About Home Exchange

Preparing for a home exchange


The key issues in a home exchange should have been decided in the negotiating phase. However, there inevitably are details to be sorted out in preparing for the exchange. You also have to prepare your family and your house.

Arrange to Meet the Other Family

We strongly recommended that you meet the other family at the beginning of the exchange. This helps build trust and friendship that will be useful when you contact them or respond to them about problems. You need to coordinate your travel plans so this happens. Since you are also trying to find the cheapest air ticket and/or take advantage of your available vacation days this can be tricky.

It might be difficult to arrange travel dates that match perfectly. We had to spend several days in a hotel before an exchange in Northern England but made the most of it by staying in the beautiful city of York. We took the train from the airport to York and then from York to the exchange home.

The usual method is for one family to arrive on the doorstep of the other family. The advantage of this is that the hosting family can orient you to their house and neighborhood. If the house is large you may spend the evening with them and they will leave in the morning. If the house is small you may stay at a hotel for one night or more. Usually they will leave you the house and mooch with relatives or stay at a hotel and fly out the next day. The host family usually provides a delicious dinner or lunch. The visiting family may bring a bottle of wine and/or flowers.

Another alternative is to meet near or at the airport. Be sure you have a few hours to get to know each other and discuss any outstanding issues.

Be cooperative and helpful. For example the family whose house and car you have just taken may need your help in getting to the airport or public transportation.

Arrange Airport Transportation

Home exchange families usually cooperate with Airport transportation. This is easier if you are using the same two airports. You can leave your car in the airport parking lot and give them the keys when you meet them. Be sure you can describe the location of your car accurately and that they have the parking receipt. If you are picking up the car at the airport make sure you have a way to pay the parking fee. Maps showing how to get from the airport to your home should be in the car.

Another possibility is to arrange for the incoming family to be picked up at the airport by friends, family, or business associates.

If public transit is efficient it may be reasonable to expect the incoming family to find their way to your door, but it is nicer to meet them at the airport. If you are meeting them at the airport wear distinctive clothing or exchange photos beforehand so you can recognize each other and have each other's cell phone numbers.

Our most memorable airport meeting was in Paris. The husband and wife drove their car and motorcycle to meet us. We took their five-passenger sedan and they used the motorcycle to lead us on a wild drive around Paris to their home.

At the end of the exchange you need to decide how to handle the airport transfers; often it is the reverse of the arrival. It can be enjoyable to meet the family after the exchange at the airport and talk about how it went. Of course one family in this scenario may be tired and jet lagged from a long flight.


A key issue, especially for larger families, is the quantity of luggage taken on a home exchange. We have three children. If each of us has one medium suitcase and one small back pack we fill up a medium sized car. Any luggage greater than this and we are unable to make the trip to the airport with the typical European mid size car. Be sure that you can handle your baggage if you are taking a train or bus and that the arrangements for getting you and your baggage to your destination are suitable.

Agree to Terms and Conditions

The most important items in the home exchange agreement were determined when you made the final decision. Often as both sides plan for their vacation in detail and focus on it, other issues and requests will come up. You will also want to make sure you are in agreement on small matters such as telephones, food, utilities, cleaning standards, etc.

We always offer to exchange currency with the other family. We agree on an amount and use the exchange rate as published in the newspaper. This saves up to 5% and can be more convenient than the alternatives.

Our view is that we want to set a high standard of hospitality, convenience, and friendship for our exchange partners. Therefore our attitude is that any reasonable use by them of our telephones, car, electricity, or air conditioning is expected. We are happy for them to use our food and leave them twelve bottles of wine to drink. They are welcome to drain any opened bottle of spirits or liquor and are authorized to open unopened bottles in an emergency such as snake bite or nuclear attack. We don't worry about the telephone because we have a cheap international calling plan. You should have such a plan for international exchanges.

We also hope the family will use the vegetable garden and enjoy the ripe oranges on the trees. You should get their agreement before eating fruits and vegetables and make sure you know what you are eating.

We have a detailed Word file with an absurd amount of information about our home. This can be considered a user's guide to our home and city. This can help bring up certain minor details that may need further discussion.

Ask the other family if they are willing to collect your mail. Depending upon the circumstances you might want the post office to hold your mail or you might want it forwarded. You could also have a neighbor, friend, or colleague pick up the mail.

