About Home Exchange

The Home Exchange
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This topic discusses general issues during the actual home exchange. You can also read essays on our home exchanges in Wales and Stockholm.

The Arrival

If you are lucky or smart, you have been picked up at the airport by the home exchange family or their friends and deposited at their place. This may not be the case if you have met the family at a distant airport or you have welcomed them to your house.

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You may find yourself in their car, driving on strange roads, jet lagged, and hoping you will get to their house safely. Be sure you have detailed maps, directions, their address, and local currency. You might have to buy snacks for the kids, coffee to stay awake, or pay for tolls on the road.

You might think that a navigation system is a substitute for directions and maps. I would disagree. Navigation systems can be difficult to use, especially in a foreign language. I managed to stall our French car in the first minute of having it. I should have figured that this would cancel the navigation system, but it took a while for me to catch on to this problem. The navigation system did not have a map--it had a tiny screen and would only issue directions. Like many navigation systems, it worked well in big cities but was a stranger to smaller roads and streets.

Think about road conditions and the time of day. You don't want to be driving through the center of London anytime except between midnight and 6am, but the evening or day is better than rush hour. Be sure the car has plenty of gas.

You should have the address of the house, and if it is in the country a good description of its location. Hopefully, you have seen photos of it as viewed from the street. Know how to unlock the door and turn off the alarm system. We have heard more than one story of the family that could not get in because they didn't understand how to hold the front door lever down or up while turning the key.


If you are fortunate you will receive an orientation from your partners in their house.

Otherwise when you first arrive in a home it can be confusing and disorienting. This is normal. You and your kids will get used to it. Take a tour of the place, read the information they have left you about it, start using the television, stereo, internet, and kitchen. You are probably going to be there for at least a few weeks and you might as well figure out how things work at the beginning to get the maximum use of them. We know of more than one family that wasn't able to use the TVs in a house because the cable and/or satellite system was confusing, and they failed to contact the host family about the problem.

Once we arrived at a house to discover the power was off. Fortunately, the other family had photos in their manual of the circuit breaker panel. We got it going quickly. It turned out that during electrical storms the system could shut down.

It is normal that things will be confusing and you will have many questions. Feel free to call or e-mail your exchange partners with all your questions. Better to get this out of the way before they take a week long camping trip in the wilderness without cell phone service.

You may be astonished or surprised by certain aspects of the house, such as its kitchens or bathrooms, or architectural features. Try to accept these with good grace even if you feel they are strange or deficient. One of the interesting aspects about trading homes in other countries is discovering the differences in daily life and home design.

My wife was dismayed to find a brand new oven in a home in France. She did not want to cook in it because it was spotlessly clean and she knew she would soon transform it into a charred and greasy disaster area. This is a ridiculous feeling; you should feel free to use the features of the home. Normal wear and tear on items is to be expected.

You might want to check out essential equipment, for example, the bicycles. Once we encountered two mountain bikes, one with a flat and the other without working brakes. Both problems took a while to fix.

Friends and Resources

If you have arranged with the other family to meet their friends and relatives, this is best done early in the exchange. These folks can make your visit better and are a resource, so you should contact them as soon as possible. There have been exchanges where we put off meeting the neighbors or friends and ended up never meeting them. On another occasion I made great friends with a neighbor--two hours before the end of that home exchange.

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If you are lucky, these friends will invite you over to dinner or for an experience such as a boat ride in the Stockholm archipelago. These experiences make the difference between a good vacation and a great one. We like to reciprocate by inviting these families that have befriended us over to dinner. Sometimes we invite them all at one time to a dinner party; one featured wine tasting, the other a barbecue.


You should have done research on the region before you arrived but going through their information such as tourist guides, brochures, and maps at the beginning of the exchange can be helpful. You will discover new ideas. You should visit the local tourist office early in the exchange. Ask about special events, performances, or festivals; they can be highlights of the vacation.

Shopping and Food

You will want to figure out the best places to shop and buy food. Become familiar with the hours of opening of the supermarket or food shops. Examine the fridge and freezer to see how much space there is before making the first trip to the supermarket.

Normally we agree with the exchange family that we will eat the food that happens to be in the house. We try to buy staples such as pasta or pasta sauce but don't worry if we have to eat some of the existing inventory. The goal is that when the other family returns home they find more or less the same general level of food and consumables as when they left.

You might want to carefully examine food items in your exchange home. On several occasions we have found products well beyond their expiration date. In one case there was a hot sauce that said must be refrigerated in the room temperature pantry. Another reason to refrain from using this hot sauce was that it was two years older than the expiration date indicated on the label. When looking at expiration dates remember the difference in how countries show dates: 9/1/2006 is September 1 in the US but the 9th of January in Europe.


Problems are inevitable. Some you can live with, others often require immediate attention. The former may or may not have an obvious solution. You should ask the other family about it because if there is a solution they may share it with you and your home exchange will be better.

