The Ultimate Guide to Home Exchange

Last updated on February 6, 2023

Home Exchange in Blue Ridge near Smoky Mountains

There’s something I don’t talk about enough on Bridges and Balloons, and that’s Home Exchange. We’ve being doing home exchanges since way back in 2015, and it’s our favourite way to travel. It taps into the sharing economy we love and offers an authentic opportunity to truly live like a local – often in a home full of character and personality.

It’s also our number one tip for affordable travel – offering a unique way to stay in beautiful homes around the world without exchanging money with your hosts.

Some of our best travel memories have come through our Home Exchange experiences. And if you’ve ever met me, it’s likely I’ve waxed lyrical about it to you. I’m a mega fan and huge advocate for the site!

So I thought it’s about time I wrote a full post about what Home Exchange is, why we love it, and some tips for getting the most out of it. It includes all the questions I’ve been asked over the years, but do tell me if there’s anything else you’d like to know.

And if you want to join Home Exchange, use my referral link and you’ll get a bonus 250 guest points when you join (enough for around 1-2 nights somewhere!).

A complete guide to Home Exchange

Home Exchange and why we love it

New Zealand trip - Lauder
Our first home exchange – in Lauder, New Zealand

What is Home Exchange?

You know that film ‘The Holiday’ where Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz swap homes for their vacations? Well there are several different websites that help you to do that and swap houses with other people. The one we use is called Home Exchange.

It has over 180,000 homes in 130 countries!

How does it work?

You pay $175 a year to be a member, which allows you to create a profile for your house/homes. And that also grants you access to all the other profiles and the chance to exchange with them. You can do as many exchanges as you like each year, and you can list multiple properties.

What different types of exchange are there?

There are two different ways to do exchanges on the site – reciprocal and via guest points. And a reciprocal exchange can be either simultaneous or non-simultaneous. You can also offer people a spare room in your house while you’re still there (a hospitality exchange).

Here’s a bit more info on those definitions:

Reciprocal exchange

This is where you arrange to swap houses directly with another person. That exchange can either be simultaneous or non-simultaneous.

Simultaneous exchange

A simultaneous exchange is where you do a direct swap with another household at the same time. For example, we once went to Barcelona for a week and stayed in a family’s home there. That same family stayed in our house in Bristol while we were at theirs in Barcelona. We even swapped cars!

Non-simultaneous exchange

A non-simultaneous exchange is where you swap directly with someone, but you do your trips at different times. For example, we went to stay in a couple’s house in San Francisco while they were on holiday in Tokyo. And then they came to stay at ours a year later while we were on holiday somewhere else.

Guest point exchange

The introduction of guest points really transformed the opportunities for home exchanges. Now every home on the site has a point value. For example, our house is worth 200 points per night. If someone wants to stay at our house and doesn’t want to do a reciprocal exchange, they can offer to ‘pay’ in guest points instead. We then collect 200 points per night, which we can use to ‘pay’ for other Home Exchange properties.

We’ve used the guest point system a lot. We open our house to home exchangers whenever we go away, so collect point through that. And then we’ve used those points to stay in all sorts of places, from London to New Orleans.

Hospitality exchange

A hospitality exchange is where you offer a room in your house while you’re still living there. You’ll all likely share the same living areas, depending on your home situation. And the exchange can be reciprocal or non-reciprocal. You can specify all the details of the exchange before finalising it. For this type of exchange, you need to create an individual listing for the room in your home that’s on offer.

Solidarity exchange

The solidarity exchange program is a great example of the spirit of home exchange. If there’s a natural disaster or war, you can offer your home/a room in your home to people affected, and they don’t have to pay any guest points in return. Instead, Home Exchange will offer you some guest points for your home. To be part of this, you join the ‘solidarity exchange’ group.

Why do we love Home Exchange so much?

It’s the community, sharing economy aspect of it that I love the most. It feels good to share our home when it’s not in use. And I love experiencing other people’s homes and ways of life.