Ask the other family if they want the daily newspaper. If they can read it they will be better informed about your community. On the other hand if they are taking overnight excursions you need somebody to collect the newspaper so they don't accumulate on the doorstep and let thieves know the house is unoccupied. Alternatively you can cancel it for the period of your vacation.

Any services that are to be handled by the incoming exchange family need to be agreed upon in advance and explained. This includes taking care of the pet, watering inside plants, watering outside plants, mowing the lawn, etc.

Finally, cleaning standards need to be agreed. A general rule is you leave the home as close as possible to the way you found it. Often it can be impossible to clean and dry all sheets and linens on the day of departure. It is useful to agree that the outbound family will strip dirty linens and towels and replace with clean. The returning family will launder the dirty items. There need to be two sets of linens for each bed for this to work. Another possibility, if you are lucky, is that your exchange partners will have a cleaner that can be paid to restore the home to a pristine condition.

Prepare the Guide to your Home, Important Documents and Papers

You should have a detailed manual covering every aspect of your home. This is a lot of work to create but once it is on the computer it is easy to change and update. For home exchange partners from other countries, you should include basic information such as how to call the Police, Fire Department, or ambulance. You can include useful regional information. This file should include information about where specific manuals or instructions are found for the appliances and other home equipment in your home.

An important part of this file is a detailed description of hazards. For example there is a weed called Deadly Nightshade that has small poisonous blue berries. Although it is suppressed ruthlessly it is always hiding in the garden somewhere. We warn our guests about it. Interestingly enough it has been present in the gardens of two of our exchange homes.

If you are doing an international exchange explain to your guests how they can use your phone to make international calls cheaply.


If they are going to use your baby sitters or cleaners they should know how much to pay them.

It is amazing the little things that can cause problems. For example some folks in Britain have message services provided by British Telecom while in the US people have answering machines. We discovered we could not use the Internet at a home in Britain if there was a message waiting on the service.

Once in Sweden we had difficulty figuring out the Satellite Television system; it seemed to have a split personality. It turns out that the receiver accessed two different satellite systems, and you had to choose the right system to get the channels you wanted. Our Swedish host explained it in his guide to his house something like this: You are an intelligent and technologically savvy person so I am sure you can figure out how to use our TV. He was not the first to have overestimated my abilities.

If there are particular laws or customs let the other family know. For example, in France and the Netherlands it is compulsory to have the car registration and insurance papers in the car when you are driving it. Yet, this information is never left in the car in order to discourage theft. Once in a house exchange in France I was alarmed that the lawn appeared brown and dead. After an e-mail I discovered that due to a drought it was forbidden to water the lawn and that it would come back once it rained.

If you can figure out before hand the problems the other family is likely to encounter or the information they will need or find useful they will appreciate it.

Important documents such as insurance policies should be kept where they are secure, but can be accessed.

Specific information for the incoming family should be provided. If they asked questions about festivals, wanted to meet your friends, wanted to know the best Italian restaurants you should have this information waiting for them.

Provide Tourist Information, Guidebooks, and Maps

Home exchange families usually keep files of tourist brochures and information, public transportation maps and schedules, guidebooks, and maps.

We traded with a family in France that had a huge file of tourist information sorted by Departement and also sorted by such categories as beaches, castles, cities, etc. They had several walking and cycling guides to the region. They had guidebooks to their region and those surrounding it. This information was helpful. It would have cost us more than $200 to have bought all these guidebooks ourselves if we had known they were available and where to buy them.

Often the incoming family accumulates many brochures and adds them to the collection. This information is useful but the outdated and old brochures need to be thrown away or recycled.

Maps are invaluable for incoming home exchange families. A good-quality driving atlas should be provided. Detailed local and regional maps are a plus. In many countries such as the US, membership in the local Automobile Association provides free access to maps. In most countries a comprehensive national atlas such as the Michelin for France is reasonably priced. The maps and guidebooks should be up to date.

Prepare Your Family

It is useful and entertaining to start planning the trip and learning more about the region that you will be visiting.

You can use the Internet to visit tourist information sites to learn more about attractions and special events. For a home exchange in Northern England I discovered the Military Tattoo event at Edinburgh Castle. I booked tickets for our family many months in advance on the Internet, for the same performance Queen Elizabeth the Second would attend to honor the fiftieth anniversary of her reign. It was a fabulous evening.

