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Lois Sealey, Editor, Home Swappers
Last year I registered as an aspiring home-swapper on www.homebase-hols.com. I chose this site because of its emphasis on properties in the UK.
Slowly the email enquiries started trickling in. A couple from London suggested a week-long swap. Their apartment was within a stone's throw of London Bridge. Nursing first-timers' butterflies my better half, Frank, and I rolled our wheelie suitcases towards our swap address.
During our email correspondence our counterparts had asked us how we felt about a futon bed. I'd replied (diplomatically, I hoped) that they weren't really our cup of tea. In response, they bought a new spring box mattress! As we neared our destination I joked to Frank: "Don't worry we'll find it easily enough. It'll be the block of flats with an old mattress out front." Round the next corner we saw a futon propped against some black bins. My fears that this might be our accommodation were quickly assuaged when our smiling host came out to greet us and took us into his perfectly furnished home.
With some of the money we saved on accommodation I celebrated my birthday in Gordon Ramsay's gastropub, The Narrow. And on our last evening we went to The Proms which has always been on my list of things to do before I pop my clogs. And it was heaven returning to a real home after a busy day's sightseeing.
Next was a long weekend in Paris. This time we didn't have a chance to meet our mutual swapper in advance. She had to leave early in the morning and we'd received instructions to pick up the key at her local greengrocer. I'd practised my school French, which proved to be useless as the Chinese shopkeeper didn't understand a word of French (well, not my French at least.) After some gesticulation he went out back and presented us with the key to 'our' apartment. It was on the Rive Gauche and near the beautiful Parc Montsouris. We really felt like locals when popping out for our morning croissants.
But, the swap to top them all was on a smallholding on the Black Mountains in Wales.
This time there was more involved as we also had to care for chickens, geese, two ducks, two horses and a grumpy cat! "This'll be a doddle", I thought; I grew up on a farm and was looking forward to caring for animals again.
We drove into the yard and were immediately circled by a flock of friendly chickens. "Meet Lenin", our host Chris said as he gestured towards the magnificent cockerel (yes, the same name as the cockerel in the classic BBC 'back to nature' sitcom The Good Life).
We had to duck our heads as we walked into the kitchen. Four hundred-year-old stone walls and flagstone floors were still intact. A massive oak dining table and fireplace big enough for a boar on a spit conjured up images of Welsh barons throwing chicken bones (sorry, Lenin) to their dogs as a bard strummed on his Celtic harp.
"We've just got time to give you a tour, introduce you to the animals and then we're off to the airport to catch our plane to Amsterdam." Our hosts strode purposefully ahead. They gave us a lightning tour of the house, fields and vegetable plot. We were instructed where to find chicken feed, where to look for eggs, and how to herd petulant geese and chickens. We waved them off with big smiles. The smiles faded as we looked at each other with the unspoken thought: "What have we taken on?"
The extra work on the farm was more than compensated by the fresh vegetables and the animals' amusing antics. The neighbours were on standby which helped us feel a lot more secure. They were experienced with horses and helped us through a couple of tricky situations during the holiday. We were both sad to have to leave. Frank fell in love with the "Good Life" and is still missing the chickens.
Now, 18 months later I consider myself a seasoned home-swapper with three fantastic home-swaps under my belt. We've received offers from as far afield as Los Angeles, New York, Adelaide, Barcelona, even the Costa Rican jungle!
There are many home exchange sites on the internet. You can get a taster and useful tips at wikitravel.org/en/Home-exchange. But remember that each exchange is unique. A relationship of trust should develop as you get to know your exchange partners through email and phone calls. Most importantly, rely on your common sense and intuition. Be upfront with any concerns you may have. If the communication is proving difficult then perhaps the swap is not right for you.
Apart from the obvious financial benefits there's the added bonus of getting to know neighbours and your chosen area as a local would. Researching your own area to make up an information pack for guests is a real eye-opener once you realise how much your area has to offer. Home-exchange is an enjoyable adventure which does require a considerable investment of time but the rewards, in my experience, make it 100 per cent worthwhile.
The article above by Home Base Holidays member, Angela Williams, is re-published with kind permission of Telegraph .co.uk - Expat where it was first published in September 2008. The photo is of Angela and Frank while on exchange in Brittany earlier this year. If you are in the UK, look out for the July issue of Sainsbury's Magazine (published early June) which will also feature their home in an article on home exchange.
On a quick check, I've already published at least five photo related posts on our blog this year (and remember the photo of the Barcelona Football Club supporting guinea pig in an article in the last newsletter?). As including a variety of sharp, carefully selected photos in a home exchange listing is so important in attracting interest in an offer, I make no apologies for becoming a little repetative.
Most recently, I published Can Home Exchange Offers be 'Deceptive by Omission'? (13 May), on the rather tricky subject of using photos (and descriptions) that may leave out the bad bits about a home or imply that a lovely view is visible from the home when it isn't. Please do read the full post (and the comments from readers that follow below it). It's great when readers leave useful, relevant comments on posts (if you ever want to leave a comment, click the small Comments link you will see below every post on the blog. Your email address is required but won't be published).