It’s also an incredibly affordable way to travel. We’ve saved thousands of pounds by using the site, sometimes in a single trip. Spending 10 nights in a four-bedroom family home in London or San Francisco would have cost us a fortune if not for Home Exchange.

It’s also amazing for families, especially if your host has kids too. They’ll likely be set with all you need from toys to high chairs to cots. It’s one of our best baby travel tips and we recommend it as one of the best types of accommodation for babies and kids.

So unless you really don’t like the idea of sharing your home or staying in someone else’s, I think it’s an incredible option for affordable, insightful travel.

Where are the best places we’ve stayed?

Ahhh, so many places. We’ve done 22 exchanges so far! Some of the highlights have been:

  • Staying in two different painted lady houses in San Francisco in Noe Valley and Castro
  • Spending 10 days in a huge family home in Dulwich Village, London
  • A fun (and hugely money-saving) stay in an apartment in Brooklyn
  • Experiencing a local neighbourhood in New Orleans in a beautiful house filled with antiques
  • A woodland stay at a cabin in Blue Ridge, Georgia (also available on Airbnb)
  • A two-week stay in an off-season vacation treehouse in Cable Bay, New Zealand
  • Becoming the 15th and 16th members of a tiny town in Lauder, New Zealand for a week!

How to find and arrange an exchange

View from our Home Exchange in Cable Bay, NZ

How do you find an exchange?

Search filters

The search function on Home Exchange is great with lots of filters that let you hone-in on your perfect exchange. You can do a bare bones search for ‘Anywhere in the world’ to simply browse what’s available. Or you can get more specific, searching for exact dates, locations and number of people travelling. You can also specify if you’re looking for a reciprocal or guest points exchange. And there are lots more filters, including:

  • Type of home (house, apartment, primary/secondary residence)
  • Number of guest points per night
  • Quality: If the home is verified and has photos. And if the owner has more than an 80% response rate.
  • Size (square footage, and number of bedrooms and bathrooms)
  • Amenities (pool, piano, baby equipment etc)
  • Accessibility (children/kids/smokers welcome, and if there’s disabled access)

Preferred destinations

You can save up to 20 searches on your profile, adding them as ‘preferred destinations’. This means people can see where you’re interested in traveling and contact you for reciprocal exchanges. Plus Home Exchange will alert you when something suitable comes up. This also helps hosts to find you through the reverse search.

Reverse search

You can also do a ‘reverse search’ which means it shows you all the properties with hosts who are interested in coming to your location. You can do this for specific locations with all the filters above, or do an ‘anywhere in the world’ search with no other filters to see everyone whose interested in coming to your city/town.

I occasionally do this for Bristol, mainly for inspiration and to see if anywhere catches my eye! Note that if I do a reverse search for ‘Bristol’, it only returns results for people who have specifically listed ‘Bristol’ in their preferred destination. Some people may have just specified ‘United Kingdom’, so I’d need to do a separate reverse search to capture those people too. I recommend at least searching for your county/state as well as your city/town to increase your number of options.

Availability calendar

There’s a calendar on every user’s profile where you can update your home’s availability and whether or not you’re looking for a reciprocal or non-reciprocal exchange. This is useful so that your home appears in people’s search results when they’re looking for specific dates.

How do you arrange an exchange?

Once you’ve found a property that suits you, you can send the owner a message requesting an exchange via the Home Exchange website. It’s nice to make this message as personal as possible, explaining who you are, who you’re travelling with, the type of exchange you’re looking for and why you particularly want to exchange with this person. A few compliments on their house never goes amiss!

Home Exchange also has a useful function where it replicates your last message, simply replacing any relevant names of people and/or places. This means you can feasibly send a whole bunch of requests one after the other without re-writing, or even copy and pasting, the whole message. While I do often use this function, I also add some personalised lines to each message.

