Home Exchange

How Pervasive is Misleading Advertising in Home Exchange?

My recent post about LoveHomeSwap’s misleading advertising was very popular and inspired a lot of responses. Some people are concerned that there is a widespread practice of misinformation in home exchange. I want to address this fear with some facts.

Accurate counts of home listings

Every year I attempt to validate membership claims by computing actual listing counts on all home exchange networks. You can find my counts in my table of home exchange networks. Where I find a significant discrepancy between my counts and the claims of the network I also include their membership claims. This is in part because I might be wrong. It is also in part because, if I’m right, people might be concerned about the honesty of these networks.

Trampolinn’s listings claims are far from my 2500 estimate. And clicking through to the map displays an image that is more in line with my count than their claims.

Last year, out of 90 home exchange networks, I only found 8 where the claims of membership size were notably different from the actual number of listings. (Oddly, one of those was HomeLink, the network that brought the complaint against LoveHomeSwap.) Of these 8 networks three have stopped listing total members on their websites: HomeLink, MyTwinPlace, and Knok. And of course LoveHomeSwap was also forced to stop. So that leaves only 4 networks advertising misleading membership sizes.

NightSwapping claims 180,000 members on their home page, but membership is not the same as listings on this site. I believe they have fewer than 5,000 listings.

It should be easy for these businesses to compute the number of actual listings in their network, in real time, and feed that to display on their website. I have to conclude that those with incorrect or misleading numbers are almost certainly doing this dishonestly to try to make their network more attractive. But I continue to hope I’ll be proven wrong about my counts.

Active vs. inactive listings

There is another potential problem with looking at membership size that my counts can not catch. Some networks are more aggressive about removing listings from inactive members. Obviously in a paid network, as soon as someone stops paying their listing should be entirely removed from searches. Similarly, if a network offers trial listings, those should only be visible while the trial is active.

This becomes trickier for networks that don’t charge a membership fee. GuesttoGuest is the largest of these free networks and they have many listings that are clearly not from active members. But these listings are counted in the totals. This is going to provide a network size that is not reflective of actual available listings. And when these listings are displayed in search results it wastes people’s time weeding through junk listings.

To illustrate this problem, I ran a search for homes in Budapest, Hungary. I had done this search recently when looking for an exchange, and I found some good prospects. So I decided to use that city as a random test of the percentage of active listings on GuesttoGuest. On the first page of results GuesttoGuest returned 36 good prospects, all with good response rates, pictures of their homes, and many with reviews. One had a response rate of 10% but had a reviewed exchange. And the last one on the page had a response rate of 30%. I think some people just don’t bother to respond to requests that they can’t accept, so a low response rate isn’t always a proxy for inactive accounts.

This GuesttoGuest listing, with no picture of the home, and a suspiciously low guest point rate, is unlikely to be an active listing. It showed up on page 2 of 7. (I erased the member’s picture)

On the second page of results there were 28 homes with pictures, but 13 of them had response rates below 50% and a few were new members with no track record yet. Another 8 on that page had no pictures in the listings. In my opinion, if someone has created a listing without pictures they aren’t serious about home exchange. I won’t contact those folks for a swap.

By the third page of listings almost all had no pictures, and most were noted as new members (which I believe indicates that they have not received any inquiries yet, unsurprising since they have no pictures).  There were 7 pages of results, for a total of 234 listings in Budapest. But I would consider about 50 of these to be truly active and worth contacting. Generously, if we count all homes with a response rate above 0% (and include new members) that have pictures in their listings, this goes up to 76 active members in Budapest.

GuesttoGuest does attempt to account for these problems in their searches. The most active listings are sorted to the top. They also have a quick filter to remove all homes without pictures. And another one to remove all homes with response rates below 80%.

GuesttoGuest offers “quality” filters

When I implement these filters in Budapest I get 42 homes back in the search. I think that’s a reasonable, if a bit conservative estimate of the listings in Budapest that are from active members on the GuesttoGuest site.

I haven’t done enough research to say if Budapest is representative of other locations on GuesttoGuest. But if we were to extrapolate these findings, generously counting 76 listings as active (out of 234), that’s only 32% of the listings. So while GuesttoGuest does have 283,000+ homes listed, we might assume that only a third of those are active. That’s still 94,000 listings, an impressive number for a home exchange network.

This exercise illustrates a problem with free home exchange networks. There’s no way to be 100% sure that a member is actually interested in and serious about doing home exchanges. And I think it’s a legitimate reason to prefer paid networks. But I think free networks could do more to de-activate listings from members who don’t meet minimum requirements. Setting a very low bar, there could be a requirement that people put up pictures of their home, and respond to at least some requests, to keep their listing active.

Removing inactive listings might make the free networks appear smaller, but I think this would go a long way towards addressing one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about these networks. And this would facilitate the active folks finding and doing more home exchanges.

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