Guest post by Home Base Holidays member and experienced home exchanger, Jean Bucknall:
August 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of our very first home exchange and since then we have completed ninety more! Especially for those of you for whom home exchanging is still something you’re not quite sure about, let me give you a brief history of our experiences over the years.
When we first decided to give home exchanging a try we signed up with an agency and, in those days, well before the internet was available to the general public, the agencies produced directories. These were rather like telephone directories, but with photographs (initially in black and white, but later in colour) of most properties, together with members’ names, addresses and telephone numbers. The facilities on offer – e.g the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, whether there were pets to care for, the number of people that would be in the party, desired destinations, whether car exchange was possible, preferred dates for the exchanges etc etc were listed in abbreviated form, so one had to learn how to read the listings before one could be sure that a particular property was suitable for your party. Then, having found a property which fitted the bill, one had to write to or telephone the people to ascertain if they liked the idea of an exchange with you. For popular places and times of the year, such as school holidays, finding and agreeing an exchange could be a lengthy process and an expensive one too, if one was having to make international phone calls! Also, the directories were effectively out of date very quickly as the property information couldn’t be changed between editions and one never knew until you contacted somebody whether they had already agreed an exchange for the period you wanted yourself. The last directory we received was in 2010, by which time most members had email addresses and these were available upon request to other members. Nowadays the whole process is so much easier as one’s listing can be changed at any time and the agencies’ messaging systems are a much easier and quicker way of contacting prospective exchange partners. Many people loved getting the directories and it was great fun poring over them dreaming of the possible holidays one could have, but they must have been very expensive to produce and post and, although we initially missed the excitement of receiving them twice yearly, we soon realised that the internet had rendered them obsolete.
Having exchanged letters and agreeing dates we were ready for our first exchange, which was in Paris. We felt very brave venturing abroad for our “trial run”, but it all worked out well. The flat was very conveniently situated just around the corner from the Gare du Nord, but it was on the sixth floor with no lift and Paris in August is very hot and mosquitos plagued us every night. Only at the end of our stay did we discover that there were plug-in mosquito repellents in the flat which we could have used to keep the little pests away. You live and learn! It made us realise the importance of leaving adequate information in the house, so soon after our return from Paris we started work on our “Homefile”, a loose-leaf binder of information and advice for our exchangers. This has grown over the years and is constantly being amended when, for instance, we change items of household equipment or find a new restaurant that we think our exchangers might like to try. It is very important that people know things like where the electricity fuse box and the mains water stop cock are situated as well as the days of refuse collection in your neighbourhood and, in these days of kerbside recycling, what is collected on any specific week. Instructions for plant watering when necessary and where to find household appliances are also included, along with a book of local street maps with shops, petrol stations, restaurants, banks etc marked on the relevant pages.
After that first successful experience in Paris (the first of four exchanges in that lovely city) we felt confident to exchange again both in the UK and in continental Europe, which we did for some years before venturing on our one and only long-haul exchange to Vancouver, where we exchanged with a retired couple. They had different surnames – not particularly unusual - but when we arrived at their house we found that they lived separate lives under the same roof – even to the extent of each having their own kitchen and their own cleaner! On the assumption that they were “a couple”, I had only made up one double bed for them at our house, but they used their initiative and made up one of the spare beds. I now make up all the beds before exchanges so that our exchangers can choose which room(s) they want to use. Vancouver was wonderful, but long-haul flying is not for us and we now restrict our exchanging to the UK and mainland Europe. Apart from the four in Paris, other European exchanges have taken us to many different parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, sometimes exchanging cars, but most often travelling there and back by train and using public transport to explore.
Until a few years ago we had two cats so would exchange with other cat owners most of the time, but, if not, we would always check that people were happy to look after our cats as part of the exchange. We have looked after cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens etc over the years, but I must admit to being nervous on one exchange because one of the two resident cats was diabetic and had to have insulin injections twice a day! It was not something I had ever done before, but Phoebe was patient with my novice attempts and most of the time I managed to get the insulin injected correctly. Pets can add pleasure and interest to any exchange, but I always check what exactly is required of us before we finalise arrangements.
Over the years we have made many new friends through house exchanging and have had repeat exchanges with quite a few people in this country and in Berlin. When we are on an exchange anywhere close to other exchanging friends we try to meet up for lunch during our stay and swap stories of our respective swaps. We all have tales to tell – and the lunches often stretch well into the afternoon we relate humorous tales of trying to find houses in the dark, antics of pets in our care and, in our case, the search when we first arrive for a teapot! We have lost count of the number of places where we have trawled through local charity shops to find one, which, having cleaned it and used it during our stay, we then leave in the exchange home in the hope that it will be there for future exchangers to use, if, like us, they prefer to make tea in a pot rather than in mugs.
One thing we have learned over the years is not to always look for exchanges in well-known, popular places. Don’t dismiss offers of exchanges from places you haven’t heard of or that you don’t think will be to your taste. Some of our best exchanges have been in unlikely locations which have proved to be excellent bases for town and country walking or, in the UK, for visiting nearby National Trust, Cadw, English Heritage or Historic Scotland properties. We are National Trust and Cadw members and find that now we are retired and can exchange several times a year we are “in credit” with both organisations before the year is half over. In the six months up to the start of July this year our National Trust visits would have cost us over £400 in entrance fees had we not been members – over four times our annual membership fees! It is well worth taking out membership of these organisations if one enjoys visiting historic properties and one has the opportunity to visit several of them each year.
Occasionally, however well planned, exchanges have to be cancelled at short notice for reasons like illness or bereavement and it isn’t always possible to make other arrangements, but fortunately on the two occasions that we have had to cancel – once for a bereavement and once for an injury to a friend who was due to travel with us - we have been able to stay with friends while our exchangers stayed in our house as planned. Both times our exchangers were coming from Europe and presumably they would have lost the money they had spent in advance on airline, rail or ferry fares had they had to cancel their journey because they were unable to stay in our home or find alternative accommodation. We were able to claim on our insurance for our transport costs in both instances, so didn’t lose out. In the last two years we have had two exchanges called off at short notice because of family illnesses within our exchangers’ families, but both were in the UK, so we had not spent any money beforehand other than on things like maps, which we are always happy to add to our collection anyway!
I cannot overstate the pleasure that home exchanging has brought us over our first thirty years - not to mention the opportunity to travel all over the world at a fraction of the cost of holidaying in self-catering accommodation or hotels. When one swaps a home one has the benefit of being able to use the household appliances, the garden and often the car of one’s exchangers – only paying for having one’s name added to their car insurance. We have stayed in an endless variety of homes – from terraced cottages and compact city apartments to ancient listed buildings and big houses with swimming pools and acres of garden. We have exchanged in the winter months and had to buy extra clothes to keep warm and sweltered in the summer months and had to discard the duvet, but all seasons hold their own appeal and our exploration of the UK in particular continues with every exchange. If all goes according to plan we will complete nine UK exchanges this year. We started in East Sussex in March followed by Swansea, Derbyshire, Devon, Rutland, Oxford, Wiltshire, Yorkshire and will finish our exchanges for 2019 in Bedfordshire in October! We already have one exchange agreed for 2020 and I am looking forward in the coming months to filling up the calendar for next year!
- Jean Bucknall