about house trading; it sounded like our kind of vacation. I'd dreamed of showing our two boys London, where I had lived for two years during and just after college. It was the first place I'd fallen in love with on my own. At the suggestion of friends, we joined Intervac, a popular house-exchange program with both a Web site and catalogues. Soon, what is known as The Book arrived in the mail: a deliciously voyeuristic orgy of possibilities, from Norwegian farmhouses to condos in Sydney.

In no time, we spotted GBL004829, a fetching brick Victorian in Ealing, an area of London I vaguely knew. The cryptic blurbs accompanying the photos—the home-exchange equivalent of Internet dating ads—identified the owners of the house as radio journalists. My husband, Roger Cohn, and I are both journalists, so we immediately fired off an e-mail. It was, and remains, our deep conviction that fellow journalists are kindred spirits, with similar values and interests. So there was a built-in trust.

Six months later—after an e-mail courtship and a final phone call—we were in Ealing, a wonderfully diverse neighborhood with a picturesque village green, about a half-hour's tube ride from central London. We were exhausted, and not just from a sleepless 10-hour flight. We were reeling from a month of de-cluttering and perfecting our place for our visitors, Martin Rosenbaum, Jane Ashley, and their three kids. (Rule No. 1: The weeks leading up to your swap are not the time to give your house a total makeover.)

Part of the joy, as well as the challenge, of trading places is adapting to another family's domestic style. Our son Gabe, age 10, immediately claimed 13-year-old Ben's room, with its mini snooker table; Jacob, 13, gravitated to 10-year-old Adam's third-floor lair. It quickly became apparent, as we looked around at the stacks of books and papers, that Marthafying our abode had been completely unnecessary. It became even more obvious upon discovery of the collapsing metal clothes rack in the master bedroom. Well, what did we expect, a hot tub in Big Sur?, Roger and I asked ourselves, trying in vain to eke out some romance.

By far the most intimidating aspect of the swap agreement was our stewardship of the family's two pet rabbits, Smokey and Salome, outlined in several pages of daunting instructions that greeted our sweaty arrival: Two types of hay daily. Freshly snipped grass each morning. New sawdust. And every evening, sweeping bunny droppings from the hutch and the parlor floor, where the pets were allowed to romp. (Rule No. 2: Think hard about whether your idea of a vacation involves rabbit poop.)

Nevertheless, it didn't take long for all of us to fall in love with the place. We met the charming neighbors, Will, Lesley, and 17-year-old Anna French, who welcomed us with a glass of wine and a mother lode of local intelligence. We also met Jane's delightful aunt, Barbara Crispin, who had studied economics at UC Berkeley. We wanted her to be our aunt too, especially when she appeared fairy godmother-like to stock the fridge for her niece's return.

It's difficult not to fantasize about one's hosts. We gleaned from a large container that Heath& Heather's Evening Primrose is Jane's favorite tea, and pictured her sipping it. We imagined Martin, who is a producer of political programs at the BBC, as a menschy wonk, entombed in his office reading the autobiography of former prime minister James Callaghan and the diaries of Labour politician Tony Benn.

There were Lucy and Ethel moments. It took awhile to figure out that the "hob" referred to in the household instructions was the range. Then came the evening when, as I frantically searched for the cheese grater to finish a frittata dinner for a visiting friend, the phone rang. It was Martin, trying gamely to conceal his panic at the Marx Brothers situation back at our house, in which all the toilets had stopped up (we had forgotten to explain the quirks).

On a three-week trip involving heavy-duty museum-going, it helps to have a comfy place for downtime, some of it mindless. Unable to shake our jet lag, we evolved a daily routine in which the boys slept in and then played a bit of Game Cube (banned at our house), while I, a type-A personality, went to the gym where I had taken out a temporary membership. We would head out together in late morning, riding the District Line (green) or the Central Line (red) to the Tower of London (a sticker-shocking $75 for the four of us), the British Museum, or Westminster Abbey, where Gabe remarked on the strangeness of "walking on dead people."

The trip was full of the sort of things one lives for as a mom, such as an afternoon with Jacob exploring the Inns of Court off Fleet Street (my favorite haunt), following barristers down hidden lanes that led to quiet courtyards unchanged since Elizabethan days.

Just as enlightening, in a different way, was seeing British culture through the lens of a single neighborhood. We bought the Guardian and the Herald Tribune at the Budgen's Quickstop by the tube. We exchanged money at cash machines in a converted Victorian church. We bought tandoori-flavored potato chips. We befriended Kalina, a Bulgarian student moonlighting as a waitress at our Ealing hangout, Pizza on the Green. From placards in the windows, we learned about a local controversy concerning the widening of a medieval street.

Wearying of rabbit straw and nightly hutch duty—especially uplifting after the theater—we were happy we had planned a splurge at the Hôtel Ferrandiin Paris toward the end of our visit. (Rule No. 3: If you can, venture out for a few days during or after your house stay.) While the Rosenbaums' nanny babysat the bunnies, we relished not only the Louvre and the Pont-Neuf but the hotel itself—the chic, warm French décor, the luxuriant air conditioning, the plump duvets, the breakfast of fresh croissants and coffee with warm milk that magically arrived on white linen tablecloths.

