Home exchanges offer a way of experiencing another country but with the privileges of a native. For the cash-strapped but room-rich (a category my family falls into), it seems a sensible way of vacationing. We haven’t tried it yet, but this summer we’re swapping our Worcestershire manor-with-pool for a four-bed house-with-pool in beautiful North Virginia.
You can learn a lot of things just by planning a house-swapping holiday. I signed up to two dedicated websites, Home for Exchange and Home Link. Trawling through these, I soon learned that cat owners often have dark brown curtains. Many people favour frilly things wherever possible: bed valances, toilet-roll holders, curtains. Canadians have kitchens absolutely humming with gadgets: if you want to spend your vacation making home-roasted coffee-bean ice-cream fondue, Quebec is for you.
There are statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere, a wall of kitsch embroidered pictures, and a stair-carpet that I chose as a joke
The French and Germans don’t seem to have flowers in their gardens, only evergreens. Europeans don’t want to come to England (except for the Olympics), and the whole planet wants a London place for the Olympics. People the world over paint their bedrooms yellow.
Some folk move their half-empty bottles of Palmolive and Nivea products out of the way and hose down their stained shower curtains before emailing a photograph of their bathroom across the globe but, refreshingly, more don’t. You won’t see many exterior shots: owners are generally too security-conscious. But what you do see is, very likely, what you get.
Yet, as is the case with all travel, what you learn most about is home. And not just the general stuff, like Cadbury’s chocolate is better than the foreign kind, or the British are uniquely, almost criminally, inhospitable. What house-exchanging really makes you focus on is the nitty-gritty of your own locale and household.
Naked lightbulbs and moth-eaten curtains
When I came to take some snaps to put up on the sites, I couldn’t help noticing that my house is very untidy. Would fellow swappees be enticed by electric and telephone wires Sellotaped to the ceilings, stacks of books in teetering pillars, naked lightbulbs and ancient, moth-eaten curtains? And that’s in the best rooms.
The ceiling, which half-caved in a few years ago, when there was an earthquake in Droitwich (yes, really), is still unrepaired. Half the loos require bizarre feats of acrobatics and cunning in order to flush properly. Nothing matches. There are statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere, a whole wall of kitsch embroidered pictures, and a stair-carpet that I chose as a sort of masochistic joke, to resemble that of a Scottish railway hotel of the 1970s. All of which could put people off.
Then potential exchangers started asking me questions about the neighbourhood. Would it be possible to ride a bike to a local coffee shop? Is there good hiking nearby? Are there boats for hire on the river that encircles our farm? Is there a farmer’s market? A movie theatre?
I’d never really thought about any of this. All I’d noticed was how far we are from the treats of London. And then I realised: yes.
Right under your nose
There’s Belle House of Pershore, a delicious little restaurant that serves great coffee, a short bike ride across the fields. The Cotswold Way and the Malvern Hills are within striking distance. You can take a narrow boat or a smaller open vessel along the river. Less than a mile away are shops and markets selling artisan cheeses, local fruit and veg, and fantastic bread. One of the loveliest cinemas in Britain, The Evesham Regal, has just been restored to its original 1930s glory and shows three or four films a week.
It sounded great! Just the type of place I’d like to spend a holiday. And it occurred to me that I ought to get out more, and enjoy where I live.
What house-swapping made me realise, too, is that you need to be flexible, as much with your dates as where you’d like to go. You might find the perfect house in an unexpected location. Take your time. Ask questions. Consult some maps: that lakeside location could mean mosquitoes or noisy speedboats. One house I looked at was inches from what looked like the M25. Be honest about what you’re hoping for, as well as what your own home has to offer.
The main thing I’ve learned – and it is a great and wonderful thing – is this: people are nice. They trust you. They trust you to come into their home and take care of their stuff and not steal everything or burn the place down. Some of them even trust you with their cars or pets. They trust you to water their plants and not snoop through their private papers.
This is what I love best about the swapping world. The trust. And looking at the photographs of other people’s houses. And the fact that seeing my own through a potential exchanger’s eyes has made me, at long last, tidy up.