Joe and Leslie from Mill Valley, CA
Click here to read their home listing.
Leslie and I ventured into the home exchange experience primarily as a way to afford taking a few extra vacation trips a year. But 15 house exchanges and two years later - we've become irretrievably HOOKED.
It's now a lifestyle and fortunately one we can afford.
And we were the least likely of suspects. Paranoia was the primary state of mind when we even THOUGHT about having other people stay at our home. What about the wine stains on the new carpeting? And how do we protect our collectibles, art work and first editions? And do we really want strangers driving our new car?
Being a recently retired trial lawyer I of course fretted about the legalities. Leslie, who retired at the same time from her career in tax accounting, worried about out how this was all going to affect the household budget and bottom line.
The good news: none of our fears came to fruition. Take the legalities - at the beginning I was scrupulous about having our exchangers execute a formal Exchange Agreement, spelling out pretty much everything we could think of that might come up during an exchange. It was fun "negotiating" the agreement, coming to a mutual understanding about how things would work, who would use what, when, where, etc. But by the time we had completed our first couple of exchanges, it was clear that a formal agreement was entirely unnecessary. The first lesson we learned about home exchanges is that they are NOT based on written agreements or legalities. They're based on trust. And the highest level of trust you can imagine. Your exchangers are in YOUR castle, sleeping in YOUR bed, and relaxing in YOUR hot tub. And where are YOU? You're doing pretty much the same exact thing, but at THEIR castle and with THEIR personal property.
The level of trust is extraordinary. By the time you've e-mailed and talked to your prospective exchanger, over the several months preceding the exchange itself, you've come to see and treat them as old friends with whom you'd trust the family pet AND your new car. If there ever WAS a mishap you know, absolutely, that YOU would pay to repair or replace the item; and you're confident they would do the same. It's not a matter of legal obligation or contract; it's a matter of common sense, mutual respect and, yes, friendship.
And financially? Once the air fares have been paid for, the rest was gravy. We spend no more (and often less) than when we're at home. We buy the same groceries, purchase the same gas for the car, and treat ourselves to dining out or extra purchases no more than when we're at home.
Lessons learned? There were many. And continue to be many. On every exchange we seem to learn something new about how to make exchanging easier and more comfortable, on both ends.
First there was our house. WE were used to the little idiosyncrasies we had lived with for years: the sticking door, the pesky entryway leak, the balky toilet that sometimes didn't completely flush. But we realized how unfair it would be to expect our exchangers to live with these flaws. So the minor house repairs began in earnest. Plus a few upgrades here and there as well. You want your guests to be as comfortable as possible. Who knows, you might want to do a "repeat exchange" with them sometime. And you'd certainly like them to be great references for you on future exchanges as well.
Then there were all the little issues that occasionally come up during an exchange that you couldn't reasonably have anticipated. Like what if they need a dentist? Or a doctor? Or if the furnace breaks down? So we began developing a detailed "House Book", with multiple sections, to cover all of these contingencies. Exchangers wouldn't have time to actually read all the contents of the binder, but the information would be organized in such a way that it could be easily accessed if and when needed.
The most challenging part of house exchanging has been trying to anticipate exactly how things will work - on both ends. We've goofed a couple of times, for instance, by not adequately explaining exactly how to get to our house. We live on a ridge above Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. We have dramatic views out over the Pacific and look down on the redwoods in Muir Woods. But the roads leading up to our house, from downtown Mill Valley, are best traversed during daylight hours, especially when the fog is rolling in from the ocean. So detailed instructions, and a map, are necessities we failed to address properly when we first started exchanging.
While exchanging houses we've run into occasional problems as well. A primary culprit has been tv/stereo systems. People often assume that their music and television systems are "intuitive" and that exchangers will somehow figure out for themselves how the various remote controls work and which switch has to be "on" for the system to work properly, etc. So we make sure, prior to the exchange, to inquire about their stereo, tv and computer systems, especially, to make sure they leave us clear, written, instructions. And we, of course, do the same on our end.
No matter how carefully we plan our exchanges, it seems that something always comes up. At our Boston exchange, for instance, we waited a week before realizing we didn't know where to empty the kitchen garbage. We looked on the back porch, in the garage, in the front yard, everywhere we could possibly imagine - but couldn't find the garbage can anywhere. We even went over to the neighbors to find out how they disposed of their garbage, thinking there might be a community trash facility of some kind. No luck. We finally gave up and called our exchangers.
"The GARBAGE?" our exchangers asked? "We don't empty the GARBAGE; we STORE it! In the basement. When we accumulate enough of it, we take it out to the dump ourselves!" Turned out that our exchangers, unbeknownst to us, had eliminated their garbage service in favor of a serious recycling program. What little non-recyclable garbage they accumulated was stored in a special container in their basement and then taken out to the dump once every month or two. A perfectly reasonable system. Assuming you knew it existed.
For the little quirks and puzzles around our house we're great fans of reusable "post-it" notes. We keep a little collection of them and just re-post them prior to each exchange. They're as indispensable as the welcoming bottle of wine, cheese and crackers we leave out on the dining room table.
So what began as a lark has, indeed, turned into a lifestyle. We've become good friends with several of our exchangers, in fact, and pride ourselves on having completed four "repeat exchanges" over the last two years. The occasional mishap has either been quickly resolved or overlooked since the enormous financial savings have more than compensated for the minor scratch here or a missing cup there. And meantime, we've been to places, and experienced more new cities, museums, beaches and parks than we ever could have imagined.