Still, when we got back to London, on the Eurostar through the Chunnel, we felt that something imperceptible had changed. We walked along the diagonal path of Haven Green, past the "taxi rank" and the double-decker bus stop, over the zebra crossing to the front door. It all felt comfortingly familiar somehow. It felt like home.

PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN writes for the New York Times and Architectural Digest.

london goes to california


We were obviously doing something wrong with the recycling. The garbage was easy—we put it out on Mondays, as we had been instructed, and it was collected. Next to the dustbins at the side of the house were what definitely looked like recycling boxes. So we diligently filled them with newspapers and glass bottles, but, for some reason, they stayed put.

My wife, Jane, and I never did find out how the recycling system operates in Piedmont, the prosperous, environmentally conscious neighborhood near San Francisco where we were staying. That question, along with how to work the microwave and where to find the cheese grater (if there is a cheese grater), was just one of those little domestic puzzles that crop up when your holidays involve exchanging your house for someone else's in another country. Some you solve, some you don't.

This trip was our latest of five swaps, all of them done in successive years. We're addicts. The accommodations are not only free but also comfortable and well equipped. Our kids—Ben, 13, Adam, 10, and Amy, 8—love the fact that they get to play with what in effect are new toys, such as the baseball gear discovered in the Prairie-style house that we lucked into this time. On top of that, we get to experience the pleasures of neighborhood living, while also venturing out to see the sights.

Our family's favorite San Francisco place turned out to be Golden Gate Park—the calm of the Japanese Tea Garden, the immense variety of specimens in the Botanical Gardens, the pedal boats, and the hire bikes that we took all the way down to the windy coast. And, as true tourists, we window-shopped and snacked in Chinatown, gazed in awe at the Golden Gate Bridge, enjoyed hanging precariously out of the cable cars as they cling-clanged and whizzed down Mason Street, and had fun spending quarter after quarter in the antique amusement machines at the Musée Mécanique by Fisherman's Wharf.

When we didn't want to go into the city, we found lots to do around the East Bay, such as scaling the boulders at Indian Rock Park in North Berkeley and boating on Oakland's Lake Merritt—places we wouldn't have found without the incredibly detailed local guide that our host family wrote for us. We shopped at Berkeley Bowl and ate at Baja Taquería, one of their Piedmont Avenue mainstays. We even attended the neighborhood potluck, given monthly by their friends across the street, where we picked up tips for our trip to Yosemite. And when we needed downtime, we stayed in with a movie from Blockbuster.

Despite having house-swapped in several places by now—Maine, Vancouver, Stockholm, and Switzerland—we still find the concept slightly odd. We probably know what the other family looks like from the photos on display, but we generally never meet them, except through e-mail. Yet we read their books, drive their car, and get to know their neighbors, not to mention the local cats and dogs. It's almost as if we've momentarily taken over their lives. Then we get home and find that our own neighbors have become friendly with these strangers.

Still, it's heartwarming to take part in an exercise based on human trust. Through the agency Intervac, we've always found what we've wanted—or it's found us. And whatever minor breakages we've suffered in our own home have been equivalent to those we ourselves have been responsible for—such as the table-tennis bat in Piedmont that didn't survive our overenthusiastic play (we replaced it).

When we got home from California we discovered that things seemed to be largely in order this time too. Then we spotted our recycling box. Our guests had filled it with plastic containers and cardboard. We thought we'd covered all the necessary domestic matters in the notes we'd left behind, but there was something we'd forgotten. In our part of west London, the recycling collection lorry does not take plastic or cardboard.

MARTIN ROSENBAUM is an executive producer with the BBC in London.

This is how it works: agencies specializing in global home exchanges act as middlemen. For an annual fee—generally $50-$100—you post pictures and a description of your living quarters on the group's Web site. (Some organizations also publish catalogues.) Members browse the site, connect with one another, and make arrangements. Overseas swaps are typically for two weeks or more. But you don't have to go all the way to Europe. House exchanges within the United States are increasingly popular, and some trades are just for a weekend.

1. Do you suffer from Three Little Bears syndrome? If you are truly bothered by someone sitting in your chairs and eating from your bowls, then stick with a hotel.

2. Who wants to be a millionaire? Most swappers are not. They tend to be retirees or people with kids. The most successful trades are those in which the other house's amenities (as well as the other kids' ages) are roughly equivalent to your own.

3. Do you love the idea of living like a native? Are you flexible about your destination? Do you live somewhere enticing? Yes, yes, yes? Then it's time to take photos of your pad and sign on with an agency.