As soon as the 13 May post was published, 'Hobiej' left a very thoughtful comment. Hobiej is not a Home Base Holidays member (yet!) but is a regular reader of our blog and a very experienced home exchanger who always provides informative, useful feedback. As I often overlook comments when reading other blogs (the small link at the end of posts can be somewhat obscure) and it does seem a shame not to give relevant comments more prominence, I sometimes quote from those such as Hobiej's in further blog posts. As well as using comment quotes to present a different angle on a topic, they provide a break from my writing style.
Sometimes when checking new home exchange listings, one catches my attention for one reason or another (hence the Barcelona guinea pig!). This happened when new members from Auckland, New Zealand joined on 21 May (photo of home above; link below). Without doubt, this couple have an easy time of it as their home and the views from it are spectacular, but it was how well their descriptions and chosen photos matched that really appealed (you don't need to live in such a beautiful home to copy this). Hence, yet another post on the topic of photos in listings, Choosing the Best Photos to Compliment a Home Exchange Description (23 May), provided the opportunity to quote from Hobiej's recent comment, and illustrate it with photos from the Auckland (Waiheke Island) listing, including a photo of the couple outside their home.
As many home exchange offers show only photos of 'unpeopled' rooms and gardens, and this sometimes seems a bit impersonal and sterile (to me anyway - it's a personal preference!), this provided another 'angle' for this post on the topic. Some of you will feel uncomfortable about publishing personal photos on the Internet, especially of children, and that's completely understandable (you can always share photos directly with exchange partners) but this is just another option to consider when choosing the photos you feel best represent you, your home and area.
Whatever photos you choose, just be sure to log on and add some!
As experienced home exchangers know, if you take care with your exchange arrangements and swap with members you feel have similar lifestyles and attitudes to housekeeping as yourself, there should be little chance of a mis-match. But we do receive the occasional message from a member after an exchange, expressing disappointment about the standards of housekeeping and/or the general state of a home. Referring again to the recent blog post, Can Home Exchange Offers be 'Deceptive by Omission'?, although all members want to 'sell' their exchange offer by describing their homes and areas in a positive way, it is also important to be honest. It's also helpful to include distances to attractive views or well known locations shown in photos in relation to your home (e.g. whether you can see that lovely beach from your windows, it's a three minute walk away, or 30 minutes by car). But I digress.
Photos can only show so much. You can often get a good idea of the type of household by comments within listing descriptions. I've seen many variations on these two opposites in listings - 'We are very house proud, in fact I'm addicted to vacuuming!' and 'With three active children and busy lives, our home is comfortable but definitely not a show home'.
A member has suggested it could be useful to include a few tick box options, or possibly a separate description box on the membership form, to enable members to describe their housekeeping styles.
Do you think this would be useful to help you steer clear of possible mis-matches when browsing exchange offers? If so, please send some ideas for four or five short, pithy descriptions to cover variations from the obsessively house proud to those with a very laid back attitude to housework, clutter and decoration.
If you live, or have swapped homes in the UK, you are likely to have seen The One Show, a topical magazine programme broadcast weekdays at 7pm on BBC One. The One Show is planning a story on home exchange and Katie, a researcher on the programme, is looking for families, couples or individuals who are due to go on an exchange holiday in the next couple of months, with another family coming to their home at the same time, who would be interested in taking part in the programme. The details aren't finalised as yet but the feature would cover the family going on an exchange, with them possibly keeping a video diary when abroad, while the BBC would likely want to film the family who visit their home (and so would entail asking exchange partners if they would be willing to take part too).
Members who have participated in similar programmes in the past have found it an interesting experience and it shouldn't be intrusive or take up too much of your valuable holiday time. If you may be interested, please contact us as soon as possible, giving your name, User ID and when/where you will be exchanging. Your message will be forwarded to Katie who will contact you directly with more details and answer any questions you have.
'UnTours.com has asked us to send them the names and email addresses of home exchangers who may be vacationing in any of the following cities this summer: London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Florence, Venice, Umbria, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco or Santa Fe.
If any of your members are traveling to any of these cities and wish to have free access to a "local expert," UnTours.com is conducting an experiment they may wish to participate in. It is our understanding that UnTours.com plans to be charging between $100 and $200 for this service in the future. We only have three slots left to give away, so please hurry, first come, first served.'
I can't guarantee that this offer will still be available but if it is of interest, please contact us right away, giving your name, User ID and the city you will be visiting.