For example, we were in a house where a fireplace served both the master bedroom and the living room. This was ok except it was summer and without the fire, the fireplace functioned as a window; if you were in the living room you could look at our double bed through the fireplace. The bedroom had a shower and sink but no place to hang towels. We ended up living with both these trivial but annoying problems. Maybe if I had asked about it our hosts would have suggested we install a towel rack above the fireplace in the bedroom, thereby solving both problems.

It is ok to spend your own money to solve problems as long as you don't do anything to damage or permanently change the house. It may seem unreasonable to spend $100 to solve a problem but you are probably saving $1,500 a week or more by doing a home exchange instead of a traditional vacation.

We had an electric hot water kettle smoke and fizzle before dying during a home exchange. I bought a new one for 30 dollars. We needed to have it and our friends would like having it when they got home. And we felt less guilty about not having time to fill up their gas tank on our last day.

Some problems are emergencies and need to be handled quickly. We knew of a California family doing an exchange in Denmark where the family had two young, adorable kittens. The Californians had never had cats and thought it would be fun to take care of them. After living with them a few days, the wife of the family discovered she was severely allergic to cats. The Danish family had to arrange for them to be boarded quickly. This ended up being an unexpected expense, but you can't worry too much about money when the issue is health.

You should make sure that the other family can reach you by phone or e-mail in case they have problems. You need to respond to their questions and issues promptly. You should have contact information with you for anybody back home that you might need to call to resolve a problem for the exchange family.

Valuable Items and Damage

There might be valuable and/or fragile items in the house you are using. It is best to avoid risking any damage to these things. Many homes have formal dining rooms and formal sets of glasses, linens, cutlery, and place settings. Our policy is to avoid using these products. We prefer to eat outside or in the kitchen using the everyday items. When our kids break a glass or plate, which they will do, we don't worry too much about it. We always offer to reimburse our hosts for damage and since it is minor they always say forget it. They usually will have broken a few items in our house.


If the home you are in has a formal living room with beautiful upholstered furniture, it might be wise to insist that the kids don't bring drinks or food into the room. Even wiser to demand the kids stay out of the room entirely.

Activities and Attractions and Sight Seeing

All families have different interests, customs, and methods while on vacation. Here are a few things we have learned that might be useful for home exchange vacations.

It might make sense for you to join an organization to get cheaper access to attractions. For example we were in Northumberland, surrounded by Castles, Historical Buildings, and Hadrian's Wall, all controlled by English Heritage. It was cheaper to buy a year's family membership than pay individual admission charges. Also it meant that we could explore places at our leisure knowing we could always return at no extra charge.

Some attractions have special pricing. Many amusement parks, for example, will sell a ticket that's good for a year or the summer season for less than the price of three visits. If your home away from home is close enough and it is the kind of place you enjoy this might make sense. An advantage of this approach is you don't feel obliged to do it all in one hectic visit.

Many attractions will sell a family ticket that is cheaper than buying individual tickets for all family members.

Some cities and/or regions have a card, good for 24, 48, or 72 hours. It is good for various museums, attractions, public transport, etc. These may or may not be a good deal; you need to evaluate them carefully. There may be sneaky ways to get the most value from them. For example, with a 24 hour card in Stockholm you can start at 11am and visit many places in the day and the evening. The next morning you can go to Skansen, a fabulous open air museum at 10.30am, and enter. Your card expires in 30 minutes but you have already been admitted and have all day and evening to visit the 150 historical buildings.

Our kids hate sitting in the car going from one castle to another. They detest walking around beautiful cities or towns to admire the ambience. We placate them with Gameboys, IPODs, and a laptop that plays DVD's and games. We bribe them with overpriced ice creams from sidewalk vendors. We need to consider our kids preferences when planning our days. Sometimes we have to forgo visiting the fourth chateau that day to return home so the kids can play the X-Box and/or watch Harry Potter videos.

Although they will not admit it, our kids always prefer a hike, bicycle ride, horse ride, or canoe trip to seeing another museum. They will grouse about having to interrupt valuable activities such as updating their My Space page to climb up a mountain but once they are moving they are happy.

There are peak times for most tourist activities. One advantage of a home exchange is the ability to avoid peak times. We were in the suburbs of Paris and discovered that the Palace of Versailles was 15 minutes away by car. If we arrived about 7:30 in the evening we could park on the street in front of the Palace for free, we could walk the gardens for free, and admire the last rays of the setting sun. We did this often. Early mornings can be another good time for visiting otherwise crowded places.

Restaurants and even hot dog vendors can be expensive. Packing a picnic is cheaper, faster, and often enjoyable though you need a backup plan if it is raining.

Because you are in the same place for a few or several weeks with a home exchange, you might be able to enroll yourselves or your kids in a horse riding course, pottery lessons, or soccer camp. This is best planned in advance, but sometimes can be done at the last moment. Our kids enjoyed a hands-on pottery lesson and tour of the Denby Works in England. To this day their ugly and overpriced work from that visit remains among their most cherished souvenirs.