"The Imperial War Museum, and its walk-in model of a trench from the World War I western front. It feels very cramped, and when you first enter, it smells disgusting—like a real trench must have smelled." —Jacob, 13

"Touring the Aston Martin showroom. I got to sit in a Vanquish V-12!" —Gabe, 10

"Seeing Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London. Before the play we walked across the Millennium footbridge." —Patti

"The Jack the Ripper Walk, led by Donald Rumbelow, a famous Ripperologist. We saw where the killings took place and learned about Victorian London. Did you know that one of the people suspected of being Jack the Ripper was Lewis Carroll?" —Jacob

"Ribena, a black-currant drink. And Cadbury Flake—when you buy an ice cream cone, you can get one of these crumbly chocolate bars stuck into the top. It's such a good combination." —Jacob

"The British Museum. When you go into the room that holds the Elgin Marbles, it's like a visit to the Parthenon." —Roger

"The Museum of London's diorama of the 1666 London fire, with miniatures of all the buildings in the original city, which was only about one square mile. The entire London cityscape glows with orange light as the fire spreads." —Jacob

"Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms. The underground bunkers beneath Whitehall Street, where Churchill hunkered down during the Battle of Britain, are intact, right down to the maps on the walls showing troop positions." —Roger

"Biking in the New Forest, a primeval-feeling royal hunting ground in Hampshire that's about two hours southwest of London. Harry Potter-style, a white stag leaped out of the enchanted woods. Really." —Patti

"Everyone in London sounds like a James Bond character. Meanwhile, they thought we were the ones with accents." —Gabe

"Dad and I watched a cricket match at the Oval. It was fun, but so slow-paced—kind of like golf. The crowd didn't seem at all bored, even though it went on for something like five hours." —Jacob

"It was hard enough driving on the left-hand side of the road. Imagine navigating a borrowed minivan through streets with medieval dimensions." —Patti

"The superb Witter sports field at Piedmont High School. We did our jogging in constant amazement. We've never seen a school facility as good as this." —Martin

"The orange and lemon trees in the garden. It was so strange to look out and see them. They were the best lemons I have ever tasted." —Amy, 8

"The neighbor's border collie, called Daisy, was really friendly and energetic." —Adam, 10

"I was staggered by the range and quality of fresh food at the Berkeley Bowl supermarket." —Jane

"We went to an Oakland A's baseball game. A lot of time nothing much was happening. It was nearly as exciting as watching cricket!" —Ben, 13

"In the morning the weather was foggy; in the afternoon it was sunny. But it was impossible to predict when the switch would take place." —Martin

Each of these companies is largely Web-based and has listings that cover the world. See the FAQ sections for sample agreement forms that members use to outline the terms of their trade.

Intervac The oldest and best-known house-swap outfit, Intervac was founded in 1953 by Dutch and Swiss teachers' unions to facilitate temporary out-of-town housing for members. Twice a year the company publishes two regional catalogues that go to members for $100 a copy. Average number of listings: 10,000. 800/756-4663; www.intervacus.com; annual fee $70.

Homeexchange.com This site offers the most exhaustive guidance for would-be swappers. Average number of listings: 6,500. 800/877-8723; annual fee $50.

Homelink International Homelink also produces a directory of offerings that members receive two times a year for $45. Average number of listings: 14,000. 800/638-3841; www.homelink.org; annual fee $75.


We've always used Intervac, and have either found what we've wanted or it's found us. We tend to start off with a particular country in mind, but remain open to new possibilities. E-mail is the most time-efficient method of contact. Often, the hardest part is deciding whether to accept an offer that looks okay, or to wait for the better one you hope will come along. It's up to you how close to the wire you're willing to take it. Sometimes we settle on a swap months in advance, but one year everything was arranged at three weeks' notice. Most agencies don't screen members, so consider asking for references (such as from a prior swap partner).

LOCATION How close is the house or apartment to shops and restaurants?Public transportation?The activities that matter to your family?For many swappers, location is more important than the size and description of the house itself.

THE AGES OF YOUR KIDS AND THEIRS You want, of course, a family with the right sorts of entertainments, and, if babies are involved, high chairs and household safety features.

CARS Swapping these, too, can save a fortune—as long as your insurance covers your guests and vice versa. Check with your broker; house swappers fall under the category of friends. We, ourselves, have always traded cars, and even cell phones and computers, without any problems.

HOUSEKEEPING The fastidious should make sure they haven't matched with slobs. And to smooth the reentry, consider agreeing to hire each other a cleaning person at the end of the stay.

PETS Be clear about whether you're happy to look after theirs (we squeamishly opted out of caring for a snake). And, just as important, whether you will entrust yours to them. If anyone in the family has allergies, don't forget to ask about who and what's been living in the house.

GET YOUR HOUSE READY It doesn't have to be immaculate, but it does have to be reasonably clean and well-organized. Put some basics in the fridge, and consider leaving a welcoming gift, such as a bottle of wine. Provide instructions on how your appliances work, and detail your house's and car's eccentricities.

INTRODUCE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD Put out maps, guidebooks, and plenty of information on where you live: the nearest supermarket, your favorite restaurants, the local emergency numbers.

ALERT THE NEIGHBORS Otherwise they may think something rather strange is going on. Even better, encourage friends to pop in on your guests.

FOR PEACE OF MIND Remember that while they're living it up in your quarters, so are you in theirs.

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