Over the past several years, Donnie and Roger Jewel have travelled to Stockholm, Banff, Zion National Park, Santa Cruz, and Hawaii. Their lodging costs? $0. The retired teachers rely on home exchanges to make trips more affordable than if they’d booked hotels or rentals—and thus more frequent.
“I like the idea that we’re not paying anything for our lodging,” Donnie says. “And it does give you a wonderful sense of the place.”
The Bend, Ore. couple are part of a growing cohort of retirees who have discovered home exchanges as a creative way to cut travel expenses. Popular house-swapping website Home Exchange reports that “active retirees” over the age of 50 make up its second-largest user base, accounting for 20% of the company’s 65,000 members.
The concept is simple: You allow travelers to stay in your home in exchange for staying in theirs—no money changes hands. You post a profile with photos of your home and note when it’s available for visitors. Or you peruse fellow exchangers’ profiles and reach out.
Even though it’s a relatively straightforward process, seasoned swappers say there are few keys to making sure the experience is stress-free and worth the effort.
How swapping works
Alexandra Origet, Home Exchange’s head of communications for the Americas and Asia/Pacific region, says home exchanges make great sense for those planning to travel in retirement.
At most house swapping websites, you’ll pay a fee to join. Home Exchange charges $150 a year for membership. Love Home Swap, another home exchange company, offers varied fee levels, starting at $20 a month.
“They’re one of our most active groups,” she says. “When you’re more or less retired, you have more time and the desire to travel, but you also have to be careful of your budget.” The company reports that its travelers save 58% annually on travel expenses.
For your membership fees you get full access to fellow member profiles and unlimited swaps all year. Those can be simultaneous, at different times (which works if, say, you own a second home), or while you’re home (that is, you host guests, they later host you).
Hal Bunzmann, of Gainesville, Fla., says the cost is worth the opportunities that home exchanges provide. Bunzmann, a retired entrepreneur and engineer, and his wife made their second home in Daytona Beach available for home swaps three years ago, enabling them to travel to Mexico, Sweden, Montreal, and Portland, Ore.
In Oregon, the couple stayed in a house that overlooked wine country. “At one point, we looked out the window and there was a fleet of hot air balloons,” he says. “It was a gorgeous place.”
For both the Bunzmanns and the Jewels, home swapping has allowed them to travel to places they may not have considered. As an added bonus, Jewel says she’s met new friends, including a couple from Hawaii. The pair have now switched homes several times.
Tips from frequent exchangers
Get to know your swappers. Make sure you’re “the type of person who is comfortable having people in your home when you’re not there,” Jewel says. She’s never had a problem with any travelers, and says that by the time people come to stay they’ve often exchanged multiple emails and talked on the phone. “You feel like you know them,” she says.
Do digging to feel secure. Home exchange websites are peer-to-peer and operate on the basis of honesty and trust. So it’s well worth your time to dive deeply into member reviews and evaluate the company’s security procedures.
Home Exchange, for example, provides tools to make the process secure and transparent, including verification of phone numbers, email addresses and Facebook accounts, detailed member profiles and reviews, and a secured messaging system that lets you communicate before revealing your phone number or email.
Plus, the company encourages travelers to decline exchanges if they don’t feel like a fellow exchanger is providing adequate information.
Also, check with your insurance agent before you travel to see if you need additional homeowners coverage to account for visitors.
Put time into your listing. Origet says that making a good impression makes a difference in the types and number of exchange requests that come your way.
“Post an abundance of photos of your home,” she says. “People want to see the garden, the amenities, the surrounding area.”
Origet also suggests posting photos of yourself and including a few things about you and your family, such as what sports you like or what you do for fun. “People trust people that they can relate to,” she says.
Be sure to respond. Your response rates and reviews also help you make a good impression. Bunzmann says it’s frustrating when people don’t answer inquiries or follow up on email threads. Home Exchange tracks homeowner response rates, and Bunzmann looks at those when he’s considering where to go.
Stay open-minded. For Bunzmann, part of the fun of home exchanges is seeing what offers pop up. Some exchangers like to pick and choose where they want to go, but Bunzmann prefers sorting through the inquiries he receives and selecting from those places.
He notes, “You can open yourself to a lot of opportunities if you’re willing to be flexible.”