The Irish Troubles were worse this year than they had been for decades. Even though the Tuckfields lived in a mixed Catholic and Protestant neighborhood, the roads were barred by police barricades. When the roads would open again after a day or so, the family would go to the grocery store to stock up. On the way they might pass protesters, or a tank might weave as delicately as possible around them.
The Tuckfields are not Irish—they are Texan. They had traded homes and cars and lives with an Irish family for a month.
The father, David, has this to say about taking his family into the Irish Troubles for a month: “There is no better education or experience to be had than traveling and getting firsthand knowledge of a place. I’ve always believed that and have always looked for opportunities to travel.”
David and Becky Tuckfield—my parents—don’t plunge their children into civil unrest at every opportunity. Their experience with the Troubles was the only time they have ever felt dubious about their safety while on a home exchange. It didn’t trouble them too much either. Their Irish neighbors assured them that while the situation was inconvenient and unusual, there was really nothing to worry about.
A home exchange allows two families, usually in two different countries, to exchange homes for a certain amount of time. They trade not only addresses but also cars, neighborhoods, and neighbors.
“The whole point of travel is to expand your viewpoint, to see things and people you didn’t even know about,” David says. “There’s no better way to do it than home exchanges.
“You really see what other people and cultures live like,” he adds. “You see what’s in their pantries, fridge, grocery stores—what they do for fun, who they talk to. Instead of tourist experiences that you pay for, you become somebody’s neighbor.”
Arranging a home exchange can seem like an intimidating if not impossible process. Here are six steps that have worked for us.
1. Get started
Realize that home exchanges are much less expensive than traditional ways of traveling. With a home exchange, two of the greatest expenses—lodging and feeding a family on takeout for every meal—are non-issues.
Study the two major home exchange sites: Intervac.com and Homeexchange.com. Both are well established and effective. Intervac.com appeals to more traditional exchangers because it’s been around the longest. Homeexchange.com tends to attract newer exchangers. For best results, sign up on both sites.
2. Choose a destination
Be open to new places—everywhere has something amazing to offer.
Don’t be afraid to go someplace where you don’t speak the language. “There’s nothing in life I love more than getting a map and figuring out where we are and how to get places, how to communicate with the locals,” says David. “I love the challenge of new places, the challenge of communication.”
3. Find a family
Using information on one of the home exchange sites, research as many families as you can so you have several options to choose from.
Consider families with similar numbers and circumstances as your own family. We always exchange homes with other large families that have young children.
Using the resources available through your home exchange site, check out the personal references and study the track record of the families you are considering so that you can be assured that they are trustworthy.
Build a relationship with the other family throughout the time leading up to the exchange. Be polite, friendly, and communicative. Both families will have to deal with cultural and personal differences, so don’t take anything personally. Make sure a minor misunderstanding doesn’t ruin your chance for an adventure.
List as many open dates as you can. It’s common to plan home exchanges years in advance.
4. “Sell” your home and your hometown
If you live in New York, southern California, or Florida, you can write your ticket pretty much anywhere. If you don’t, just make your home and hometown the attractive places they are!
Treat your listing as if you were selling your house, because that’s really what you’re doing. Post attractive photos of your house. Think dating website—people want to know what they’re getting into.
In your listing, give a sense of your area and its amenities. Are there natural springs for the family? Roller coasters? Romantic getaways? Film festivals? Do your research and present a variety of activities.
List the personal amenities that your visiting family will have access to, such as your car.
List what they’ll be responsible for—such as your cat and your lawn.
Be honest. It’s the decent thing to do. And you won’t want disappointed, angry people living in your house.
5. Make clear arrangements with the other family
Keep in constant communication with them while you are arranging the details.
Agree on how household bills will be managed. We treat the situation as if the family were house sitting for us. Other people hold the visiting family responsible for utility bills.
Exchange information about car insurance and make arrangements with your agent. This will be much more cost effective than renting a car for a month.
Prepare a welcome packet for the visiting family, and don’t assume that anything is intuitive. This collection of materials should include working instructions for your house—from house rules about where shoes are not permitted, to how to work the oven, to which neighbors or friends to call in an emergency. This is as much for you as for them.
Collect local guidebooks for the family so they know about things to see and do. Include your own notes on what they can’t miss and what they should avoid at all costs.
Sign a written agreement—a brief contract usually provided by your home exchange site. This is a firm commitment to go ahead with the exchange.
Leave a gift for the family.
6. Plan your trip before you leave
As you plan your trip, take advantage of online resources and contacts that are available to you through your home exchange site. They’re there to make sure you’re happy.
Before you even pack, use guidebooks and the Internet to schedule the optimal vacation at your destination.
Before leaving, make specific arrangements on how your family will get from the airport to the other family’s home.
Above all, enjoy the experience. “You really learn to understand people and the way they think when you live like them,” says David. “None of the tourist junk—staying in hotels and eating food catered to Americans, always being a stranger to their culture and their sense of place—their country, their churches, their schools.”
“It’s the ultimate leap of faith,” Becky agrees. “Be adventurous, and you will have adventures.”
—Bridgette Day Tuckfield
Photography by David Tuckfield
But how can I let strangers into my house? Won’t they steal or destroy all of my stuff?
Before you leave, you’ll want to lock up irreplaceable items. But at the end of the day, a home exchange is an exercise in mutual trust. They’re trusting you not to destroy their stuff, and you’re trusting them not to destroy yours.
Do the math. It’s not likely that the other family will fly halfway around the world to pawn your television or your stamp collection.
The worst thing that ever happened to us through several years of home exchanges was some peeled tint on a car window. The worst thing we ever did at someone else’s home was to break a doorknob in France and then replace it. Neither one was done maliciously, at least not on our end. I know, because I’m the one who broke the doorknob.
—Bridgette Day Tuckfield