I recently heard this story from avid home exchanger Renae Lindsay who was swapping her home in the U.S. for a place in Spain:
The man whom I exchanged my condo for 3 weeks (I arrived a week later than he did to mine) failed to tell me his house was empty. There were 2 beds, one a sofa bed and a desk. The kitchen was bare, not even a toaster or mugs, a table with chairs fit for children and nothing but weeds and unkept garden.
Since we were gone all day and ate out we put up with it for a week, until the water heater quit working and we couldn’t take showers. The weather turned cold and the heater didn’t work, there were not enough blankets so we had to buy some. My complaints went unanswered.
We had to leave and go to a hotel. He finished his 3 weeks at my place and my manager said he never complained to her.
Apparently the Spanish man in question cancelled his membership on the home exchange website shortly after this swap. Renae is still working with the representative from HomeExchange.com to try get compensated for her hotel costs.
This led to a story from another swapper:
The worst exchange we had was a non simultaneous exchange – with them staying at our house first. They were caught by the neighbour leaving two days before the expected date. When she went in (after they had driven off) she was shocked. The place was an absolute tip. Every piece of the dinner service used and some broken. We had a 12 piece dinner service and there were only two of them. When they had filled the dishwasher they just left them piling in the sink – a large double Belfast sink piled high. The bathrooms were filthy and they’d used the bath as a rubbish dump. It took two days professional cleaning to get the place back in order – and ££ to replace the broken items.
Altecocker also has some stories of bad home exchanges among her 61(!) home swaps.
As you can gather from this website, I’m a big fan of home exchange. But it’s inevitable that some experiences are going to be bad. Humans haven’t (yet) worked out how to be good to each other all the time. And so sometimes someone with nefarious intent will get into a home exchange network and take advantage of other people’s good intentions. And sometimes we will fail to communicate and end up with vastly different expectations, inevitably ending up with someone being disappointed.
What can go wrong on a home exchange?
If you are considering doing a home exchange, or even if you’re an experienced swapper, there are some potential problems to be aware of. Below I’ll describe the issues and then suggest some ways you can minimize the risks.
Sometimes this will be a difference in expectations. Some of us have high standards of cleanliness and others might not. My parents shared a story with me about friends in another country who invited them to visit. These friends offered my parents the use of a vacation home for a few relaxing days alone followed by a visit in their primary home. It sounded like an ideal situation with free lodging, some time alone and some time visiting old friends. The vacation home turned out to be a disgusting nightmare of mold and dirt. This was actually a difference in expectations, as they found when visiting these same friends in their primary home.
Stuff in the house doesn’t work
It sucks if you were hoping for a lot of relaxing time catching up on old movies and the home you exchange with doesn’t have a working TV. That’s not the end of the world, but if this is something you were expecting it might be a big deal to you. I once did a swap to a home that didn’t have wifi and my wife and I had planned to spend the long weekend catching up on work while relaxing in a cute town. That was rather inconvenient. They had internet, but only wired to one computer. We ended up spending a lot of time in local cafes. It was fine, but not ideal.
These problems don’t compare to Renae’s story of the hot water and heater not working and total lack of furniture, dishes and appliances that I quoted above. The wifi and the TV are just problems of different expectations. The heat and hot water seem more like deliberate misinformation.
Destruction or theft of your property
While it doesn’t happen often, and is sometimes an accident, it can be costly and a horrible end to your vacation to come home to a mess or broken/stolen property.
House doesn’t exist
I’ve never heard a real story about this, but a home exchange scammer could theoretically do this. I bet it’s happened in the past at least once, and I’m sure it’ll happen in the future.
Exchanger has to cancel
This happens sometimes even among the best intentioned people, and there are also some cases where people pretend to be committed but then change plans when something better comes along. AlteCocker talks about the problem of buying airplane tickets before someone has committed to an exchange. If you don’t have something formalized and your swap partners back out you’re going to have to find alternative accommodations and you might not be able to get another swap. But “commitment” doesn’t mean the other person has any financial obligation to you.
