Once your home exchange listing is up, potential home exchange partners can contact you, or you can get in touch with them. But take it slow. The other party’s home might seem perfect. You might already have your airline tickets and are anxious to find a place to stay. Even so, resist the temptation to jump right into an agreement. A successful home exchange is built on trust, and trust takes time to build. How well your home exchange works can depend on how well you screen your home exchange partners.
Do a Quick First Assessment
Is this a destination you may want to visit? Home exchanging gives you the chance to visit places that aren’t even on your radar. Before saying “no,” take a moment or two to think about an offer.
Does the home seem right for you? Is it big enough for your group? Does it have the amenities you need? Would you be comfortable staying there? Is it a third-floor walkup when you have trouble climbing stairs? Are there elegant antique furnishings and snow-white carpets when you have three rambunctious kids?
Would the travel dates work? If they’re out of the question, you’ll have to turn the offer down, although for a great place, it never hurts to suggest alternative dates in your response.
Is the home where you want to be? Pinpoint the location on a map and figure out where it is in relationship to where you want to be. How far is it from the city center or the beach? From the wedding you plan to attend or the family you’re going to visit?
Does your home seem right for the exchange partners? Obviously not if they’re a party of 5 and you have a small 1-bedroom condo or you live in a seniors-only community but they have kids.
Do the exchange partners seem to be a good fit? You don’t have to become best friends for a successful home exchange – although that does happen. But exchanges work best when the partners are somewhat compatible. Pay attention to the impression you get from their listing profile and inquiry letter. First impressions often turn out to be right.
Have a Conversation
If an exchange looks as if it might work, set up a conversation by phone or Skype. You can’t underestimate the value of a person-to-person conversation that gives you both a chance to learn more about one another, ask questions, clarify misunderstandings, and, most importantly, establish trust.
We’ve found that serious home exchangers are happy to talk. After all, they want to get to know you as well. If the other party is reluctant to talk and can’t offer a good reason why, you might want to call a halt to the process before going any further.
Tips for a useful conversation
Prepare. I make notes before I go to the doctor for a checkup so I don’t forget to ask important questions (“what’s that little mole on my left shoulder?”). That kind of preparation will help you get the most out of conversations with potential home exchange partners.
Think about what you want to know, and jot down your questions: “Can we walk to town from your place?” “Can you send photos of the second bedroom (bathroom, kitchen, backyard…)?” “Have you been to our area before?” “How many people will be in your party?” Don’t worry about asking too many questions. The more you know, the more confident you will feel about agreeing to an exchange.
Be polite and friendly. Set the right tone by greeting the person with a “virtual handshake:” “Hi, I’m Jessica. It’s so nice to meet you. Your beautiful home looks like the perfect place to stay when we come to Baltimore for my college reunion…. I understand you’re coming out here for the expo?…”
Listen, listen, and listen some more. Encourage the other party to talk – and listen! Listening and clarifying helps you spot possible issues: “Are you saying we’d have to take a bus to get to the city center?” “Do you mean we’d need to pay a fee to use the beach club?” “Ah… so the bed is a futon, not a mattress?” Be alert for any surprises that would make you re-think the exchange.
Listening also helps you understand the other party’s questions. “How far is it from your place to the park?” may mean, “How long does it take to get from your place to the park?”
“Is your area lively?” could mean, “Is it noisy?” or “Are there cafes, bars, and restaurants nearby?”
“We’ll be out all day – we only need a place to sleep,” might mean they won’t care that your place is somewhat small and dark, but if they mention “We really want some space and good light,” you’ll avoid disappointment by explaining that your place has neither.
Leave a little silence. Instead of jumping right in when the other party stops talking,wait at least a few seconds before you respond – it’s amazing how much information people offer to fill up a pause. If that feels too uncomfortable, neutral words and sounds (“uh-huh” “I see”) can encourage the person to keep on talking.
Agree on what happens next. The conversation might make it clear that this exchange won’t work. Say, “Thanks anyway, and good luck finding the right exchange.” If you or they need more information, agree on when that information will be provided. If everything seems right, make a tentative commitment and decide on next steps.
Follow up. Memory is fleeting and unreliable. Right after the conversation, send the other party a brief email saying how nice it was to talk and summarizing what you both agreed.
“What great people,” you may think when you hang up the phone. “What a perfect exchange!” Even so, a little more screening will increase your confidence in the exchange – or it may convince you to back away.
Check out the people. Look them up on networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, or pay a small fee to do a quick background check. See whether how well you find matches what they’ve said about themselves. Don’t worry about minor discrepancies such as different spellings or outdated addresses – the Web is rife with mistakes. But don’t hesitate to ask (politely) about any significant discrepancies you may find. Most people will be glad to clear things up.
Offer to meet someone they know. If the prospective home exchange partners have friends or family in your area, offer to show them your home “so they can see whether it would be right for you.” You can tell a lot about people by the company they keep.
Verify the location of the exchange home. Every so often I’ll run across a story about people who arrived at an exchange home only to find a hardware store or an empty lot. Maybe those stories are no more than urban myths, like the imaginary alligators in Manhattan sewers. But what can happen is that the home is not actually where you might expect it to be. Look the street address up on a map, and check out the neighborhood on Google Street View. That “lovely lakeside cottage” might be in a subdivision five blocks from the lake.
Scrutinize the photos. Do they show the “cook’s kitchen” mentioned in the listing? The 54” flat-screen TV? The newly renovated master bath? The pool and children’s play structure in the yard? The king-size bed in the master bedroom? Question anything important to you that is not shown in the photos or that seems inconsistent with you’ve been told. Also, remember that photo editing software makes it easy to improve the look of a place and even mask serious flaws.
Read the reviews. Most home exchange sites let members comment on their experiences. From a review you might discover that the “second bedroom” is a roll-out futon in the den, the “lively neighborhood” is very lively until three a.m., or the shower in the “newly renovated bathroom” is already showing signs of mold. If there are no reviews, ask the other party for names of previous exchange partners “so they can tell us what it was like to stay in your home.”
What’s Next: How to screen short-term guests