A stranger in the house

Thanks to the "sharing economy" you can travel without paying a cent for accommodation, if you are prepared to swap your home with someone from the other side of the world, writes Lynn Grieveson.

When she was 13, our youngest daughter walked into our perfectly reasonably-sized hotel room, looked around and asked: "Where is the rest of it?"

To be fair, it wasn't because she is used to luxury hotel suites, but because most of our recent holidays have been spent staying in the homes of strangers.

Our first foray into home exchanging was five years ago, when – purely out of idle curiosity and jealousy of some friends' travel plans – we made a search on a home exchange website to see if anyone wanted to swap with our house in Auckland.

Immediately we found a Kiwi woman wanting to bring her French husband and their two children for an extended holiday to New Zealand over Easter. In exchange for letting them stay in our house, we would get the use of their apartment in the historic centre of Vannes, in Brittany, as well as their 13th century country cottage a short drive away.

After ten minutes of "wish we could do that", quickly followed by "why not?" we registered our home on the site and sent them a message offering to exchange, before sitting down to eat dinner.

By the time we had finished eating, we not only had that exchange locked in, we had also received a message asking if we were interested in a week in Strasbourg that neatly fitted in around the first family.

That message was from a French couple cobbling together a four-month round the world honeymoon of house swaps.

They arranged for a friend to meet us at Strasbourg train station. Straight from a long-haul flight followed by a fast train from Paris, we followed him blindly as he wheeled our suitcase through a maze of streets and lugged it up the stairway of the old apartment building right in the centre of the city. He gave us a quick tour of the place, told us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge or cupboards, and pointed to the welcome message on the chalkboard in the kitchen.

Doing schoolwork in a Strasbourg apartment. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Arriving in Brittany was equally easy. We had hired a car by then, and spent two days driving from Strasbourg to a tiny country village where, following the meticulous emailed instructions, we identified the cottage and found its key in a hiding place as promised. There we spent a blissful, but unseasonably cold, week using up all their firewood, scavenging for more in the surrounding woods, and driving to nearby towns and villages where we would buy delicious roast chicken and fresh strawberries in the markets.

The mother was taking the chance to spend as much time as possible with her family in New Zealand, but the father of the family had to return to France for work.  So, while we stayed in their weekend cottage, he lived in the city apartment. When it was time to swap, he met us in the carpark of the train station and drove us through the narrow streets to the apartment building, right in the middle of the pedestrianised historic city centre.

View from the bedroom window, Vannes, Brittany. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Before he left us, he handed over the remote control which raised and lowered the bollards blocking off the streets to all vehicles other than those belonging to residents. A highlight of every day was driving up to the bollards in our cheap rental car, dodging tourists and watching them smirk at the silly people who had got themselves stuck in the pedestrianised zone, only to whip out the "resident's remote" and lower the bollards.

He returned one day to take us out to lunch to his favourite restaurant, where we had a fabulous time - and we have remained facebook friends ever since.

Our next swap was in France again. By then we were living in Wellington, and exchanged with an expat New Zealand couple who wanted to visit friends and family over Christmas. They had a wet and windy Christmas here, while we got the better part of the deal with cold but brilliantly sunny weather while living in a loft apartment on the coast near the Spanish border. We were perfectly placed for short trips to the Dali Museum in Figueres, and to Girona, as well as two overnight trips – to Barcelona and to Andorra.

This summer we will be tending chickens for a family from the Sunshine Coast, while they have a week in Wellington. But before they arrive, we have a week housesitting our neighbour's house while a family of French expats from Singapore live in our place. In exchange for that disruption now, we will escape Wellington's winter in July to enjoy their house and pool while they have a summer holiday back in Europe.

Apart from the airfares, the only cost above what we would spend at home is if we rent a car or pay for museum entry fees. We cook nearly all our meals rather than eating out, and the supermarket food bill is usually slightly cheaper than in New Zealand.

Popular with the French

There are scores of home exchange sites on the internet, but the two of the biggest are GuestToGuest and HomeExchange. And, following a takeover of the latter by GuestToGuest, they are now both owned by the same company while still operating independently, for now.

Between them, they have around 450,000 members in 187 countries. HomeExchange has 624 New Zealand listings, and GuestToGuest has 218.

Emmanuel Arnaud, CEO of both, says New Zealand is the 19th most popular destination in the world.

In 2017 there have been around 17,700 nights "booked" in New Zealand homes via both sites. This is up 35 per cent on last year.

The most popular country for New Zealand home exchangers to swap with is France; followed by the USA, Spain, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK.

Over the past year we have reluctantly turned down offers from Budapest, Oregon, Washington DC, Ballina in New South Wales, Brighton and Devon, because we need to be in Wellington for work and school through the year.

