In 2006, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swapped homes in romcom The Holiday and took house swapping to a mainstream audience. Such trust might have seemed a fanciful Hollywood notion to some, but those who’d been doing this kind of reciprocal holidaying for years were just surprised that Diaz left her holiday home without having hoovered.
House swapping, where you exchange homes for a holiday, is a fast-growing trend. UK-based company Love Home Swap saw an 82% rise in new UK members last year, and similar enthusiasm has been shown on other sites — the number of exchanges finalised on rival Home Exchange, which lists properties across 187 countries, grew by 79% in the same period.
But as a concept it’s actually been around since the 1950s — the oldest home swapping organisation, HomeLink celebrated its 70th birthday this year, having started when enterprising US teachers on the east and west coasts decided to swap houses during the holidays. HomeLink UK representative Caroline Connolly has home swapped since her children were small. For her, the appeal is in the personal connection: “If you want a house go to Airbnb; if you want a home, do a home exchange,” she says.
For family-run platform Home Base Holidays, which sent out pamphlets listing properties to its members when it started back in the 1980s, the shift from niche to mainstream has been hastened by the advent of the digital age. “Sites like Airbnb have highlighted the different ways people can use their property and encouraged them to look into the sharing economy,” notes partner Mark Sealey. “If someone has taken the first step in renting out their home for Airbnb, it’s not a massive leap to think ‘well, we’ve done that and that’s worked out well, how about home swapping as another option?’”
The premise is simple: you go to their place, they go to yours. But beyond this lies plenty of flexibility. For example, there’s the option to join free online platforms (such as informal Facebook swap groups) or paid-for models, with monthly or annual fees. Some paid-for platforms have insurance as part of membership, or help on hand, but there are no real formal ‘rules’ other than that, and as long as both parties in a swap agree, anything goes.
For those who baulk at the idea of handing their house keys to strangers, the reassurances are the intense communication between swappers, user reviews and inbuilt expectations. “It’s a closed community, because to be on a platform, you have to have some type of property listed,” says regular home-swapper Chisara Nwabara, fresh from a weekend in Berlin. ‘You’re swapping with other homeowners so there’s a certain respect and understanding built in.”
The home swap experience is a little like online dating — you chat to people, see if you like them, decide whether or not to share a part of your life with them and — if you do — tidy up very thoroughly before they come round. And anyone with a property can do it; many swappers are retired and flexible time-wise, but it’s also popular with families, couples looking for a different way to travel and digital nomads — as well as those with second homes, leveraging their own getaway against holidays in other peoples’.
Travel YouTuber Alicia David Reilly uses home swapping for extended breaks to visit family abroad. “I’m from California, and we’d come back exhausted from running around to see everyone on a two-week holiday. With home swapping, we’re now able to go for six weeks to amazing places with swimming pools that we can treat like our own home. And as they’re family homes, they’ve got the things that we need — our first home swap even had a zip-line in it, which our kids loved. It’s great to not have to pack toys or a mattress protector and to be able to pinch a tablespoon of oil and leave £50 as a thank you for any bits we might have used.”
You can home swap anywhere — UK-to-UK swaps have surged post pandemic, and city travel has also made a comeback (the most-searched-for cities currently on Home Exchange are Paris, New York, London, Amsterdam and Barcelona).
Once you put your property up on a site, you sit back and wait for requests, while making your own. The most popular destinations will always get enquiries, but if you don’t live on a tourist trail, some sites allow you to collect points from non-simultaneous swaps to use on visits to other people’s houses.