If the home you will be using is in a city or near a railroad station you can visit the website for public transportation or the railroad company. For example, in Stockholm we were only three hundred meters from a suburban railway station. We figured out the best way to get into town and had the schedules before we arrived for the exchange. (I think our hosts also had them in the materials waiting for our arrival.)

On an exchange in rural France I discovered that the nearest rail station was only ten minutes away and that I could take my bicycle on the train. We also learned that our family of five could go anywhere on the train for two days in the Loire Region for thirty three euros.

You can find the site of the local newspaper and start reading it to learn more about the region (assuming it is in a language you can read.) I learned in advance of major road works at a key intersection for us in France. Of course I would have learned about it the first time we drove through it, but it was useful to be forewarned.


I read a book on Scandinavian History before a home exchange in Denmark. This helped me to appreciate the country and make the occasional clever remark when talking with the locals. This knowledge also was beneficial for a subsequent exchange in Sweden.

Guidebooks can be valuable. These days much of the content of the Michelin Red and Green Guides, in several languages, can be found online at \url{viamichelin.com}. Buying or checking out from the library detailed guide books and/or books on customs for the country you will be visiting is recommended.

If you enjoy cycling it is great to figure out the special rides and dedicated cycle tracks in advance. Learning about your special interests in the place you will be vacationing is usually rewarding.

Prepare Your House

The level of cleanliness and order expected between home exchange partners should be agreed to in advance. This is one reason to trade with similar families--a family with young kids usually has more relaxed housekeeping standards than does a retired or childless couple.

Friends exchanged with a family in Denmark and their comment was that it was as if the family had just left one morning without any thought or planning. This was ok because it meant that at the end of the exchange they could leave the house in the same condition they found it.

Any dysfunctional aspects of your home or anything that works oddly needs to be disclosed in advance and preferably fixed. Any unexpected changes need to be disclosed. We live next to a farm and I have always promoted the fact that we had a vineyard view. I was astonished one day to see part of the vineyard being ripped out. I immediately informed our Welsh home exchange partners that instead of having a vineyard vista they would have a bare dirt and weeds view. They graciously agreed to continue with the exchange. (The area was eventually planted with Olive Trees.)

Be wary of ambitious projects. I happen to be in the construction business and when adding onto our home, the project was only eighteen months behind schedule and 20% over budget. You may have better results since you are not a construction professional. We traded with a family that built their own garage before our visit. Unfortunately it was not finished; it lacked the garage door. We were ok with this but some families might have objected. In the same home a shower had recently been sealed, but incorrectly. We were surprised when water started running down the stairway while my son was taking a shower. Our hosts had it immediately repaired, but it would have been better if they had sealed and tested it before leaving the home for us.

You need to make sure the incoming family has plenty of space for their luggage, clothes, and food. An advantage of a home exchange versus a typical vacation is that you should not have to live out of your suitcase. You should be able to unpack your clothes, put them away in your room, and put the luggage in the closet, garage, or cellar. Let the incoming family know which areas of the closet or which drawers are available for their use.

Your refrigerator should be as clean and as empty as possible. There should be space in the pantry for items that don't need to be refrigerated. Be sure there is space in the freezer. If you do leave anything in the fridge you should be willing to have your exchange family eat it. Unfortunately the exchange families we have had in our home have been too prudent to eat the ancient and disgusting food left in the bottom of our freezer. Any food not in its original container should be labeled.

Any dangerous, toxic, or poisonous items need to be clearly marked and in their original packaging. Legally dispose of them or place them where they couldn't possibly be mistaken for food. They should be out of reach of children if any will be coming to your home.

When the other family arrives in your home they should find clean sheets on the beds and clean towels in the bathrooms. You should have at least two sets of clean sheets for each bed in the house. This allows them to remove dirty sheets during their stay and replace them with clean sheets without having to immediately clean the dirty sheets. Also, on their day of departure it means they can strip the beds and put on clean sheets for your return without having to worry about doing the laundry, which can take hours.

