This summer, my family and I went on a house swap organized through an international home exchange portal, homelink.org. It was the first house swap we'd ever done. We traded our home, a 667-square-foot sea view apartment with terrace in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, for a house four times the size with a garden, in a village in the valley between Grenoble and Chambéry, in the French Alps.
I know it looks like we scored the best deal. But the truth was that we've swapped a sea breeze for a place everyone has told me is the hottest part of France in summer — and there wasn't even a fan, let alone air conditioning, in the house.
The first night, we all struggled to sleep because of the heat. As I laid awake, I wondered if maybe our friends and family had been right: were we crazy to have handed over our home to a stranger for 18 days? "Weren't we worried about them touching our belongings?" people had asked before we left.
For us, the incentive was financial: As a family of four, we've saved at least €2,500 (around $3,000) on the price of a lengthy vacation rental this summer — and that's a conservative estimate.
A friend had recommended Homelink to us. The process to sign up and create a profile was easy. After writing a description about our apartment and our neighborhood, I uploaded some photos and paid the €125 ($148) annual fee. (For US members, the annual fee is $99).
It wasn't long before we started to receive exchange offers
"We always love to go to Villefranche for a holiday, so let us know if you fancy a week or so in London," one member wrote. In total, we had offers from England, Wales, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Germany, the USA, and France.
In the end, we decided on the first inquiry we had received, from a retired teacher in the French Alps. It was the pictures of the trampoline, swing set and outdoor playhouse that sold us. "The girls will love the space," my husband said. Plus, Grenoble was just five hours away and the 250-mile drive would cost only about €80 ($95) each way in fuel and tolls. The listing also welcomed animals, so we could bring our cat.
As our first exchange, it felt wise to stay close to home in case anything went wrong
We signed the agreement in late January before any major COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. With hindsight, we can now see how fortunate our decision to stay in France this summer was.
Our home is one of approximately 8,000 listed in 70 countries on the website, Homelink's UK director Caroline Connolly told me via email. "Quite a few members have hidden their listing at the moment due to COVID-19 travel restrictions," Connolly said.
Connolly explained that swaps are often arranged six to nine months in advance. "A lot of exchanges were canceled early on," she wrote.
We had our moments of doubt, too, particularly as the COVID infection rate crept up again in France in the weeks leading up to our departure.
But, as the usual crowds of August tourists started to descend on our village, we realized we would actually feel safer there than at home.
We arrived at a three-story stone house, which the owner said dates from the Renaissance
The property sits at the foot of the Chartreuse mountain range. It's full of character, but it's also big and quite creaky. This was our exchange partner's 40th exchange and it showed: I found a welcome hamper in the kitchen and there are notes and instructions stuck all around the house. In the living room, folders of tourist information were spread out across the sofa. I wondered how I would ever keep the house clean.
But she didn't tell us everything, especially that her road is being dug up this summer. Most mornings we were woken by the sound of diggers driving past the bedroom windows. During the day, we often found machinery parked in the driveway. The road was covered in loose stones that bounce off the undercarriage of our car every time we left the house.
I found it hard to relax. It didn't help that soon after we arrived her two goldfish died, despite following their care instructions to a tee.
My husband was right when he said: "The problem is this place isn't ours, so I can't settle into it." I didn't want to be that family — you know, the one that breaks heirlooms (or kills pets).
Luckily, my daughters were oblivious to all this. Our exchange partner has three grandchildren and boxes of their toys were left out for our children to play with. I really appreciated this touch.
It took me a week, but I finally settled into vacation mode
I closed off rooms that we didn't need to use, and bought a fan to keep us cool. My daughters stayed entertained by playing in the garden.
We visited the three mountain ranges that surround Grenoble and discovered lakes and waterfalls that were both shady and socially distanced. We hiked child-friendly trails and got a glimpse of a snow-capped Mont Blanc in the distance.
Because we didn't have to budget for accommodation, and our transport costs had been modest, we also had more money to spend on vacation treats, such as nice cuts of meat for the barbecue.
Suddenly, our departure loomed, and I found myself already browsing exchange listings for next summer
"The first exchange is always the hardest — the next one will be a breeze!" Connolly signed off in her email.
Am I ready to test her theory and do it again? Definitely.
We were able to vacation in a house and garden in the heart of the French Alps without paying anything more than the Homelink registration fee, and the fuel and tolls to get there and back. It doesn't get much better than that, really.
Interested in a home exchange? Here are five things to consider:
- In practice, most exchangers are homeowners. "Renters can exchange on the proviso that their landlord (and any associated mortgage and/or insurance companies) are happy with the arrangements," Connolly said.
- You can specify dates and/or set preferred destinations, or leave either option open. Some listings offer a 'non-simultaneous' exchange, which means you don't have to swap homes on the exact same dates.
- Your house doesn't have to be in pristine condition. "Have a spring clean and declutter – you don't need a show home, but it should be clean and comfortable," Connolly said.
- If you are travelling as a family, consider searching for an exchange partner with children of a similar age. For us, arriving at a house already equipped for play was invaluable.
- If you are flying to your exchange destination, look for a listing that offers a car in the swap as well, as that will save on car rental fees.
Chrissie McClatchie is a freelance journalist who writes about luxury, lifestyle, and travel with a particular focus on the world of superyachts and stories from the south of France.