Bob Maddox tackles the in and outs of allowing a complete stranger into your home while worrying about the contents of his fridge.
IT is a funny feeling the first time it happens to you. A complete stranger walks away, leaving you standing in their hall, waving goodbye. They will not be back for a few days. And where are they going? Why, to your house of course. Welcome to the strange and wonderful world of Home Exchanges.
This is not a hotel; this has a reality about it which is quite frightening at first. Those are somebody else’s kids looking at you from out of those photo frames; somebody else’s books on the shelves; somebody else’s coats hanging in the hall. This is someone else’s bed you will sleep in tonight and that little dresser over there holds, well… someone else’s underwear.
In a hotel, I find myself gripped by an incurable urge to soil every towel, search every draw, spill every drink, make a banner of every toilet roll, unmake any unused beds and steal the sugar before leaving without flushing the toilet, turning-off any appliances or lights and kicking the waste bin over. It is all about getting value for money.
But not on a house exchange. After all, this is reciprocal – they might be doing the same in my place. Is someone with a torch and notebook peering under my bed right now? Holding up
my socks to ridicule and ribald laughter? Or, (Dear God…no!), pulling out the cooker to see what lives, feeds, fights and breeds behind it? So I do not do it to them either. In no other field does the maxim “Do unto others…” apply quite so directly as here. House exchange is about nothing, if not mutual trust.
Being unashamed cheapskates, a house exchange had seemed to us like a good way of minimising costs while experiencing other parts of Europe.
So, how do you go about it? Well, the world it seems is full of people who cannot wait to trust other people with their drawers. A Google search pulled in millions of hits. To narrow the field, we decided on the scientifically proven method of opting for one that was not American, felt “friendly” and most importantly, was free. Soon, we were on-line and offering to swap our little old traditional Alpujarran house in Yegen – any location considered.
Within a week, we had had four replies. Did we fancy a month in Birmingham? How about a nice ex-council flat in Bradford? Six months in Turkmenistan? And then it happened…
“Dear Mr. Bob Maddox, I am Carmela from Cordoba, would you like to come here?”
So here we were, in Cordoba in somebody else’s house and guilt was setting in. This place was fabulous. Casa Regina was a typical up-market Cordoban residence, set in the historic heart of the city. Spread over four floors and set around a typical internal courtyard, it contained six bedrooms, two kitchens, three bathrooms, a collection of dining and sitting rooms and a canary in a cage larger than our toilet. The furniture was luxurious. Every window was double-glazed and it had… CENTRAL HEATING.
As I sank into a leather three-seater, I pictured Carmela with her husband and two small children, huddled on our battered self-assembly IKEA suite and fighting over the electric blanket, while wondering how it was possible for a room to lean in five different directions at once and how best to unfreeze the toilet – all while the house filled with acrid smoke from a good old-fashioned open log fire.
But I soon stopped worrying; Carmela’s family were veterans of over twenty house-exchanges and anyway, Cordoba was enchanting. Casa Regina was set within easy walking distance of the overwhelming otherness of the Mezquita, the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos
(Fortress of the Christian Kings), the Plaza de la Corredera and seemingly hundreds of cafes, bars and restaurants; as well as the only river with water in we had seen for over a year. Whatever else you do, make time to visit lCordoba – it is staggering.
So, is a house exchange for everyone? Probably not: you do need to have a pretty relaxed approach to matters of personal privacy and trust. But if you can handle it, it is an exciting, rewarding and totally different holiday experience and highly recommended. What little wisdom we have gained from our first house-swap, I pass on to you here in the form of six main tips.
Sort out details like food arrangements in advance. Carmela had let it be known she would leave food for us, so naturally, we did the same. As beginners, we were unsure how far to go and left a fridge interior reminiscent of a Harrods hamper.
At Casa Regina, the fridge held two yogurts, a loaf, half a carton of milk, six carrots, a lemon and a strange cheese that flinched if you opened the door too suddenly and surprised it. Lesson One – keep it simple and agree in advance on what to do.
Always leave helpful information for your guests. On Carmela’s polished inlaid mahogany period dining table lay a veritable library of books, maps and videos with titles like Cordoba – Cultural Capital of The Known Universe and Beyond. I thought about the equivalent I had left on the kitchen table (I had cobbled it together from an old stable door). Ours was a hand written note with a sketch map of where to find each of Yegen’s eight bars plus a helpful guide on how to cope with the power cuts, the futility of attempting to stop the fire smoking and what to do if Francisco’s dog broke in and ravaged the kitchen again.
Lay down ground rules in advance. Do not be afraid to state any important rules in your initial listing. Pets, smoking and children are the commonest areas here. Sharing a house with somebody else’s pet anaconda might not be your idea of fun. Nor do someone else’s small children tend to mix well with your prized collection of medieval swords, daggers and instruments of torture.
Take sensible precautions. Home exchanges operate entirely on trust. Restrict contact to the official site channels and do not give out addresses or telephone numbers until you feel comfortable to. Remember that both parties are letting strangers into their homes. Remove those original Picassos from the wall and do lock away anything (those magazines etc) which you would absolutely not wish anyone else to stumble across while looking for spare toilet rolls.
Be professional. Take time to present your house in the best possible way. Clear descriptions and photos are critical. Look at a range of houses on different sites and do not be afraid to “borrow” the best ideas! Write a description of yourself, so that others can get a feel for what kind of person you are. Do not forget, if you have a house in Andalucía, you are already in a strong position to attract offers from many parts of the world.
Take the initiative. Contact others and offer them your home – even if they have not specified your location as an exchange option. We have netted offers in Barcelona and Lourdes like this.
Choose a website which suits you. Do not be led into paying exorbitant fees. Look for forums where you can talk with experienced home-exchangers and ask their advice.
On our return, as we meandered home down the little lane towards Casa Frozen, I wondered again how our swappers had coped with Yegen in December. But I need not have worried. As we were drifting invisibly through the impersonal weekend crowds of Cordoba, Carmela and her family stood out like signal flares in our village and our neighbours had been busy heaping hospitality on them. A good time was had by all. Inside, all was exactly as we had left it – even the fridge.
Would we do it again? Well, with Carmela wanting a return trip and offers in the pipeline for Lourdes, Barcelona, Granada, Paris, Amsterdam, San Francisco and a beach house in Australia, what do you think?