House swapping has been around almost as long as the internet and has become a popular way to save money, minimise hassle and holiday like a local in a way that would not have been possible in a hotel.
But giving up your home to a stranger while you spend a week or two in someone else’s property can be quite a worrying prospect. What if their home is dirty? Or that sea view is in fact a building site? Or what if, while you’re having a nice holiday in Thailand or Italy, your guests are busy trashing the place or plundering the family silver?
Home exchanging “needs to be with the right person and needs to be the right experience,” says serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow, who launched Luxe Home Swap in January this year, after spotting that the home swap market was ripe for innovation. “Some of the home exchange sites out there looked pretty nasty with no brand. There was nothing to appeal to the consumer like me who would definitely do a home exchange, but only in the right circumstances.”
Prompted by the movie The Holiday (“sort of dire and yet reasonably inspiring”), in which two women with man-troubles swap homes in each other’s countries, meet a local guy and fall in love, Wosskow set about creating a branded, professional-looking home exchange site that would target mid to high-end homes.
Since the site launched, it has been “a huge consumer hit that has grown massively,” says Wosskow, who runs Luxe Home Swap on a subscription business model that, she says, is similar to online dating. “You can look around as much as you like to see what’s on there, but you have to pay to play – in other words, you have to list your home in order to swap and you have to pay £99 for a year’s listing.”
It all sounds very easy and efficient, and, browsing the site, it’s clear that the standard of property is very high. But what happens if you pay to play, upload to your home and get ready for a swap, but you’re property is not good enough? “We don’t screen, but we do cull,” says Wosskow. “We can ask someone to remove themselves from the site and we refund the money, but that’s never happened. Actually, because of the brand and look and feel of the site, we have the opposite problem with a lot of communication around ‘is my apartment good enough?’”
So what is the secret to a successful home swap? And how can you be sure that the person you’re swapping with is honest and reliable? “The key to it all is communication,” says Wosskow. “What happens is that people generally exchange around 20 emails before they commit to a swap and the conversations are taken offline too. You build up an opinion of what they are like.”
Wosskow herself has house swapped four times. “We don’t leave out the family silver – if you’re leaving expensive items in the house, then put them in the house or take them off the property. We just try to give people a really good experience – we leave milk and juice and a bottle of champagne in the fridge, but we’re also sensible. We have a key holder, which for us is our cleaning lady, who meets them with the key, shows them round, comes to clean a couple of times and texts me to say that the place is still standing.”
It’s often helpful to leave a house guide or tips for your guests, suggests Wosskow. Meanwhile, it is essential, she says, to tell your insurance company that you’re doing a swap, so that, if the worst happens, you are covered. At Luxe Home Swap, swappers are also encouraged to sign a digital contract, which helps to set out the terms of exchange and gives swappers some security should something happen.
Owners of small one or two bed city apartments shouldn’t be shy about approaching those with larger homes in the countryside, by the beach or on the slopes, says Wosskow, who sees a lot of what she calls ‘the asymmetric swap’. “We see a lot of the London homes – one or two beds in Chelsea, Marylebone, Islington or other central locations – pulling some amazing swaps, and a lot of our testimonials are along those lines.”
Homes are not the only things that people are swapping as part of the exchange. “If it’s an activity holiday, you get people swapping skis or equipment – it can be more than just the house,” says Wosskow who always asks for a car in the swap and exchanges baby stuff too. “If you don’t have to take the cot, the sterillisers, the bloody pram – it’s all there – it’s just amazing.”
Home swapping saves money, minimises hassle and allows swappers to live in ‘a home away from home’ in different destinations around the world. The key to making it work is get to know the person you’re swapping with first, remove or lock up any valuables, and have someone check your home while you’re away. Do that and you can be sure of a truly special holiday – who knows, you may even find love with a local.