Evaluate the quality of those items used constantly in everyday life. If anything is in poor condition or functions unreliably replace it. My wife can trash a new frying pan in twelve to eighteen months. A French family came to our home and felt compelled to buy a new frying pan for their use because our entire collection was in poor condition. I wish we had spent a few bucks so they didn't have to waste their time shopping.

We were in a home once that had plastic handled stainless steel spoons, knives, and forks. We have the same in our home. Yet this stuff was in terrible condition--broken handles, crooked tines on the forks, spoons bent at a sixty degree angle, dull knives, etc. This was a small problem but it annoyed us. For sixty dollars the family could have enjoyed new and more serviceable tableware for the rest of their natural lives and made a good impression on us and on future generations of home exchange partners.

Computer equipment is another area some families scrimp on. This is ironic considering that most home exchanges are made via the Internet. A reliable computer is essential during an exchange for keeping in touch with home, work, and your exchange partners and for research and information. If you do not have a modern and reliable computer you should spend $500-$1000 and get one. Consider upgrading to a broadband connection if you do not have one. Make sure there are extra ink cartridges in reserve for the computer printer. If the other family is going to use their laptop on your wireless network provide the access code.

If you are going to be exchanging often you should consider cable or satellite television service. Our family does not have cable because we think television is bad for our children. But we always subscribe to the cable service before our exchange families arrive so they can appreciate the lowest common denominator of American culture and learn about our consumer society from the constant barrage of intrusive advertisements.

In general your home should be comfortable and well equipped. If anything is missing or lousy you should make sure it is brought up to a good and serviceable standard. Your home should be at least as well equipped and as comfortable as a good quality rented vacation home.

Prepare your Garden

Normally you would not expect your home exchange partners to have any responsibilities in your garden other than to enjoy it. Therefore you should arrange for someone to take care of your garden. Let your home exchange partners know who this is and when they will be performing their maintenance chores.

Some gardens can be left on their own. Our property is on an automatic watering system. I make sure the weeds are suppressed, the lawn is cut, and the shrubs and trees are trimmed before the exchange family arrives. They understand that the garden will gradually revert to jungle during their stay.

Another option is for each party to agree to do certain garden tasks, for example cutting the lawn and/or watering the plants.

We always make sure to have summer vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and squash planted in our garden for our guests. They are encouraged to eat the produce, particularly the zucchini before it grows to the size of a watermelon.

Prepare your Car

Your car should be clean with a full tank of gas, though this might be impossible if you have just driven to the airport in a hurry. The car should have had its oil changed before the exchange so the incoming family does not have to worry about this. Any other routine servicing should be completed. Any problems with the car should be fixed and it should be in good condition. Make sure your insurance covers the use of your car by the incoming exchange family. Be sure that all documents necessary for the car are present. The instruction manual for the car should be in the glove box. Let the incoming family know in advance the kind of fuel the car uses and the presence of any quirks such as the foot on the brake in order to shift into drive.

If your car has a navigation system see if you can program it to speak the language of the incoming exchange family.

Bills and Payments

Our family has an impressive collection of monthly bills. The most convenient way for us to pay these bills is to have them automatically debited from our checking account or charged to one of our credit cards.

Any bills not paid automatically need to be paid while you are on your home exchange vacation. These days you can do most of this over the Internet though there are security issues. Lower tech options include paying the bill in advance or having the payment prepared and mailed at the appropriate time by a friend.

Organize Backup and Support

Problems will happen in a home exchange and there should be someone who lives near your home available to solve any problems that might occur. These folks should also be available to answer any questions. This can be a relative, a co-worker, a handyman familiar with your home, or a friend or neighbor.

You should alert your neighbors, family, and friends that you are doing a home exchange. You might also tell your insurance agent. We have a friend who is a pediatrician who graciously agrees to help our exchange family with any medical problems they might have.

You should exchange cell phone numbers with your exchange family so you can be in touch in case of emergency or serious problem. I once managed to lock our family out of a home in Wales. Fortunately I was able to call the family with my cell phone and they instructed me where to find a hidden key.

Prepare Welcome Touches

The best welcome for an incoming home exchange family is your home's looking good and functioning well. A pleasant bonus is a welcome sign, a bottle of sparkling wine, a bowl of fresh fruit, and/or a delicious homemade dish in the fridge. If the timing works out leave a fresh loaf of bread, cheese, and milk in the fridge.