Leveraging the home for a life of travel

That's not such a problem for Philippa Wood. Along with her husband, she is semi-retired. They travel with their disabled teenage daughter, who loves her special school but equally loves their family trips.

Trying out the hammock in the host's courtyard, Oregon. Photo by Philippa Wood

Philippa listed their Waiheke Island home on an exchange site less than a year ago. Already they have had a long trip to the US and Canada (which included exchanges in Salmon River in Washington State and in Bend, Oregon) and a week in Perth. They will spend late December in Bali, and have exchanges booked in for next year for a European trip (exchanges in Budapest, Vienna and Berlin) and another North American trip (exchanges in Toronto and Utah).

"So you could say it's working for us," she laughs.

Philippa says they had no interest in listing their home on Airbnb and becoming paid accommodation providers, and the exchanging process feels like an arrangement "between two families who haven’t become friends – yet."

She also likes the serendipity of it. "An opportunity presents itself, and you start to think about that destination and how you could build a trip around it" (even if it is somewhere you hadn’t thought of travelling to).

You can also arrange a non-simultaneous swap (as we are doing with the Singapore family). And if you definitely do not want to travel to the other person's home (but are happy to let them stay in your home if it is going to be empty) on HomeExchange you can ask if they have a "balloon" to give you instead. This is a token earned by having someone in your house, that you can then use to "pay" a third party on the exchange site for a home stay.

Like us, Philippa hasn’t had one bad experience so far.

"There have been no hassles, the people have always left our place clean and tidy and their places have been exactly as they described," she says.

She leaves a small gift in the house, and all her exchange partners have done the same.

At one exchange in the US, the couple asked if they could cook them a meal on the first evening, before leaving them to enjoy the house. They also arranged for a fishing trip for Philippa's husband, Alex, with a local fishing guide they knew.

A visitor to the backyard, Washington State. Photo by Philippa Wood

Philippa says she appreciates how flexible the system is, with the arrangements left up to the people doing the swap. It is not a case of "a day for a day". We spent two weeks on the French coast, but the couple we exchanged with had nearly a month in our house as we visited family for Christmas and had a stop-over on the way to France.

"I like the freedom to turn offers down and the site makes it easy to do and you don't feel bad about it," Philippa says.

She has sometimes turned down offers from people whose home is much larger and "flasher" than her own, if she thinks they might not find her comfortable, but simple, house exactly what they expected or are used to. Her house, on a bush clad section, has no driveway or garage. Our home is a cute but small cottage, also up a pathway. People asking to exchange have described it as "quirky", which I have decided to take as a compliment.

Do tenants miss out again?

But is the opportunity to exchange your home just for baby boomers and others lucky enough to own a house or apartment?

GuestToGuest has a 'thumbs up' logo and the heading "legal for renters" prominently on its home page.

"Through home exchange, travellers can benefit from completely free accommodations around the world without any money changing hands. Home exchange does not have any of the drawbacks which have led to pushback against rental platforms including taxes, bans, and other issues currently plaguing large cities and touristic areas," says Arnaud.

However, he says some of the notoriously strict "home owner association" (HOAs) in the US that set restrictions for housing developments and gated communities have taken "a global approach to forbid home exchange and home rental all together.

"In this case, we provide some points to share with co-owners to explain how different home exchange is from-peer to-peer rental [such as Airbnb]," he says.

Two of the apartments we lived in while in France were rented by the people we swapped with, and it is common in Europe for tenants to enter exchanges.

But the fact no money changes hands didn't stop the Ministry of Business and Enterprise from taking a cautious approach when asked about tenants here entering into a home exchange arrangement. MBIE, which encompasses the Tenancy Services, says tenancy agreements often include a provision prohibiting the tenant from subletting or "parting with possession" of the property.

Jennifer Sykes, Information and Education Manager of Tenancy Services, says "parting with possession" is where "the tenant moves out of the house they are renting and enters into an agreement with someone else, for example, … for holiday or temporary accommodation, such as setups like Airbnb or other home exchanges."

In reality, landlords may agree if approached. As Arnaud says, you can travel while knowing that "someone you trust is scaring burglars away, feeding your cat and watering your garden."

When people hear of our travel plans, the most common reaction is "how do you feel about a stranger in your house?"

But I feel more relaxed about leaving the house occupied by someone I have corresponded with (and often met) than leaving it empty while we travel. It is essentially like having a house-sitter with a free holiday thrown in. We always try to keep the place free of clutter and can lock away sensitive documents in a locked filing cabinet.

Arnaud says trust is one of the "key tenets" of HomeExchange and GuestToGuest. You don't exchange addresses, email addresses or personal information until you have both agreed an exchange. You can ask to see proof of ownership from the other party, and can check them out on social media as well as see reviews of past exchanges they have done.

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