WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE: HOME EXCHANGE PROGRAM LETS OWNERS VACATION WORLDWIDE
Over the past three years, Rex and Susan Gale have gone on 12 vacations to four different countries without paying a dime for lodging.
The Hilton Head Island couple does pay $150 a year to be part of an online home exchange program, but that’s considerably less than they would spend on hotel rooms and rental properties.
Members of Home Exchange can list their homes online and search more than 65,000 homes in 150 countries to find their perfect vacation spots. They can search by number of rooms, location, amenities and more. If they find a place they like, they can send an inquiry to the other owner and arrange a short-term home swap, sometimes agreeing to exchange vehicles or boats as well.
Often, the Gales’ son, daughter-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter travel with the couple on their exchange vacations. Traveling with a little one can be complicated — parents often have to rent cribs and strollers, which is not how most want to spend their time or money while on vacation. But with the home exchange program, members can try to find homes that already have these items.
While some homeowners state in their profiles that they don’t allow children, others are child-ready, complete with crib and toys. This was the case when the Gale family visited Seattle, and they say it made for a more relaxing trip.
Home Exchange members are also able to search for homes that allow pets. They are required to list pets in the online profiles of their homes, to alert potential guests who are allergic. The Rexes have a Corgi, Emma, but usually she stays with a neighbor when exchange guests are in their home.
The Gales’ first exchange was about three years ago in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“It was just a fantastic experience,” Rex said.
It was a non-simultaneous exchange — the other family came to Hilton Head first, and then the following year the Gales when to Iceland. When families are using their home during non-simultaneous exchanges, the Gales usually visit out-of-town family and friends.
In addition to Iceland, the Gales have used home exchanges to visit Cuenca, Ecuador; Seattle; Kennebunkport, Maine; Rutherford, California; and Cashiers, North Carolina.
In exchange for staying in someone else’s home, the Gales offer their three-bedroom house in the Club Course neighborhood of Sea Pines Resort.
Guests who have stayed at the Gales home have said they love the Sea Pines location, where they can go kayaking and fishing, enjoy the wildlife, and play golf and tennis.
“They love how light and bright the house is because we have wrap-around windows pretty much everywhere,” Rex said.
People often ask the Gales how they can be comfortable having strangers in their home when they are not around.
“We’re pretty seasoned travelers,” Rex said. “There’s sort of this unwritten rule that you leave the home in the condition in which you found it — or better. That has really been our experience.”
Rex said they’ve really only had one not-so-great exchange: in Asheville, North Carolina. They visited during the hottest week in July, and there was no air conditioning except for a unit in the master bedroom. And the downstairs bathroom could’ve been in better shape — the toilet was sitting on top of a two-by-four because the floor was unsteady. This type of negative experience is the exception, he said, and the family still enjoyed the trip.
The Gales recently returned from an exchange in Ajijic, Mexico, and Rex was getting ready to write a review of the home they visited.
“You get that sort of social network confirmation that it’s a good house, it’s a great environment, they’re wonderful hosts, all those kinds of things,” Rex said about Home Exchange’s online reviews.
Rex’s favorite exchange so far was in Reykjavik. The Gales also loved their stay in Kennebunkport, Maine, where they were able to use the host family’s motor boat.
That home was one of the most luxurious houses the Gales have stayed in. The New England cape-style home sits on a small cove with gorgeous views of the Kennebunk River. The house was featured in the May issue of Maine Home + Design magazine.
Owners of second homes find participating in exchange programs even easier, because they don’t have to vacate their primary residence while guests use it. Pittsburgh resident Merritt Dailey and her family have a second home in Sea Pines that they use for home exchanges. Dailey, along with her parents and siblings, have completed about six exchanges together since joining the program about a year ago. Guests enjoy that their four-bedroom home has a pool in the backyard and is less than a two-minute walk to the beach.
Dailey’s favorite exchange thus far was in Rome.
“We stayed in a house just outside the city center, which was spacious and traffic free,” she said. “We also were able to bond with the homeowner, Mirella. Something about exchanging your house promotes more camaraderie than AirBnB — you become more like family friends than ‘host’ or ‘client.’”
To capture the attention of Home Exchange members looking for a vacation, Dailey recommends using as many photos of your home and descriptors as possible in online listings.
To avoid a disappointing exchange, Rex suggests asking a lot of questions up front. If he had asked more questions about the house in Asheville, maybe he and his family could’ve had air conditioning in the heat of the summer, he said.
In 2018, the Gales plan to visit San Miguel de Allende and Cork, Ireland. The Daileys have another exchange planned in Tuscany, and they hope to go to Japan in 2018.
“It’s basically seeing the world for free,” Rex said about traveling through Home Exchange.