The house-swapping expert shares her secrets

Joanna Goddard

We've received a lot of interest in our recent article The Secrets to Happy House Swapping. So author Joanna Goddard, who swapped to L.A. (twice), San Francisco, Berlin, Connecticut, Paris (twice) and more, fielded reader questions in a live online chat earlier this week. Here are some highlights:

Saint Augustine, Fla.: In this day of identity theft, how do you insure that there is not some stray piece of paper with an account number, etc., inadvertently left around?

Joanna Goddard:First, if you're nervous about having complete strangers come to your house, you can go through an official apartment swapping website (see our list, Where to shop for a swap) and then you can read reviews of the swappers. That way, you'll know that other people have been happy swapping with them, and you can feel more confident about your own swap.

Before your swappers arrive, make sure to put your bills and mail in a locker or tuck them in a bottom drawer, where people won't see them. For electronic documents, you can put password protected locks on them. For instance, Word documents can be locked simply by pressing "save as," then clicking on "options," then clicking on "security." Then you can make an easy password (maybe "swap"!) for all your documents. You'll be safe and all set.

That said, when you're arranging an apartment swap, you see photos of the people's house and exchange many emails (and, if you'd like, phone calls). So you get a real sense of who these people are and what they're like. After emailing with them about their favorite local restaurants and swapping keys through the mail with a nice little note, you come to feel as if you're friends with them. Trust me, once you get started, apartment swapping is a lot less scary than it sounds!

Many people are worried about their personal valuables, like computers and cameras. We've done about 10 swaps and have never hidden anything—and have never had a problem. I think when people swap apartments, there is an implicit trust, since you're in their house, too!

But, if you want to be extra safe, you can buy a small locker from IKEA, so you can lock things away. Or you can create an "owner's closet" by attaching a latch and padlock to a closet, and putting your valuables inside.

Ventura, Calif.: What do you deem the single most important issue when swapping homes?

Joanna Goddard: Good question! Hmmm, I think it's really important to be open about everything from the very beginning. Take accurate photos of your home, ask lots of questions, make sure you describe any surprises, such as a temperamental toilet or a noisy street. That way, there won't be any surprises, and you'll be starting off your swap with honesty and kindness.

Colorado Springs, Colo.: I'd love to try swapping, but I'm afraid our average, suburban cookie-cutter home would hardly have the cache of a NYC flat. What do you think my chances would be in getting an offer? I wouldn't mind the equivalent in France or England or Italy...but would my traders be disappointed?

Joanna Goddard: Thanks for your question. You never know what people are looking for. Some people want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and some people would love to hike, bike or ski in Colorado. That's the genius of housing swaps—you can stay where the grass is greener! :)

So, I think you could definitely take some pretty photos of your house and also the pretty areas around you—maybe a nearby view or lovely river. Then create a listing of your home that talks about the joys of your area. You might be surprised how many people think it sounds just lovely!

(P.S. Also keep in mind, when you live in a city, like me, you generally have a shoebox apartment. So a big home in the suburbs sounds like bliss! Ahh, to have a fireplace, a dishwasher and more than one bedroom....)

White Rock, B.C., Canada: Is there any danger in doing the swap, and is the house insurance valid, in case something happens?

Joanna Goddard: Good question. Of course, you will want to check with your own insurance company, but typically most insurance considers house swappers to be "invited guests" in your home or "permitted" drivers of your car, and so they will offer that same coverage.

La Jolla, Calif.: I am interested in trying house swapping but my husband is not comfortable with having people whom we have never met live in our home. He says I am reading only positive stories but there must be negative experiences, too. Have you ever heard of any cases where people returned to find serious problems caused during the swap? I certainly do not want to be naive about this, especially since my husband is uncomfortable with the idea. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Joanna Goddard: Hmmm, the skeptical husband. I've heard of those before! :) Here's what I would do...

Your husband is worried, surely, that people will mess up your home, break valuables and even steal something. Those are valid concerns. But here is how you can convince him that those odds are very unlikely....

#1. Go onto one of these reputable home exchange websites and scroll through houses you like. You can find a beautiful place or two that you know your husband will love.

#2. Read the user reviews, which will tell you what past swappers thought of the house and the people themselves. That should help calm your husband's fears, since you will be able to "screen" the people before you even reach out to them.

#3. Once you find a place you might like to swap with, contact the people and email back and forth with them a few times, about their apartment and their neighborhood, etc. You can see if you click with them and feel comfortable, or if you sense any red flags. (And you can show your husband these friendly emails from them!)

#4. Consider the people you're swapping with. Are they professionals? Adults traveling without young kids? Does their house look neat and clean in the photos? You can choose the people you feel comfortable with.

#5. Finally, you can lock away your valuables and jewelry in an "owner's closet," by attaching a latch and padlock on a closet door. That way, your husband won't be worried about specific items.

#6. Try it out just for a weekend, instead of a week. You can take baby steps... :)

#7. You can even tell your husband that I've house-swapped 10 times and have NEVER had a problem. Even a little problem.

I hope this works! House swapping is a really great way to travel, but it is a bit of an adventure, I'll admit! If your husband still isn't into it, you can always check out Budget Travel's favorite hotels!

New York City, N.Y.: What about pets? Can I ask them to take care of my two cats? They are really sweet and easy to take care of.

Joanna Goddard: You can definitely ask swappers to take care of your cats, if you'd like. It's up to them. Just make sure to be upfront in your listing—tell them about the cats and exactly what they'd have to do to take care of them. And realize that people may be allergic or not want to take care of animals, so you may turn off some swappers.

But definitely give it a shot! My old roommate had a kitten. When we did a swap with a woman from Paris, she loved taking care of the kitten. So it can work out well!

Thank you again, and have a wonderful day!

xo Joanna


Where to shop for a swap

A CNN video of Joanna talking about house swapping

Read Joanna's personal blog, A Cup of Jo

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