Whatever you do, make sure to check the message beforehand as the Home Exchange algorithm sometimes misses some of the places/names that need to be edited. Plus you might need to remove any personalisation you made in the previous message. It’s really off-putting to receive a message with mistakes like that!

How do you confirm an exchange?

Once you’ve sent your message, the host will reply letting you know if the exchange is possible. You iron out some of the details, including length of stay, number of people travelling, check-in time, key exchange and cleaning arrangements, and whether or not it’s a guest point or reciprocal exchange. And then it’s as simple as both of you hitting ‘approve’. The guest points are transferred to you immediately.

Is it hard to find an exchange?

It’s one of those ‘yes and no’ answers. If you have barely any requirements and you’re happy to go anywhere, you’ll almost certainly find an exchange. But if you’re looking for a specific date and location then it can be harder. It partly comes down to luck and what’s available at that time.

For example, finding an exchange in a city like New York is easier in terms of the sheer number of homes available, but also harder because it’s in such high demand. Sometimes you have more luck in a smaller city where fewer people travel. But sometimes smaller places have only a handful of properties. You can also have more success when planning far in advance.

All that said, we’ve practically always found something even when looking for specific dates in niche areas or popular cities. For example, we recently spent three nights in a tiny English village. And we’ve also done a 10-day exchange in a huge family home in London (plus others in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, little towns in New Zealand and more!).

Can you buy guest points?

If you don’t have enough guest points for an exchange then there is an option to buy some. If you only need up to 15% of the total number of guest points required for the exchange then these are charged at 25 cents per guest point. This works out fairly economical. However, if you need more than 15% of the total point value, each additional guest point costs $2.50, which can work out pretty pricey if you need lots of points.

Are there any other costs involved?

Aside from the membership fee, you don’t normally have any extra costs with Home Exchange. However, hosts can opt to charge you a cleaning fee or a tourist tax if that’s relevant to their location. This needs to be agreed before finalising the exchange. Other fees, such as charging for electricity or late arrivals, are not allowed.

Our Home Exchange in New Orleans

Who can take part in Home Exchange

Does your house have to be like a vacation home?

No! There are all sorts of homes on Home Exchange. Sometimes they might be places that the owner also rents out on Airbnb etc, but largely they’re personal homes that the owner only shares via Home Exchange. And the expectation for how the home should be isn’t the same as a vacation rental. Of course, all the homes should be clean and habitable, but beyond that, the quality of the home will vary.

For example, we make it very clear on our profile that our house is a lived-in family home and all our personal items will still be there. We clear a drawer/space in the wardrobe, but beyond that, our house is as it is when we’re living there. And it’s not perfectly tidy/minimalist as we have a lot of kids’ toys etc!

We’ve stayed in many places similar to our own home. But we’ve also stayed in places that would be fit for a vacation rental (usually because they’re also on Airbnb). It varies owner by owner, but the key thing is to be upfront in your profile about what your home is like. That way there are no surprises (or bad reviews!).

Does it matter if your home is very different (e.g much smaller) than your exchange partner’s?

If you’re doing a reciprocal exchange and you and your exchange partner’s homes are very different, and have different point values, you can choose to ‘charge’ them guest points for their stay. Home Exchange will calculate the difference in point value between your and their home, and automatically ‘charge’ them for the stay.

Alternatively, you can specify that your home has a point value of zero for reciprocal exchanges and then they won’t be charged. This is what we do as we don’t mind if there’s a difference in size/quality of our reciprocal exchange partner’s home.

Can you use home exchange if you’re a tenant?

Yes, it’s legal to use Home Exchange as a tenant, although it’s worth checking your contract to see if you need to notify/ask the landlord.  

Can you bring pets?

Sometimes! So long as your host is happy to accept pets then you can travel with your furry companions. There’s a search filter to help you find these properties. Likewise, as a guest you may be asked to feed to cat or any other animal they have. We’ve done this a few times with cats. As always, make sure these details are confirmed before finalising the exchange.

Does Home Exchange suit everyone?