My wife thinks it is necessary to get into a rhythm for a successful vacation. I have never been much for practicing the rhythm method but she has a point. It is a time to find a new way of living, a new routine, and this can be particularly interesting in another country and somebody else's home.

We find that our kids like a rest day after an intensive day of sight seeing. We know of one family that would organize a morning activity and an afternoon activity with the rest of the time to recover. Every family will have its own style and preference for touring.

The End of the Exchange

The end of the home exchange can be hectic. You need to put the home back in the condition you found it. A real problem if you are a family is stripping all the beds and washing and cleaning sheets and towels. The best way to do this is not to clean the sheets and towels but simply make the beds with another set of clean sheets and put out clean towels. You should agree in advance that this is ok and that the returning family will worry about laundering the used set of linens.

If you have traded cell phones you may have entered the numbers of your friends or family in the memory. These should be erased. You might also want to erase the address of the horse track, casino, or topless bar from their car navigation system.

If you have changed the home's thermostat to read Fahrenheit instead of Celsius you can leave it that way so the returning family can really know what 80 degrees feels like though it would be polite to change it back to its original setting.

You can also make the process easier by agreeing to clean the house to a certain standard. We don't want our home to be perfectly clean but reasonably tidy. Trying to put the house back into shape and clean it and catch a plane the same day may be impossible due to timing. It might be more relaxing to plan on spending a night at the airport.

Another option is simply to make no special cleaning arrangements. This would make particular sense for a short exchange, for example a weekend exchange.

We don't worry about detailed cleaning of the refrigerator since this should have been done before our arrival. We leave everything in there for the returning family, perhaps with notes on the freshness of perishable items.

You will need to have a way to return their car and/or get to the airport. If you have time you can wash their car and/or fill up the tank with gas. The inside of the car should be vacuumed and clean so your kids can dirty it again on the trip to the airport.

It usually takes our family three to six hours the last day we are in the home to get it in decent condition, pack our bags, and hit the road. My wife does 80% of the work, I walk around like a zombie trying to be useful, and the kids procrastinate on packing their bags.

If there is a cleaning person available to do this it is much easier, but you still will have to get the home in general order.

We always send an e-mail near the end of the home exchange to confirm arrangements, thank the other family, and mention any damages or problems. Alternatively you could leave them a letter at their home. If you wish you can leave the family a small gift. This can be a flag, a welcome home sign, a picture of you enjoying their country, fresh flowers, handicrafts or artwork from your country or theirs, or a bottle of wine.

After the Exchange

Once you have arrived home you may be pleasantly surprised that everything is in good condition. Usually there are a few small problems.

Your daily possessions such as dishes or tableware may not be in exactly the same place in the cupboard. You might discover that 70% of items are in new places. The garden will usually be overgrown and need maintenance. Plants or even a tree might have died because a part of your automatic watering system malfunctioned. The patio is dusty and needs sweeping. There might be a strange assortment of oriental foodstuffs in your refrigerator and the meat compartment might be stuffed with oranges. One set of keys to your car might be missing. You might find a few things from the house such as glasses, a chair, or a candle out in the garden. There may be a watermark on the furniture. A small part of your lawn may be dead because the other family put the Market Umbrella stand on it for three weeks. When your wife rings on your cell phone another name is displayed as the caller because your home exchange partner put his wife's name as the owner of your wife's cell phone. These are all situations we or our friends have encountered in returning home from an exchange.

In an ideal home exchange these sorts of problems will be few, if any. In an average exchange you will encounter a few of them. Our philosophy is that these problems are acceptable given the benefits of home exchange. Our family has left a few surprises for our home exchange partners over the years. We were once in a house where we managed to break a chair, break a lamp, flatten a bicycle tire, and miss the garbage collection leaving a can to overflowing. In fact the chair and lamp were already damaged before our arrival, but I felt guilty about the other items. The flat didn't get repaired for many reasons, in part because the valve system on the tube was unfamiliar. It was too easy to miss the garbage collection because it occurred only once every fourteen days. In summary, there is usually an understandable explanation for any damage or problems.

After the return home we send an e-mail once again thanking our home exchange partners and confirming that we have arrived safely and that everything is in good condition. I want to hear from them to know that they have arrived safely, that they have found their home as expected, and that from their point of view our exchange is complete.

I have twice managed to slightly damage cars while on a home exchange. You can read the embarrassing details in a later chapter. In both cases, the other family got an estimate to repair the damage, I approved the estimate, the damage was fixed, and they were reimbursed.

Our policy is to stay in touch with our former home exchange partners. We send them a card or e-mail during the holiday season and if they contact us we respond. A family in France, for example, always asks that we send them American travel guides and maps that are not available in their country. We do this happily and were delighted that on a recent trip to Paris they hosted us in their house for three days and in their second home for three days. We have seen five of our ten home exchange partners subsequent to the exchange, and some of these families have become good friends. I love discussing politics with our French friends; we have argued long and hard about Presidents Bush and Chirac and have yet to agree which one's policies and performance are the worst.