If you have been reading Home Swappers for some time you may remember an article about Alexander Grit, a PhD student from The Netherlands studying at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, who had chosen to research home exchange for his doctorate. Home exchange had truly come of age now that it was the subject of a PhD thesis! Alexander requested - and received - Home Base Holidays volunteers willing to keep diaries of their home exchanges. This data collection formed a valuable part of Alexander's research. Alexander has completed his thesis and presents his main findings in layman's terms (his report, mainly unedited in case I get it wrong) follows:
Alexander Grit has been engaged in research into the home exchange experience for four years. The home exchange experience for him is important since home exchanges are, apart from the matching process through the internet, rather self organising. This self organising nature leads to "freedoms" within the space of hospitality of the home exchange and allows participants to connect differently with the home and city. In other words, due to the fact that the host is not present physically, the guest can interact differently with the home and city. The relevance of the research is that by describing the experiences, it questions the standardisation and rationalisation of hospitality encounters (also termed processes of Mc Donaldization.) within (semi) commercial hospitality settings.
Through handing out video cameras to home exchange candidates and analysing the recordings, Alexander found out that in some instances home exchanges can lead to very surprising and thought provoking experiences and becomings. These becomings spaces of hospitality and services are complex with continually shifting forces between its constituents; Alexander uses the term serendipity for this. A term that was once one of the ten most difficult words to explain in Britain, 'serendipity' is suggested to be the act of making an unsought finding; something valuable or delightful which was unintended or unexpected. In order to have a serendipitous experience The X thing, followed by a process of creative abduction (experimentation), is unanticipated and unprepared for. The car breaks down, mountain lion in the garden, son comes home - triggers the serendipitous path.
Abduction is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis involving testing and new hypotheses; this is the process of walking on the path. Home exchanges offer many raw materials for serendipitous experience such as bikes, friends, car, maps, computers, books ideas, dining tables, interesting stories, dogs and childcare. The only thing which is needed is a trigger (the X thing) which calls for a dynamic process of becoming, in which the term tourist gets a different connotation, not someone who is rather passive but an active person who is fully involved in (re) combining local stuff. This leads to surprising outcomes such as starting own companies or moving to a different city. Home exchanges can be regarded as cultural laboratories (a term from Löfgren) where people can experiment with their Identities and try out new lifestyles.
Andel (1994) defines true serendipity as the art of making an 'unsought finding'. Andel speaks of a 'finding' when two or more elements (observations, hypotheses, ideas, facts, relations or insights) are combined originally, for the finder or anybody, to something new and true (science), new and useful (technology), new and fascinating (arts). Grit (2009) adds the hospitality area, which produces new and engaging spaces.
Through an understanding of serendipitous hospitality during home exchanges, the hospitality market can rethink operations and strategy..the idea of serendipity calls for the need of an 'X-thing', one that leads to a temporary hypothesis that needs to be playfully tested. To allow for difference and eventual serendipity, there is a need for the X-thing in spaces of hospitality - something 'transformational'.
Editor's Note: Just curious - who found a mountain lion in their exchange home garden?
Newsletter Contributions: We are always pleased to hear from members and subscribers and to receive contributions for the newsletter and blog - short reports on your exchange experiences, tips you feel would be useful to those new to the idea of home swapping and any questions you have on home exchange. Please include 'home exchange' in the subject line when contacting us as messages with no subjects (or dubious sounding subject lines!) or unexpected attachments may end up in our spam folder and deleted unread.
Reading this on the Website? Use the newsletter subscribe link to add your email address and receive the newsletter regularly. If already on the list but not receiving your copy by email, there can be a number of causes:
Reminder to Members about Messaging System: A short alert message is sent to you by email to let you know whenever there is a new message for you in the Inbox in your member area. The subject line in the alert messages you receive by email is: New home exchange message for you from HExxxxx (the member's User ID). Alert messages are automatically sent from the site whenever a member leaves you a message. You then need to log on to your member area to read and respond to the message. Please respond to all messages promptly even if you can't consider an exchange offer.
Although you should receive alert messages without any problem, it's a good idea to skim through your spam folder before deleting messages as a very few alert messages, like other 'good' messages, may be filed there by mistake - ISPs' spam filtering systems aren't perfect! If your ISP or email programme enables it, add our email address, homeexchange 'at' btinternet 'dot' com (replacing the 'at' and 'dot'), to your 'safe senders' list to ensure you don't miss any alerts.
The site based messaging system is for your security - you decide when you are ready to provide another member with your email address and any other contact information.
Be Alert: The Home Base Holidays private member area is for one-to-one exchange offers between members only, not for any other purpose. Please let us know if you receive any other type of message via your member area. Never respond to unsolicited messages from unknown sources.
Further Information: Check the archives to read past issues of Home Swappers Newsletter. Also, don't forget to visit the Travel the Home Exchange Way blog for regular information and updates plus special exchange requests. To receive notices by email whenever a new post is added (generally no more than three a week), add your email address to the box above 'Get email updates' in the left hand column of Travel the Home Exchange Way. And you can now follow us on Twitter!
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Home Base Holidays, London, UK 1985-2009: 24th year providing a home exchange service worldwide