The more people I speak to about Home Exchange, the more I realise it isn’t for everyone. The key thing is that you need to be willing to let ‘strangers’ stay in your house. And I know that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I’ve had a lot of people ask things like: “Do they have to sleep in your bed?”. And the answer to that is not necessarily as you could theoretically ask them to only use the guest room or whatever else is available. But the person/people will be staying in your space. For me, that’s not an issue at all. I’m happy to share my home and I don’t have an issue with ‘strangers’ staying there. But I also don’t really view them as strangers because Home Exchange is a community and you can learn a lot about a person from their profile and reviews.

For some people, I still think doing home swaps would be a definite no. But for those who are feeling tentative, you could do it in a more controlled way – for example only doing exchanges with people who have a certain number of reviews.

I used to use the Couchsurfing website a lot and took a similar approach. In fact, if you’ve ever been a couchsurfer then Home Exchange is almost definitely for you – it’s a bit like a more grown-up version of couchsurfing!

If that sounds like you and you’d like to join, use my referral link and you’ll get a bonus 250 guest points when you join (enough for around 1-2 nights somewhere!).

View from our Home Exchange in San Francisco

Trust and safety with Home Exchange

How can you trust the person you’re exchanging with?

Home Exchange is a community and there are a few different ways to assess the trustworthiness of the person you’re exchanging with. Firstly, there’s the verification system. To be verified, you have to verify your email and phone number, and also send Home Exchange an identity document and a proof of residence that is no older than 6 months. You must also 100% complete your profile. There is a search filter for verified hosts.

You can also look at hosts’ reviews and star rating, which will give you an insight into what type of hosts/guests they are. And I also recommend looking at their personal and property profile carefully to see if they’ve added any useful additional information. For example, I tend to let people know about this blog, which means they can see more about who I am and what I do.

What about valuables?

If you’re worried about your valuables, you could put them in a safe or lock them inside one of the rooms in your house. We’ve done this before with Steve’s office as it has a lot of delicate/valuable tech.

Do you get to meet the people you’re exchanging with?

Sometimes! It really depends on the situation and if you can/want to arrange a meeting. For example, we’ve met with hosts/guests when exchanging keys, and enjoyed a coffee or meal together. If you’re doing a simultaneous, reciprocal exchange then it’s less likely you’ll meet, but we have met exchange partners in the airport before!

Our Home Exchange in Georgia (also on Airbnb)

When there’s a problem

What if your house gets damaged?

Home Exchange offers a few guarantees. They have 24/7 support on hand to help with any issues. And they’ll also take over as mediator if there’s an issue between you and your guest/host.

But perhaps most importantly, they also protect your home, covering damages up to $1,000,000. This is in addition to the Home Exchange deposit system, explained below.

Do you have to pay a deposit for your stay?

When you join Home Exchange, you automatically authorise a $500 debit. This is never actually taken from your account unless there’s a problem with one of your exchanges (for example, if you break something or leave the house in bad condition). This is a good safety net for the host as it means guests are essentially paying a $500 deposit for their stay.

Deposit disputes are settled via the Home Exchange team and no money is taken until an agreement has been reached. Beyond the $500, Home Exchange also takes responsibility for damages up to $1,000,000. Read the full terms and conditions.

What if your exchange is cancelled or isn’t what you were expecting?

If your exchange is cancelled or the home is different to the profile, Home Exchange will help you find an alternative. Firstly, they reach out to other hosts in the area, and if that isn’t successful, they offer compensation of up to $120 per night. We’ve been contacted by Home Exchange before, asking if we can offer emergency accommodation, and when we could, they gave us some bonus guest points as a thank you.

Any more questions about Home Exchange?

So there you have it: a huge brain dump of all I know about Home Exchange. Just let me know if you have any questions!

Get a bonus 250 guest points when you join

If you’d like to join Home Exchange, use my referral link and you’ll get 250 bonus guest points when you join (enough for around 1-2 nights somewhere!).

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