What can you do to prevent these problems?
Whether it’s a question of different expectations or malicious intent, there are a few things we can do to prevent problems.
Insist on pictures
If someone really lives in filth and thinks it’s normal that’ll show up in pictures. In reality most people don’t post bad pictures on home exchange sites. Everyone tries to portray their home in the best light possible. This is all the more reason why no pictures, or only one or two dark or vague pictures might be a red flag. You can also ask for a video skype tour of the home. I did this once when the person I was going to swap with had posted magazine photos of his home. He claimed it an actual magazine feature done on his flat. I wanted proof so he agreed to take me on a skype tour: it really was his place, it had been featured in a design magazine.
Ask for references and verify them
Reviews are useful, on home exchange sites you generally can’t write one of these unless you’ve done a swap. So it would be a lot of work for someone to fake not just their own membership but another one, just to create a fake swap and fake reviews. If they don’t have reviews they might still have references you can call. Again, not fool proof, but it takes a lot of work to fake these things.
Only swap with experienced exchangers
Even without reviews, if someone has done some exchanges and is still a member of the network they used it’s less likely they caused a lot of problems in the past. Note: all the people I quoted above complained that the home exchange networks did nothing to the person with whom they had the bad exchange. Accountability is very difficult for home exchange networks in these situations, especially if the other party claims nothing bad happened, and there was no theft or police report. So this tactic is far from foolproof.
Some home exchange sites offer insurance. I wrote an extensive piece on the value of home insurance for home exchange, and included information on which sites offer insurance. Insurance will ensure you don’t have to fight the swappers to get paid back for expenses.
Set very clear expectations
I shouldn’t have to ask if the home has plates and cups, but if I need wifi I should ask about it. Ask for whatever it is you need. This won’t help with deliberately misleading swappers, but in most cases this will help ensure you’re on the same page with your swap partner.
Wait until they buy tickets and prove it to you
This is something AlteCocker talks about as a solution to the fickle uncommitted swapper. She won’t buy her tickets for travel until the swap partner proves they have bought theirs. As someone with a ton of experience doing home exchanges and a blog to prove it, I think AlteCocker has demonstrated she is not fickle, and so she can do this without her swap partners fearing that she might back out. But for other folks this could become a game of chicken where each party insists that the other buy their tickets first and both are afraid to commit for fear that the other person will back out. So while I agree this is a great guarantee that the trip is really happening, it’s not a foolproof solution as it only provides assurance for half the swappers. And even then, there’s nothing stopping the travelers from changing their lodging plans and leaving you without a swap.
Ask the home exchange network to help you
This doesn’t seem to be very effective in many of the cases where I’ve heard vocal complaints. But I have heard about a few serious problems where the home exchange site did step in with helpful resolutions. I can see why it’s hard for the exchange companies to help. There isn’t any financial penalty they can bring down on members who do bad things. Short of the type of fraud or theft you’d report to the police, this is a very hard thing for a home exchange website to police themselves.
What’s the worst case scenario
For most problems the worst thing that will happen is you end up having to pay for a hotel because the place you were supposed to stay is unusable for some reason. That sucks, and could cost you quite a bit of money if you were planning a long vacation. But at least it’s just the cost of a hotel, and you still get to enjoy your vacation.
The other (even worse) case scenario is that someone steals from you and/or destroys your property. This might just require some intensive cleaning or it might cost you significant money to replace the stolen/destroyed items. Some of this could be covered by your home insurance policy or insurance you buy from the home exchange network, but it still feels like a serious invasion of your privacy and someone has taken advantage of your trust.
Bottom line: beware that there are real risks to home exchanges. But there are also risks to leaving your home empty while on vacation (a prime target for robberies), and it’s easy to be disappointed with the services and features in hotels. The vast majority of home exchange experiences are overwhelmingly positive. And the folks I quoted above who had bad home swap experiences are continuing to do exchanges. The good far outweighs the bad, but it’s worth exercising a bit of caution when screening your exchange partners.